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.