Sunday, December 22, 2013

blow off

Visibility is reduced to about a half mile on this 22nd day of December.  The winds have picked up and made short order of blowing the snow from the neighbors' moldboard plowed cornstalks.  Other than our own place, we live in a black world again.  Our 32 acres of plowing has not blown off.  I think this may be for two reasons;  first that it is discing and then chisel plowing shallow with sweeps rather than the moldboard plow.  It is a hayfield we want to bring back for row crops; this is the only place in our rotation where we do fall tillage, about ten percent of our acres.  So that then is the other reason, the size of the field is small enough to prevent the wind from getting a very good go at it.  Maybe there is a third reason, the fact that the exposed soil is laced with grass and alfalfa and clover roots, all of which are perennial, unlike corn, and none of which were dead when the tillage was done. 

We need to rotate corn in and out of our rotation for the hog business.  There seems no other way than tillage to kill the established hay in an organic system.  I don't like tillage.  I don't think it does the soil any good.  Further, undisturbed perennial sod sequesters carbon, which we desperately need to do, thanks to everybody's irresponsible over use of petroleum.  You might notice that this service, provided free to the rest of us by any responsible grazing agriculture never gets talked about when agriculture's environmental sins are being listed.   

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


Several large skeins of geese over head this very cold week, including one very complicated one flying high that featured about four or five smaller V formations organized into one ragged gigantic one.  All the geese are headed southeast, a pretty good indication they are migrating, even at this late date.  They remind me of my farming life.  I very rarely get done with "getting ready for winter" much before New Year's.  As my neighbor used to say, back when crop farming was done by spending hours at it rather than by overwhelming it with high priced machinery:  "If you are done much before Thanksgiving, you don't have enough to do."

Monday, December 9, 2013


The sows are more comfortable in this first cold blast of winter than they were last year.  It looks to have been a good idea to move the drinkers outside of the hoops, thus subtracting that much of the reason for wet bedding.  We also stacked corn stalk bales just north and west of the hoops, so that they rarely get the full force of the wind.  We are working to improve our windbreak to the west, but growing trees takes time. 

Of course having the water outside of the bedded area means we must figure out a way for the animals to come and go, always the problem with this kind of a set up in the north.  But we must have outside access for them anyhow, because we plan to feed large wet (silage) bales free choice and this must be done outside rather than in the bedding, which is how we fed the small bales. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013


We have a too small idea of God and a too large idea of money.

Saturday, November 30, 2013


Few realize anymore that Black Friday was formerly the name for the Christian day of suffering and sorrow now called "Good" Friday.  It now means that certain "people" (corporations) will make it into the "black" in their accounts on this shopping day.  Several dozen people who pretty much never make it into the black by cleaning and otherwise staffing the stores owned by those corporations sat down in the middle of Snelling and University yesterday to call attention to their troubles at the risk of being hit by those in a hurry to get there.  I wonder about us.

What if we had used the political breathing room provided by the defeat of the marriage restriction and voter restriction amendments several years ago to not only balance the state's budget going forward, but also to push the state's minimum wage up to twelve or even fifteen dollars, thus guaranteeing those who work enough wages to keep body and soul together.  Where would big retail have fled to?  Might making common cause with these folks sitting on University and Snelling have helped us all by reducing the state's quotient of misery thus improving the quality of life for all?  And would not higher wages throughout the lower economic levels have helped keep the state out of future budget difficulties due to decreased demand for social helping programs?  Instead we have continued in our well worn rut of responding to whatever interest group has been hurt last, or has been able to make the most fuss.  Why?  Is it because the one taboo subject we have left is the matter of economic class?

Meanwhile, the pressing matters of elementary human dignity at work, the impoverishment of most of the earth's people in America as elsewhere, a shrinking natural resource base, a deteriorating natural environment, rising levels of violence and violent rhetoric and growing corporate control of our lives are left to fester.  What is wrong with us?

farm haiku

The black cat sits as sentinel over two frozen hog carcasses, stacked one on the other.  The rays from the winter sun begin to warm both cat and cat food. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

harvesting the leftovers

One of the many advantages, both economic and environmental, of our kind of diversified farm is that we can let the cattle forage in the cornstalks after corn harvest, and then when they have gotten their fill after several weeks, we can bale and bring the leftovers to the farm to be used as hog bedding in the feeding hoops and for the sows all winter.  And then the stalks help with getting the manure back out to the land in the spring.  This way of bringing fertility to the cropping acres not only returns the phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium in the hog's manure, all of which are valuable nutrients, but it is the next best thing to a grazing system in that there are microbes cycling through the animal digestive system that appear to be quite necessary for the health of the land.  So there is a real sense in which we harvest our corn crop three times. 


Thursday, October 31, 2013


On October 7th, I told the House Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance committee that we had begun to listen to our farm, an assertion they heard with some surprise.  The occasion was MCPA’s presentation of its “Nitrogen in Minnesota Surface Waters” report which showed among other things that 73 percent of the nitrogen coming into the state’s rivers is coming from cropland.  My statement was a plea, really, the expression of a hope that Minnesota’s farmers would begin farming again.
            When the last of the commodity hog market melted away in the fall of 1998 and we essentially lost the income support for this farm, we did several things.  We resolved never to produce hogs for the conventional markets again.  We slammed the brakes down hard on outside input purchases.  And we took whatever outside work we could for a few years to survive.  As the initial shock wore off, we began to look around and notice what happened easily on the farm, what grew well and didn’t need much help, and what required large investments of inputs and was not dependable in production.  We very nearly ceased with corn production for a few years, planting more small grains instead.  Because we saw how much the farm wanted to grow grass in some of our lower and wetter areas we started establishing permanent pastures mostly by building fence and getting some animals out there to graze.  The process continued until today; we have about thirty percent of our 320 acres in permanent grass, harvested by planned grazing of cattle and sows. 
            Soon then, we could see that the runoff and ponding so typical of the farm in a heavy rainfall wasn’t happening anymore in the pasture.  Unless the rainfall was six inches or more within twenty four hours, the water just didn’t move much.  We wondered about our cropping acres and spent hours walking around in chore boots at the end of thunderstorms and in the spring to see what the water was doing.  Seeing still too many ponds, which are caused by water running off the land too fast and overloading the tile outlet to the river, we thought about change.  We needed hay, since the dairy heifer replacement service we had started to use the pasture grass needed to run over winters as well.  We planted an alfalfa grass mix on a few of our acres, and that planting grew to the point where today it uses three years of our six year rotation to produce enough hay to feed the cattle in winter, plus provide a forage supplement for the sow herd.  Today, our core crop rotation is three years of hay, followed by corn, then grain, then corn again.  This is varied some, since every field cannot be treated in the same way, and because we must continue to experiment.  We are now doing much thinking about and experimenting with grazeable cover crops, especially after the small grain is harvested.  Cattle are expected to maintain themselves in late fall for a month or more each year on grazed crop residues.  What they leave is baled and brought to the yard for bedding the hogs. 
            Our crop land treated this way is beginning to show the same effect as pasture did earlier.  Rainfall does not pond unless the amount of rain is very large.  But the soil also does not dry out so quickly in late summer.  Our corn often does not show drought stress in a hot dry August as others around us do. When we do till, which is not as often, the tools pull easier.  Our yields are up.  Our corn yields the past four or five years hover around 130 to 160 bushels per acre, compared to 100-110 bushels in the nineties.  But we are now certified organic, and have been since 2004.  These higher yields, in contrast to those in the nineties, are supported by no crop chemicals, or fertilizers, or gmo seed.  Crops get rain, sun, soil and manure from the hog operation.
            In conventional agriculture, geopositioning steers the tractors.  Monsanto solves the production problems with gmo seed and crop chemicals.  Livestock operations are huge, centralized and separate from the “farms”.
            There are problems.  Too much manure is a problem for the livestock centers, too little for the crops farms.  Too much work in the livestock factories, too little on the crops farms.  There is too much technology and not enough human care everywhere.  The community deteriorates and the livestock labor problem is “solved” by bringing in migrant labor which because of destitution or perhaps illegal entry is cheap and very easily controlled. 
            But now we have gone as far as we can with specialization and simplification.  It is impoverishing us and the land.  We must think again, and think carefully.  We will not keep the nitrogen out of the river until we get more people on the land.  These must be people with their minds engaged and their hearts open.  Livestock, land and people must be brought back together.  There are no shortcuts.    

Wednesday, October 23, 2013


                        We had walked up the road from the Norwegian farmer’s neat, well cared for farmstead, past his stacks of sawlogs and then the piles of firewood he had cut last winter, which would soon be cut to stove length and palleted for delivery to his customers in the winter.  He pointed out to me that the firewood was from a brushy tree which needed to be cut in winter to be of decent quality and that it would simply rot and become punky if worked in the summer.  We continued up the slope until we came out at the area near the top where the logs had come from.  After looking around at the numerous brushy trees still standing that would go for firewood in the winter, I noticed several small brooks running into the tall stand of trees below us.  My host said he wanted to show me something and motioned for me to follow him as he plunged into the stand of tall trees just down slope and followed the brook for about two hundred yards until he stopped and looked around. 
“See anything?”  he asked me. 
I looked, but saw only the big trees I had noticed in the first place.
“Look over here.  See the outlines where the walls stood?  This is where he lived, I think.  Probably had a considerable tribe of kids.  See that deeper place in the corner?  Probably kept his potatoes there.  And that flatter spot over there?  He could have milked a cow there under a lean-to, when he was lucky enough to have a cow.  Over there, where the trees are some younger and smaller?  Garden probably.  Next to the water.  Hundred fifty years ago, I would guess.  Maybe a bit more.” 
My Norwegian friend was hitting his stride now:
“He probably worked on the larger farms when he could.  They would hire temporary, just like some of us hire the Polish now.  When times were tough, they didn’t hire.  People starved.  I figure, after one of those famines, when he got work again for a while, he made up his mind he would book passage with whatever kids he had left and his wife and head out for America.  Couldn’t be worse than here.”
            He sat on his log for a long time, just looking at the ruins of the hut and lost in his thoughts.  Then he said:
“Think of it.  It was a lot of him that started the farming in your country.   Extra people from Europe.  They was used to scratching out a living from the forest-starving when they had nothing to eat.  Hangin’ on by their fingernails.  No land to call their own.  No hope.” 
            I just shook my head.  No wonder they thought America was paradise!  No wonder, too, that we Americans are all so hard to get along with politically.  It’s in the breeding.  And I was struck once again by the change in both attitude and circumstance in Europe.  It is easy today to find people in the U.S. who are “hanging on by their fingernails”.  They are on every street corner and under every freeway underpass.  They live under cardboard and sleep on rags.  Their numbers grow daily.  Technology and the unrestrained market drove their grandparents from the land several generations ago and unrestrained technology and globalization has driven them from the jobs they took when they left the farms.  They are extra.  I don’t see this in Western Europe.  Perhaps I don’t look in the right place.  Certainly it wouldn’t be the first thing a host would want to show a guest about his country.  But still, I doubt it. 
            One reason for doubting it is the farms themselves.  This was the second Norwegian farm I have seen in the course of several trips to Europe.  We were to see three more this time, a dairy, a deer/hog farm, and a farrow to finish operation just across the road from our host’s farm.  In 2007 we had stayed for some time on a German hog/grain farm-which we were to see again this time-and had visited another hog farm there, plus a dairy.  On our way home this year, we would stay for two nights on a farm in Iceland and visit one other.  And what I find in common everywhere is the lack of a feeling among these farmers that their government is out to drive them off their farms.  Virtually all these farms are livestock farms and I have talked at some length with the farmers.  I don’t hear the anxiety that is always there in American farming circles about something like a national livestock identification system.  To Europe those rules are just another nuisance to live with.  Here in the U. S. farmers are certain the government and industry will use those rules to drive them out of the business.  This is a specific example of what I would call a general attitude.  European farmers appear happier with their work and their lives.  Their farms show it.  The buildings are expensive and built to last.  When it is needed they are repaired.  The farmers take vacations.  They have a family life.  They mostly feel that they are stable and secure.      
            If you assume, as I do, that their governments are probably as foolish and frequently wrong headed as ours is, this is a puzzle.  Because very often Europeans are able to get their governments to support and enable a decent working life for them.  Perhaps it is the corruption in our government.  Though I take it as a given that all governments are corrupt, ours is spectacularly so with the way it is constantly awash in money both criminal and otherwise wanting to get its way. 
            But to American eyes, some things seem very badly out of whack.  The Norwegian dairy we visited, for example, was picture perfect beautiful.  Situated on a gentle hill, the downslopes were covered in well managed and maintained pastures in among the trees, plus a small field of oats that had just been harvested.  Inside the barn things were clean and well maintained.  As was so common, the main and newer barn had just been added to the farm’s original barn, a structure perhaps three hundred years old and which looked like it could well stand another three centuries.  The older part was used for feed and bedding storage, for feed mixing and processing and as an entry and clothes changing area for the farmers, both of whom worked on the farm.  Like every other European farm I have seen, technology was in plentiful supply; I have seen no European operation as primitive as my own.  Before midafternoon lunch in the farm house, the farmers showed us their new machine shed with built in grain dryer, their Claas combine,  two new John Deere tractors and the implements they pulled and pointed out the upstairs apartment at one end fitted out as living quarters for the Polish hired hand.  We were startled to find out later over strong coffee and a huge variety of sweets in the farm house that all this was supported by milking just sixteen cows.  I had assumed the few cows I saw in the barn were simply being held back from pasture for the day.   It was evidently the whole herd. 
            We saw this kind of thing on the hog farm across from our host’s farm as well.  Two barns connected together housed seventy five sows and their progeny all the way to market.  The hogs were modern to the point of being ultra lean.  Technology was plentiful.  All heat, geothermal cooling, ventilation air, ration mixing and feeding was under computer control.  This small hog operation, plus a small bee keeping business run by the older couple who had hosted us the evening before supported two families.  And again, on our way home I saw my first robotic milker on a dairy farm in Iceland, milking a herd of 65 cows which supported two families.  This was the largest dairy in Iceland.  This over the top amount of government involvement and sponsorship was evident in all areas that are difficult for agriculture, such as Norway and Iceland.  In Germany, where the climate is friendlier, the farm sizes and operation seemed more realistic to me. 
            Europe has its reasons, no doubt.  It has experienced starvation and unending war on its own soil.  Now they have had peace on the continent since WWII.  It is not surprising that they want to be sure of their sources.  Europe’s solutions cannot be ours.  But at the same time, their satisfaction with their farms, the prospects for a decent life, the relative assurance of tenure on the land and a rural future for at least some of the next generations cannot be a bad thing.  Our way will be different, because we are.  But stability and a decent livelihood for its citizens ought to be the goal for any government.  We need to start expecting it of ours again.          

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Autumn coming

The rain yesterday, last night and today took most of the leaves off the trees.  About two inches here, it is making crops farmers edgy with the wait, but we all need to realize that this may be the rain we are not going to get next June and be glad for it.  Here, we have a certain amount of crop harvest to do, but more importantly, we must finish a job started last summer to move the drinkers out of the gestating sow hoops thus improving winter inside conditions for them.  The window is closing on outdoor concrete work. 

Blackbirds flock up.  Geese have been overhead for three weeks.  Not so many pheasants this year, but the deer are starting to move.  Cattle are rounding the north pasture for one last time before going back to the cropping fields for their annual gleaning chore.  And the gestating sows are out in pasture every day, finding whatever they can.  In perhaps six weeks everything will be on stored feeds and the expenses start to run.  Work or no work, we should enjoy fall!  It is the pause that refreshes. 



It is more than 37 years since LeeAnn and I started the hog business on this yard by bringing in three bred gilts in 1977.  Since, through thick and thin, we have not been without hogs here.  Sometimes it was very tough, but in the beginning and for the next twenty years or more, it was at least simple.  Quality boars could be bought next door.  Feed came from the elevator and not only was the corn and soy conventional, oats and barley was available from the elevator's bins if we desired.  Grain prices were pretty stable.

Now boars, usually in the form of semen, must be imported from across the country.  Dread diseases such as PRSS are a constant worry, and there seems to be an endless supply of them due to the way our livestock move globally.  The feed mills do not even carry oats and barley anymore, we must seek it out ourselves.  And worse, they do not sort gmo corn and soybeans from the conventional crops, so that if we want feed clean of these attributes, we must seek it out ourselves and pay a premium for it.

Hogs are harder to breed, due to the fact that the industry has run way over to the ultralean breeding (thank you, livestock show judges) and it is difficult to source non lean breeding stock.  Also impacting fertility, according to some very trustworthy researchers with nerve enough to go up against Monsanto, are the gmo feedstuffs, which cause digestive upset and changes in the uterus and testes.

As we try to work through this maze of difficulties, it is a real comfort to have customers that cheer us on.  Thank you.   

Monday, September 30, 2013

cover crop

The cattle are now grazing the sorghum-sudan regrowth.  We planted the crop instead of a few extra acres of corn and hayed it in mid August.  It is now back to knee high and the critters relish it.  We also seeded about a half rate of red clover under the oats/peas and that gave a nearly complete cover.  The thought was that we would interseed rape and oat/pea into the clover for a late season grazing crop.  I don't know if that idea works.  The red clover stood still for about a month after grain harvest due to the dry conditions.  We did get the rape seed out there, and now since the rain has started it is filling in the gaps nicely.  Still, in the areas where the red clover took hold, the stand will be predominately red clover.  It won't work well for grazing until after a very hard frost to kill the clover.  As it stands now, the clover would kill the cattle.

Also the Sorghum-sudan as a clear stand has its drawbacks.  It will not fix N for the next crop.  It will also  quit and turn poisonous as it turns to straw at the first nighttime mid thirties temp.  We need to diversify more.


Sunday, September 22, 2013


We are recently returned from Europe.  Besides becoming reacquainted with an excellent small hog farm in Germany, where we visited our first exchange student for the first time in 2007, we had a chance to see a Norwegian grain farm, the hog farm across the road and a dairy farm in Iceland.  Now the climate in Iceland and Norway is forbidding enough for agriculture that there are going to need to be differences with government structure if the farms are to survive.  Also, there is the matter of Norway's oil money.  As our German host said to me on our 2007 visit:  "Ja, those Norwegians with all their oil money, they think nothing of blasting a hole through a mountain so they can get a truck through to pick up the milk from three cows!"

In Norway, the hog farm was a seventy sow farrow to finish operation that featured everything in one building, part of which was the original barn, perhaps three or four centuries old.  Everything was maintained in excellent shape.  The gestating sows were fed by computer each in their own stall, which they were free to come into and leave at will, thus using much space per sow to get away from the problem with American electronic feeders which give the sows an excuse to savage each other while they wait their turn. 

Farrowing was done in large pens, and the sows fed again by computer.  When the litter is about five weeks old, they are weaned by removing the sow and then fed to market in the same pen, also by computer.  The computer also controls heat (by wood burning) and ventilation.  The animals are all cleaned and bedded with wood shavings each day.  The cleaning is done by scraping down to a slatted area where the manure is then moved to outside holding.  This takes two people about two hours each morning and is when the animals are observed for health and problems.

The dairy in Iceland was where I first saw a robotic milker.  The herd of 65 Icelandic cows (no other genetics is allowed in Iceland for cows, horses and sheep, all of which are very distinctive in their characteristics.)  The farmer there also used a round baler (Claas) with built in capacity for plastic wrapping each individual bale for baling grass, which is the only thing that grows there, other than a bit of rape for finishing the year's lamb crop on.  The 500 ewes, then grazing for the three month summer up on the heaps of volcanic rock that pass for mountains, are the farm's other business.  This farm supports two families.

These technologically advanced farms would not be possible here in the U S.  They are simply too small to afford their technology in our system.  But tragically, it is increasingly impossible to bring about here the kind of husbandry and pride so evident there.  The farms shone, they used the facilities available and used them well, the junk was picked up, the livestock was comfortable and the farmer seemed happy.  That is much more critical than the presence or absence of technology and we ignore it here at our peril.       


Monday, September 9, 2013

late summer

Late summer is dry.  And since the spring/early summer was wet and cold, the corn crop is still thirty days from mature.  Warm weather all the way to mid October with no frost is a long shot, but such is farming.  Our parents/grandparents lost their entire corn crop in 1974 due to a Labor Day weekend freeze.  And no crop insurance to speak of at that time.  Such is farming!

On the plus side, though, the animals look prosperous around here, even after coping with the excessive heat in late August.  That may have taken more out of the farmers, which were Josh and Cindy at the time, as LeeAnn and I were vacationing.  Thankful for a partnership!


Thursday, August 1, 2013

getting ready

Getting past the summer solstice on June 21st each year on a farm like ours tends to turn the mind toward winter.  Thoughts about winter provision crowd in to the mix of summer enjoyment, vacations, fairs, growing crops and pastured animals.  Hay was terribly high priced last year and it looks like this year will be a repeat.  Corn is easing in price and it is difficult to see why, with the wet cool spring holding back the crop. 

Changes need to happen with the lots and buildings, some of the older buildings are badly in need of repair.  The days shorten.  However, I tend to think the best season is fall, with the somewhat cooler temps, the beautiful colors and the wild things as full of life and fat as the livestock.  It would be foolish to let worry crowd out the appreciation for these things.  "Behold the lilies of the field," it is said, "they toil not, neither do they spin. . ."  Wisdom indeed!


Thursday, July 11, 2013

New litters just farrowed in our new barn

Photos by Cindy.  Many of the prior photos in the blog are by LeeAnn.  We at Pastures are lucky to have several good photographers.  New pigs are beautiful and I never get tired of seeing it.  Notice the difference in colors brought about by our attempts to search for the perfect genetics for our farm and for your table.  Notice also how placid and content the sows are with their new pens and their new babies.

Friday, June 28, 2013


Once again this year, a drive up through the southeastern part of the state showed the sickening effects of too much rain on too much bare soil.  Some of the academic types who were so quick to collude with industry in the destruction of the small dairy farms that kept at least some perennial crops on the land are having second thoughts, I hope.  Not so much hope for the Washington types who seem willing to push more corn no matter what.

Here in western Minnesota, our soil is different; more clay, less silt loam, less slope, less erodible.  But we are not immune.  Farmers know what the soil surrounding those tile intakes show after a heavy rain and erosion is sometimes obvious from the road here too.  Everywhere the need is for more diversity.  A greater variety of plants on the land feeding a more diverse group of animals and humans.  More people doing different things to create a local economy.  More real wealth for the support of the rural community without increases in commodity production and the resulting hard use of the land.

You all help with that when you buy local.  Thank you!


Saturday, June 15, 2013


Sometimes the way we farm seems very much uphill.  We use neither GMO seeds nor crop chemicals, so spring plantings during wet seasons are a weed problem.  We practice a very conservation friendly six year rotation, so that means we do mostly without the heavy government income guarantees.  We use straw for bedding the hogs instead of liquid manure systems, pastures for feeding the cattle and sows, and much more indoor space per animal for winter confinement of hogs.  All of this may sound like a complaint, but the fact is, we do these things willingly because it seems right to us.  Just as your buying from us seems right to you.  And thank you for it!  The truth of it is, of course, that anything worth doing, is worth doing well. 

Monday, June 3, 2013


Spring is finally here at Pastures, just in time for summer.  Lilacs are coming to full bloom more than a week after Memorial Day, the mourning doves greet me every morning with their "who-who-who", the grazing is well started with two groups of cattle and two of sows out there.  LeeAnn's father's name appeared for the first time on the list of honored dead read each Memorial Day at Sacred Heart.  And a special joy, we have a high school graduation this spring and all the excitement that goes with it.  Jake is our oldest son/grandchild.  How did we get this far so fast?  Prom and baseball and graduation all came so fast it became a kind of blur.  It is what life is, and if we have any sense, we will figure out a way to be there for it, and to be grateful for the chance.

Monday, May 27, 2013


As I wrote last time, we hope to control the sow's behavior in her pen in our new farrowing house by varying the temperature of the floor.  We started by installing plastic pipes on urethane insulation under the concrete.  As you can see in the first two pictures fourteen of these "loops" were installed under what would be the center of the pen, from about four feet inward from the gutter end to eight and one half feet, a total span of about four and one half feet.  This is where we expect the sow to nest up and have her piglets, with the guard rails adjacent and the water cup and dunging area in the four feet next to the gutter end, and the feed bowl and piglet creep area in the three feet at the pen's front.  See the pen pictures in the last post.  Through these fourteen loops of pipe we will pump cool water in summer and warm water in winter.  You can also see in these pipe pictures that we have installed a curving set of four pipes right near the very front of the pen.  These pipes will circulate warm water all year long, to tempt the piglets away from the sow to the warmer parts of the floor.

We have dug a geothermal supply trench west of the barn to a depth of twelve feet(see picture)  This was deep enough so that we got water in the bottom even in the very dry fall of 2012.  This trench was dug out five hundred feet from the barn at twelve feet and then those five supply pipes were folded back and run back toward the barn at a depth of eight feet.  This gives about 1000 feet of total collection area.  Now ground temperature at those depths is going to hover around 45 or 50 degrees winter and summer.  By pumping water through those pipes, we can chill it to that temperature in summer and then pump it through the cooling grid of under floor pipes to bring the sow a cooling effect and make her comfortable enough to want to lay quietly with her piglets.  Then in winter, plans are to run warm water through the same pipes to increase her comfort in that area while we keep the remainder of the building quite cool.  For now plans are to use a gas fired boiler to provide hot water for the floor under the sow in winter and under the piglets year around.  Very soon we plan to tie a good solar thermal panel into that system to minimize the amount of gas needed.

Meanwhile, in winter, we will continue to use the geo thermal trench, but now we will use the temperature which may be at 50 or 55 degrees at start of winter, to preheat the intake ventilation air so that the heating needs in the building will be minimized.  We do not have this part of the system settled in our minds yet and it will be some time before we have it in use.  The final picture is to give an idea of how we have tied the new building into the existing barn, getting a good second use out of the barn for a utilities and prep area, plus bedding and feed storage.   

Farrowing house and pens.

Our new farrowing house is in use.  The reasoning for building it, as any of you who have followed this writing for a while know, is that pasture farrowing simply could not provide the flow of pigs we needed to provide the pork for our customers on a year around basis.  So when we began to plan the building, we resolved to make it mimic the pasture environment as well as we could.  Thus the ceilings are a full eight feet in height, rather than the conventional six and a half.  We have four large windows on the south side and two plus a window in the door on the east end.  During daylight hours the light is wonderful in the building.  The pens are roomy as you can see in the photos.  We were able to reuse some of the steel and plastic planking from purchases made at a shut down hog farm.  Our choice was for the plastic because like wood it is quieter than steel in a hog building, but unlike wood, it stands up well to chewing by the sows and it is easier to clean, always a consideration when livestock are kept inside. The effect is an inviting and quiet environment in which to do our work.  The sows are comfortable as well;  the first group to be moved in settled right down in their pens and soon farrowed their litters without a  hitch.

Note the diagonal guard rails in the front of the pen.  These were made from a farrowing crate with the top taken off and the sides spread out.  The pen is about six feet wide and eleven feet deep.  The sow has her drinking cup toward the back and a grate through which she might see and interact with the sow next to her.  Our hope is that she will establish a dunging and wet area back along that end gate as it has the gutter and cleaner just on the other side.  Then the center and front of the pen would be bedded for her comfort and the guard rails allow the piglets to be next to her without being in much danger of being overlain.  Part of the way in which this is meant to work is that the floor will be temperature controlled by zone which will help control the behavior and movement of the sow.

The floor slopes down one inch each three and one half feet of run toward the far end of the pen.  This is approximately a two percent slope, which is not steep by any means.  Time will tell if we will need to use a bedding board across the pen to retain the straw in the front of the pen, or if the sow will be able to do that herself.  We really will not know until we get the geothermal and heat up and running.  As you can see, the two sows in the picture are lying near the bottom of the pens with their litters.  We hope to discourage that.  More on this in the next post.


Tuesday, April 30, 2013


Spring this year is frustrating for the grazier, and all other farmers, I think, because it is so slow to warm up.  Our hay runs out in about a week and a half and it is simply too expensive to buy in more.  The grass is just starting up and needs a succession of seventy degree days to initiate growth.

Even the birds seem confused.  We have an embarrassment of riches in bird life just now, from wrens and sparrows to robins flocking like blackbirds in number and orioles, warblers, cardinals, jays, geese and ducks and all manner of birds of prey, including the tiny prairie falcon, the common red tail hawk in abundance and several bald eagles that have not yet moved down to the river.  It is said by some that the cold spring makes them reluctant to continue on to the north.

Predictably voices are heard questioning all that "global warming" talk.  Some scientists, who generally speak more quietly, are heard to say that our cold spring may be due to a weather pattern of arctic highs being held in place by the large melt of the polar cap last summer loosening very cold waters to flow south into the oceans. 

What I know is that last summer was so hot we worried about losing cattle in the pastures and had trouble getting the sows to breed.  And this spring is too cold.  It may be time for all of us to pay a little more attention to the quieter voices among us.  They may be quieter simply because they are the voice of reason rather than the understandable human tendency to believe what is easiest and most convenient.   

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


Temple Grandin is an associate professor of animal science at Colorado State University. She is also autistic. A published author, her latest book is called "Animals in Translation". Perhaps most importantly Temple Grandin is a woman who thinks we can be more productive and more humane with our livestock animals if we pay them close attention, listening and observing. In this way, we can discern much of what they are trying to tell us. She speculates that the behavior and management problems that come with the new ultra lean breeding in pigs may come from the lack of fat on the carcass. Lack of myelin, a fat sheath surrounding the nerve bundles, may cause the pig to lose the ability to calm itself down and rest, leading to destructive mob behavior where the animals kill a designated victim simply because they cannot quit picking on it. These ultra lean pigs are also difficult to breed. The boars have greatly reduced sexual appetite and the sows often do not display strong signs of being in season. Breeding percentages (number of pregnancies per sow serviced either naturally or artificially) are trending down. The drive for species survival seems to be blunted by the carcass characteristics we have insisted upon breeding in. And the animals are getting savage and unmanageable. Here at Pastures A Plenty, we have noticed for some time that the same characteristics that make for excellent taste in pork also make for an easy to manage animal on the farm. It is one of those very rare win-win situations. However, staying away from ultra lean breeding, which produces pork that tastes like a long weak drink of vinegar, is difficult because the industry is so enamored of it. Look at the pictures to get an idea of the difference between these different genotypes. Note that the red sow on the top has a nice smooth top line from front to back and she shows a generous covering of fat throughout. This is necessary for health. This red sow is of moderate length, size, and thickness, well proportioned in her muscling. She looks and is durable. This is how we want the sow herd to look. The close up of the back of the black sow, the picture on the bottom, shows prominent muscle grouping and you can even see the knobs of her spine in a line from the bottom of the picture. This sow shows ultra lean genetics, and should we try to breed her, would farrow pigs that would be fast growing, edgy and quarrelsome, and then none too tasty when slaughtered. She does not have enough fat on her carcass for her own good, much less the well being of our farm or our eating enjoyment

Friday, February 1, 2013


It is difficult to remember as we go through a more traditional winter complete with snow and cold that a mere six months ago we were working pretty hard trying to keep pastured cattle alive in the heat and get sows to breed in that same heat, in August, when they are physiologically not very inclined toward pregnancy anyhow. The cold snaps here at Pastures mean extra hay set out for the cattle and the half frozen fingers that go with trying to get the twine off those bales to a seemingly endless need for extra bedding in the hog quarters. We are approaching another turn in the seasons now as we get into February. The winter has shown us weaknesses in our winter operations just as the heat did for summer a few months ago. The challenge is to set things up so that the livestock is comfortable in a wide range of temperatures and conditions without requiring a great amount of heroic effort on our part. That is part of what farm management really is, and for those of us in alternative agriculture, we must find our own way since we have left behind the turnkey systems that conventional agriculture offers. Jim

Thursday, January 3, 2013

snow covered

Once again this winter, the fields are snow covered. Our first snow fall was seventeen inches before Christmas, followed by several more 2-3 inch events. The pheasants are coming close to the buildings again to find spilled feed, as the crusted snow cover makes foraging difficult for them. Snowy winters are not necessarily easy for us either, as the stuff must be moved before any of the necessary machine work can be done. Since the alternative to snow cover is often blowing dirt out here on the over tilled prairie though, we make the best of it, appreciating the white beauty and its invitation to restfulness. As I write this, the natural year, which started toward summer on December 21st is beginning to exert itself, with several extra minutes of sunshine every day. We hope your Christmas celebration was every thing you wanted it to be, and wish you well for the remainder of the winter. Stay warm. Jim