Friday, November 16, 2012

farrowing house

Our new thirty stall farrowing house is up and waiting on construction of the farrowing pens for us to put it into use. These pens, of course, will be roomy, non-constrictive for the sow and protective of the piglets, and will be bedded with straw. We have, as you know, decided some time ago that farrowing crates, which so completely control the movement of the sow, are not for us. Therefore, we needed to design a pen that would encourage the sow to do on her own what we want her to do, that is, to farrow her piglets in some comfort and to settle in quietly with them for lactation. Much thought has gone into these pens. We will have much more on this in later installments of this writing. Important too is the design of the building, which is very well insulated, with a higher ceiling and natural light via windows for a better atmosphere for both farmer and animals. It also incorporates a passive geothermal system which delivers ground water through pipes buried in the concrete for the purpose of cooling the sow in the heat of summer and keeping her quiet and comfortable. Pipes have also been installed in the piglet area so that we might warm them by use of a thermal solar panel. This is exciting for us. And it is this kind of thinking that will be necessary if agriculture is to move from being a climate problem to a climate solution. Stay tuned. More to follow. Jim

Friday, October 5, 2012


The tomatoes and green peppers as well as the eggplant finally quit for the season last night. When I walked out through the garden to check the cattle this morning of October fifth, the leaves were curled from the frost and the faint smell of green chopped feed was on the air. As I made my way through the cornfield on the field road a rooster pheasant surged up from the side sounding his rusty caw-cackle as he zoomed low over the standing corn, settling in toward the other end of the field. The cattle are putting on weight fast on the fall grasses and they were busy harvesting the last crop of hay where we had them temporarily fenced. In several weeks there will be the cornfields for them to glean, while the sow herd picks through the last of the pasture growth. The drought closed in this year, but we had excellent yields on the oats, what looks like a good corn crop and adequate hay crops. We have much to be thankful for, but the soil is very deeply dried out and we have a bushel full of worries for next year. Something is afoot that it is going to be hard to live with. The upcoming winter is for rest, for planning and finishing the new farrowing building, and for planning and studying a more weather durable approach to our cropping pattern. But if we are alive to the earth, we cannot fail to notice the beauty that surrounds us in this fall season. We do not get to come this way again. Jim

Thursday, August 30, 2012

extreme weather

As the weather gets more extreme, the importance of local observation and response grows. For instance, this late summer we notice a surplus of ragweed volunteering in our pastures. Ragweed, like dandelion in the spring, is a marker weed,indicating bare ground or a sparseness in the grass sward. Possible causes are many. Could it be the dry summer just past, or the wet spring we had? Maybe it was the even wetter spring and summer in 2011, or hoof compaction encouraged by the terribly wet October in 2010, when we pulled the cattle off for a week and fed hay because we were worried about destroying the pasture entirely. Maybe it is the increased sow traffic, as the mother sows have been allowed free range of the pastures on a daily basis this entire year. Maybe we are grazing too long, or coming back too soon in the rotation, trying to get too many grazing passes in a season. Maybe we are just overstocked. Farming is the ability to think clearly about these possibilities and then choose the simplest and most effective solution. Should we reseed, increase fertility with a manure application, better control sow traffic, decrease stocking density, or, most costly install better drainage or irrigate? First we must think! Farming is often underpaid, but never boring. It is also going to be increasingly complex and difficult as the weather gets more erratic. Jim

Sunday, August 12, 2012


Bedding for livestock is an important consideration on a diversified farm, not only because it greatly enhances animal comfort, which it does, but because the use of bedding materials, and the choice of which ones to use, further tie the farm together presenting possibilities for synergy which make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. On our farm, the process starts from two poles. First, we want to bed the animals rather than use liquid manure systems. This is a quality of life issue for the animals for obvious reasons, and for us, the farmers as well, because the carbon in the bedding material ties up the nitrogen compounds in the feces and urine and does an excellent job of controlling odors. We do have people visit us who are surprised to hear that we have hogs, since they often cannot smell them. Second, the decision as to what bedding materials to use both impacts the land and is impacted by it. We must ask what the farm grows easily that can economically be used for bedding. Corn grows well here as you can see from the picture taken in late June, and can be grown in a responsible manner if done right. After harvest there is a considerable residue left that can be baled and brought to the livestock quarters for use as bedding. Though rough and coarse, it is quite absorbent and plentiful, thus providing a good deal of carbon for neutralizing odors, while increasing pig comfort and giving the animals something to play with. We use the cornstalk bales for bedding the older animals in our feeding hoops. They like to tear the bales apart and carry the stalks and cobs around chewing on them. Generally we add a bale or two several times a week to keep their areas fresh. Oats grows well here too, though sometimes in a wet spring, we do have trouble getting it planted on time in April. As you can see, we had a nice stand of oats in late June this year, and it did yield well when we harvested in late July. Oats is an excellent feed ingredient. We blend it in all our feeds, as it tends to modify or tone down the high energy corn in the ration, serving to improve digestion and soothe the stomach. Think of oatmeal. For the baby pigs, it is essential when they are weaned and needing to get their digestion working on foods other than mother's milk. The sows benefit from oats at farrowing because of its tendency to improve milk production and the whole herd benefits from the fiber. Oat straw is a finer fibered bedding material than cornstalks and is excellent in our farrowing quarters because it mats down a little, giving the baby pigs a layer of insulation between them and the floor and a nice soft surface to walk on. The sow, when she arranges her nest as she wants it before farrowing finds straw nice to work with as she can mold it to curve along her backbone as she lies down to give birth. The piglets are then born in a little straw pocket that keeps them close to their mother for the first few critical hours of life. The other function of all bedding materials is as a safety feature when it comes to land application. Unlike with liquid manures, it is nearly impossible to over apply manures mixed with bedding materials. This is because the bulk of the straw or stalks will balk the next field operations if it is spread too thickly. Bedding in the manure is an environmental safeguard. And this kind of manure application generally becomes available to crop plants over a two or three year period, rather than immediately. This means that the farm will be improved by this kind of operation over the course of some years, and the farm family will see the benefits if it can be long term on the land. It all fits together.

Friday, July 27, 2012


Heat and drought in the midwest is in the news. Southwestern states have been in drought for some years now and it has crept ever closer. Here at Pastures A Plenty, we have so far gotten very timely if somewhat small rains, and of course, we started the summer with ample rainfall, so we are alright for the time being. The pastures look good again after last week's rain. But the corn and soybeans that go into feeding the hogs for our business are a national market and the prices respond to national conditions. Since we cannot grow more than half the feed required by our hog herd, the prices will very much affect our business. About one half the cost of raising a Pastures A Plenty hog, with our housing and management, go into feeds. We will keep you posted in advance of price changes we need to make as we go into these troubled agricultural times. Much change is in the air and it is best we go forward together. Thank you for your support and faith in us and we will be in touch.

Friday, June 22, 2012


Last week the earth moving contractor started us on the trail towards our new hog farrowing house. The trackhoe knocked down and buried a thirty five foot silo built in about 1960 as well as a Quonset style shed built in 1952 and used to house the cattle the silo fed. The entire enterprise, my father's effort was abandoned before we came to the farm in 1977. The silo has sat empty and unused since about 1972 and the shed was used for bedding and machine storage until it became unsafe last year. The buildings needed to go, and we need the new hog facility. But it is still a bit difficult to see it happen. The shed has been a part of my mental furniture my entire life and I have clear memories of unloading silage from the silo in the company of my father and brother. As the trackhoe brought down first the south side, I could see once again into the structure and look at the doors as they looked fifty years ago when the three of us stood up there on the pile in the cold of winter, swinging those silage forks over and over, dispatching the feed through the door and down to the waiting cattle. Warm feet, cold noses, and plenty of exercise. But now its on to the next thing. Make way for the new! For now, the barn stands alone on its hill . We will keep you posted on progress. Jim

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The powers that be in the persons of Collin Peterson, Minnesota's seventh district representative and Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, Minnesota Senators are beginning to line up behind the idea of beefing up the federal subsidy for crop insurance, currently at 60% of premium. They want to cover more of a farmer's projected yield and price risk, to the point where it will be possible for a farmer to guarantee a profit, courtesy the taxpayers. This drives up the price of land, keeping new farmers from their chance to start. The higher the land prices the more poorly it is farmed. Remember what southern Minnesota looked like when the rains started this spring, how the land both gullied from water runoff and blew off in the wind. We as taxpayers are supporting that. It is hard on communities. I know a family which has a farm site plus a few acres with which they have done amazing things. They farrow sows, lamb ewes, train riding horses, produce grape juice for wine and preserves for sale, milk cows, make cheese and I don't know what all else. Their little farm is a beehive of activity. But they want to grow hops, a perennial crop in demand from local brewers, and they cannot rent on a long term lease ten acres adjacent from a neighboring crops farmer. The crops guarantee is just too good. We cannot countenance this! How can our communities survive when we conspire to drive ambitious thrifty young families out? Klobuchar even wants the government to insure profitability for the large hog production companies. While Peterson, Klobuchar and Franken are much concerned about guaranteeing the wealth of the six or eight largest crops farmers in each county in Minnesota, my seventh district home in western Minnesota has a high level of reduced and free lunches in the schools, a number of families with no good access to health care, a large number of people working self employed simply because many of the jobs on offer are not worth having. This cannot stand! The business of Congress is to look out for the well being of all the people of the country. If they cannot do so, they need to declare themselves incompetent and get out of the way. Call your Congress creature and burn his/her eardrums. This is just simply more of the crap Wall Street pulled, where their profits are theirs, but their losses are ours. Jim

Thursday, May 24, 2012


Rain again last night. We have had perhaps five plus inches of rain over the last two weeks, all of it coming as showers of an inch or so. We are beginning to discover the farm's wet seams again. As we resume spring field work after each shower, we discover that dry on the surface does not necessarily mean good footing for the equipment. When it was so dry earlier this spring and the last half of last season, the entire farm was more like a road and we could walk or drive anywhere. Not so now. The cattle are enjoying the rain driven grass growth and are now midway of their second rotation across the pastures. The sows like it too, the group on pasture often must be brought home to eat its daily grain ration. Next on the agenda is the building of the new lane which will give the other sow group access to the other half of the pasture and make the cattle rotation easier to operate. That will commence as soon as it is dry enough to drill the post holes. Things are exciting here. The sow facility we worked last year to build is performing above expectations. The sows are comfortable with it and so are we. It enables calm and careful handling and feeding, while facilitating maximum value from the pastures that surround it. And we are thinking about and planning for the next big event, which is the building of a new farrowing facility later this summer. Will keep you posted. Take care. Jim

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Today I led the cattle back on to the pasture from the lot where they had waited out the storm, protesting loudly all the while. As I walked, I could hear our crew of red-headed woodpeckers having at the scattering of dead trees in the grove. Cindy said she saw several working on a standing popular behind their house. It pleases me to think that a farmer who pays attention can be guided from winter through summer entirely by listening to the wild things. Several weeks ago it was the migrating geese that dominated from their overnight digs down in the lower pasture. They are on their way to the Lac Que Parle for the summer, and like a group of teenagers, they talk incessantly. Kind of a goose pajama party going on down there. It has been several weeks now since we heard the cackle and rasp of pheasant as they have moved away from the yard for the summer, into the windbreaks to gain access to the grass and wait for the growing crops to provide their summer cover.

Soon the little cattail slough will come alive with the language of thousands of frogs underlying the screaming of the red headed blackbirds sorting out their territories. And before long will come the multi noted song of the western meadowlark, which is the introduction to real summer in the pastures.

The cattle are started with their grazing, the first group of sows has been turned to pasture, soon to be followed by the second, the days are getting longer and the pulse of the land stronger. Enjoy your world, whatever it is and take care of it! It is what we have on earth.


Monday, April 9, 2012


About 48 million Americans are sickened each year by food borne pathogens. Some 3000die each year. Most common is salmonella. Just last year, Jack DeCoster's chicken and egg empire sickened thousands and caused a minor ripple in official Washington over whether he would clean up his act voluntarily so that the regulators would not have to do their job. He is operating again. However, a Pennsylvania dairy farmer whose sales of his own milk has not caused a single problem shut himself down after an injunction was obtained by the FDA stopping him from selling his product.

Last year, a Wisconsin farmer, also selling his own milk, was visited by authorities packing firearms and told to shut down. And just last week the DNR in Michigan, with the permission of the governor in that state, based upon a feral pig law just passed by the Michigan legislature, showed up on several farms meaning to shoot pigs being kept outdoors. You can add many examples to these stories. They keep popping up all the time.

The first thing to say is that we in local foods have them scared. Someone very powerful wants us all out of business. And the second thing is to notice that the regulators are picking battles they think they can win. Instead of going after the conventional food system which is the basis of the vast majority of those 48 million cases of sickened people each year, and the 3000 dead ones, they are picking on farmers. And small ones at that.

The battle is shaping up. The thing to remember though, is that it can only be won by brains, not guns. Washington is deteriorating from the inside and the open question has to do with how long it can keep a lid on all the "misbehavior" it wants to control. We still have a chance to exert some influence upon the states and their legislatures, if we will pay attention to electing the right people.

And it is critical that all of us who sell anything to anyone take steps to get them aware of what is going on and keep them that way.


Wednesday, March 7, 2012


We are seeing moisture a little more frequently now as we move into spring and have hopes that we may be in a trend back to a kind of normal or at least average in terms of the weather.

Our beef business has been going well enough that we are current with the animals we have and are not able to process more for several months. The best approach would be to delay further slaughter until the second half of the grazing season to allow more growth on our younger animals and also to give them a chance to graze for most of the season, thus not only putting on weight, but increasing the level of Omega threes in the fat. Remember as we do this, that while we may run short of beef cuts for your orders, we are and will remain well stocked with first quality ground beef, all taken from animals maintained and grown on grass and forage. One year ago, we bought a small stock cow herd, essentially doubling the size of our herd of production females. This increase in finishing animals will begin to be ready in the second half of this year. We ask your patience in waiting for our expansion.

Also, on the pork side, we regret to report that we simply will not be able to supply Easter hams this year. We are sorry. Our restaurant trade, which buys ham all the time, has increased to the level that we simply have none to spare. As many of you are aware, we are in the midst of a serious expansion of our hog production, and we very much hope and plan that next year's Easter will be back to normal. Meanwhile, remember to ask for certain other beef or pork cuts that are also suitable for holiday meals. We have a good availability of pork loin now and some of the nicer beef roasting cuts.