Friday, December 1, 2017

Using bedding

The use of straw or other carbon rich material such as corn stover has always been important to the way we farm here at Pastures A Plenty. Hogs, which are our main livestock business, have an ongoing need to seek and find, to play and manipulate their environment Straw or corn stalks is just what is needed to enrich the environment for them. Hog satisfaction makes for good thrifty production.
We also recognized early on that bedding mixed with the manure did much to modify the smell that accompanies livestock production. Carbon ties up and stabilizes the nitrogen compounds. It is an important adjustment we make to enable us to live with our work, which is critical when the work is more about animals than machines. This is an important principle of any practice of animal husbandry. Close association enables the respect between animal and human that fosters humane values in agriculture. Without it, farming fails into being just another industry. We on the farm can plan a picnic or barbecue at any time without fear that smells and commotion will ruin the event. Since we live right here, we can notice anything out of the ordinary that indicates something wrong with the pigs.

Note the pictures. You can see two phases of our manure handling. First, pretty much all of the residue from our corn crop is baled for bedding in big round bales. We use about 350 of these every year. This project can be a bit nerve wracking as a wet fall makes it difficult to get dry bedding. These bales are hauled to the livestock area and stacked for easy access during the coming winter. Generally six to seven of the bales are used every week for all phases of the hog production cycle, from mama sows to older growing animals. We add bedding regularly right on top the manure and soiled bedding, thus keeping the area clean. We clean the areas less frequently, depending on the particular facility and when we do, old trucks and trailers are used to haul the material to the field where it will be used and stockpile it. This helps us match manure application with crop needs and windows of opportunity to apply. And it allows the manure to compost.
Using hog manure as a solid material prevents us from the over application and runoff into creeks and rivers that is a concern with liquid or slurry manure systems. And the bedding helps make the product into something that the soil seems to recognize. The fact that the feces and urine is already mixed with carbon material that came from the field and has been composting and changing in that form essentially starts the process of incorporating the fertility into the field even before it is spread, we think. Now with the concerns about climate change, we need to know more about how these things work. Does this system return more carbon safely to the soil instead of burning it into the atmosphere? What is the effect of this kind of manure handling on the amount of methane production? We already are studying soil life for clues about how a healthy population of everything that belongs in the soil helps stabilize the climate. But we know less than we need to about the usefulness of manure handled as a solid material simply because the Universities and industry have assumed liquid and slurry systems to be the future and have neglected research in this important area. All this is changing fast, making our business and way of life pretty exciting.

Monday, August 28, 2017


As our markets led us into the need for year around production of pigs, we knew we needed a central farrowing house to supplement or replace our pasture production practice which restricted us to fall and spring production only.  And we needed to solve the problem of keeping the mother sow comfortable with her piglets in the heat of summer if we were going to farrow in summer.  Farrowing in crates, which strictly control the movement of the sow, are distasteful to us as they frustrate natural behavior.  We knew we would use strawed pens in our new building.

We decided on a geothermal application.  See the pictures for the below floor layout of the water pipes.  This is a very simple version which cycles water through deep underground pipes, cooling it to sixty degrees in summer.  This tempered water then is pumped through the underfloor pipes shown which cools a portion of the floor to around seventy degrees, well within a pig's comfort zone.

We are happy with the results. So are the mama sows.  If they are comfortable, they will lie quietly for most of the day and their piglets thrive.  Installing the floor and underground work was quite an expense, but it is important to us to try to solve production problems by working with the animals instead of exerting excessive control over them.  

Friday, August 4, 2017

Brood sows

Most of the hog industry feeds gestating sows by computer, either in the context of groups, or tight individual confinement.  Here at Pastures A Plenty our approach to the sows follows our mission statement-". . .careful and humane".  Oh we use computers.  We just do not allow them to come between us and our animals.  When that human-animal connection is broken, and its elements handed over to electronics, the conditions ripen for abuse of both animals and humans.  Animal husbandry is critical to us.

We feed the grain or high energy part of the ration, which must be restricted for the sow's good health, in individual feeding stalls by means of a wheelbarrow and feed scoop.  This puts us humans in close contact with the herd, where we can see, smell and hear the good health of the animals, as well as detect any oncoming problems early.  Sows are confined in the stalls shown for about a half hour in the morning, sufficient time for the slow eaters to finish.  In this way they do not savage each other fighting over the feed.  They are then turned back to live in a group and lounge around in the straw with their mates the rest of the day.

All pigs have an inbuilt need to "seek and find" their feed.  In the forest, they spend most of their lives doing this.  We try to provide this opportunity for them by maintaining a good supply of fresh forage feed for them free choice.  We had a neighbor make these hay feeders especially for use with sows, and they serve as an occupation for the sows and also to push the sow herd more toward thriving on perennial plants, the production of which is a good way for farms to fight climate change.

We pasture the sow herd with the cattle whenever possible.  This has been difficult the last several years because of overly wet conditions in the pastures. 

Monday, July 24, 2017


It is a farmer thing.  On the seventh of July, we hooked up the haybine and went to cut hay.  One round made and nearly ninety acres to go, we were broke down.  This was the death knell for the old haybine as we had agreed to no more significant spending on it when we looked at the loose gears in the gear box this spring and hoped for one more season out of it.  It appeared the main shaft underneath had snapped as only half the knives turned.  It was done.  We pulled out the standby, the fourteen foot swather, greased and fueled it and headed for the field.  Two hours later, we were back on the yard, the splines on the end of the main driveshaft of the sickle were completely rounded out.  It was Saturday afternoon.  Everything was shut.  We spent the evening disassembling the machine, and Monday morning headed with it to the machine shop.  After a two day wait in line there, they called and said they couldn't cut the splines in a replacement shaft.  We started looking for a replacement hay machine. 

We called John Deere.  They wanted eight hundred for a replacement shaft and nearly three hundred for the connector, which was also shot.  We thought this was more than the machine was worth and said no.

We told the machine shop to grind the end down, bush it and put a bolt in, hoping that would hold for one hay cutting.  By the time they got it done, it was Friday, a week after the start and still no hay down. We reassembled on Saturday and started cutting the oats which we were taking for hay.  Meanwhile, a cutter bar to replace the haybine had been found but couldn't be brought home until Tuesday.  We immediately put it to work then and finished  cutting all ninety acres by the weekend.

It rained.  The following days were highly humid and the only thing we could do was to bale the oats, which we were going to wrap anyway.  It was forty percent moisture and the hay was no drier.  It was Thursday now, nearly two weeks after the start.  Each day was more humid than the last.  It rained again, just a light shower.  Sunday, we moved on the hay.  Today, we finished it up, close to two and a half weeks after starting. Why do we do it?

The hay is a perennial, so it is good for the soil.  It is necessary for the cattle and also to clean up weed problems and fix nitrogen to make our organic crop rotation work.  We also feed it to the sows, which they find pretty satisfying, causing them to quit chewing on the barn for awhile.

We spent most of July, a lot of frustration and way too much money making one of three crops of hay.  So why do we do it really?  We are farmers and it is what we do.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017


Farrowing, the agricultural term for the birthing of the female’s litter of piglets tends to be a demonstration of a farmer’s approach to livestock production as a whole. Here at Pastures A Plenty, we place the farrowing sow at central position and try to surround her with an environment that will result in good production by making it more possible for her to birth her piglets as she instinctively wants to do. We provide a roomy pen of about sixty five square feet, compared to the industry standard thirty five. The sow is able to move freely to turn and lie down as she wishes, having the use of all the area except that reserved for the piglets to creep into soon after birth. Each sow thus has free use of fifty five square feet in our barn, where she gets only fourteen square feet (2’ X 7’) in the conventional system, not enough space to turn around.
Now the pen is bedded with chopped straw, because the sow wants to manipulate and push material around to make a nest to farrow her pigs into. She can get quite oblivious to her surroundings while she busies herself with this job, even to the point of ignoring us as we observe. This process may take from an hour to a day to complete, depending upon the individual personality of the sow. When she finally has the pile of straw pushed and manipulated to her satisfaction, she will push her nose through the center of it to make a channel ending by lying on her side and beginning the labor process. Human commotion and interference must be kept to a minimum during this process.
After farrowing, care is taken to make sure the piglets have found the creep area and heat source there. Piglets need a higher temperature for comfort than does the sow and will huddle close to her udder by instinct. If we can tempt them into just a bit of separation, it makes it easier for the sow to get up for feed and water without damaging the babies. This nursing or lactating phase is continued on our farm until about five or six weeks, longer than the conventional practice, which is more like ten to fifteen days. We think that important strengths, such as disease antibodies are passed to the piglets by this practice. We also think both sow and piglets want this longer period together.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Getting it done

Saturday July 15th was our solar field day.  We were host to forty or fifty people, friends, solar installers, agency people and others with an interest in our new array of solar panels, which so far have performed admirably, producing enough electricity to operate our two large walk in freezers and a variety of office equipment with a bit of power over to sell to the grid.  Very satisfying.

This week Josh and Cindy are in Ames, Iowa for a week long class and seminar featuring a master German sausage maker.  This is the second such class.  We expect good results for our business and you should expect good things for your taste buds!

And the rest of us are here on the farm, taking care of customers, scheduling meat and filling orders, raking and baling hay and helping the livestock through the 100 degree  heat index days.  Cooler weather and slower times ahead, we hope!

Saturday, June 17, 2017


     Cattle will eat Canadian thistle.   Even cattle that have not been trained for it.  I have been discovering this by accident as I concentrate the herd in early June to graze the grass that has gone reproductive.  They will take the blossom off, plus a few leaves below the top as they get more restricted in what is available.  I have not seen thistle feed analyses but I suspect it is pretty good stuff as the plant is taprooted, thus pulling nutrients up from deep in the profile.  I would prefer alfalfa or sweet clover for that task, of course, but you work with what you have.

       The thistle come in wherever the cattle have congregated, especially under wet and muddy conditions.  It is a first colonizer in earth's ongoing battle to heal itself.  But I notice that pasture slowly takes the area back, the sward pulls the compaction out as the thistles are controlled.  This is different from what happens in the cropping areas, where compaction from early wetness, excessive wetness in our case this year, must be broken up with the tillage equipment, often making it into hard chunks which will not allow the seeds to sprout without a regular rain, and sometimes not even then.  Another winter seems to be the only cure.  Much of the problem here is that the cropping is annual.  Pastures are perennial plants largely.  I think the earth regards annuals as nothing more than emergency or interim plants, and that is why it is difficult indeed to maintain and improve soil health using annuals alone.