Monday, November 21, 2016


The long fall ended with a storm on November 18th that bowed the bushes over under the snow weight and sent the farm into power outage from noon until ten the next day.  Somehow, on this kind of farm, we are never quite ready for the end of season even though we know we are pushing it.  Always there are two or three things that really should be done first and so it goes.  So the storm interrupted Josh and Cindy's first wintertime convention in the Twin Cities, making them late as they pushed to keep animals reasonably warm and watered by use of the stand by generator.

So we have a few things yet to do.  Today the cattle went into winter lots and the hay feeding rings until we can get the last of the bedding bales home next week, allowing them access to what they can find of the crop residues.  Meanwhile pigs are being weaned today and moved out from farrowing so that can be cleaned for the next batch of sows.  Tomorrow we must turn off the pasture water at the curb stops.  And, we get to throw the switch turning on the array of solar panels, at long last.  We eagerly look forward to it!

Around here, you could often be tired, but never bored!  We wish you all a Merry Christmas and much good time with family and friends!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016


Our new solar panels are up. They stand along the farm’s driveway oriented south at the edge of the pastures. The process to the present point with the project has been long and convoluted so it is good to see them standing there. We started thinking about solar four or five years ago because we were not comfortable with the way the freezers we use in our business had driven our electric bills up. This was because of the cost in dollars, but also the apparent contradiction in goals. We claim in our meats sales that our animals are raised differently, that the kind of farming that produces them, heavy on pastures and hay while minimizing the use of row crops makes possible the kind of long rotations in land use that are kind to the environment, saving on fertilizers and crop chemicals and enabling us to avoid use of GMO’s. Our crops are indeed certified organic, which is a contrast to our heavy use of electricity to run freezers for our meat sales.
The original thought was to participate in our state’s net metering law under which our power cooperative would buy the power produced by the panels and sell us back all the power needed for the freezers including whenever the panels were not producing-nighttime-or producing at a reduced rate in the winter. We were to be able to buy the power at our regular rate and sell our power back to the coop at nearly the same retail rate. However, before we could get the panels up, the legislature here changed the net metering law at the request of the coops, which didn’t think they should be required to provide what is essentially stand by electricity at a rate that allowed them little or nothing in the way of income to cover maintenance costs on their transformers, lines and poles. Now, the state decided, the power suppliers would have latitude in the amount of power they would buy back, what they would pay for it and a standard monthly service charge as well. The only requirement is that these charges and policies be “reasonable”. As you can imagine, this resulted in an immediate pile up of complaints to the state’s Public Utility Commission, which had been appointed referee. This happened in 2014, when we had been awarded the USDA grant to cover part of the cost, but had not yet signed the contract with the builder. We put the project in neutral and spent a year studying our options and rethinking the entire idea.
We knew from the beginning that one of the things we wanted to consider was taking that entire system off line. After all, the freezers draw the most power during the daytime in the summer, when temperatures are the highest and panels produce the most. We knew from experience during several day and day and a half long weather caused power blackouts that the freezers, which we keep at about ten degrees below zero, will hold the cold for overnight without more than a three or four degree rise in temperature. And though our local power coop is well managed and does a good job of maintaining and improving its infrastructure, it does depend upon western coal as its fuel and low interest loans from the government to keep its balance sheet healthy. And the infrastructure that surrounds both us and the power coop, the national electrical grid, is being allowed to run down, resembling nothing so much as a diversified farm where the farmer, nearing retirement, has no heirs and sees no use in putting money into something he will not live to use, and so does not bother to fix the barn roof. Why a country with a large and productive economy should act that way is a puzzle I have not been able to figure out, but there it is.
After long and intense negotiations with the power coop, and long careful study of what the new approach would do to our projected payback time on the panels-increase it from eight years to eleven basically, given the best the coop would offer-we cautiously went ahead. We reasoned that we had the Public Utility Commission to fall back on, reluctant as we were to involve a government referee in a dispute with a coop run essentially, by friends and neighbors. We will see. We hope for the best.
Why didn’t we just take the plunge to offline? Because the daily inventory in the freezers generally exceeds five thousand dollars at any given time, and because we are far from figuring out the details of the standby. Time to do that and gain experience with the actual production of the panels was why we wanted to go the net metering route in the first place.
There are questions about this. How much will the panels produce? What about the equipment required to make sure that the freezers are not allowed to run when the panels are not producing enough to avoid low voltage to the motors? What else beside night will cause the panels to produce at a greatly reduced rate? What will be the effect of a series of cloudy days in summer? And then, how good are battery standbys, or would we be better served with a simple diesel standby generator?
These questions are some of the host of issues that will come up as we consider producing the power we need in other ways than coal and in a more decentralized fashion. It seems evident here that decentralization is crucial, given the long term inability of the US government to deal with simple infrastructure improvements and maintenance. But what is also evident is that farms, and especially diversified ones, are in a unique position to start taking up some of these problems and learning how to use some of the new tools to solve long standing issues. And it may be just my opinion, but I think rural power coops could benefit here as well, thinking about ways to form closer and more beneficial relationships with their own customers/owners. Here in the Midwest for instance, the power coops are thinking about large solar installations to produce their own solar energy and thus achieve better control over when they need to buy natural gas produced power to supplement the solar. Good and ongoing communication with their own customers with solar installations could result in similar control of the power supply for the coops plus providing opportunity for hundreds of farms like ours to produce additional income while controlling our own costs.
Farms are full of opportunities. The major problem with alternative energy in any form is what to do with the slack power production times. Farms, because they are under such close and personal management, might be able to take the lead in distributing the load, matching it more closely with available power at any given time. Suppose, for instance, that we install solar panels to supply the power needed to pump the water from our central water well. We use a lot of water, as does any livestock farm. We could oversize the capacity of the solar installation enough that we could rely on it to produce in twelve hours the power needed for twenty four. Then, if we routed the water from the well into a water tower, such as all small towns use, we could provide livestock and household water when the sun is not shining. With just a little ingenuity, we should be able to attach a small turbine that would use the falling water-from the tower-to generate a certain amount of power for another use, ventilating a barn, for instance, or heating a piglet nursery. Essentially what this system would do would be to save the power generated from the sun to use at night, while also encouraging thought about reducing load for night times.
This solar effort promises to be an adventure! One step at a time.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016


The humidity and number of rainy days here at Pastures during August demands to be noticed.  My lifetime on this farm has seen a variety of weather, but until now, nothing like the weather in August just past.  Generally August has been hot with relatively low humidities and crops and hayfields going a bit short of moisture.  By Labor Day we are welcoming the lengthening nights for the relief they provide against the daily heat.

We have certainly not had the worst of the rain, as many areas close to us report instances of ten and twelve inches at a time, and consequent floods as the rivers and creeks are overloaded.  Still, the humid weather in late summer here is unnerving and the constantly extended expectation that more is on the way alerts us that something different is up.  Whatever we make of it, we need to pay attention.


Thursday, July 28, 2016

Late summer

As we work our way through another summer, grateful indeed that we have plenty of rain, yet some chances to make hay; weather warm enough to keep the pastures and crops booming along, but nothing severe, nature does it usual steady work and change sneaks up on us.  One of my duties here at the farm is closing up the chickens each night at dark, hopefully just ahead of the weasel and mink.  We have two groups, one older in the main coop and their replacements coming up fast in the small portable.  All of them have the run of the yard, and amazingly enough to any who don't know chickens, they all return to roost in their proper coop each night.  The youngsters, though, push it a bit later, requiring about a half hour extra to turn in.  A month ago I was closing up at about ten to ten, depending on how clear the sky was.  Last night, I closed the doors at nine thirty.  By Labor Day, I imagine it will about eight.  Nature gets her work done, whether or not we humans are spinning our wheels!

Sunday, June 12, 2016


Every day for four days now the heat and humidity built up in layers until even the welcome breeze could not dispel the heavy oppressive atmosphere.  Toward evening the thunder the dog had heard all day became audible in the west.  The breeze died, the heat rose, the sows puffed under their sprinklers, the hogs lay in the doorways, and the cattle grouped around their water tank.  The thunder became a steady roll, like a huge freight train; finally a few drops fell kicking up dust on the yard.  The wind switched to the west, and the rain came in buckets.  A small river fell in a waterfall from the eave trough at the house corner, water covered the driveway, and the other buildings fell out of sight. 

After a time, the rain eased and then the sun came out.  There was a rainbow at the garden gate.  Just under an inch in five minutes, with more to come, looks like.  The cattle spread out grazing.  The sows wallowed in the puddles, the chickens came back out of the coop.  The rain fell on thirsty corn and hay.  Also on some hay cut and in swaths for baling.  Tomorrow's work plans just got changed.  A prairie thunderstorm! 


Sunday, June 5, 2016


My first memories are of the early fifties, a time by which the industrialization of American agriculture was well along.  My lifetime in this business and on this farm has seen the trend develop and accelerate until we now have one six thousand cow dairy and two 10000 cow dairies within twelve miles of the farm, with another 10000 cow job only two miles distant, proposed to start in 2017.   The goal of these dairy factories as nearly as I can see is to use up fertility (soil and animal) and get the menial work of foreign young men to drive milk prices down far enough to drive any and all dairy farmers out of business.  Industrialism is the primary tool of capitalism and this is what capitalism does.  It turns everything and everyone into garbage or money and collects the money for its own ends. 

Meanwhile, today I watched my granddaughter play on equipment at a local park with perhaps several dozen other children.  I read the plaque at the site and noticed that every donor of note was either an individual or a family owned and run local business. WalMart came in at the bottom of the list.  The shark joining the prey.  I wonder where this all ends.


Monday, April 18, 2016

calves and piglets

The fourth cow to calve this spring took exception to our tampering with her new baby and chased us away before we could get the eartag installed.  Cow number five was a little less opinionated; so far we have only number four's baby to identify in the midst of the sorting confusion upcoming when we get them ready to go to grass.  We have five beautiful red white faced calves scampering around the calving pasture so far.  Seven more to come.

The next sows are ready to farrow their piglets too, and we have the farrowing pens cleaned and ready.  Spring is about baby animals and young grass and the earth smelling fertile and hopeful.  Those things make farm families come alive!  We hope for regular rains. 


Thursday, April 7, 2016

Big dairy and thoughts on work

We had been talking about the surplus of new dairy factories out here in western Minnesota, my friend and I. We had finished adding the 4000 cows in the first one to the 10000 cows in the next one, then adding the 10000 cows in the just completed one as well as the 10000 cows in the just proposed one. That is thirty four thousand cows all within twelve miles of my house. I told him that the dairy factories imported young men from South America to do the work and constructed bunkhouses at the site so they wouldn't be bothersome in the town, creating a PR problem. Then, speaking from his own experience of a lifetime dairy farming came his question:
“How far from slavery is that, really?”
The question floated there in the air, neither of us wanting to answer it too specifically for fear of what it would reveal about the future of the agriculture we had spent our lives practicing. After all, we had both been willing enough to modernize and expand in our farming and also to hire help when we needed it, when our farms grew a little beyond what we ourselves could manage. Where to draw the line? What separates our lives from some of the practices we see around us we don't admire much?
A piece of peasant wisdom from my father comes to mind here. 'Never think you can make another person do work you think you are too good to do yourself' was one of the principles he instilled in me. And if you think about it, this little saying provides the standard. This helps us draw the line. The attitude my father warned me against forms the philosophical basis for slavery in spite of our attempts to put fancy sounding political and economic theortizing on it. I remember a friend of mine, whose political ambition has since carried him off his farm and pretty high in state government describing the expansion of hog factories twenty and thirty years ago. He said, warning of our increasing division in farm country:
“They want the profits and they want the manure. You have got people building these things that are way too good to ever spit on the best part of a pig.”
We are a long way from Henry Wallace's New Deal efforts to help farmers help themselves through production controls. These quickly morphed into grain based price supports, which effectively built today's huge grain farms and the livestock factories; the grain farms by providing part of the profit margin and the livestock factories by offering grain at the feed mill cheaper than the cost of growing it, thus enabling the separation of livestock from the land and the movement of some grain farmers into the investor class. It is doubtful that anyone who ever spent his life working with livestock, much less anyone who really thought about the meanings and implications of animal husbandry can be very comfortable with this agriculture.
But more than the anger of a certain part of the rural population against another part, the current situation speaks of our basic inability as a people to make good sound decisions about anything. And we don't understand our land any better than we understand each other. Anyone can, as I have, take the time to drive through what was formerly dairy country after a significant rainfall. See those wide and deep gullies coming down the creases between hills, with the corn rows, but cutting across as gravity dictates. Two inches in June will cause gullying deep and wide enough to hide a small car in some of these places. And in one year! Where are the sod crops? Why so much corn?
The best of the former family dairies kept much of this in check in these places. Cattle require forages, hayfields and hopefully pastures. Manures are the best fertility. Family labor, when not abused, is the best way to tend domestic animals and raise children. It will not do to sing unqualified praises of these farms; some of them were not good, some needed much change to become good, some should have been shut down. But the idea was workable. It could have been improved upon. We ran right past what the land needs because we would not take on the hard work of understanding what was needed to keep agricultural production dispersed and agricultural people on the land.
In my youth here on the flat black fertile land in the northern corn belt I was surrounded by family dairies. What happened? They are all gone, have been for thirty years, victims of overpriced land and, as everywhere, a preditory marketing system. The elites are to blame. Wall Street. Industry. The boosters and lovers of the money to be made foisting too much technology on us. I have said it myself and more than once and it never gets to be less true. But also, there is us. Our idea of ourselves has changed.
The peasant wisdom about work we think we are too good to do doesn't have much of a hold on us anymore. We still know-most of the time-that it's wrong to force another human to do what we think is beneath us. That responsibility we have given over to technology. And technology offers us the illusion that it can answer ethical questions and dilemmas on the cheap. Having acquired a few tools that make our physical lives easer and thus more prone to disease and ill health, we find we want more technology so that we may do even less. Of course, the more technology we must have must be paid for and so we work more, and worry more. Our technology saves physical work while its cost increases mental and emotional distress. We get to the point where our lives have gotten so easy that we cannot afford a day off.
While we have been manuevering ourselves into this Catch-22 the world around us has been changing. When the powers that be decided that the farm population needed to be reduced a half century and more ago, the logic was that the people were needed in the factories. The siren call was to leave the drudgery of the farm and come to where you could make enough money to buy things for yourself and your family. Farms shrank in number and grew in size while the manufacturing capacity of the country grew into the envy of the world. People thought of second cars and vacation homes.
But then, several decades ago the elites decided that the manufacturing should be shut down and shipped overseas. Now, other than the few places available in the first professions-teaching for example, which is also being shut down-most of the grandchildren of the people who left the farms earlier have few options left to them. For many families the status “permanently unemployable” looms as a frightening possiblity. I am left to wonder if many would not like their great grand parent's lives back again.
Compare a 1950's farmer, one of the better sort, with the situation on today's dairy factory and study it for what it says about our concept of work and how it has changed. Drawing on the wisdom of his forbears, for whatever that was worth, and on his own gumption, the 1950's farmer scheduled his cows' calving for when the feed was available for the best milk yield, with an eye to the fact he also had to have the time to see to the crops in a timely fashion, and that it is not always easy to fight the weather. He ran his day so that the chores got done on time, the milkings were an appropriate time apart, and the jobs requiring more than just he and the hired hand took place when the kids were home from school. He figured some of his work was going to be nasty, and that at other times, satisfaction would be more available. He assigned his hired help and his kids work in such a way that they would keep coming back. He worked with them, teaching them and learning himself that often the hardest part of a hard job is getting it started. He learned and lived the idea that a stitch in time really can save nine, that debt was something to work your way out of and that the protection of some long term assets and virtues and values was going to require a certain amount of unpaid work. He learned the sweetness of rest after hard physical labor and the joy of testing himself against the farm and the work. He came to understand himself through his work, through his failing and his coming through when he had to.
The factory dairy hand works without agency. He has nothing to say about his work, can do nothing to modify it and improve it, and can only hang onto it for as long as he can live on the little pay, and until a robot can be devised to do his job. He has no stake, and those who do have, the investors, have only a financial one. The understanding in the whole system is that the biggest sucker is the one who works and the biggest winners are those who do not. The land, which he doesn't control either, is either a despository for manure or a source of feedstuffs, depending on the time of year and what arrangements the investors have made. No thought is given to the potential for erosion in use or to the building and maintenance of soil health. Indeed, there is properly no one available anymore to understand either the need for or the particulars of achieving and maintaining good health of the soil. That work would have been the natural province of the grandsons and daughters of the 1950's farmer mentioned above, and the few that are left of this breed are overworked, confused and often in conflict with the banker. That farmer has essentially been disallowed from today's agriculture.
We seem to have advanced ourselves completely out of the possiblity of decent work. And how far away from slavery is that, really?

Sunday, April 3, 2016

silage fork

I found myself hammering a half dozen welding rod stumps into the wood handle next to the tang of a nearly new fork, which was already loose.  For maybe the tenth time or so, I let the grandsons know that this did not happen when I was their age with anything like the frequency it does now.  Now, we have it all the time, from forks to scoops to hammers and shovels, all of which I will not buy with plastic handles, as plastic does not lend itself to gripping with the hand properly.  The fault is in the manufacture, for we as a culture have now progressed so far that we cannot let a wood piece age and cure properly before installing it.  No, now it must immediately be turned into money and used green, so that as it does cure in use, it becomes loose and unusable, thus, I suppose, leading to yet another purchase. 

A culture that cannot do a job properly because it is too eager for money is a culture in its death throes.  On our farm, we try to do things differently, to see work as something to do well, not escape, to see animals as part of Creation itself, and to care for the soil as if it belongs to God, which it does.  This produces quality products, ahead of quantity.  And that is just how we want it.


Wednesday, March 30, 2016


We live in a nation that has been at war with its own working people for at least four decades now through Democrat and Republican both. The victims have finally caught on and that is what much of the upset and direct talk on both sides of the current Presidential race is all about. People are finally awake! The elite use a variety of methods, ranging from automation and consolidation to winking at the people streaming across the border to find work, then treating them worse than I treat my animals as they use them to drive wages down. Or they rig the game so the factory can move over the border. Or close the factory up and hire a Chinese one. And have you noticed that with all this easy movement of people there is still not a few foreign born and trained dentists coming in to help control the price of crowning my worn out teeth down from four figures? Ever wonder how that works?  Dentists are evidently not allowed to cross the border. 

We independent farmers, the few of us that are left, have stubbornly gotten ourselves into the situation where we can effect small, but potentially large changes by starting right within our own farms. We are a strange breed, both management and labor, and that gives us a certain freedom. What we have done here at our farm as we needed to expand our hog production to keep up with markets is to begin to take human needs into account in the decision making. 

Let me tell you about just one outcome of that; the breeding and gestation areas. We need to keep about a hundred sows to keep our new farrowing house in full production. When we were deciding how to house and handle them, we knew a few things thanks to our forty year history in the hog business. We knew we wanted the herd to have access to a considerable quantity of forage feeds-pastures in summer, quality hays in winter-as this has a wonderful effect on milking and mothering ability. We knew we had to be careful how we fed the grain part of the ration, as we aren't interested in gestation crates and sows in a group can be pretty savage when they fight over feed. We knew we needed three gestating/breeding areas for our three group farrowing system, one for replacements, and two for regular sow groups, plus another short term holding area so the farrowing house could regularly be clear of all hogs for cleaning. And most important, we saw that we had more help coming, both in terms of the next generation so interested in farming and the coming need to hire part time help for the business.

We saw early on that we could readily offer pasture access to two groups at a time due to the farm's layout so we decided that the replacements would be held off pasture and fed hay year around instead. We split two standard hoops-30X72-across the narrow middle and concreted them. We designated one half hoop for feeding, the other three were for sow housing. We also poured an apron outside each for sow water access and manure handling. That done, we devised a set of lanes and handling traps so that each of the sow groups could be allowed access to the feeding area in its turn. The feeding area was equipped with refurbished and modified gestation stalls. We narrowed them to twenty inches to fit 18 of them in each of two rows, and modified the back gates so they would function as feeding stalls. Each group of thirty plus sows comes into the area three times per week for grain feeding by means of a wheelbarrow and hand scoop on each feed alley, a process that takes about three hours for the three groups. This comes out to about one hour of work each feeding day plus two hours time for the sows to eat the ration. The sows have forage, either pasture or hay, available to them at all times. This practice considerably moderates the tendency to fight and bite.
Now this setup lends itself to scheduled AI or boar breeding in the feeding area, and that part works pretty nicely as well. It also maximizes the “eye of the master”, and this is critical to us. 

 Public radio regularly does a farm report here in Minnesota. Whenever a hog disease is running amok it will be about hog production. And when it is, it will invariably feature the sow herd set up at the University research center in Waseca, which uses a set of electronic sow feeders and not the one in Morris, that is set up for hand feeding in feeding stalls similar to our layout. Several times I have contacted them and pointed out how the sow herd at Waseca features bitten and marked up sows, a consequence of sows piling up to wait in front of the feeding area for the computer to allow them in and dole out their ration for the day. But nothing changes in the public radio's coverage. Now I take this to be a sign of how firm a grasp technological fundamentalism has on our imaginations, for this is a radio service that caters to the levels of society that tend to worry a great deal about animal treatment. Still the answer to any problem in production is always more and more sophisticated technology.

Our system, by contrast, maximizes the impact of human management, in part by strictly controlling spending on technology. The stalls were bought at junk price, modified and welded together in the shop in a day or two, then installed. Feed tanks, feed scoops and wheelbarrows are all available at the local farm/fleet store. But the human eye and imagination? That is priceless. For us, the worker doing the feeding is expected to check for heat in all groups at every feeding and to know if that group of sows should or should not be bred. He is to notice if any of the sows show up stiff or lame or do not come to eat at all. Pregnancy checking by hand held machine is also done here, as is observation for parasite load and general health and well being. Sows are handled with a certain level of patience and respect which does wonders for their attitude at farrowing. While each group is eating its ration, the feeder can be doing general light maintenance of the area as well as pasture observation in summer. The feeder knows which sows eat slow and which gobble their feed. He understands from his work a great deal about their personalities and is able to link this knowledge with genetic differences to help with breeding decisions.

Now I am sure that much of this could be done in some fashion by computer. Ration eating could be timed, body temps taken, general health “observed”. And I know also that the usual approach to the next generation coming into a hog business would be to double it and buy a few more computers, so that every “manager” can have a screen to look at. I am just saying that it is not always the best idea.
When we as farmers, or as working Americans, or as citizens are content to have our lives so divided into compartments that we cannot see over the wall dividing “technology adoption” from worker under-and unemployment and despair well enough to notice that the two are essentially one problem in many ways, then it is difficult to see how we will ever think and act our way out of the mess we are in. And I don't think our politics will ever get clear headed and straightforward enough to deal with issues like this, until we who operate the systems do.

Monday, March 28, 2016


The Senate last week refused to pass the bill offered and backed by Pat Roberts of Kansas that would essentially have killed the GMO labeling movement in the states. Minnesota's two Senators, to their shame, both favored the bill, but both were eventually persuaded to change their votes and send the bill to defeat.  This is a major victory for us here at Pastures A Plenty, if it holds, because now we will be able to get to a time when we can require our occasional suppliers of pigs to feed non gmo rations.  This was difficult to do given the hoops we had to jump through and the premiums to be paid to make our own pigs gmo free.  Those premiums should be narrowing now as we go into a future where the elevators and feed mills discover that yes indeed, they can find the time and the bin space to segregate the grains, in view of the growing interest in sourcing non-gmo feeds.  Big battles are usually won in little steps!  Monsanto's lock on seed corn just got a little less tight, as farmers discover they can save big dollars on seed and perhaps access a premium by simply beginning to once again manage their own crops.  

Monday, March 7, 2016

farmer situation

Today we work to pull the knots out of a situation we got into by not supervising the boars closely enough at Thanksgiving time.  We have around forty head of sows to farrow and only thirty pens.  This is something a farmer should cope with, but not complain loudly about.  After all, it is a problem in the right direction, so to speak.   We will try to move some of the early litters with their sows to an older building and group them with plenty of straw.  Generally that practice goes pretty well and thankfully we have mild weather.  Hopefully we don't have too many opinionated defensive sows. 


Monday, February 29, 2016


The bald eagles are back, the ones that stop by regularly in the spring to see if they can find something for lunch.  I saw one of them, the male I think, clawing around the left over hay and cattle manure north of where I was pulling the bale wrap off of yesterday's feedings.  Slim pickings, but he knows that better will come up if he keeps looking.  Today as I checked the cattle, there were geese overhead, searching for open water I suppose.  Hard to find, this spring.  Nature's clock keeps running.


Thursday, February 25, 2016


To manage stress in our relationship with our livestock we must first learn to see it.  We know that pigs grow best if they are not moved any more than necessary, even from building to building, much less from farm to farm, or country to country.  This seems to be especially a problem for very young pigs.  The take home here would be that if we can engineer our facilities so that it is possible to move the sow from the pigs at weaning rather than moving the pigs from the sows, we will lower the level of stress, increase our level of satisfaction and improve income.  Our modern systems move the sow and the pigs both, and at far too young an age for the piglet.

This understanding comes pretty naturally from the insight that pigs are not, like cattle, herd animals.  Herd animals are drifters of a sort.  Pigs prefer a loose social group more or less corresponding to a family.  They have a home and they would like to be in it.  It stresses them when they are not.  We Americans could learn from the pigs.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016


It seems likely that those new to hog production, or those few remaining small producers should shy away from conventional confinement methods.  The conventional approach is very expensive, for one thing, but also, it gets the farmer into some unnecessary problems.  The best small farm is always NOT a smaller version of a big one.  Take for instance the matter of disease.  Many of the illnesses that hog production is plagued with are a result of production methods.  PED, or porcine epidemic diarrhea which has been a scourge on the level of PRRS for some time now, absolutely depends on industrial scheduling of the sow herd, as it is a virus with an incubation period of less than four weeks.  This fits it admirably to the modern production schedule, which will supply a crop of newborns for the virus to feast on every three to four weeks like clockwork.  Even the somewhat more relaxed old "farmer" schedule of three groups farrowing in turn producing new litters every seven to eight weeks defeats this disease.

Seasonal is best, of course.  But markets sometimes dictate against that.  Until we can get the attitudes changed, we are probably stuck with a system running at a higher level of stress than is best.  But for those who mean to serve the "fill up the freezer market", a single spring farrowing is best.  This minimizes the work of cleaning between batches, gets sunshine and fresh air to do some of the work and provides a bit of time off for the operator.  Sales must drive this, as they drive everything else that makes sense in agriculture. 

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Forage fed sows

A long term goal here at Pastures is to get the sow herd to maintain partly on perennial feeds.  They are shown here eating baleage out of the new feeders built for us by a neighbor.  In summer, they graze the permanent pastures with the cattle herd. 

Winter cattle feeding

Spreading manure on cornstalks for the next crop.  It is easier to move hay than manure!  Hay feeding rings are moved toward the forground at each feeding.  The cow herd will cover about ten acres by spring.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016


Change is constant they say and it is evident on the farm.  At the New Year we stopped providing extra light to the hens, signalling them to take a break from laying.  Birds are daylength sensitive and egg production had been sloping down even with the artificial light.  They need a rest, to replenish their stores of calcium and other nutrients and we will start the lights again in late February to encourage production back to good levels. 

Another change is in our sow feeding.  This year we have been able to start the sow herd on wet bales of hay, the same ration the grass fed beef are getting.  Our goal is to push up the perennial plants like grass in their diet to mimic pasture and push the corn and soy down somewhat.  So far we have succeeded in keeping them on the summer ration plus the hay, which is a decrease in grain from other years.  We know perennials in the diet are good for the sows, and we believe that kind of production to be good for the earth as well.  It is exciting to think about how far we may be able to push this new system.  Change is constant!


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

This year we had an extensive mud season just ahead of winter; two plus weeks of warm wet weather which filled all the lots and lanes with deep cattle and hog footprints just in time for freezeup in December.  With the annual spring mud season there is hope for dryout and a leveling of the bad footing as the season progresses, but for this fall event, we ended up ordering two loads of gravel to dump on top of the ground, giving the cattle decent access to their drinker and enabling us to actually drive our skidloader and even the loader tractor across the lane to get to the hay and bedding bales.  The first time ever for gravel in the winter.  Forty years of farming and no two years alike!