Thursday, September 24, 2015

Corn looks better than expected, esp compared to neighbors corn

This is a corn geek sort of entry; I'm looking at my year-end corn results and comparing them to a neighbors corn crop.  

 A week later and the corn is showing dents and ripening nicely.   Using a corn yield estimator I'm getting an estimated yeild of 236 bushels per acre, which is considerably higher than the promoted yield of 150 bushels per acre.  

Most stalks have 2 ears, some have 3 ears.  average 2.3 ears per corn stalk
the top ear is one of mine, the bottom is the neighbors corn that's about 2 weeks ahead of mine
The yield numbers seem very high; that's 6.5 tons of grain corn per acre; if the estimators right I'm going to end up with a lot more corn than I thought I would -- I was aiming for 80 tons, now it looks like I'm going to get something closer to 130 tons.  That is a lot of corn.  My biggest bins are only 15 tons each, so if it does come in anywhere close to the estimate I'm going to have to find a place to store 100 tons of corn.  That's actually a problem I'm hoping that I have.

(if you want to run your own estimator math, I'm using 30" rows, 8" between the plants, and an average of 40 harvestable ears per 1/1000 of a row or 40 ears per 17'5")
Neighbors corn

The neighbors corn was planted for use as silage to feed dairy cows, and it's a different corn than what I planted.  It has one ear per corn stalk, and the ears are smaller.  My ears have 41 kernels average length, with 14 kernels average diameter.  The neighbors ears have 32 length and 11 diameter, but the biggest difference is that my corn has multiple ears per stalk and his only one ear per bushel -- using the same corn estimator, I'm getting 200+ bushels per acre and he's getting 80.

The field that the neighbor is using has been continuous corn for at least the 3 years I've been watching; this is the first year of corn for mine, and that may explain the yield difference too.

Saturday I'll be hooking the corn head up to the combine and getting everything greased and ready to go.  We're probably at least weeks if not a month from combining it, but if there's any wrinkles I'd like to get them worked out now.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The cornwatch

 I look at the corn every few days; grab an ear from each of the three fields and look to see how they're progressing.  The little bit of unpollinated corn at the very tip tells me that I've got my population a little too low -- I probably could have planted a little closer together, but overall the corn looks good.  The three fields are similar; the one on the left is the top field, the right is the bottom field.  The middle field is the largest of the three.
 I'm looking for a milk line in the kernels to measure the progress towards being ripe.  The milk line is present in these kernels; you can see it as a whiter area of each corn kernel.  that line will progress until the whole kernel is the same color, and then as the kernel dries it'll form a little dent in the end, hence the common term for this sort of corn:  dent corn.
 Having looked at the cobs, I toss them to a waiting pig; the pigs like it a little bit sweet, so a little milky and unripe is just what they like the best.  this pig stands on it to make it easier to bite the kernels off, and is oinking with pleasure when she does this.  They also eat the green husk leaves.  A little salad with the main course.
Most of the corn plants have 2 ears on them; some have 3.   This is the first time I've grown commercial quanties of corn, so it's a little nerve racking for me; lots of things can still go wrong.

It's pumpkin season again at the farm

Pumpkin eatin' pig
We get 2,000lb totes of pureed pumpkin at this time of year.  Each of these totes makes about 12,000 pumpkin pies, and it seems like every year something goes wrong; one year a forklift driver drove their forks through the sides of one, and spilled pumpkin all over the whole stack.  So we got the whole stack.

With this one the truck driver delivering it didn't keep it at the right temperature and it got rejected by the bakery, so we got the call, and the boar in the picture above had a great time plunging his face into the pumpkin puree.

Happy thanksgiving, pigs!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Old school haying

Working on my fourth cutting of hay today, and the bailer broke after 500 bales or so.    It's the end of the season, and most of the tractor dealers have spare capacity in their service departments, so it's not the worst time to have a breakdown, but I still had 2 acres of raked hay to put up.
It's very nice hay, too.  It's mostly alfalfa with a little orchard grass, and I hate the idea of wasting it.  I'm not going to be able to get the bailer fixed before the rain is forecasted to start.

So I enlisted a little bit of help and a few pitchforks, and off we go for the hay ride.  And ride.  And ride.  I just stacked it loose in the barn; I'll feed it first this winter.    The dogs are having fun rolling in it and sleeping in it.

This is the last hay event I have this year.  It's been a very good year for hay.  Plenty of sun and long stretches that made haying easier than usual.  

It's forecasted to rain in a few hours tonight.   Nothing better than hearing the rain with all of the hay safe in the barn.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

farming talkers and farmers

When I was 22 I went to one of those cult-like self-improvement classes; it involved fervent exercises, sleep deprivation, and exercises.   It was a bit hokey, but there are several things that I learned during the 5 days that stuck with me, and actually made it possible for me to chase my dreams.  

I interviewed a batch of people for a farmhand position, and one woman stood out.  She was working on a local farm, and unfortunately that farm had been bouncing her paychecks, and while she liked the work, she didn't like not being able to pay the bills.  

I asked her a bit about her interest, and she described a goal she and her husband had; that she'd like to run a cow-calf operation, and they'd been thinking about it for a few years.  As I listened to her, I had a flashback to my 22 year old self.  

At 22 I was working for a big company, but I knew I wanted to work for myself, and this seminar basically drove home the point that life is happening now, that this isn't a dress rehearsal, and what was I waiting for?  Set a goal and take steps to achieve it - or drop it as a goal.    After this week-long seminar, literally the next day, I started my first business.  What they said rang true to me.  

So I'm listening to her talk about her dream, and I interrupted her:  "Why don't you do that now?" and I got a whole list of reasons she couldn't farm.  But then the far-away gaze came up and more talk about the goal.  

"What are you doing to achieve your goal?  what steps are you taking now?"  and again, a few more reasons, and the far-away gaze.  She was used to people just... what?  agreeing with this distant dream?  

At 22 I started trimming my dreams to what I was actually looking to achieve; I wrote a "vision" statement that was where I wanted to be in a year, and in 5 years.  

A farmer is someone who takes the idea about farming out of their head and makes it real.  takes a step towards that goal every day, even a small step.  Focus on a goal, and setting goals, and making those goals, are the way to get to big things.  

If there is something that you've told someone you'd like to do, take a minute and think about what stops you from doing that right now.  And then figure out something, anything, you can do to take even a tiny baby step towards that goal.  

If you're at a party and someone talks about skydiving and you find yourself saying "I've always wanted to do that" stop those words from coming out of your mouth and look up a jump school and be out the door the next morning!    

Do you really want to have your headstone say "I wish I would have..."? 

So for this woman I suggest that she find some free land to farm, and to buy a few cows this year, and start growing her herd.  I pointed her in the direction of some land I knew was fallow, and I talked about how I talked to people whos land I was farming.  

I'm not sure she'll ever be a farmer, but she is a farming talker. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

If the price to farmers is too low, what should they do?

Picture source (AP)
 Farmers in the EU have been protesting low prices for milk and pork recently, and doing so by direct protest; placing manure in the streets, dumping milk and hay,  and in these two pictures pelting riot police with straw and then setting it on fire, apparently.
Picture source (Reuters)
We used to do this sort of thing in America, too.

The general public doesn't know much about the price swings that farmers regularly confront - right now the price that farmers get for their corn is less than 50% of what it was a few years ago, for instance - but the price of corn chips hasn't decreased at all, and in fact, I can't recall when I've seen commodity prices going down reflected in any retail prices at all.

But if commodity prices go up there's no waiting.  the price of food goes up instantly.   I look at situations like this in the EU and when I do I see actions that make the situation that the farmers are facing pretty obvious to the public.  I'm sure that if I had a pitched battle between riot police and flaming hay on my street I'd remember it... but our battles in America aren't waged that way, at least not any more.   The price of what you're growing drops 50%?   Too bad; maybe the next guy will have more luck.

(Image source Reuters: Jacky Naegelen) 1,000 tractrors flood paris
Should farmers have a stable income or have the government intercede on commodity prices in your opinion?  Are these guys just crazies, or do they have a point?

Monday, September 7, 2015

3 million gallons of poo

Last week I rented this
It's a long-reach excavator, and it's a special-purpose machine to do the sort of work that I wanted to do.  The last operator of my farm neglected his manure lagoon, and because of that neglect it was basically less than half of the normal capacity.  

This this bad boy is just the thing to reach in and scoop it out.  Basically run it along the top of the lagoon wall all the way around and scoop up the solids.  We're putting the solids into a pile that we'll compost over the next 6 months or so and then spread the compost over the fields as an organic fertilizer.  

the solids aren't really solid; some of it, the sawdust used for bedding, is pretty firm.  But there's a pretty good percentage that is basically pudding, and I spent quite a few hours scooping and swinging, scooping and swinging.  

I wasn't able to get to the center of the lagoon, but I was able to clear the outer 25' of the lagoon all the way around.  So we're at 2/3rds capacity going into fall.  

Next spring I'll take a fire hose out and spray the island I left this year, and then agitate the lagoon and spray the solid/water mixture out.   A year from now we should be at 90% or so of capacity.  

This is a 200-series machine, about 44,000 lbs.  At full extension it'll just barely pick up a full bucket.  But it did the job, and I'm glad to have that off my fall to-do list.  

Once out of the lagoon I'm letting it dry a little, and then i'll use the tractor to move it into one big pile.  It'll keep composting even when the outside temperature goes below 40; stirred once a month, it'll maintain an internal temperature well above 100 all winter.  

Friday, September 4, 2015

storing the harvest: canning season!

This is the time of year that lots of great stuff becomes available for relatively low cost; tree fruits like peaches and nectarines, apricots.  Tomatoes and peppers, fresh wild salmon and seasonal beef (because grass-fed beef is best in the late summer when the cow has been out on lush pastures all summer... yum!)

 Every year I can about 50lbs of salmon, mostly sockeye, and it's the go-to ingredient for lunches; this year I may find some albacore tuna; they're caught off the coast of washington, and they can very well, too.  Check the link above for the basic info on how to can fish.

We had a couple of cases of nectarines that didn't get eaten fast enough, so I ended up making nectarine jam out of them.  It was delicious and popular, so I'm making 4 gallons of that this year.  I'll can it in half-pint jars, and it'll be gifts for friends and family this holiday season, along with...

I'm extracting and bottling the honey the hives have produced.  This year the bees worked extra hard; I'm getting between 70 and 80lbs of honey per hive, for a total honey harvest of 390lbs - wich works out to 7 five-gallon buckets of honey.   The gift-size honey is half-pint jars, but I think I'll bottle it in larger jars this year for storage.  Honey basically stores forever, and so it's not wasted if it sits for a few years, and there's nothing better than honeybaked or glazed ham, ribs or porkchops.

the tomatoes either get oven-dried or canned as whole tomatoes or tomato sauce.  I've thought about making something like pasta sauce, but it's pretty simple to make later, so I just can the ingredient.
I also put up 3 or 4 gallons of pico de gayo (coarse chopped salsa; peppers, tomatillos, peppers, garlic) and usually do 20 pints of tomato paste.

For quick meals, beef stew is a way to consume the tougher cuts - the canning process tenderizes it, and it's a great way to store things like potatoes, carrots, peas and onions.  The beef we put in a large cast-iron pan, and use a propane torch (a weed burner, actually) to brown and char the outside a little, which makes the stew taste much better.  Wth a weed burner we can brown 5lbs of beef in 3 or 4 minutes.  And then do an assembly line for the rest of  the ingredients; line up quart bottles and put in the veges, meat, salt and then fill with boiling beef broth before pressure canning.

the nice thing about canned food is that they're shelf-stable and easy to eat.  So while they're a bit of trouble to begin with, they're well worth it to me.

One thing though; the processing times for canning are often measured in hours.  So it's best to get the biggest pressure canner you can to allow you to process all of your items at once instead of several batches over many hours.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Growing is risky for a farm

Growing is risky for a farm... actually, it's risky for most businesses, but I'm going talk about a recent situation I've run across.

So imagine you're selling chicks, baby chickens, and business is good, and one of your regular customers comes up and asks you to supply a larger number of chickens than usual, and finished chickens - older, mature chickens.    So instead of selling chicks, you'll be supplying the market-ready birds.  This customer wants a quantity, and the increase in sales would be a nice addition to the overall farm sales.

On the face of it it seems like a no-brainer -- more sales?  Sure!  But think about what this really means.  Lets say that he wants you to produce 20 finished chickens a month, and that chickens take 3 months to get to the weight the customer wants, from hatch.

That means you'll have, at minimum, 60 chickens (3 batches of 20) at various ages.  And when you send one off to market, you'll replace 20, to keep the supply continuous.

So what this customer is really asking you to do is finance their operation, because you'll have money and resources (labor, facilities) tied up with these three batches of chickens.  With pigs and a grow out of 8 months (birth to slaughter) you'd have 160 pigs (8 batches of 20) around.

So to continue with the chicken example, the first thing I'd do is consider that you could sell the chicks at hatch like you normally do -- and so, for a cost basis, it's fair to figure the retail price of your chick as a starting point.  then the amount of feed you'll need to bring it to weight.  Usually it's about 4lbs of feed per pound of chicken, and chickens go to market at 4lbs or so.  So you'll need 16lbs of feed per chicken.  And then you need to figure in the labor and facilities.  Lets say each batch of chicken costs you 10 minutes of labor (70 minutes a week, 280 minutes a month-) and at $15/hour (because who wants to work at minimum wage?) that's about $70/month/batch * 3 months, or $210 in labor costs.

So to summarize it:
Chick cost at $3/each * 20 = $60
labor cost at 70/month = $210
feed cost at .20/lb * 16lbs = 3.20 *20 = $64
Water, bedding, barn repairs...$10 per batch?

So each batch "costs" you $334 = $16.7/chicken

you're going to need to charge $5 or $6/lb to make a profit on these birds, but I'm using this as an example.

Basically you'll need to front the costs for feed, chicks and labor before you get any sales income.  So this customer is really asking you to finance them for 90 days at $334 a batch.  If you did this on your visa card visa would charge you some rate.  lets say 12% (lots of people pay 29% or higher) and that means that the interest on this money could be from $10 to $24, and if you're lending money, well, that's money you should be getting, too.

There are three things you can do to reduce the risk to your farm or business:

1) have the customer pay some portion of your hard costs up front, in the form of a deposit.  if they flake out that helps cover the loss as you scramble to find another market.  In this case I'd consider having the customer pay for the chicks up front, and for the feed costs, so a $124 deposit, at least.

2) Have the customer finance the entire order.  This is harder to ask for, but the risk shifts from your business to theirs, or sometimes you have to do this if you just don't have the capital yourself to make this work.

3) Assume all the risk and finance this yourself.

So in my case, I'm going to go back to the customer with a propose that looks a lot like #1 here - I'm going to propose that they buy the animals and pre-pay the feed costs.  I still have a risk that they won't complete their order, but I have less risk (and less capital need - read: less money I need to borrow or supply myself) than #3.

Anytime you get a larger order, particularly something that will be produced in the future, always consider that there's a cost to growth, and make sure that you understand how much that growth will cost, and where the money will come from.

There are times when it is the prudent thing to decline new sales, or scale them back so that the growth is more gradual - less risky.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Three corn fields and combine notes

The corn was scheduled to be ripe on sept 1st, and based on these samples it's pretty close.  The sample to the left is the top field, and it's the least developed.  the middle field is in the middle, and the lower field is pretty ripe.

Looking at the ears of corn I can see that I've got my nutrition and population about where I want them.  the ears themselves are pretty uniform in size.  I'm going to guess that it'll be a month or so before I harvest them unless we get some hot weather between now and then, and I'll probably lose some to the geese that will be flying by, but with a half-million ears of corn, a couple of thousand lost won't be noticed.

I've chosen a four row corn head for my combine to match my four-row corn planter.  If I had more acres a 6 or 8 row would make the harvest faster, but I'm only combining forty acres, and I had to think about moving the combine around.  With a 4 row I can drive it down the road with the corn head attached; it's 12' wide, about the same as the combine.  with a wider rig I have to transport the head and the combine seperately, and I also have trouble getting around between fields -- I typically need a 16' gate to move through and a lot of fences around here think that a 12' gate is plenty big.

The other reason for a corn head that matches my planting equipment is that the spacing for the rows will be the same; each group of 4 rows will be perfect spacing; if I were to pick a 6 row, the area between groups of four where operator error can make for narrow rows could cause me to lose some corn.  this way everything is the same size, and hopefully it makes the harvest more efficient.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Power out day 4 and counting

Well, if I wondered what I'd do for an extended outage, I have my answer now.  Power went out friday night, this is tuesday afternoon, and no word on when it'll be back on.  4 days and counting with no power.

Biggest problem so far is water; while I do have a generator, it only does 120 volts, and the well pumps are 230v; so I've been having to pull water out of the river to water my 600 critters.  450 gallons of water twice a day.
lots of thirsty critters.  the weaner sale pen right now

 Really makes me think about some sort of gravity powered or wind powered solution -- I daydream about a windmill and a water tank with a gravity feed to the animal troughs.  I even went and looked one up; you can buy a pretty good quality one for about $4k.  Not writing that check now, but if this was a major catastrophe and my power was going to be out for a month or two, I'd sure like to have one.
Dreaming of windmills

Right now I'm using a 12v RV-style water pump with a garden hose to supply water to the drinking nipples that most of the hogs use, and feeding it from a 55 gallon drum.  The rv pump is an on-demand, and I'm running off my set of car batteries that I use for electric fences.  When those run down I'll probably pick a vehicle - a truck or skidsteer or something - and have the engine running to replenish the batteries.  1 of the drinking nipples can service 40 or 50 pigs, and one small rv pump can supply enough flow to keep 8 or 10 nipples going.
sprayer converted to livestock waterer

The second problem is feed; the motors that drive the feed augers are 3 phase 230v; and my generator does single phase.  So to get feed to the critters I'm having to pull it out of the inspection plate at the base of the augure.  With a trowel.  By hand.   I have to say that it's making me weigh the feed to each critter -- so while I'm spending a lot more time on (read: labor costs) I'm probably actually using less feed than normal.

One of my few vices is internet, and I actually do have both a DSL based internet, via phone line, and a sattelite internet via dish, and I've found that I need both.  When my power goes out the DSL line goes out, too.  So having the sattelite allows me internet access (and telephone via voip, and email) and I think it's worth the money to have both.  If I had to choose one I'd probably pick the DSL line -- the sattelite is fast once it gets going, but there's a half-second delay before anything happens just because the data has to travel 44,000 miles before there's any response.  

I actually purchased a whole-house backup generator, propane fired, but hadn't gotten around to hooking it up.  Needless to say that task got bumped on the priority scale.