Wednesday, June 24, 2015

2nd cutting of hay in progress...

 This is turning out to be a good year for hay - I got my first cutting on May 21st, and we're on time for a second cutting on June 23.  The weather has been warmer and drier than usual, and that's retarded the growth of the hay somewhat, but I'll break out the irrigation equipment after this cutting and give the fields a good drink.

We got 1286 bales from the first cutting; roughly 38.5 tons of hay, this cutting will produce a smaller amount, but will probably be higher-quality.  I'm going to guess roughly 900 bales, which will go nicely towards the goal of 4,000 bales;  If I can get this into the barn without mishap we'll be over 50% towards the goal, which is a good place to be in June.  

I'm hoping for one more cutting at the end of july, and then a final cutting at the end of august or first week or two of september; roughly 30 days growth between them.  Watering from the manure lagoon will help bulk up the production, so I'm hoping for roughly 1100 bales from each of the final two cuttings to make my overall goal.

I use this hay both as food for the cows and bedding for the pigs.  There's a fairly good chance that I'll be baling corn stalks after combining it and using those for pig bedding.  I'm not taking the nutrients in the stalk off the farm; I'm just borriowing it from the field for the winter; I'll put it all back with added manure in the summer, to make the net nutrient transfer positive to the fields.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

grrr.. things are eating my corn!

I'm pretty clear that I can grow delicious food; I just don't really like it when the animals in the area figure that out, too!  I was checking on the grain corn experiment and I started noticing gaps in the rows of corn.  

There were two sorts of gaps - one is a plant or two missing from an otherwise-good row.  Digging around in the dirt where the plant should have been showed me that the field mice or moles had been making tunnels through the row of corn at that point, and I guess they think that a young corn plant is delicious.  this wasn't too bad; maybe 50 to 75 plants per acre.  Not thrilled about it, but what can you do?  

The other type of damage was both bigger, and odder.  Holes in the corn, roughly 8' in diameter, roughly circular.  There were something that could be called tracks in the area, but the dirt is so dry that I couldn't be sure.  Inside the circle I found dead corn plants, apparently pulled out by the roots.  

the plants are whole, and pretty close to the row they were planted in. 
 I don't think this was a deer or other herbivore because the corn plants would have been eaten, not just pulled out of the ground.  Some of the plants were missing the root portion, but I'm not clear if it got eaten, or if the plant pulled apart at ground level when it was uprooted.
incrimating black feather next to uprooted corn plant
 There are two suspects for this damage; one are the ravens and crows that are in the area.  they will often be seen out in the field, and I'm wondering if they're plucking the young corn plants out of the ground to get whatever is left of the seed, or maybe to eat teh roots.  there are some feathers in the area of dead corn.

The second is coyotes.  this is the time of year that coyote pups start venturing out, and a couple of dogs playing and wrestling in an area would cause this sort of damage as well.  The indistinct tracks might be coyote tracks, but what was definite was the scat that contained cherry pits.  Coyotes love cherries and will eat them given any opportunity.

Both of the suspects are there.  I'm pretty much resigned to just absorbing the damage for now.  I'm going to guess than I've lost 2 to 3 thousand plants (out of about a half-million planted) so on the grand scale of things its annoying, but not worth breaking out the rifle for.
click on the picture for a bigger version

Saturday, June 13, 2015

So I bought a combine...

Last year I grew a batch of silage corn, which I harvested and chopped and ensiled and after fermentation, offered to my cows and pigs.  the pigs were fine with it, and carefully sort through and find all the corn kernels, but the cows really didn't take to it.  I could solve this problem by going to TMR (Total Mixed Ration), which takes all of the types of feed and mixes it up so that the cows can't select what they prefer, but in all honesty, I'd much prefer to offer a balanced diet to the cows that they prefer, too.  So I'm doing a little silage corn this year, maybe 5 acres of it, but the majority of the corn that I'm planting I'm hoping to harvest as grain corn.

 But to efficiently harvest any sort of grain there's really no choice other than a combine.  So a combine it is.   This combine showed up on the auction of a local farm a couple of weeks ago; and it's actually a pretty darned big machine.  My nephew is in the picture for scale, below.  he's 6'1.   The basic combine is 12' wide and about 30' long, and 14' tall.
Prior to the auction I talked to the owner of the farm being auctioned, and did my research; these machines sell for between $6k and $22k, depending on area of the country, and who's selling it.  Some come with headers for grain or corn or soybeans, some don't.

The farmer had been using it to combine wheat and barley and had been raking and baling the straw from the wheat as animal bedding.  The machine started and ran, moved back and forth, and all of the parts spun and shook.  the front tires are worn, the rear tires are brand-new.  It's got dings and wear spots here and there, but appeared to have no oil leaks, and all of the lift cylinders were tight.

On the side of the combine the name of the previous owner, prior to the auction farm, and i called them and asked about this combine; it had been used to pick up high-value seed; spinach and kale and chard and grass seed; owner #1 said that the machine worked, and that he just didn't have enough work for it to justify keeping it, so sold it to owner #2 for his use.

I looked on the net and found this model of combine being sold with both corn and wheat headers, so I figured that it could probably do both with the appropriate headers, and when the auction came I made the first bid at $1,000, and there was only one other bidder.  $3,000 and it was sold.

So I did what I always do when buying old equipment; I grabbed the owners manual and bought $300 worth of the fluids that this combine used; hydraulic oil and diesel and engine oil and grease, and spent 2 hours going over it making sure all fluids were topped off and everything was greased and that the running gear operated.  It did start and run, the engine sounded good; it had oil, but was a little low...

So then I looked up the law on driving huge implements down the road and found a helpful brochure from the washington state patrol , which said that if the implement was less than 12'6" wide I didn't need to have a chase car or lead car, but I did have to have signs that said "oversized load" on the front and rear of the implement, and that I needed red flags at the widest points.

So I purchased a couple of oversized load signs, and two red flags, and I was all set to have my own parade!
Some of them waved!
It has a max speed of about 15mph, and it steers by the rear wheels so it has a very sharp turn.  It's huge; it weighs about 21,000lbs.  It it a LOT bigger than a car.  It was a 6 hour drive, which I thought was going to be a little boring, but it was actually edge-of-the-seat driving for most of the time.

No mishaps, got it home and into the barn.  Now to start going through it to see what works and what doesn't, and to set it up for combining grain corn.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Growing your own feed: why bother?

Bill Gauch posted a comnent that I think is great, and bears a little expansion:  

"I'm interested to see this from your PNW perspective. Here in New England, I've always read that it's pointless to grow your own hay and your own corn. The savings after the cost (labor, land, seed) to grow far exceeds what you could make as profit growing alternate crops and buying feed."

"its pointless to grow your own hay or corn" - there's two parts to that.  

 First, I'm never, ever going to be able to produce the corn more cheaply than the guys in the midwest.  Their economies of scale, much larger equipment, established subsidy system and infrastructure for moving corn around is unbeatable.  We produce corn in the midwest with the most efficient production possible on this planet.  And I'm not kidding.  American corn production is amaizing :)  

  But that speaks to the cost to the farmer for producing the corn; that's not at all the price that I end up buying that same corn for here.  

The corn I get here in Washington may come from the midwest, but it passes from the farmer to the grain elevator to the railroad and then to a broker or commodity speculator and finally gets here to the local feed mill, and then to me.  Every step of the way there's a markup.  So what the farmer produces for $3 and sells for $6 in iowa ends up being $12 to $14 here in sacks at the feed store, or $380/ton in bulk feed (=$10.50 for a 50lb unit)

 I don't have to compete with the guys in iowa at $3 - if I were to try to sell my corn on the commodity market that's what I'd have to do, and I'd go broke trying that.  What I do have to compete with is the local retail price here of $12 -- and that gives me a lot more room to play.  at $12 a bushel and 150 bushels/acre I'm harvesting $1800/acre worth of corn, at retail per acre.  And that's with a low-yield, short-season corn.  150 bushel corn is nothing special; high-yielding varities are over 200 bushels.  Bushel of corn is 56lbs, btw.    I chose this type of corn based on it being a 90 day corn; I want it to mature early, and have the most time possible to dry-down before harvest.  September and october are usually fairly dry months here.  

Now corn prices this year will likely be lower; the farmer press is sure of it.  But even if corn goes to $4 a bushel (30% reduction in price) or $3/bushel (cost of production, 50% price drop) that often doesn't result in a 30 to 50% price drop at retail; those guys still want their cut, and as much as they can.  So the price I'm competing against is insulated from market prices - which means that I still have quite a bit of margin before I lose money raising corn.  

And Bill, you're right.  To buy corn from the midwest with farm revenue I'd have to grow and sell something else, and probably  sell at wholesale, and then use those wholesale dollars to buy at retail.  I'd like to step off that path and try something different.  

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Growing your own feed

One of the ideas that I had in my early farming dreams was raising the feed for my animals on my own ground.  In industry they call it vertical integration.  Not a new idea by any stretch, but one that seems to be particularly attractive to farmers.  

The livestock that I have is primarily pigs, but I'm transitioning to cows and I expect I'll have more pounds of cows (animal units of cows) by 2017... but pigs and cows eat different things, so to pursue the dream of producing my own feed I have to go two different directions.  

The last of the corn going in.  If you look carefully in the distance you'll see the tractor
 For forage production, and I'm talking about hay and alfalfa here, the basic strategy is to provide enough grazing space that during the growing season the animals can feed themselves, and to have enough non or minimally grazed space so that you can put away enough hay to feed the animals through the winter.  right now that looks like 1 acre per cow for grazing, and one acre for haying.   So for 25 cows, which is where I'm at now, I need about 50 acres of forage crops.

I call them crops because they're planted; you use a different device to get the crop in, but it takes some time and effort to do it right.   One established there's the time and effort to bring the crop into the barn, and even the grazed areas need some care and attention.  Mowing, to keep the weeds from developing seedheads, observation to avoid bare spots (and replant any that appear) and moving the cows from place to place to make sure that the pasture gets rest periods for regrowth.
only two more rows to go
This is my third year of raising corn, and I'm getting better at it.  I spent 30 hours of wrench-time to get the john deere 7000 4-row planter into perfect shape this year; purchased new seed meters, replaced a couple of opening disks and went over it carefully and replaced all of the nuts and bolts that were worn or stripped, and greased the whole thing prior to planting.  The result of it is that it worked perfectly, and I have to admit some satisfaction when somehting just works without a hitch.   Well, the hitch was the 30 hours of labor, but this year it was at a time and place of my choosing, which beats the heck out of having it happen in the middle of a field or in the middle of a planting.  I'm learning to schedule my "emergencies", and I'm learning not to put off maintenance; or at the very least, to make a list of things so that I can do it during non-peak seasons.

the 20 or so acres of corn I've put in this year in theory will produce 87 or so tons of corn at the end of the season -- not silage, but the grain corn itself.  That's calculated to be enough to feed the pigs through an entire year with the carbohydrate portion of their diet.   So far so good.  I'm hoping that I can get it in, and store it, in good enough shape that I can substantially reduce my feed order starting this fall.

With the forage I'm about 33% done with that already.  I'll take another hay cutting around june 20th, weather permitting, and if that works out that'll put me well over 50% on the forage side.

So it's a little like managing two different projects.  

Pictures taken where the orange, yellow and red lines intersect, facing north towards the river

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Soil tests - "improving the soil"

One thing that just about every farmer claims to want to do is to improve the health of the soil.  I'm going to post the soil tests I ran this year, and I'll come back to them about this time next year with a new set of soil tests.  

This isn't really for the blog; it's more a diary entry so that I can easily find these reports and compare them.  But you're welcome to look at the soil tests if you're curious, and i've written some commentary about each field to provide a little context.  

When I do a soil test I tell the company what I want to do with the land in the coming year; so these tests reflect what they suggest I change/add from where the field is now to something that might work better for what I'm after this year.   the red circles are the primary things that I need to add.  You'll notice quite a bit of variation in the field needs.  

Existing alfalfa field
The report above is a stand of alfalfa that I seeded last year; i got 4 cuttings off it it, and the forage tested well.  This field has been planted with conventional corn for the 3 years prior to my purchase of the property, prior to that was used as pasture for a dairy.  The test came back reccomending quite a bit of amendment, which surprised me; it did pretty well, but apparently could do a lot better.  So I ordered half the amount of fertilizer, and I'll fertilize half the field, and leave half about what it is, and see what the difference is in yield and forage.  

the 2014 silage corn field
The report above is the field is where I produced the silage corn we chopped last year.  it only requires a little bit of sulfur input, everything else looks good, which is a relief.  This has been seeded with alfalfa and we'll get a first cutting off of it sometime in july probably .  

The bottom half of this years corn field
 The report above is new acreage that I'm farming owned by a neighbor.  it's been used as a hay field for at least 10 years, and has never been tested to my knowlege or fertilized.  So it's had a lot taken off of it, but nothing put back in.  It did have some grass on it, but was more than 50% weeds.  Limed it and planted corn there with fertilizer applied by corn planter.  .

This is the field I wrote about earlier, "worst field"
 managed as a hay field for at least 10 years, never tested, no fertilizer.  Limed it and planted corn with fertlizer applied during corn planting.

This years squash field; pumpkins and acorn squash
The field above was an area that I planted with pig forage (grass, alfalfa, tillage radishes) but I wasn't happy with it, so I tilled and am replanting with squash for this growing season.  At the end of the growing season I'll probably put in winter wheat or barley or other small-grain.  

Using chickens and turkeys: Grapes and weeds

I put in some grapes not too long ago, and what a difference 60 days makes.  Here's what it looked like when I planted it:
First week of april, all of the bare-root vines in, trellis constructed
The bane of every farmer is the weeds, and the growth here sure does make me like black plastic mulch!  It kept the growth on all sides of the young grape vines down to a dull roar.  I still did have to do a bit of hand-weeding around each vine, but it was pretty easy and quick.
First week of June
 The areas between the rows are covered in a lush, green covering.  Which isn't really as bad as it seems.  when I planted it I planted alfalfa down the center of each row, for two reasons:  Alfalfa actually adds nitrogen to the soil, and crowds out other weeds.  The picture below illustrates that.   I'm not trying to fight things growing on the fertile ground, I'm just choosing some stuff that provides a little better forage than random volunteer weeds.

There are a few weeds that are making a living trying to out-compete the alfalfa, but it's a losing battle.  My plan is to run chicken and turkey tractors up and down between the rows of vines and have the chickens remove everything; and the alfalfa is actually a favorite forage for the chickens, too. High protein, highly digestible.

One reason I can do this sort of thing is that I'm not going to be selling anything from this vinyard for years; modern contracted farming, where I'd be selling to someone, usually forbids the use or presence of animals in the crop area, and if animals are found, sometimes even prescribes a sacrifice area -- so if a deer walks across your lettuce patch  you might lose 20 or more feet on either side.

the same is true for orchard crops; cherries, peaches, nectarines; orchard owners aren't allowed to run their dogs through.

But I won't have any grapes for a few more years yet, so a bit of chicken labor to keep the vinyard weeds down is a welcome bit of help.  Plus tasty eggs.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

William Shatner: "move water to california"; Cliff Mass "move california ag to washington"

Professor cliff mass writes a blog about local weather and other topics that I read now and then, and wrote a message about how instead of moving northwest water to california, we should move california agriculture to washington state.  Here's my long reply to Mr. Mass:

Posted as a comment on his blog post:  

Professor Mass:  I'm a farmer who writes a blog about farming in western washington.  I'm going to give you an answer to your question, but you're probably not going to like it.  

"why not move the agriculture here?"  

Where most of the rainfall is, in western washington, has been actively hostile to agriculture.  Vast tracts of great agricultural land are now buried under shopping centers, airports and thousands of warehouses and housing tracts in king, pierce and snohomish county.  What little land is left is mostly in the flood plain, and vast tracts of that have been removed from agricultural use by misguided "restoration" projects that have the goal of "restoring" the land to some state, that, honestly, seems to be mostly based on fantasy.  Take the snohomish river delta; diked around the turn of the century it's been purchased and flooded to make tidal estuaries with the theory being that this will improve salmon runs but at a cost estimated to be $100,000 per fish.  That's a very expensive fish.  (partnership for puget sound estimates that $533,000,000 has been spent on restoration projects for 22 runs.  One run increased, one decreased, and the rest are unchanged.  For a half-billion dollars spent)

Even if you do find a tract of land that is unused and unpaved, the department of ecology has been enforcing a rule that says that if the land is unused for 5 years and any wetland indicators have emerged during that time that the land is converted to wetland and can no longer be farmed.  

We have chosen to build our houses on farmland for the past 50 years; and arable land is precious and irreplaceable at any reasonable cost.  Building your house on a level pasture makes for a pretty house.  The return on agricultural land is so low that any use other than agriculture is preferred by the local politicians (read:  bigger tax base) and you can see evidence in the conversion of flood-plain farmland in arlington into 'commercial' land recently, despite the opposition of local farmers and diking districts.   

So imagine that you have found a patch of land to farm, and you begin to farm.  While there is quite a bit of local noise about local food, when you actually have to get down to the business of producing that food - cultivating and planting and weeding and fertilizing and harvesting - subdivisions, which border many farms in king and snohomish county - put up opposition to standard, accepted farming practices.  Such as working long hours to fit into narrow weather windows, application of natural fertilizers (manure and manure tea) and the traffic and commotion associated with those activities. 

You probably haven't had the experience of driving agricultural equipment down a rural highway, but I can assure you that not everyone is waving with all their fingers.  :)

Dairy farms are a great fit for our long growing season for grass and our abundant water and good soil, but they have been regulated out of business; required manure lagoons and handling equipment, acreage requirements per cow and land prices that are out of sight for most farmers make this untenable.  

The department of ecology requires anyone trapping rainfall to get a permit, and this even applies to rain barrels.  A farmer who created a resevoir to water crops or livestock would be sued and fined for doing so, even if the water was collected during the part of the year when we have excess.  Drawing water from streams, lakes or other surface water source is forbidden for crops, and limited to 5,000 gallons for livestock.    

I love salmon, and I love the environment, but I don't love the state of washingtons rules related to agriculture, and I see those rules as being the primary impediment to having more food produced closer to our population centers.  These rules are a primary source of friction between eastern and western washington politicians.  

It's not that milk and meat and vegetables aren't being produced and consumed.  it's that we are exporting our mess to other states (like california) and are unwillling to have the production be here.  In essense california is in such deep trouble because we are managing it as our farm, and western washington as our park.  

Everyone eats.  If you don't like how a particular food is produced enough that you don't want it in your state, why should you export that to some other state?  

You can see my operation on my blog at, and if you want to see some of the regulatory crap I've had to put  up with, I suggest the following links to specific pages:  

Snohomish county health department says that feeding fruits and vegetables to pigs is illegal:  

Snohomish county employee writes complaints, and then "enforces" her own complaints, ignoring the same issues on properties on all sides of the farm:

The department of ecology cites me and threatens a $10,000 fine for spreading wood chips on my property, where wood chips form most of the "wetland restoration" work that the DOE does itself:

Ecology staffers show up at my front door and want to inspect my property

three different goverment agencies want to inspect my property without my permission

How many hours a week should I be required to spend to fend off people who are paid by the state?  How many attorney hours should I have to purchase?  As a farmer, it would be simpler to move to a state where agriculture is recognized and supported by the government.  

Many citizens like the idea of local food, and I sell a lot to those folks, and appreciate their business.  I don't think that they, or you, professor Mass, know what goes into those local strawberries, or milk, or meat in addition to the hard work of farming itself.