Friday, March 16, 2018

grazing land

I spent the morning and much of the afternoon tromping across 120 acres of possible rental land coming out of CRP.  I was trying to investigate the possibilities for a cow calf herd being maintained there.The whole experience was difficult in the snow melt and through the volunteer trees and brush, but there are some things to be happy about.  One of these, though, was not when I happened upon the southwest perimeter, a high steep knoll sloping down toward an occasional creek behind me.  We had already told the owner we would rent the land for grazing only, that it was not suitable for row cropping and to do so would be wrong.  Looking down from my perch on the knoll, across the property line, I could see the effect of corn cropping on inappropriate land.  There was a six foot drop off from the perimeter to the tilled corn field and the soil on the corn field was completely yellow in that location.  The topsoil that should have been there, and was there on my side, due to the CRP use, was gone on the other side, run to the bottom and the creek that drains it.  Perhaps five feet deep on the near side to a foot down to the yellow on the far side and a width of seventy five feet and more.  Tons and tons of valuable black soil, gone forever.  As a farmer, I was sick looking at it

This is on us, both us farmers who have forgotten how to be farmers and the politicians who aid and abet our view of ourselves as economic animals only, with no agriCULTURE anywhere to be found.  

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Sunrise at Pastures A Plenty

We made an important change in our farrowing pens to compensate for sow behavior.  As you can see in the top photo, which shows two empty pens, sows are able to come up toward the black gate and visit with each other across our center alley.   This results in manure and urine being deposited too high in the pen and the slope toward the gutter-on the near side of the photos, but not visible-causes the entire pen, bedding and all to be constantly wet.  We found we needed to blind the pen so that the sow could not see the animals across the center alley, but would need to stand down in the gutter end of the pen in order to visit through the fence.  (This grate in the pen partition is partially visible in the lower photo) 
The materials used for blinding the pen were medium weight sheet steel welded on to the pipes of the pig creep gate and primed and painted.  We invested perhaps three hundred dollars plus time spent to make this changeover on all of our thirty strawed pens.
You will notice that the sow in the lower picture has given up on seeing her mate across the center alley and is concentrating her attention on the animals next to her.  To encourage this behavior, we do all our feeding from the outside alley, on the floor, as well as cleaning the pen, which of course must happen there.  We do distribute bedding from the center.
It is important to add that this is a good layout for farrowing as well, for the sow at farrowing wants to back into a cave like surrounding so that she may birth her pigs while keeping a watchful eye on the open area from which danger might approach, which is us, in this case, from her instinctive point of view.  That deposits her piglets up into the warm well strawed area.  This kind of understanding of pig behavior is important in layout of any new farrowing construction.  It is easier not to fight Mother Nature. 

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.