Monday, December 29, 2014

Gun for killing rats. Lots of rats.

I've got a little hand-held thermal ocular.  It's a bit of military gear that has come in handy; if you want to see what it the display looks like, you can see a bit of it in this youtube video

What I use it for is quickly locating animals that are out after dark, or even in daylight; they stand out clearly from the (usually) cooler background, and it makes finding the cow after dark much easier - you can spot a cow-sized animal from hundreds of yards away, even through vegetation, and it's made it possible for me to watch a lot of wildlife that is otherwise hard to follow -- coyotes after dark, for instance.
My rat killing setup

Walking around the farm after dark, the thermal ocular is showing me I have a large population of norway rats.  They're grey with white bellies, and they get pretty big.  They think that they invisible after dark, and it's possible to walk right up on them, and that's where the BB gun comes in.   I dont' want to use poison for fear of one of my dogs eating a poisoned rat, and I don't want to use lead-based ammunition out of the same concern.

I wanted to be able to kill the rats with the least-cost possible as far as ammunition, and the smallest chance of over-penetration -- which is the complicated way of saying I don't want the ammunition to go very far past what I'm shooting.

So the selection was for a pump-action BB gun that shoots steel BBs.  Each BB cost about a third of a cent ($0.003) and being steel, there's less issue with it being ingested by the animals than with a lead-based shot.  The cows have magnets that will collect them if th ey eat them, and they'll just pass right through pigs.

The next problem was that in the low-light situations I couldn't see the sights to be able to aim the gun.  the solution was to purchase a cheap laser-flashlight combo (you see it mounted on top of the rifle) that comes with two pressure switches.   You velcro the switches where your hands are when you aim the rifle, and you can swith on or off the flashlight or laser.  20 minutes sighting the laser in (I chose to sight it at 30' because that's the longest shot I would make, and the BBs from a smooth barrel aren't all that accurate) and I have my basic rat killing setup.
laser/flashlight combo packaging.  
The BB rifle has a 3/8" mounting rail for scopes, and I bought a converter from 3/8" to 20mm Weaver Picatinny rail mount.  I did that because I could get cheaper laser/flashlight combos that mounted to the 20mm rail than I could for the 3/8" rail.  the adapter was about $8.

the laser/flashlight combo was $27; the bb rifle was about $60.  So the entire gun setup purchased new totaled $95.  6,000 BBs cost $20.

The basic technique is pretty simple:  Pump up the rifle and load a BB, and then using the thermal site walk to within about 10' of the rat.  Put the ocular in a coat pocket, aim the rifle, flip on the laser site red dot, aim the rifle where the rat is, and then flip the flashlight on  The rat will usually freeze when hit with the light - zap! - bb hits rat, off the light goes, pump the gun up, and look for the next rat to kill.  

The first night I killed 9 rats, the second 12 rats, the third 8, and then I've killed 5 to 10 rats each night since then.   They started hiding in their holes, but they usually sit with their heads sticking out about an inch so that they can see what's going on, and that's plenty for me.  The thermal site shows me which holes have rats - flash, zap! dead rat in hole .   I can count the number of rats with the thermal site (I can see them for hundreds of feet as bright white blobs) and I have about 200 or so that live in or around the barns.  The thermal site also makes it easy to hunt them in the rafters and along the beams of the barns.  They'll usually just freeze up there, spotlight, shoot, rat falls, move on.
I'd sure love to be able to own a thermal rifle site for this.  In my dreams I'd put it on a semi-auto pellet gun sighted for 50', and since I wouldn't have to show any light at all, I could probably shoot 5 or 10 rats at a time without them h aving any clue I was there - but I can't justify the $3 to $5k for the site.  But they sure are cool.

Back to the future

Way back in 2006 a local celebrity chef wrote a blog about raising four pigs and then slaughtering them and serving them; you'll find Ms. Murphy's blog in its entirety here

She raises 4 pigs over the course of a few months to a slaughter weight of around 100lbs.  Now for me, that's a light slaughter weight -- we sell pigs for consumption at that weight, but we call those BBQ pigs and they're usually spit-roasted whole.
A more traditional use of a light pig

Ms. Murphy procured her piglets through whistling train farm, who seem to have gotten out of the pig business for the most part since this article.   They apparently have a single sow that they breed for piglets at this point, but somewhere between 2006 and here they had 6 sows at a high-water mark.
What's interesting about this to me is that I started farming in earnest in 2007, and the market for piglets has been great every year since then.  So it's not that they couldn't sell all the piglets they produce, it appears that  Whistling train  focused on vegetable and egg production as their primary products.

In the second-to-the-last entry of Tamara's blog she talks about the slaughter day, and I'm left with the impression that she didn't witness the slaughter of her pigs, choosing to spend the kill time in the office - here's the quote:

"Shelley, Mike and I went into the office for the business part of the day. They said it would be fine if we went into where they were working.  After all, they were our pigs.  We were in the slaughter house aproximately 15 minutes after we arrived, and the pigs were already being put through a machine to clean and remove the bristle "

Which I am a little dissapointed at.  In her last entry she talks about her emotional attachment to the pigs as she breaks them down, and says something about having taking pictures, and honestly this is the real crux of pig farming for me, personally; I'm sorry that she didn't follow it through.

In my own farming I choose to shoot and stick the pigs that we sell whole to customers to make sure that the pigs have the respect due to them, and that it be as quick and painless as possible.  It's not a chore I relish; but it's part-and-parcel of raising animals for food.   Yes, I can delegate that, and I do for those folks who want to go the cut-and-wrap route with a whole or half pig, but for the small, the old, and the traditional, we take care of this right here.

For the same reason I don't sell my old boars at auction -- the herd sires that are past their prime are treated with all due respect, and given a quick clean end right here where they lived.  It's unfortunate, but when you dispose of animals at auction they can meet their end in many different ways.  I'll forego the profit to ensure that all of mine end respectfully.

Tamara Murphy is sort-of a neighbor mine, too.  A local farm was purchased by a non-profit group, and the acreage was converted into wetlands and other projects.  Tamara coordinates/hosts an annual BBQ as a fundraiser, which is very popular but the farm itself seems to be withering on the vine; I just don't see much from them recently, other than the BBQ fundraiser.

It'd be interesting to see what she's doing 8 years later -- is she still raising her own, or sourcing her meats from local resources?   There's no clue on her latest menu. - yes, it says that they source ingredients from local growers and artisan producers,  but how about you support the farmers in a more concrete way by mentioning the source?    I'm sure your customers would like that, too Tamara.
And if you're looking for local pigs, I'd be happy to set you up.  Give me a call sometime.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The 2015 farm plan

This is the sketch of the plans for 2015.  

The cow herd  
Going to increase my dairy herd by 10 cows this year, from 20 to 30.  Hopefully finding some good heifers in the 300 to 600lb range.  This set of cows will probably be the last that i purchase -- from next year on the normal calf production should cover my replacement animals and produce steers for sale as meat, so I'll be set there.    We are carrying 7 steers now, and I'll sell those as grass fed cattle in 2015.  

I'll be certifying the whole cow herd as organic, so I'll start that process in 2015 and we'll be organic about the same time as the pastures are certified. 

The pig herd
The pig portion of the farm continues to be a strong earner; margins are good, and we're still selling every animal we produce at a good price.   The primary emphasis for the farm will continue to be weaner pig sales.  I'm increasing my sow herd by 20 in 2015, and I'll be reserving a larger percentage of our weaner production for sale as finished animals.  

The land
It takes 3 years to have pastures and planting land certified organic; i'm on the 2nd year of that.  I'll be able to be certified organic in 2016, with will coincide with the start of commercial milking. 

Forage and crops
The alfalfa and orchard grass production was good last year, and the stands look to be in pretty good shape going into winter.  We'll see if the alfalfa survives the rains, but I'm sure that the orchard grass will.  We'll aim at producing another 100 to 150 tons of forage this coming year.  I will probably buy an accumulator and bale grab to reduce the amount of labor needed to pick up the bales in the field.  

I'm going to grow more human vegetables this year; I was happy with the size and quality of the acorn squash and various types of pumpkins grown, this year I'd like to experiment with plastic mulch so that we can keep the weeds down and continue to grow organically.  

House and barns
Bluntly put, the house on this farm sucks.  It's a typical farm house, which means that every time they had a good year they added another room to the house, so that it ended up being a giant L shaped house that is basically one long hallway.  Each room has a door on either end, and you have to pass through every room in the house to get from one end to the other. 

I'm probably going to work on making the house more livable by moving some doorways and doing other modifications so that it works better.  I've already rebuilt one of the entrance porches, and I'll be added a roof over each doorway.  Long term I'd probably be better off to just save some money by doing nothing and tearing the house down and starting over, but for the next few years I'd like it to work better, so I'll do a little towards that.  

On the barn front, all of the gutters on the barns need to be repaired and the clean water off the roofs directed away from the livestock housing.  It'll probably mean figuring out a system of drains and an outlet somewhere.  This is partly due to regulation - dairy farms are required to do this - and partly due to liveability.  We get 5 to 8 feet of rain a y ear, and the gutters are dumping the roof water all over the driveways and walkways and so on, and it makes the ground soft and muddy.  

I'll also be looking seriously at a couple of the barns for either replacement or repair.  There's a fair bit of rot and damage, each building is a seperate case.  Next spring I'll go through each building and make a punch list and figure out the plans.  

I'll be tearing down and rebuilding the wellhouse on this property, and installing better water filtration for drinking water for staff and house.  The well water here is high in iron and calcium, and has a little bit of manganese and arsenic in it.  Tolerable, but I'd like to have better water, so a new wellhouse will make the installation and maintenance of the water system easier, and bring it above any likely flood level.  the current wellhouse flooded with 2' of water in the record floods that they had on this property in 2010.  

Towards the end of 2015 we'll be putting the dairy parlor back into commercial shape and having it certified as a grade A dairy again.  it's been certified in the past; it's just a matter of getting everything cleaned and repaired and approved.   We don't need any new equipment, but may need to repair some of it.  

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Calf and horse prices, auction videos

Was at an auction on Saturday; horse prices are abysmal. $10 horse, and a $600 mule, that the owner either decided not to sell or had already sold. Wasn't clear. The steer and heifer calves are the same size and age as the ones I was buying for $5 each in 2008.  Same time of year, too.

The market for calves is very, very strong.  Hate buying at these prices.

heifer prices
026 from bruce king on Vimeo.
Steer prices
025 from bruce king on Vimeo.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The river

You'll find the live site by clicking here
I live next to a river and have about 1300' of frontage on it.  It forms the northern boundary of my land, and is quite pretty.   At this time of year it rises and lowers pretty fast, and pretty dramatically.  I can get 9 to 10 vertical feet of water rise on this river over a 6 hour period.  It's the closest thing I've come across to a flash flood sort of situation in washington state.

It's caused by very, very heavy rainfall that hits the mountains to the east of me.  This river is the drainage for an area that in the fall, winter and spring will get 5 to 10 inches of rain in a 24 hour period, over and over again.

The worst combination is when we get colder weather, and a few feet of snow.  Follow that with warmer weather and heavy rain on top of that snow.  At first the snow just sheds the water, but if there's enough rain, all of the snow and all of the rain all come down the valley at once.

One of the local indian tribes is looking to relocate their reservation because of this sort of pattern; they expect it to worsen over the next few decades, and I cannot blame them for not wanting to be washed out to sea.

Mostly I can watch the river do its thing without it bothering me.  Sure, my fields may get some water on them, but nothing there is hurt by the seasonal flooding, and maybe it helps the soil.  it's been happening for thousands of years.

The only issue i've got is in the corner of my property with the red circle.  The river is coming down a straight section there and hitting the bank pretty hard, eroding it.  What's there is hard blue clay -- pretty water resistant stuff, but every year it looks like it loses a few feet.

here's a closeup of the  river bank, and the red line is where the shortline used to be at some point in the past.  The tree that is at the top is actually about 25' out from the bank, on its own little island.  It'll be floating downstream pretty soon.

Traditionally the cure for this sort of erosion would be to reinforce the bank; dump rocks or rip-rap or  other stuff into the river at that point to make it resistant to the water, or at least slow the process down, but that practice is now outmoded.  I can do something like put coconut husks there (really.  that's what they will approve) or I can plant stuff according to the department of ecology.  But I got a more interesting suggestion from the corps of engineers.

"Well, you know what an ecology block is, right?"  yes, the large concrete blocks that they make at concrete plants when they have extra concrete.  But I thought I couldn't put those (or any other impervious stuff like rocks) into the river.  "You don't put them in the river, you stack them at the edge, and if they happen to fall into the river because of flooding erosion, well, that's too bad.

I guess it's all in how you look at it.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

"How would you feel if someone came to your farm and told you how to raise pigs?!?"

I did run for office this year, and I did lose that election, although as my rival put it "... I won with a much smaller margin than my two previous victories."

But the reasons that I ran are still there, and in all fairness Mr. Aldrich has been gracious in allowing public comment about various issues related to the PUD.  

But I had a funny exchange today that is farm related, and that's what I'm going to relate here.  

So I'm asking the board to consider various directions, and an objection came up from a non-board member, "How would you feel if someone came to your pig farm and told you how to raise pigs, or kill them, or operate your farm?   ", basically saying in the context that of course this utility knows what it's doing and that it's a little insulting that I might dare to offer an opinion about the operation.  

To answer that question, I get non-farmers who opine about my farm all the time.  In fact, of all the industries that I've been involved with over the years, farming is the one that people seem to feel comfortable weighing in on no matter what sort of experience they come from. 

I think that there's an assumption that if you farm you, well, you're just a little slower than the average person, and you could benefit probably from someone elses opinion.

When I started farming I actually sought out other opinions, and I learned all sorts of stuff, and I found that the hardest people to get to pin down on an opinion were other farmers.  I think that old adage "fools rush in where angels fear to tread" applies here.  People with experience in farming know enough that they don't offer their opinions much, if at all.  At most  you'll get an eye squint and a slow nod...

But contrast that to the people who just got their copy of the latest Micheal Pollan  book, and are very passionate about their views -- theres no stopping them.  Whatever practices you have they know better!  They're going to tell you how it should be done, to guide you, poor wretch, to the path of goodness.

So Yes, I get this all the time.  And do what I consider to be an excellent farming practice:  I listen to what they have to say, and if it makes sense I'll use it.  Sometimes, after giving me their opinion on my farming practices (and how I should change them) there's a pause.  They look at me, and I say what I always say "I heard what you said; thanks for the input", and they stop and...


Is the time I can say something that they can hear.

You see, when they come to you with that sort of enthusiastic energy, it's all about the broadcast.  What I wait for is that part when the wave crashes on the beach, and then withdraws, building up to the next wave of advice...

I then have a little tiny window where I can explain my farming practices.  Sometimes I use this window -- for the folks who are interested in farming, for instance, and might actually use what I tell them, or, honestly, sometimes for the folks I think I might have a problem with -- a neighbor, or someone in a regulatory position (Looking at you, Mr. Kaufman of the WA department of Ecology)
but most of the time I just smile a little, and let that moment pass.

So yes, I get people who tell me all about my farm.  And I hope I have the grace and ability to seperate the wheat from the chaff and the patience and tolerance to maintain my composure while I do so.

Friday, November 28, 2014

The snow line

Getting close.  Figure about 300' above me.

part 1: Trying to make a profit every way possible: Tim Young

Tim and Liz Young
Tim and Liz Young have been trying to make a go of the farming business for quite a while; at the bottom of this post  you'll find a number of links to various entries I've written over the last few  years for background if you're interested.

Oh yes, I should probably mention that this is entirely my opinion, and that I have no connection to Tim and/or Liz Young or any venture they are involved with, in the past, present or future.  

The basic problem that Tim has is a pretty common one.  He's actually an excellent example of an approach that a lot of people take to farming, particularly if they have little or no experience at it.  Here's a summary:  

Decide that they want to farm
Locate land and usually buy it to start the farm
Start raising things on the farm
Figure out that the hard part isn't raising things, it's selling things
try their best to sell their products
rethink the whole goal.  

What's interesting about Tim is that he's very persistant.  I've got to give him every credit for the various ways that he's tried to make a profit.  He's also got a pretty good sense of marketing, and has been very successful at getting press coverage of his various ventures. 

But there's something odd about all of his ventures.  Here's a quote from an interview he gave to the NY Times :

"Nature’s Harmony will never make the Youngs wealthy again, but they seem past caring. “A lot of what I’ve done in my business life, I don’t think it really means anything,” Tim said. “There’s this whole — you’re seeing a lot of it now with all the politics and bailouts — way to make money in the world but not really do anything to contribute. I feel like what we do is important. But it’s not financially rewarding. Who cares? As long as you can make it on your own.” He tugged on his weathered hat and added, “Let me tell you something: we’re going to eat well.”

What's odd about this quote is that Tim has repeatedly promoted making a profit; he's offered classes on how to make a profit with his farm, he's talked a lot about profitability on his blog and in his podcasts (both of which he's removed from the internet since) and he's talked a lot about his business acumen and abilityt make money -- just not, apparently, from his farming ventures.  

So to have a new venture tied to profitability seems an odd direction -- from telling people that profits weren't his goal to proposing to tell people how to make money...  Ok.    

There's an old saw about how to make a million dollars.  It's basically to put an advertisement out there that says "Send me $10 and I'll send you the secret to make a million", and you buy some stamps and some envelopes, and in reply to each $10, you send them a sheet of paper that says "put an advertisement out there that says..."

If I'm gonna buy a book on how to make money, I'd like it to be written by a guy who's made money; it's that basic conflict that makes it hard for me to believe that he's got anything more than the $10 advertisement out there.  

The new venture he's trying now appears to me to be a variation on the $10 advertisement.  It's a preparedness blog and website, heavy on product suggestions and "online store" items, and he's claiming to have "over 25,000 awesome people subscribe to weekly updates" ...which seems a little suspicious since his farms facebook page has 8,000 likes for its entire lifetime, multiple likes from each person...   

All credit due, there's some interesting content that he's put out there (not from him, just links to other stuff) and I'm sure that he's got stuff to say...  Maybe this is the sort of venture that will work out for him where the other four related startups didn't.  

In part 2 I'll talk about an alternate path that might have worked better for Tim and produced the results that so many people (Not just Tim) want from their farming venture.  

Background on The Youngs:

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

China and the USA - Buying local helps

Recently there's been articles about how the market for chinese food to come to the USA is opening up.  They're talking about raising chickens here, shipping them to china for processing, and then back to here for consumption, for instance.

Before I talk about that, I'm going to post a picture from my childhood.   It's not a personal picture, but it's a picture of what the smog was like in Los  Angeles in 1968 or so:

 The air in Los angles was so bad in the 50s and 60s that I remember my eyes stinging from the fumes when i walked to school in 1968 and 1969.  It was so bad that you couldn't see a hundred yards.  It was so bad that the schools would discourage children from playing or even being outside.
China is facing the same sort of pollution problems that we had in the 50s and 60s and into the 70s and it's going to take a big effort by the chinese to bring that pollution down to something like what we have now in the states... but right now it's bad in China.  

So what does this have to do with US chickens?  Well, when you buy locally produced (local in this sense means "made in the USA") meat and produce, you're getting a benefit that you may not have thought about.  The places that produce that food all have to work within the US regulations regarding pollution and impact on their local communities.  

From the memory of my stinging eyes I can clearly see that the regulations have made a difference, and whenever you buy something made here, in the USA, you're supporting a business that is doing the right thing, or at least better, than the alternative.  

I'm a supporter of Country Of Origin labeling for this reason.  Where your food comes from counts.  Support the countries that do the best job with your dollars.   This applies to all of your food, and even to the country where your food is processed.  The factory in china doesn't have to abide by the USA pollution rules, and while it may make the shareholders a few more dollars is it really worth it?  

Personally I don't think so.  

Monday, November 24, 2014

Picture post: airedale terrier puppies

Litter of 10 pups, 5 male and 5 female.   They'll wean december 20th.  perfect timing for holiday gifts.  Each pup gets a sifferent color collar so that we can tell them apart.  They're purebred and at this age are pretty identical.  Personalities are starting to come out now.   Lots of puppy wrestling and growling this week.  

Farmland price bubble

Graph was a comment in a dicussion you'll find here.  
This is a graph showing iowa land prices vs cattle prices, and it came up in a discussion of how people who didn't inherit land might get into farming - check the caption for link to the discussion, but there's a different take on this, too.

Take a look at the value of land.  It's been going up like gangbusters for 8 years; the average value of land I'd guess from this graph, over time, adjusted for inflation, is somewhere around 1200.  That same amount of land right now is selling for 4200, an increase of over 300% in 8 years.

Billonaires are getting into farming.  I've written about belcampo meats before, and now they're trying to produce in the face of a historic drought.  Welcome to farming, billionaires!  All the money in the world won't make it rain.

Some of the land prices  might be explained by the high corn prices in the last 4 or 5 years, but not all of it, and corn prices are down this year -- record harvests will do that.  What I'm seeing is money sloshing around looking for something a little less scary than the mile-high stock market, and something with a little better return than a CD or bond or bank deposit.

This is land prices contrasted with what you might do with the land -  graze cattle, or raise forage.

I think it looks bubbly to me.   And it's particularly interesting because I've been complaining about high cattle prices...  this graph ends about the time that cattle prices started to go through t he roof too.

I'm a bit of a contrarian.  I was telling people to buy real estate in 2009, and that's what I did.   If I were in a position to want to sell in the next year or two, I'd want to seriously think about putting anything farmland on the market this spring.  I don't think that these prices will last.

Spinning my gears

When chopping the corn noticed that the chopper had an odd vibration, which took me a while to figure out because, well, when you're on the tractor and chopping nothing is holding still.  Turns out that one of the gears that transmits power to the corn head was worn enough that the teeth would slip about 5% of the time, and as the slippage happened, it was wearing the gear out and was happening more frequently.  

 I'm not a farm implement mechanic by choice, but I'm getting better at it.   After years of tinkering i've got a fair grasp of bearings and bolts and roll pins and cotter pins and so on.
 After getting the gear out it doesn't look all that worn, but when I looked at the other gear it was running against, it was clear it needed to be replaced.  I always wince when I see replacement part costs; the big gear in this exercise was $280.  The smaller one $85.   Probably 2 hours to take it out, and then I couldn't get the bearing off of the shaft that it was mounted on, so I called uncle and took it to the local tractor dealer, who grinned and took it apart for me for $140.

I'm not going to kick too much about it.  This pair of gears was used for hundreds of acres of corn every year for 15 years, so I figure that this repair, properly done, will probably outlive my active farming lifespan.
The corn itself is now ensiled -- chopped fine and packed tight and covered with a tarp.  It'll stay that way for 90 days while it ferments in the pile, and the resulting half-fermented corn and corn stalks will form the bulk of the cattle feed late in the winter and early spring.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Refining the farm: Year 8

When I first started my farm I had the rough idea that I'd grow a little of everything; certainly enough for personal consumption and gradually increase the production of things that would sell.   This is a nice ideal, but didn't really work out in practice.

Let me give you an example:  the sheep
Twin lambs from 2012 

First, sheep, in this area, are a nearly perfect crop.  They eat grass.  they are impervious to rain.  They are fairly popular with most americans -- lamb chops anyone?  -- and with a bit of luck your flock can grow quickly.

I chose a breed of sheep that naturally shed its own wool, which spared me from having to shear the sheep every year (and incidentally from wool-guilt:  If I were shearing the sheep, I'd feel duty bound to find a market for the wool, and honestly, there isn't much of one here) and were relatively low maintenance.  I chose sheep from a fellow who's is about 10 miles from me, so the sheep are acclimated to this weather and seasons and honestly, the sheep did better than I deserved.

Better than I deserved.  Regularly had a 2.0 or 2.1 birth rate (more than a twin birth per ewe).  I lost a few to the electronet fence and a few to dogs and coyotes, but generally speaking the sheep did what they were supposed to do:  Eat grass and gain weight.

In fact, if I were to talk to someone now, I'd probably say to look carefully at sheep.  Not much input and pretty good value.  Pretty easy to raise them organically.

With all that good, what was the problem?  

I just couldn't work up an interest in sheep.  I didn't really care for them as an animal.  Most of the time I dealt with sheep was pretty aggravating -- for the sheep and for me, too.  They are not the sharpest tools in the shed, and no matter what dumb thing one of them does, all of the rest of them do it too.  I learned a lot about fencing and a lot about chasing, and in the end, it just wasn't much fun.

So I ended up taking the sheep to the auction; and I got a good price for them, but it still felt a little like failure; some part of me wanted to be good at sheep, too.

But what i've been doing is specializing my farming.  I understand pigs pretty well, and they understand me.  I like them as an animal and as a product, both.  While pigs are interested in getting out of their area, they tend to come back, and I can't think of a time I saw something that a pig did that I didn't understand at some level.  Where the sheep were a complete mystery most of the time.

Chickens, pigs, cows.   that's my current list of main products, and I'm considering getting out of the chicken business.  I'll keep a few laying hens for the kitchen, but I just don't enjoy them as much as I do the cows & pigs.    

Specializing in a smaller number of products allows you to equip and manage those products better than if you're generalizing.  Every new animal or crop has a learning curve, and in order to get a good grasp of it you really need to think about it as a multi-year learning process.  And sometimes what you learn is that you don't really want to do that.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Not winter yet... in the NW

image courtesy of
Next week will apparently be a very cold time in the midwest, but not so much here in Washington.  Our climate is pretty mild most of the year, tempered by the ocean water.  We get chilly, but never too cold, or too hot.  Our daytime temperatures are in the 50s right now, with evening temps dipping to the low 30s, but even temps of 32 degrees aren't very cold.  Nothing like the midwest has as its usual or what they're about to get, apparently.

Our temperature range is one reason why I'm concentrating on forage production, and on animals that use that forage.  We've got excellent conditions for growing for at least 9 months of the year, and in a warm winter, like now, for longer than that.

The challenge with farming is to figure out something that works for your ground.  As much as I'd love to grow watermelons (and I have grown them here in western washington!) it takes a fair bit of effort, and it's easier, and there are fewer inputs (farmer speak for what you need to buy for your crops to thrive) with things that are suited for this climate, and these soils.

My garden list runs heavily towards brassicas and root crops, squash, potatoes.  They all grow well here and don't require much to do really well.

My forage list is grass and alfalfa this year, with a bit of corn.  I wanted to make sure that I could raise a complete ration for a dairy cow on property, and so far so good.  I want my cows to be on a 1 mile diet.  that's the goal there.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

corn chopping: 5 inches of rain and counting

The weather station is getting a workout
Rainy season has started in earnest.    I installed the new weather station about a week ago, and its showing a little under 5 inches of rain accumulation in the last 7 days.   The rain is complicating
the final chopping of the corn; there's some areas of standing water on the field, and some of the field is pretty soft right now, but making slow progress.

The biggest difficulty in chopping the corn has been some mechanical issues with the chopper.  Threading the drive chain incorrectly, one of the bearings for the main gear broke, and there's been some learning curve - shear bolt education - and some operator error.  We're mostly past that stuff now, and are chopping this morning.

We haven't had any below-freezing weather of any sort.  The grass and alfalfa have just taken this to be a long spring (albeit with shorter days) and it's growing still.

picture taken in the brief bit of sun we got.  alfalfa in the foreground, corn in back.  corn chopper is a little to the right of center in this picture, against the corn.  click on the pic for a bigger view.   

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Please vote today

If you're in snohomish, or king, or island counties, there's a chance you could even vote for me, and
as much as I'd appreciate it, there's a lot of downballet races and initiatives that could use your input.

So find your ballet, and grab your voters pamphlet and take 15 minutes.

If you hate the way the governments been doing, you might consider just voting against every incumbent.  That's a little drastic; there's a lot of good in that bathwater, but if you're unhappy
then take an action to make some change.

I'm not going to endorse a candidate or initiative here (other than myself.  I'm pretty darned good!) but if you don't vote, someone elses voice gets heard louder than yours, and honestly, I'd rather hear yours.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Want to buy some calves. Hating the prices.

Angus bull, my dairy cow, and my hereford heifer cow
I've got a pretty good setup going for winter; I've got enough hay to feed everyone and some surplus, and then i've got 200 tons of corn silage coming.  Between the two of them, i've got extra cow feed.

It helps that I've got a big barn that's easy to clean and all set up to house cows, and ... well, it just seems like it's a good time to buy.  Everyone likes to sell cows now if they don't have forage or hay put up, and I'm used to seeing a little cheaper prices.

A trip to the tuesday night roundup at a local auction cleared that right up for me.  I'd be in the market for 300-600lb well-started beef cows; I'd like to have a couple of steers to raise, and a couple of heifers for calves in a couple of years, but holy cow!  the prices are higher than I've evern seen them.
We're talking $3.20 a pound for a 300lb cow.  That's $960.00 for a good looking calf.  Nine Hundred and SIXTY DOLLARS!

Now if I had calves to sell, that kind of price would cause me to trot them right into the trailer and sell 'em, but I'd like to grow my herd.

The national beef herd is at the lowest point that it has been in 60 years, and at least some of these prices show me that there's a lot of people either betting on $10/lb steaks or they're increasing their herd size.

As it is I'm having to really wrestle with it.  Buy now, at the high price, and hope that in 18 months I can sell at a profit, or wait a while longer, get into winter, and hope that there's some sales later on that are a better price.  Or skip buying cows and just buy bred holsteins.  Even day-old bull calves are going for $200-300.  A bred holstein gives me milk production, a calf, and half the calves (maybe a bit less if they used sexed semen) to sell or raise.

it's $1200-1400 for a 6 to 8 month bred holstein right now; I'm equipped to milk them, and milk replacer is expensive.  Hmmm.

Tim Youngs written a new farming/homesteading book. Help review it

Tim Young over at Natures Harmony Farm has an opinion about farming and over the years he hasn't been shy about sharing it with people.  After a while, he goes and deletes everything he says and hopes that people forget about it, and it's a little funny.  Well, he's at it again, this time in book form.

He wrote this book a couple of years ago under a pseudonym, and it struck me at the time as being a little like one of those ads you saw in the paper.  "Send me $10 and I'll send you the secret to being rich!".  The secret, of course, being that if you put an advertisement out that says "send me $10..." you'll get rich.  So one of the ways to make money homesteading, clearly, is to write about making money homesteading.  Stands to reason, right?
By "dusty bottoms", Tim Young 
Tim (Can I call you that, Tim?) has rehashed something he wrote a couple of years ago called "the farm dreams guide to profitable homesteading", and re-issued it as
The cover is better, and he's getting better at marketing
He's got his farm and cheese business up for sale, and he's closed down his retail store and after trying to raise virtually every animal you could sell to the public, he's closed that down too.

But with all of that said, maybe if the farm sells and he can get out from under that being an author is a good call for this guy.

Here's a link to the current book offering.  Feel free to read the reviews, and if you find one that helps you make a purchase decision, by all means give it your vote.  

Monday, October 27, 2014

the view from behind the produce stand

A pretty funny article about the view from behind the stand at the farmers market.  Some profanity, so keep the kiddies away.

A small-scale organic farmer wants you to know a few things 

Weather and my farming

A little under a year ago I purchased a weather station that tracked some of the stuff that was important to me; the temperature, barometer reading, the amount of rainfall and the speed and direction of the wind.  
oregon scientific WMR300 weather station

It made a big difference in how I farm.  Temperature readings, basically the number of degrees over some minimum, are important for crops, and and it allowed me to get a better handle on what I might choose to grow in the future.

Grapes, for instance, require a certain number of heat units to ripen, and this varies per variety.    Corn requires a different number of heat units.   So having the information on my particular micro-climate at my farm is pretty important to knowing what choices I can make to maximize my chosen crop.

Another piece of data that turns out to be pretty handy is the rain gauge.  Knowing how much rain I've got allows me to make choices about the work I can do.  For instance, between January 1st and March 31st of 2014 I got 57 inches of rain.   The gauge at the local airport didn't show a total anything close to that -- but I'm in a mountain valley that funnels clouds in, and they have to rise to cross over the cascades, and that causes them to dump water.  What difference does that make?

Well, it means I have a pretty good idea of how soft the ground will be when I'm working, and over time, I can get a better feel for when, or maybe if, I need to irrigate.  With this much rainfall it hasn't been a concern this last year, but it may be in the future.  So having the record of what I might expect in terms of rain, and when it comes, will also help with choosing crops.

I'm about 10 miles away from the oso landslide  and the 57 inches of rain we got I believe was a big factor in causing it.  Both from water on the ground soaking in, and from the river being high for months, chewing away at the toe of the hill.

So the weather station that I bought 11 months ago pretty much stopped working.  I've done all the normal things; changed the batteries and checked and reset the display, but it just isn't working.  The first to quit was the rain gauge, and then the wind gauge failed, and about the only thing that works now is the thermometer.

So I did some research and read a lot of reviews, and I think I'm going to try a more expensive unit to see if it'll give me longer service.

I've chosen the Oregon Scientific WMR300 which I found at the best price at the time at costco, although they've raised the price by $50 since I purchased it a few days ago.  Costco had it cheaper than any other vendor that sold it, and they've got a good return policy, which helps a lot.  If it fails I've got a good chance to get my money back.  i

The station has a USB port that allows a pc to download the readings, and the display station itself will keep up to 3 years of data, and I'll let you guys know how it works.

Looks like the sensor array mounts on a single pole, which will be good.  With a 1,000 foot range I can place it in the field itself and get good readings.  I'll probably mount it on a pole attached to a fencepost.


Sunday, October 26, 2014

Fall harvest

A nice surprise was getting a little bit of sun today between the rain squalls and high winds we had last night.  
 Took the tractor out to the squash patch that I planted in June and collected our years supply of squash.  120 of the acorn squash, 40 of the sugar pumpkins and 10 of the jack-o-lantern type.  We've given away a hundred or so of each type, sold 400 of the acorn squash to a local food stand, and there will be plenty for the pigs to feast on later this week.  What I'll do is just electric-fence off the pumpkin patch and turn the pigs loose in it.  a week or so and most of the vegetation and all of the squash will be eaten.  
acorn squash, halloween pumpkins and sugar pumpkins
 right next door the alfalfa field is looking good; three cuttings this year and its had about 6 weeks to recover from the last one, so judging by what I've read the roots should be in good condition going into winter.  The key will be how well it comes back in the spring.  Alfalfa doesn't like wet feet, and I believe this sandy-loam field drains well...
alfalfa field, corn field in background at the base of the trees 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Speaking of corn...

click on the picture to enlarge it.  Dents showing in about 30% of kernels
 I managed to creak my way out to the cornfield and picked a couple of sample ears.  The dents are showing up, and it continues to ripen, slowly, but its making progress.  We usually get frost first two weeks of november, but indications are that this may be a warmer-than-usual winter, and the temps have been in the low 60s during the day and the mid-40s at night... so far so good.   The corn plants are still green and alive, which is good.    
Inspecting an ear for milk line
 If you want to know more than you even thought possible about corn growth stages, click here.
Getting closer every day.    Hoping I'll be in shape to actually drive a tractor when it's ready to go.

Not the way I wanted to spend a friday night

WARNING:  Fairly graphic description of a car crash follows.

Last friday I was driving home from a candidates forum along a local highway, and a pizza delivery guy turned left in front of me.  I hit him and the impact drove me off the road into two other cars parked on the highway shoulder.
2013 VW passat after collision
So for me it was a normal, quiet drive home.  I noticed two cars on the side of the road, on the shoulder, that were nose-to-nose, like one was trying to jump the other.  On a rural highway you see a lot of vehicles getting fixed by owners, nothing remarkable about that.  I could see headlights of the westbound traffic (I was eastbound).

I saw this guy turn a fraction of a second before I hit him; not enough time to hit the brakes.  I guess he thought he had enough time to make his left turn; and misjudged.  I think he's a younger guy, and I sure wish he had waited another 30 seconds for me to pass.

When I hit him everything went white.  I remember wondering what was going on until I saw the airbag deflate and I could see the shattered windshield.  It felt initially like I had done the mother of all bellyflops and I could tell I was hurt but I couldn't tell how much.  I could see one of the cars on the side of the road (a light truck) that I was resting against, and I wondered briefly if that was the other vehicle I'd hit.  I didn't know if it was.  but there it was.  weird.    I really couldn't draw a breath.  There was a white powder drifting through the drivers compartment.  i switched the ignition off, (not realizing that the battery, and the whole front of the car, was just gone) and when I did so I noticed I had blood on my left hand.  and I looked at my right and there was blood there, too.  I was wearing a suit and tie, and I noticed blood on my shirt.  I started wondering where all this blood was coming from.  So i kind of gingerly patted myself down, and wiggled my toes and fingers and didn't find any obvious wounds.  not a gush, more a drip, and seemed to be coming from my hands.    
My blood
My face and chest were covered with the airbag when the windshield hit my knuckles and cut both hands up.  I didn't see any bone showing, but it was hard to tell.
The car that turned left in front of me I think
  Dr. Leonard, an emergency room phsysician was driving to work and turned out to be one of the first people on the scene.  He talked to me a bit, and looked at my hands, and said "I'll be seeing you in about 20 minutes I think.  " and the paramedics got me out of the car on a backboard with a collar and I was in the emergency room for a few hours.  x rays and a presecription for muscle relaxants and pain relievers ("you are going to be very, very sore for a number of days" , said Dr. Leonard) and in truth the real pain didn't start up until about 4 hours after the accident.
takes quite a blow to bend the steering wheel like that.  no airbags.

after 3 vehicle impacts

Dr. Leonard said to me something that I heard very clearly.  "10 years ago this wouldn't have been a survivable accident.  You're lucky you had a good, safe car with airbags.  That car failed in exactly the right way to direct the energy of a head-on collision away from the passenger compartment.  You're very lucky.  "  Guys, I'd buy another passat again in a heartbeat.  probably will.

Most of a week later I can finally think about putting my own socks on again.  Separated rib, neck strain, back strain, cuts on both hands, intermittent back spasms...  It hurt any way I lay down, or stood up.  Tears-in-the-eyes pain.

I really don't know the extent of the injuries to the other drivers, I asked the paramedics but they didn't know either but they did say that no one died.  thankful for that.  Was amused to learn that the guy who caused the accident was insured by my insurance company, too.  Glad he has insurance, not sure how this is going to play out as far as claims go.  State patrol issued a ticket for something to the jeep driver; probably failure to yield.  insurance company accepted fault was his.

Kinda put everything into perspective.  I didn't think about the corn until today.

Monday, October 13, 2014

I'm running for office.

I haven't mentioned this before,but I'm running for political office; I filed for this position on May 12th, and I've been campaigning since.

It's been an interesting process; this is the first elected position I've run for, and I've been doing all of the things that campaigns need to do; public appearances and signs and advertising and fundraising and it's been a good education in the process.   I've probably talked to 5,000 people since the start of the campaign.  That's a lot of talking!


I'm running for the position of  Snohomish County Public Utility District (PUD) commissioner;  I am running to become a member of a 3 person commission that oversees the PUD; the commission approves contracts over $25,000, accepts or rejects rate changes, and can hire and fire the professional manager of the PUD.

To explain what a public utility district is, the closest analogy I've come across is the difference between a credit union and a commercial bank.  A credit union is a not-for-profit institution run for the benefit of its depositor/owners.  A commercial bank is run for the benefit of its shareholders.

The mission of the PUDS was to give the ratepayers in the service area a better deal than they might get from a commercial entity, and for most of the PUDs in Washington State (there are over 20 of them) they do.

But the Snohomish county PUD seems to have drifted a bit.  They have the highest rates of any PUD in the state, and they've had recent troubles that point to a management problem.   These troubles have led to the loss of millions of PUD dollars, and millions of federal dollars, too.  And they are studying a much larger project, at 180 million dollars, that I'm  that I'm skeptical that they can manage.

In addition, the basic job of the utility is to keep the lights on.  The number of days of power outages that the average customer experiences has climbed over the past 12 years

The job of commissioner is to make sure that your neighbors money is spent wisely, and that's what I'd like to do.  I think it's time for a change in the leadership, and for fresh eyes and ideas to take the PUD to the next decade.

You'll find my campaign website here, and here's a some recent letters to the editor that put it better than I can:

PUD needs King
Change Definitely needed at PUD
PUD commission needs a shakeup!

Friday, October 10, 2014

The chopper

Gehl 1075 on right, grass and corn heads on truck.  
 Picked up the forage chopper; a gehl 1075 with a grass head and a two-row corn head.  The tractor I'll use to drive this chopper is a 125hp, and I'm hoping that it's powerful enough.  The previous owner was running it with a 150hp tractor.  Guess I'll see what sort of speed we can do.

Going over it with a grease gun to make sure that everything that should be greased is.  Checking chains and belts, making sure tires are full.  Takes a couple of hours to get everything all set and then I'll run it slow for a while to make sure that everything is spinning the way it should.  Got the tank of farm diesel full for refueling...  can't think of anything else that needs to be done before we start chopping.    

Rain forecast for saturday; partly sunny sunday and monday and then rain for the forseeable future.  looks like chopping will be on sunday; hope to get it all done by then.  Tires and tarp are all set, silage pit is repaired and scraped clean...

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Prey drive starts early

Our dogs are farm dogs; they keep larger predators from our stock, guard the house and driveway, and are the constant companion on walks.  Airedales are very loyal and pretty intelligent... and can be stubborn, too.  Its a terrier trait.  They keep going despite difficulties.

We had a litter of pups recently, and it's been fun watching the personalities emerge.  Here, in his web debut is "blue" -- named for the color of the collar we initially put on him.  he outgrew that collar, but the name stuck.

Airedale puppy eating a rat and growling at other puppiesn from bruce king on Vimeo.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

"all farming is done on a bet" - the corn conundrum

I was reading some commentary about a farming documentary, and the comment "all farming is done on a bet" stuck with me.  It's really true.

For me the bets I make every year are what people will eat in 6 to 10 months... and how much, and what kind and that's the market bets.

But there's the second bet -- the weather.  Climate plays a big part in what I do -- more so in the last 18 months than ever before because i've started growing my own feed, and while I can carefully test my soil and do my research on seeds, and till the ground in the best way I can... if the weather isn't there I'm not going to get the results i hope for.

All farming is done on a bet.
my corn, Sept 21

So this week I'm looking my my corn.  Here's some pictures
alberts corn, Sept 21
 My corn is making progress, but my late planting time is showing right now.  The weather has been temperate -- highs in the 70s and lows in the 40s and the corn is progressing.    Alberts corn was planted 3 weeks or so ahead of mine.
Alberts corn Oct 8

my corn Oct 8
After consulting a couple of local dairy farmers, the basic opinion is that I can chop the corn at any time; I'll lose some value because of the immaure kernels, but the risk is that if I don't chop before the heavy rains come in I may lose a portion of the crop because I can't harvest it.  There's a couple of low areas in my fields, and if the water stands there after a storm, I can't run the chopper there.

The long term forecast is for the rain to start on Oct 11 and basically keep raining for a month.  They're saying that we may have flood conditions around October 18th.  So I'm sitting here looking at the corn, and wanting it to grow faster, but with the growing sense that I should chop it and get it into the silage pit sooner, vs later.

That said, I'm pretty happy with the corn itself.  It to my novice eye I think that my spacing is ok (having some unfertilized kernels at the end of the cob is desirable, apparently.  ) and the size and number of ears is good.  Between the orchard grass and alfalfa and corn, this has been a pretty good year.

Pretty happy about this bet so far.  Crossing my fingers I can follow through correctly and get it put away before the serious rains start.
Red, my airedale, loves the crop walks 

Corn is about 10' tall.