Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Holiday traditions, food, family (video)

At this time of year I host a variety of different groups of people for what is becoming an annual tradition for them.
 History shows us that the slaughter of an animal and the consumption of the meat was a celebratory event; neighbors and friends and family would gather together to make the work easier and pass the time joking and laughing as they all worked to prepare the main ingredient to the feast.

Removing hair from a pig with a propane torch from bruce king on Vimeo.

For many, a pig is the primary holiday celebration animal; from small pigs roasted whole to large pigs that are parceled out and prepared in many different ways.    I see a lot of immigrant families at my farm - the slaughter is the time when the parents talk about how it was in the old country, and how they remember doing this with their parents and grandparents; it's a time to share skills and experiences with the next generation, to connect again with their past.

The pictures and video are from a group of russians who come every year to process their own pig; and I'm happy to host them.  As they roast the pig with the propane torch they'll cut off bits of fat from it and sprinkle it with salt and eat it as a slaughter-time treat.  Bits of crispy ear, a little wine, good friends.

This year I've hosted Samoan, Marshall islanders, Russians from various parts of eastern Europe, Ukrainians, Chinese, Ukrainians and Koreans.  It's been interesting sharing their cultural history.  Makes my day, actually.

Happy holidays to you and yours; enjoy the season!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Sugar Mountain afraid of bein' regulated!

Walter Jefferies is over on his blog complaining about some regulations that the state of Vermont is considering implementing, with the goal of preserving water quality.

Since Mr. Jefferies is looking for feedback on the proposed regulations, I thought I'd help him out, and illustrate the impact of this sort of regulation on a farm by marking up the map of Walters farm.   These are estimates and rough speculation based on aerial photos.  They're my best estimate, but don't bet the farm on absolute correctness here.    This post represents my opinion only.

old photo/Farm map showing paddock names: Source: SMF
This picture showing paddock names is pretty old, but from it you can generally see the area of the farm we'll be talking about.  Here's roughly the same image, but a more recent picture.  I've added counter lines showing elevation gain/loss in 25' increments.    In doing so there are apparently large areas of walters farm that are more than 10% grade -- which means that with bare dirt there's an increased chance of erosion without plant cover.  that said, here's the pic:

More recent picture, with contour lines showing slopes.  Source:  Google maps
Here's the effect of the first proposed rule Vermont:  intermittent waters, ditches, diversions, swales and conveyances shall be buffered at 10' or 25' for surface waters.  Buffered means planted areas surrounding and filtering the water.  It looks like Walter has either been driving his tractor in the marsh areas, or livestock has worn trails in it, but either way these proposed rules would restrict access to those areas.  Yellow in the areas below are the areas that would require a buffer, either 10 or 25'
10' or 25' buffer around intermittent water or surface water.  Source:  Google maps
Here's the effect of the second rule:  livestock will have no access to surface water except at defined crossings or watering areas, unless there's 3" of vegetation cover maintained by a rotational grazing plan.  Blue areas are areas that appear to me to be either very wet or surface water.  These areas would require livestock to be excluded from them.
Livestock fenced off from surface water.  Source:  Google maps
The surface water thing has a provision:  If you use an approved rotational grazing plan, and keep 3" or more of vegetation, you don't have to exclude the livestock, but in my opinion what is showing around most of this water area is either bare dirt, or very sparse vegetation.  In my opinion much less than the required 3" cover.   Here's a shot of Walters south field:
Click on picture for bigger view.  SMF south field.   Source:  Google maps
Look at the area immediately to the right of the greenhouse (that black thing in the upper left corner); bare dirt, and that color of dirt shows through over the majority of that field, in my opinion.  It can be hard to tell, but it looks like there's basically no underbrush left, and very little in the way of grasses or other ground cover.  what remains are low, scrubby bushes.   This sort of bare earth also appears to show up in all grazed areas of Mr. Jefferies farm, in my opinion of course.  So Mr. Jefferies farm wouldn't qualify as maintaining 3" of vegetation, and whatever grazing plan he is using now, since it doesn't end up keeping that 3" minimum, probably wouldn't be approved.  He'd have to come up with a grazing plan to fix this, and then implement it.

I don't think that Mr. Jefferies land has an area that floods, except maybe the "marsh" and "north marsh" areas, but we'll skip that part of the proposed regulation.

Here's a big one:  Manure stacking.
200' manure exclusion zones.  Source:  Google maps

Now I've taken Walters cleared area as being his property line, and drawn the exclusion lines that way.  But he may not have a property line there, so it might not apply.  The two circles are around what I presume are his personal water supply, at the house and at a spring somewhere uphill.  I don't really know where is uphill spring is, so I just picked a spot.

Now the state of Vermont isn't done with manure.  They want you to test the soil, and not to apply manure to soils that can't absorb the material.  (over 10% slope without 100% vegetative cover 100' around surface waters, exceed phosphorus levels of 20ppm, are frozen or snow covered or saturated with water.

The 10% slope/100% vegetation cover may exclude the entire area of Mr. Jefferies farm from being used, or at least a big part of it.   In my opinion, from what I can tell about Mr. Jefferies farm from these photos, there doesn't appear to have 100% cover, and most of his farm appears to be more than 10% grade; he is in the mountains of vermont, after all.  Grazing animals spread manure.  So this could be construed as prohibiting grazing unless the ground has vegetation on it; and since there are apparently patches of bare ground all over the place, well...

By keeping his animals outdoors, manure is being deposited on top of snow, frozen or saturated ground for a portion of the year, and this would apply to Walters ENTIRE farm with the exception of the greenhouse.  And that's may be a violation of these proposed rules.  To comply with this portion of the regulation, Walter  would have to confine his pigs to the greenhouse for as long as the ground is frozen -- 4 or 5 months a year, maybe?  Probably December 15th to April 1st, which is 4.5 months.  Maybe October 15th to April 15th (6 months) - both date ranges are mentioned in the regulations.  Welcome to mucking out barns and owning a manure spreader, Walter!  and by the way:   you can't spread it in the manure exclusion zone.

 In addition, Mr.  Jefferies will have to either develop a nutrient management plan (NMP) that meets NRCS standards to be certified, or choose to be uncertified and do soil tests, manure analysis, and to keep records on manure application and spreading.

Now in truth, these water quality standards are probably based on federal standards, and honestly, they're pretty darn close to those standards that I am required to follow (and do follow) on my own farm.

I understand Mr. Jefferies squawking about these regulations, but there is a price to being a good neighbor and a good farm, and this sort of regulation is just that.

Welcome to the club, Sugar Mountain Farm.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Rat hunting gun, part 3!

I've written about different rat hunting rigs in the past.  Version 1 was a bb gun with a laser sight, version 2 was  a pellet gun with an infrared scope.

the basic problem that I've got is that I have dogs and pigs, both of which will eat dead rats.  So poisons are generally out of the question for my farm.  I've also tried a variety of rat traps, from traditional to electronic, and I haven't had much impact on the population.  this rifle has been completely effective at removing rats from my barns.   I chose a pellet gun to limit the amount of overpenetration, and for cost-effective shooting.  Pellets are a penny or so each, and the air for this rifle is $20 for 50 fill-ups, about a penny a shot.  at 2 cents a shot, this is pretty cheap.

This is version 3:

The basic rifle is a BSA scorpion SE, with a picatinny scope adapter and a 10x scope.  The scope and mounts are basically stock.  Clamped on top of the scope is an infrared spotlight that points in the direction of the barrel, and a 3.5" LCD screen that points back to the butt of the gun.  On the eyepiece of the scope is a small camera, so the effect is that you look at the screen and what you see is what the scope is seeing.    the infrared addition is manufactured by Nitesite, and it's the NiteSite Viper
 I'm outside after dark, pointing the rifle at the top rail of a fence about 50' away.  The lumber in that fence is pressure-treated - you can see the speckling where they injected the preservatives, and below that you can see the top of a livestock panel.  You can also see the crosshairs from the scope in that view.

this particular rifle is a .22 calibre pellet clip-fed rifle, which means that it's plenty big for rats, and can also work for larger game (possums, rabbits, raccoons) if you wish.  the nitesite unit can be moved to another rifle in about a minute, so if you'd like to make a larger calibre rifle night capable, you can.  You don't have to resight the scope and there's no tools involved.  You pull the camera off the eyepiece, remove the batteries velcro strap, and then open the clamp for the spotlight/screen.  Move it to the new gun, and 30 seconds later you've got a night vision rifle.

I can get between 40 and 50 shots out of this rifle before recharging its internal air tank, which takes a minute or two.

To hunt rats I just turn off all the lights in the barns, and then about half an hour later walk out with the rifle and start shooting.  the only visible light is the reflection of the screen off of my face, and I can hit a rats head at 150', so the rats really don't know what's going on, where the shot is coming from, or where to run.  So I'll walk out, find a few rats, and start shooting.  the first shot kills one rat, and the others freeze for a second or two, trying to figure out where it came from.  the next two or three shots kill a couple more, and then there's usually a mass exit.  So I go away for a half hour, and come back to the same spot, and I can usually get another rat or two.

I don't know how many rats I've killed over the last 6 months; at least 2500, maybe as many as 3500.  I have fired 4500 pellets through this gun, just looking at my ammunition purchases.   I thought I had a rat problem, but it wasn't until I had the night vision equipment that I realized how many rats there were in the old barns and sheds.  the first night with this rifle I killed 175 rats.

On a typical walkaround these days I'll shoot between 4 and 6 rats as I make my rounds checking the animals, and while that seems like a lot, given the population that I started with, I consider this a manageable level of pests.

the rats are particularly easy to target - their eyes glow in the infrared spotlight, so you can see them clearly from quite a distance away.

Video of nightsite scopes in action (but does have a lot of annoying talk before the shooting)
This video is pretty close to what it's like to hunt the rats on my farm.

Farming regulation: What price the environment?

My primary farm acreage is fronted on two sides by salmon streams, and I have a variety of wildlife that I host on my acres; I regularly see coyote, bobcat, every sort of bird (eagles, hawks, owls, ducks, geese, swans, hummingbirds and thousands of smaller bird) and the usual local deer and even the occasional sign of bears.  I even suspect there's a cougar around here somewhere, but I've never been sure.  

I like and encourage wildlife as much as i can; in that I've changed my tune from a few years ago when I was shooting coyotes to choosing management that is less or non-lethal.  For coyotes, electric fences instead of bullets, for instance.    I do shoot rats, though.  They're invasive, destructive, and if I don't I'm going to be overrun with them.

I do that because I'm clear that we, as humans, are only going to have the wildlife left that we choose to let exist.  Actually, it's a little stronger than that.  If we don't make serious efforts to maintain our current wildlife I believe we humans, as a species, have the ability to eradicate them.  So I'm doing my small part by managing my land in a way that allows the native animals to do what they do, and I'm also talking to and encouraging my neighbors to do the same.

Part of the wildlife that I share my farm with isn't on the list, and that's the fish and things that live in the river and the watercourses and bodies of water around my farm.  I'm talking about things like salmon and trout and other fish, as well as salamanders and frogs and every other species that needs good quality water to survive.  those species are what the current regulations regarding water quality are all about, and honestly, I do take great care to make sure that my property and my use of my property don't impact the neighboring properties in any way.

In that I'm fairly luck - I purchased a bankrupt dairy, and the previous owners of the dairy had made vast and very expensive improvements to my farm that made manure handling simple and easy.  I'm going to estimate that to re-create the facilities that I use now would cost me about a million and half dollars.

that kind of money is far outside what a small farm (or a medium farm, or even a large farm!) can afford to spend to comply with regulations.

But what they can do is set aside buffers, areas of clean vegetation between farm operations and water, so that any water flowing into ponds, lakes, streams or rivers is filtered and cleaned before it goes on its way.

But the cost of that, particularly for small landowners, is that they lose a portion of their land, potentially forever.  

I've had my run-ins with my local regulatory agencies, and I understand what they are after, and why, but on the other side I do have quite a bit of sympathy for landowners who have their land effectively taken from them.  

For me, buffer areas and setbacks aren't that big an issue.  I have enough land that 10' here or 20' there really doesn't make much of a difference.  But I would like to see more recognition and compensation to landowners for this sort of taking.  Because that is really what it is.

And yes, I know about the CRP program, and I think that it's a very good program, and fairer.  But it's difficult for small landowners to access, there's a finite budget, so not all properties interested can enroll, and for productive farmland, the payments aren't enough to offset the loss of profit from normal farm operations.  If you've got marginal land it's actually a pretty good way to go.

The CRP program doesn't cover one of the ways that most of the land is taken from landowners around here:  "natural growth protection areas" (NGPA) -- which I call blackberry and canary grass reserves, because that's often all that ends up growing there.

For people building houses it's not unusual for you to lose 20 to 80% of  your building lot for NGPA reserves, and you are both not compensated for that loss of use, and you are required to do that as a condition of the permitting process; you are charged for the privilege of losing your land.

Lets save the environment, but lets spread the cost farther than the poor guy who wants to build a house this year.  The houses built last year, and in the last 150 years, had just as much impact to the environment in their time as this new one, and, in my opinion, should shoulder a portion of these costs as well.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Who looks at your food: Chicken

In my last post I talked about inspecting food that you produce yourself - and I pointed out that you, as the farmer, should be looking carefully at it.  I'd say that same for food that you sell to others - why would you sell something that you wouldn't eat yourself?

From that perspective, my practice on my own farm is to send a percentage of my own production through the processing system that my customers use, and I consume it at the other end; it's a simple way to stay on top of the quality issues related to what's on my customers plates.

Who looks at commercial chicken:

For commercial chicken, the current standard is to process around 140 birds a minute; those birds flying by on the line are inspected by one USDA inspector, and at that rate, they have to inspect 2.33 birds EVERY SECOND.

There are requirements that the plants test the chickens for harmful bacteria, but they're given the choice whether to test for  campylobacter or salmonella. - but are not required to test for both.  

The internal organs, if they're supplied with your chicken, are virtually never the heart, liver and gizzard of the bird itself.  Birds are broken down on the line, and then re-packed with innards from other birds; the whole thing happens on a pretty large dis-assembly line, so most chickens come in contact with most of the equipment on their trip through the line.   

In my opinon that is an opportunity for cross-contamination on an industrial scale.  If anything goes wrong in the anti-bacterial work that they do anywhere in the plant, it's possible to be fairly widely spread.

And in fact, test of supermarket chicken show that nearly 75% of the chicken sold is probably contaminated by bacteria inside the package, and that even 7% of the OUTSIDE of the packages contained potentially harmful bacteria - which means when you put the chicken into your shopping cart at the store it can cross-contaminate your other food items before you even get home.

Salmonella can also cause illness and death, and it's also found on and in packages of chicken.  Most recently in October of 2015.

What is being done?

Even though companies are trying to solve this problem, they are apparently not succeeding.  Witness Foster farms 2014 announcement about progress with Salmonella followed by the 2015 recall of chicken for...salmonella

 In my opinion, the current inspection and testing of chicken as a safe food is both ineffective and unlikely to prevent outbreaks.  When you buy chicken, consider the outside of the packages probably contaminated, and the inside of the packages certainly contimated by bacteria that will be made safe by thorough cooking.  
  Since the chicken industry has consolidated considerably in the last 20 years, you will find roughly the same chicken (under different brand names) in different stores.  I don't know of any store or brand that is more safe than any other -- handle it carefully, cook it completely, and consider it contaminated at each step while its raw.

If you raise and process your own chicken you can take some simple steps to reduce contamination; keep your work areas clean, clean your utensils before and after each slaughter, and keep each bird to itself - don't mix birds organs, for instance.  Bleach, soap and heat all will help with the process.

Here's a useful link on safely home-processing poultry

Sunday, December 13, 2015

who looks at your food before you eat it?

This post is about a not-so-happy incident, but I'm talking about it here as a learning opportunity.

Farming means that sometimes things don't work out, even if you've tried your best.  I say this because I had a man who purchased some weaner pigs from me earlier this year call me and say that the farm kill guy he'd hired to process it had advised him discard one of the pigs he'd raised.   He'd called me to ask me for a second opinion, and I followed up on this.  

After talking to everyone involved, the basic issue seemed to be that this pig had a history of getting hurt, slow growth, and for the last few weeks of its life hadn't been able to move -- and that's a hard thing for someone new to livestock to deal with.   It's hard to make the decision that an animal has to be put down, and each of us wants to be optimistic that the animal will recover, and we can all imagine a good outcome, and none of us like the finality of culling, but it's part of the process.  

So I talked to the farm kill guy, and the customer, and we worked it out.  I told the customer that the farm kill guy was a professional - he's handled thousands of animals, and I've worked with him for 5 years personally, and I recommend him.  That his opinion, boots on the ground, was something I'd respect. 

The last thing a farm kill guy wants to do is condemn an animal - it's not a happy job, but it's an important part of the farming experience.  For home-raised meats, the customer may not be in a position to tell when things are going wrong, and even though this particular customer wasn't happy about the decision, I fully support the decision that was made.   It was the right decision, and even though the farmer/customer wasn't thrilled with it, he did the right thing for everyone involved.  

I talked to the customer at length, and talked through the various things that they'd done, and recommended that the next time they run into a pig that isn't thrifty or gets injured that they consider harvesting it earlier; as a BBQ pig, for instance.   His wife had hand-fed and watered the pig twice a day for the last two weeks, and that's heroic level effort.  I commend their intentions, but sometimes the best of intentions aren't enough -- and then the difference between farming and pets gets pretty clear. 

When you raise your own meat for your own consumption,  you may be the only inspection that the meat goes through before it hits  your families table - and this isn't just farm animals.  Wild game hunters should be looking at the game that they are processing, too.  

In my slaugher classes I talk about what people should look at, and what they should see; the liver should look like this, the meat should look like that, you should check here, and here, and here.  

For as much grief as the USDA gets about inspected slaughter, I do like the idea of a (possibly) neutral observer who is on the consumers side somewhere in the slaughter process.  Recently chicken producers have managed to get regulations passed to remove most USDA inspectors from their plants, and honestly, as a consumer, I think that's a step backwards.  

If you'd like to hear more about chicken and inspection, I would reccomend this PBS frontline special on this topic to give you an idea of what the issues are, even with inspected meats:  

Monday, December 7, 2015

The weather and work

I've harvested more of this corn, just haven't got a more recent picture
The weather plays a big part in harvesting.  For this corn, since i've got a grain dryer, it really doesn't matter if it's raining or not when I pick it up; the combine does a great job of separating the kernels from the rest of the plant, but when it rains enough the ground gets too soft for the combine, and it starts to sink.

I've been pulling in two or three combine-loads of corn each day (the combine holds 190 bushels of grain when full, a little over 5 tons worth) and a full combine is almost precisely what the grain dryer holds.

So I'd load the grain dryer in the morning from the night before, and while it's drying, go out and grab another load.  When I come back, the grain is dry,  unload and store, and then load the dryer again, and go back out and get another load.

Then I'd unload the 2nd batch, and load the grain dryer the next morning from the combine.  This allowed me to harvest/dry/store 10 tons of corn per day, and I could get other stuff done as well.

But it's been raining a lot recently; more than an inch a day for most days, and the ground is now soft enough that I'm getting stuck in the field, particularly when the combine is close to full.

The long-term forecast doesn't give me a lot of hope that it'll clear up soon
Summary?  Rain.  Build an arc

The last couple of times they underestimated the flood level
So today it's a rest day for the combine, but a work day for me.  for the combine, it's inspect the belts, grease everything that can be greased, check and replace the fluid levels, remove, inspect and clean the screens, and top off the fuel.  Everything ready to go when the weather clears up a little.

At this point it would be helpful if the ground froze.  It looks like we'll be freezing every night starting about a week from now, and it may be that I can get some combining done while the ground is frozen then.  In the meantime I'm going to run the propane heater in the barn, and put on the headphones and do the equipment maintenance.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Population, farms and wildlife

In the next 40 or so years we'll be adding another 2.5 billion people to the world.  That population growth won't happen around here - most developed nations are either just barely at replacement levels or are actually going to shrink in population, like Japan.
combining the corn while thinking about this.  gotta fix that windshield wiper
Our current agricultural system produces a surplus of everything that we need; we don't think about surplus or shortage in america because we're very used to every kind of food available at all times from all over the world, but in a very real sense even though we have a surplus now, there's some hints that the surplus might be getting smaller as time goes by.

Take the decline in global rice stocks as an example.  over the last 3 years we've had a deficit in rice production.  More rice has been consumed than produced.  Now rice, and corn, and beans and every other type of crop, has good seasons and bad -- we had a record corn harvest in the USA this year, for instance, so there's no worries that your corn chips will dissapear -- in fact, they might even get cheaper, but we have no where near the amount of food being produced today that will be required to feed another 2.5 billion mouths.

We'll need either crops that are much better than current varieties, or we'll need more acreage, or we'll need both.  The expected growth in standard-of-living of very large countries like china or india also will probably change their eating habits.  Meat is a popular food for people who can afford it, and more and more people can afford it.  A pound of pork is at least 5lbs of feed, and when people start moving up the dietary scale, the amount of grain required also increases.

I'd rather see us get more efficient per-acre than to choose to add more acres, to the detriment of what wildlife remains on the earth.  And that's a choice that we're going to have to conciously make worldwide, because I think that any arable land will be put into use in the next few decades, that being the easiest way to increase our production.

There's currently a debate about GMO and herbicides and pesticides and very large corporations that control things like seeds and fertilizers -- and while those issues are important, I think that they are a distraction from the real effort that must be made to be able to handle the people who are coming.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Raising pigs in Africa

I got a call on my cell phone the other day, and didn't recognize the number.  In fact, it didn't look like a phone number, but what the heck, I answered, and found myself talking to a farmer in Africa who'd been reading my blog and wanted to ask my opinion on some pasturing issues he had.    

ashanti black sow
The popular pig breed in his area is the Ashanti, and he sent several pictures of them.  They look smaller than a yorkshire, but the weaners look good.
ashanti weaners
Group shots are always nice to see breed characteristics
ashanti weaners
He explained that he liked the yorkshire breed, and had imported some yorkshires from the UK at great expense.  He sent several pictures of them.  I think he'll keep some purebred and crossbreed some with the ashanti.  I'm interested in seeing what they look like.
yorkshire weaners
he clearly takes good care of the pigs; they are in good weight for growers.  

the feed and the farmer!  Kofi Nti Boateng
batch of puppies - LGD?
yorkshire weaners
yorkshire weaners
yorkshire weaners
Brahma? calves?
In talking to him, his primary challenge is finding cheap enough feed for his pigs.  In the USA we have segregated our market, and people really don't compete much with animals for feed.  In africa, every bit of grain has a strong market, and it's sometimes difficult to find.  So he's working on growing more of his own feed; it's funny, but in a different way I'm doing the same exact thing on the other side of the planet.  

His climate is such that with water, he can grow corn in 3 seasons.  So he's looking to make a pig tractor and move the pigs over his acreage, planting corn as he moves the pigs.  in 90 days or so he crops that acreage (I'm not clear if he's going to let the pigs harvest it for him, or if he's going to pick the corn - either way, the pigs get it) and efficiently use his land.  

I talked to him about his tractor idea, and suggested an electric fence enclosure instead of a hard tractor, but then realized that I didn't know if his electricity was reliable enough to keep the pigs contained.  A durable tractor might be a good way to go, actually, if you can't depend on the power system.  

Monday, November 30, 2015

22 tons in the barn so far

ab-8b grain dryer
The grain dryer is pretty much the right size for the combine grain tank; when the combine is full it completely fills the dryer, and that makes things simpler.  While it's drying I'm out filling up the combine again.  The combine harvests faster than the dryer, though.    When people talk about grain they always talk about bushels, when I'm used to using tons.  for shelled corn, a bushel is 56lbs, but 56lbs of 30% moisture corn is not what 56lbs of 15% moisture corn is.  It shrinks as it dries.

This particular dryer is meant to run automatically; you'd have a "wet grain" bin on one end, with an auger into the dryer to load it.  On the other side you'd have an unload auger that would move the grain into the storage bin, and this unit can turn on or off all of the required equipment.

So right now it's go get a combine full of grain, come back and load the dryer and wait about 15 minutes.  The grain will settle and shrink as it dries, so for the first half-hour or so you keep feeding in grain, about another 300-400lbs until the dryer is topped-off full.

Once that's done it's off to the field again for more grain.  When I get back the dryer is done with the load, have the unload auger put it into the bucket of the tractor and add it to the 'dry' grain pile in one of the barns.  Fill the grain dryer, and repeat.

With a couple of bins, you'd just add the "wet" corn to the bin until it was full, and then this machine would just work all night to dry and transport the grain; in the morning you'd go out and fill the wet bin again, and repeat.

This particular dryer is about the same age as my combine; late 70s, early 80s.  It's even got a couple of vacuum tubes in it; I haven't seen a vacuum tube in maybe 15 years.

Automating the drying/storing process would make harvesting a one-man operation; this size dryer will dry 120 bushels of grain in a batch, which is 3.5 tons; with load, dry, cool, unload it takes about 2.5 hours per batch; roughly 10 batches in 24 hours.  So to have it work overnight the wet bin would have to be something like 600-800 bushels.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

"what does this button do?"

Pretty frustrating day today.   Perfect weather; clear and cold.  Ground is frozen, which is great because I'd like to combine a bunch of corn.  

Yesterday I discovered that the fuel gauge on the combine is inoperative.  It reads 3/4 full no matter what the fuel level is, and I discovered that by running the combine out of fuel.  Now that's not a small thing when it comes to diesel equipment -- the take home lesson is that you should never, ever let the fuel run out, but it did, and the combine stopped, and I walked home last night really questioning why I never noticed the fuel level changing.

Someone added this.  the bad handwriting is mine

No matter, up early, with the diesel-out-of-fuel starter kit:  3 cans of starter fluid (ether), a bunch of small wrenches, an air compressor, air line, and a roll of plastic bags and a bag of rags.

I'm not going to go into the first two hours, but at the end the batteries were low, so back to the house, where I got the big battery charger, jumper cables and the gasoline generator to add to the pile of equipment on the back of the truck, and back to the combine I went.

this lever, factory equipment, works just fine.  why mess with it?

It's turning over, but won't sustain.  So I grab a soda and think about it, and decide that it's probably a blocked fuel line.  I detach the fuel line at the bottom of the tank, and sure enough, no flow from the tank.  Blow air into the tank, clear the blockage (make note to myself that I have to empty and clean the tank later) and then notice there's a shutoff valve right there.  And it's halfway "off".  So I open it, and optimistically hope that fixes it.  Back to ether, cranks but no joy.

So I've cleared the line from the tank to the sediment trap, and next I check the line from the sediment trap to the priming fuel pump - a little tiny fuel pump right at the bottom of the fuel tank.  it's fine.  Then I check the line from the priming pump to the main fuel filters (there are two of them), and I have fuel there.  
documentation is something i learned as a software engineer

I'm not going to go into how hard it is to trace these lines through the depths of this machine; everything is painted green, and it's all got dust/mud on it, and it's often behind things.  no  1 hour... two hours...

So then I check the line from the fuel filters to the main fuel pump.  it's good, fuel there.  Then the line from the fuel pump to the injectors.  No fuel.  What?

The fuel line goes behind the engine block, and there's some white and yellow wires going in there too.  I check the manual; nothing there.  What is that?

So I unscrew the fuel line on both ends, and carefully pull it out to find something called a murphy valve (I think that is what it said on it).  A 12v fuel cutoff solenoid.  When its got power it's on, and when it doesn't its off.    I pull it out, apply 12 volts, it works.  I check the wires with the ignition key on and off.  No power.  How did the combine work without power before?

So I look in the cab and find the red box that someone has installed.  And on that red box is a button.  And the red button apparently got pushed at some point, and that turns off the power to this thing, and THAT BUTTON WASTED A WHOLE WORK DAY FOR ME.  ARRGGGHHH!

So I carefully re-install the fuel line, but one of the ends is a bit stripped and won't thread back on, and so I end my day with a trip to the hardware store for a $1.30 replacement part, and I write with a sharpie, carefully, "fuel cutoff solenoid"

And I guess I'll finish that corn tomorrow.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Learning to farm, going against the usual rule

A lot of my early farming was spent looking at other peoples operations and learning from them.  Good and bad, true and false, I basically approached farming as a complete unknown, and 10 years ago it was.  My family history has farming in its background, but neither my mother or father farmed.
So I'd look around and see someone doing something, and genrally speaking I'd do the exact same thing, which meant I did some odd things.  Later, as my learning progressed those things didn't seem so odd anymore; it just took a while to figure out why it made sense.  

combining winter corn from bruce king on Vimeo.

And this applies to crops, too  If you look around in your area you'll see crops and farming activity, and usually it's because that particular crop or activity is well-suited to the environment.  So I never tried to grow pomergrantes here because I didn't see any.  

So this year I went against that basic rule, and planted grain corn, which is corn designed to be harvested for the corn kernels themselve, instead of the entire plant and kernels for use as animal feed.  I'm still going to use the corn kernels as animal feed (although they'd make great organic corn everything!) but I wanted a crop that I could grow somewhere else and only have to transport the highest-value portion - the kernel - to reduce my costs in bringing it back.

The grain corn that I planted this year was planted on a schedule so that it would be physically mature on september 1st - at least according to the seed vendor.  As you've seen, I watched and watched and watched the corn as it matured, and then dried.  

Despite having a warmer-than-usual year, the corn matured 2-3 weeks after the stated maturity date, and really didn't get dry enough to combine until 2 months later, around the second week of november.  

golden grain pouring into combine from bruce king on Vimeo.

During that time we had lots and lots of rain, and two floods, which I was sure would be the end of my corn, but surprisingly enough, the fields where I planted aren't in direct current -- the water rose and fell pretty gently, and for the majority of the corn, the water didn't get high enough to touch the ears.  Tall corn is good!

The corn is coming in somewhere around 23% moisture, but will keep best at 15%; so I'm using small grain drier to dry 5,000lbs of corn at a time.   The high-moisture corn can be  used as feed pretty much straight out of the field; the dried version will probably need to be rolled or ground or something to make it more digestible for the animals.  

I'm going to call this against-the-grain a success, and given that the corn is still in pretty good shape despite floods and rain... well, I think that I'll be planting corn somewhere on my fields from here on.  

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Farm venture fundraising - but what?

So I'm reading through the fundraising post of a farm venture, this one wants to teach people to farm, and I'm all for that, and I run across this:

First, I'm pretty skeptical that crowdfunding donors actually get good value for what they donate.  Dont' get me wrong - these crowdfunding efforts are GREAT for the farmer - they get the money and have few or no restrictions on it, and in my opinion don't have to ever complete their stated project, or if they do, they can do it on their own schedule -- like sugar mountain that has slipped their schedule between 3 and 5 years so far, and it's slipping further as time goes by.

"young female farm manager" - not the best qualified, or the best fit, but the age and sex is specified.  That's pretty amazing to me.  Imagine if I posted an advertisement like that for my farm:

  "Hiring a farm hand.  Males only, women need not apply, and no one over 20"

I'd probably get viral status, don't you think?  And the headlines would be great.  Maybe you can suggest a few in the comments.

With this sort of fund raising request, there's no backup for the things you'd normally see in a grant request, or a proposal to a bank for a loan.    Stuff like a business plan.  A copy of the most recent results.  Even the biography of the founder of this farm is blank:

If you want to rely on the good intentions of generous individuals I think that you have the responsibilty to use their funds in an appropriate manner.  Discriminatory hiring and black-box numbers don't really leave me with the impression that they've really throught this out.  And the leave the prospective donors with no way to verify if the proposed changes were made, or in fact if there's any progress at all.

Here's where I will give Walter Jefferies full credit:  Despite being years behind in the schedule he's doggedly pursued completing his project, and has posted many updates showing the projects status and the milestone passed.   And that's wonderful, and basically missing from most crowdfunded projects.

While I did donate to Sugar Mountain, I'm not going to be donating to Tricycle farms.  I'd prefer they get their training wheels first.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The cows reflecting on eating grass
I'm running 40 cows right now; 30 of them are dairy, 10 are beef.  Some of the 30 are kinda-beef; they're 50% holstein 50% angus cross steers that I've produced and am growing out.  

I looked at buying some steers in both 2014 and 2015 and just couldn't bring myself to pay the price that animals were getting at that time.  The market has gone done a little (it's still high to my eye, but its not in record territory like it was) and my reaction to that was to retain a few of my own steers to grow out.  

The steers are pretty tasty; the angus/holstein cross is efficient at converting grass to meat, and they're relatively docile and easy to manage.   If you've got the space and forage, cows are a pretty easy crop to bring to market.  

Sunday, November 22, 2015

(video) 2015 Thanksgiving turkeys

These are the turkeys that are coming to dinner, for those folks who are curious.  They're free-ranged on our fields; we'll keep a few of them for eggs for next years crop, but the majority of these will be on the table this thanksgiving

001 from bruce king on Vimeo.

Combining the corn (video)

This is the first year we've had a combine, and it's a complex machine.   So after going through it and reading the manual and setting all of the various controls to the reccomended values, I'd take it out to the field and process a little bit of corn and then look at how it did.  This video is one of those "tuning" runs.

combining corn fall 2015 from bruce king on Vimeo.
I am so impressed with the concept of combines in general, and with this one in particular. Driving at 2 to 4mph, it picks the ears, removes the husk, schucks the kernels from the cob and deposits the grain corn into a tank. At 4 rows wide (which is narrow when it comes to combines; this particular unit can accomodate a 6 and 8 row wide corn head if I wanted) and 4mph, it's covering 6 feet of ground a second. With a corn plant spacing of 9" between the plants that's around 8 plants per row per second, or 32 corn plants per second, with 2 ears on each plant.
This video was taken when the combine was on the red line, facing the small end of the top field
So you're driving along and this machine is sucking up 64 ears of corn a second and processing it and all you have to do is make sure you keep the head centered on the rows. This particular machine is a john deere, model 7720 turbo. It's a 1979 model, originally used to harvest things like spinach and chard seed, and sometimes barley and wheat. The changeover to go from wheat to corn basically involved setting two main parameters: the feeder house bottom clearance and the concave spacing, and then fiddling with those settings until I got the results I wanted. There's a big fan that you can change the speed on, and there's a couple of other things that could be changed, but I didn't have to do any of that.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

big flood today

Don't have any pictures as the river reached peak level after dark.  This one was much bigger than the previous; had serious water flowing on all sides of the house and barns.  The buildings are mostly high enough to be out of the flood water, but I had to move some equipment - again.  

Water peaked around 8pm tonight and is going down now.  I'm marking the high water levels around the farm to set the level for future improvements - mostly so that I can lay walkways that are higher than the water level I saw today.

I wrote a few days ago that I thought that this flood would be bigger than the last, and it was.  It doesn't seem like much, but the difference between a 14.72' flood level and a 15.09' flood level here is pretty intense.   I've got 2 to 3' of fast-flowing water over my fields at this point - my farm is at a bend in the river, and when that river comes over the bank it straightens out and barrels through my land.

This is the 4th biggest flood ever recorded for this river, since at least 1931.  This is a big deal.

I'll know more in the morning, but I have to say it's been an exciting night.

Flood effects

During flood event are pictures on left, 24 hours later on right.  Click on any picture for a bigger view

I left a bunch of crop residue on the fields as part of the seasonal management; some of the farmers in the area plow and cultivate, but I figured there was no rush to do it, and I didn't want to have loose dirt during the flood season.  I think it was the right call.  Had these fields been plowed I think I would have lost a lot of topsoil in this flood.  

But I did notice a grey mud, and I walked the field to where the flood water had entered, and found it on the upstream side.  So this material didn't come from my fields, but came from the river.  When the river floods it is either a light tan or slate grey, and I think it's related to what the river is eroding.  One thing that it is eroding is the site of the Oso landslide, about 10 miles upstream of me on the same river.  So there's hundreds of tons of sand and silt carried downstream, and during a flood, I get some of it.  

The material is deposited in lower areas in my fields - in the background of the picture above you can see a rough line - that's a tractor tire mark left when I planted the field a couple of years ago.  As the water flowed over it filled and leveled that tire track with this sand/silt combination, and effectively made my field smoother and taller.  I found deposits of the same sand and silt all over the field.  I'm going to guess that I received between 1/8 and 1/4" of this material across 40 acres that got covered.  

With a good soil cover I actually gain soil depth in a flood.  Who would have thought?  

Monday, November 16, 2015

it's flood seaon. Now for round 2

I've been watching the weather and we have another flood event forcast.  the last flood event was forcast originally as peaking around 12', but eventually ended up peaking at 14.72 feet, about 8" below the all-time record flood ever record.  that's pretty high.  It was the 7th deepest flood in the 80 or so years of records for this river.  That's a pretty big flood.

This coming up, the forecast graph is pictured above, is starting a lot bigger; it's forcast to be 14', and given that we exceeded our last forcast, there's some chance that it'll be bigger.

I think that it will be.  Here's why:

On the 12th the snow level dropped to 1500 or so feet; and the rain that's been coming down has been falling as snow in higher elevations (I'm at about 80' above sea level I think).  But the next storm forcast will bring in as much rain as the first storm - and the snow level will rise to an estimated 7,000' -- which means that all of the accumulated snow will be hit with a warm ran, and it's all going to come come the valleys pretty quickly.

Add to that the fact that the ground is absolutely saturated - some of the last rain soaked in and didn't make it to the river.  This one, and all that melted snow, will if the forecasts are accurate.

And they're forecasting 50 to 70mph winds.  Soaked ground and high winds mean trees are going down this time.

So a check of the house generator, put aside 10 gallons of fresh gasoline and extra chains for the chainsaw, and make sure that all of the animals are accounted for.  

video: Piglet interventions

Had a sow that was having trouble giving birth this afternoon; had 4 piglets live, and 4 stillborn, and was showing signs of distress.  A farrowing crate is good for these situations because you can make sure that the sow can be observed and treated if it's needed; most animals, given a choice, if they are feeling bad, will seek someplace isolated, and that could mean we'd lose the sow and her litter.

I make sure that she had food and water, although when a sow gives birth (farrows) she usually doesn't want to eat or drink for about 24 hours, and then went about doing other chores for a couple of hours, and came back to check on her.  She had delivered another stillborn piglet, and in examining her she had a piglet head that had emerged, but the pig was stuck.  A quick trip to the house for a bucket of warm soapy water, and a good scrub of my hands and a careful finger and I had the piglet out.  Unfortunately it was deceased; probably had its neck constricted, and the sow uttered a visible sigh of relief when I slid it out.  Relaxed immediately.

She's one of the oldest sows I have, and has always been great as a mother; and I'm sorry to see the stillbirths.  It happens with older animals, and I do try a round of vaccinations for illnesses that cause stillbirths but it's likely that she'll be culled after weaning this litter.

Each one of the four live had been put aside in a small warming pen, with a light and a heat pad while I figured out how to get mom to relax, and I carefully scooped each piglet up (and they scream like you're murdering them until you put them down!) and was gratified to see each one find a nipple and latch on.

  This first suckling is very important.  I waited a half hour, listening to the sow sing to her piglets; the deep gutteral grunting that a sow nursing makes, and watched her piglets vigorously push themselves into her stomach, and listened to the rain outside the barn.

There's a fair chance that she has another flight of piglets inside her - pigs give birth in two stages, one side of their reproductive tract, and then the other, usually seperated by a 30 minutes to an hour.  So I'll check on her in an hour or two to see if she's delivered the placenta, or possibly the placenta and another group of piglets.

I position the heat lamp so that it shines on the heat pad, put my hand on the heat pad to make sure that it's on, and warm, and feel the heat of the lamp on the top of my hand too.  Everything looks cosy for the little pigs.

piglets from bruce king   the four piglets I'm writing about in this entry

I walk around to the front of the crate and talk to the sow a little.  She opens her eyes a little,  lost in the nursing state.  she'll stay nearly absolutely still for the next 24 hours.  I scratch her ears and she grunts a little.

Livestock farming is hands-on.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Yep, we got a BIG flood

River level has exceeded forcast.   Flood photos at bottom of this post

Here's the forecast:
 The forecasts are usually a little conservative - they forecast what is probably their worst-cast likely flood.  So in the past the flood hasn't reached the forcast level.

This time not only did t he flood reach the level, it exceeded it, and they upped their forecast.  The river bank at my farm is right at 13 feet, so I've got water flowing into my fields right now.  at 14.5 feet, which is what is forecast now, we'll be on the news if it's a slow news day.
the new river that is flowing behind the neighbors house

turning around, where that water is coming from

standing with my back to the river, pointing at my farm.  big barn on left

i'm going to guess than about 50% of my fields are covered in 6" to 2' of water.

No issues with the farm; equipment and animals all safely tucked away in the barns.


River is now at 14.72 feet, which is a pretty big flood.  The all-time record high for the river was 15.6, so we're not at record levels, but we're less than 12" from them.  At 14.72 we're probably going to see the highway closed and major bank erosion where the river wants to move.  

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Living next to a river...

There's a USGS river gauge located about 200 yards from my property, and having it that close means that I can pretty much consider it to be my personal river level indicator -- pretty handy.  

I've been learning that the forecasts tend to be a little conservative - that is, even though the current forecast (the picture above) says that we'll have flooding, the actual river level isn't usually that high.  I can't blame the USGS for that - they'd get a lot of grief if it did flood when they didn't forecast it.  

But it's a reminder to make sure that all of the cows are in the barn tonight, that the equipment is parked on higher ground, and that the car is safely tucked into the carport, which is build above the flood level.  

the gauage level in this picture is the actual depth -- if it says it's 3' now, and 13' later, the river actually does go up the whole 10'; it's this regions version of a flash flood.  the water rises dramatically and then drops about as fast.  

Every year two or three fishermen or rafters drown on the river; when it gets above about 10' on the gauge, the speed increases dramatically, and there's usually a fair bit of debris -- mostly trees and stumps - that flow down the river.  

My old farm was completely in the flood plain, and I have to say that I'm liking this a lot better.  Just move stuff a few feet, and sit and watch nature rage.