Friday, December 1, 2017

Using bedding

The use of straw or other carbon rich material such as corn stover has always been important to the way we farm here at Pastures A Plenty. Hogs, which are our main livestock business, have an ongoing need to seek and find, to play and manipulate their environment Straw or corn stalks is just what is needed to enrich the environment for them. Hog satisfaction makes for good thrifty production.
We also recognized early on that bedding mixed with the manure did much to modify the smell that accompanies livestock production. Carbon ties up and stabilizes the nitrogen compounds. It is an important adjustment we make to enable us to live with our work, which is critical when the work is more about animals than machines. This is an important principle of any practice of animal husbandry. Close association enables the respect between animal and human that fosters humane values in agriculture. Without it, farming fails into being just another industry. We on the farm can plan a picnic or barbecue at any time without fear that smells and commotion will ruin the event. Since we live right here, we can notice anything out of the ordinary that indicates something wrong with the pigs.

Note the pictures. You can see two phases of our manure handling. First, pretty much all of the residue from our corn crop is baled for bedding in big round bales. We use about 350 of these every year. This project can be a bit nerve wracking as a wet fall makes it difficult to get dry bedding. These bales are hauled to the livestock area and stacked for easy access during the coming winter. Generally six to seven of the bales are used every week for all phases of the hog production cycle, from mama sows to older growing animals. We add bedding regularly right on top the manure and soiled bedding, thus keeping the area clean. We clean the areas less frequently, depending on the particular facility and when we do, old trucks and trailers are used to haul the material to the field where it will be used and stockpile it. This helps us match manure application with crop needs and windows of opportunity to apply. And it allows the manure to compost.
Using hog manure as a solid material prevents us from the over application and runoff into creeks and rivers that is a concern with liquid or slurry manure systems. And the bedding helps make the product into something that the soil seems to recognize. The fact that the feces and urine is already mixed with carbon material that came from the field and has been composting and changing in that form essentially starts the process of incorporating the fertility into the field even before it is spread, we think. Now with the concerns about climate change, we need to know more about how these things work. Does this system return more carbon safely to the soil instead of burning it into the atmosphere? What is the effect of this kind of manure handling on the amount of methane production? We already are studying soil life for clues about how a healthy population of everything that belongs in the soil helps stabilize the climate. But we know less than we need to about the usefulness of manure handled as a solid material simply because the Universities and industry have assumed liquid and slurry systems to be the future and have neglected research in this important area. All this is changing fast, making our business and way of life pretty exciting.

Monday, August 28, 2017


As our markets led us into the need for year around production of pigs, we knew we needed a central farrowing house to supplement or replace our pasture production practice which restricted us to fall and spring production only.  And we needed to solve the problem of keeping the mother sow comfortable with her piglets in the heat of summer if we were going to farrow in summer.  Farrowing in crates, which strictly control the movement of the sow, are distasteful to us as they frustrate natural behavior.  We knew we would use strawed pens in our new building.

We decided on a geothermal application.  See the pictures for the below floor layout of the water pipes.  This is a very simple version which cycles water through deep underground pipes, cooling it to sixty degrees in summer.  This tempered water then is pumped through the underfloor pipes shown which cools a portion of the floor to around seventy degrees, well within a pig's comfort zone.

We are happy with the results. So are the mama sows.  If they are comfortable, they will lie quietly for most of the day and their piglets thrive.  Installing the floor and underground work was quite an expense, but it is important to us to try to solve production problems by working with the animals instead of exerting excessive control over them.  

Friday, August 4, 2017

Brood sows

Most of the hog industry feeds gestating sows by computer, either in the context of groups, or tight individual confinement.  Here at Pastures A Plenty our approach to the sows follows our mission statement-". . .careful and humane".  Oh we use computers.  We just do not allow them to come between us and our animals.  When that human-animal connection is broken, and its elements handed over to electronics, the conditions ripen for abuse of both animals and humans.  Animal husbandry is critical to us.

We feed the grain or high energy part of the ration, which must be restricted for the sow's good health, in individual feeding stalls by means of a wheelbarrow and feed scoop.  This puts us humans in close contact with the herd, where we can see, smell and hear the good health of the animals, as well as detect any oncoming problems early.  Sows are confined in the stalls shown for about a half hour in the morning, sufficient time for the slow eaters to finish.  In this way they do not savage each other fighting over the feed.  They are then turned back to live in a group and lounge around in the straw with their mates the rest of the day.

All pigs have an inbuilt need to "seek and find" their feed.  In the forest, they spend most of their lives doing this.  We try to provide this opportunity for them by maintaining a good supply of fresh forage feed for them free choice.  We had a neighbor make these hay feeders especially for use with sows, and they serve as an occupation for the sows and also to push the sow herd more toward thriving on perennial plants, the production of which is a good way for farms to fight climate change.

We pasture the sow herd with the cattle whenever possible.  This has been difficult the last several years because of overly wet conditions in the pastures. 

Monday, July 24, 2017


It is a farmer thing.  On the seventh of July, we hooked up the haybine and went to cut hay.  One round made and nearly ninety acres to go, we were broke down.  This was the death knell for the old haybine as we had agreed to no more significant spending on it when we looked at the loose gears in the gear box this spring and hoped for one more season out of it.  It appeared the main shaft underneath had snapped as only half the knives turned.  It was done.  We pulled out the standby, the fourteen foot swather, greased and fueled it and headed for the field.  Two hours later, we were back on the yard, the splines on the end of the main driveshaft of the sickle were completely rounded out.  It was Saturday afternoon.  Everything was shut.  We spent the evening disassembling the machine, and Monday morning headed with it to the machine shop.  After a two day wait in line there, they called and said they couldn't cut the splines in a replacement shaft.  We started looking for a replacement hay machine. 

We called John Deere.  They wanted eight hundred for a replacement shaft and nearly three hundred for the connector, which was also shot.  We thought this was more than the machine was worth and said no.

We told the machine shop to grind the end down, bush it and put a bolt in, hoping that would hold for one hay cutting.  By the time they got it done, it was Friday, a week after the start and still no hay down. We reassembled on Saturday and started cutting the oats which we were taking for hay.  Meanwhile, a cutter bar to replace the haybine had been found but couldn't be brought home until Tuesday.  We immediately put it to work then and finished  cutting all ninety acres by the weekend.

It rained.  The following days were highly humid and the only thing we could do was to bale the oats, which we were going to wrap anyway.  It was forty percent moisture and the hay was no drier.  It was Thursday now, nearly two weeks after the start.  Each day was more humid than the last.  It rained again, just a light shower.  Sunday, we moved on the hay.  Today, we finished it up, close to two and a half weeks after starting. Why do we do it?

The hay is a perennial, so it is good for the soil.  It is necessary for the cattle and also to clean up weed problems and fix nitrogen to make our organic crop rotation work.  We also feed it to the sows, which they find pretty satisfying, causing them to quit chewing on the barn for awhile.

We spent most of July, a lot of frustration and way too much money making one of three crops of hay.  So why do we do it really?  We are farmers and it is what we do.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017


Farrowing, the agricultural term for the birthing of the female’s litter of piglets tends to be a demonstration of a farmer’s approach to livestock production as a whole. Here at Pastures A Plenty, we place the farrowing sow at central position and try to surround her with an environment that will result in good production by making it more possible for her to birth her piglets as she instinctively wants to do. We provide a roomy pen of about sixty five square feet, compared to the industry standard thirty five. The sow is able to move freely to turn and lie down as she wishes, having the use of all the area except that reserved for the piglets to creep into soon after birth. Each sow thus has free use of fifty five square feet in our barn, where she gets only fourteen square feet (2’ X 7’) in the conventional system, not enough space to turn around.
Now the pen is bedded with chopped straw, because the sow wants to manipulate and push material around to make a nest to farrow her pigs into. She can get quite oblivious to her surroundings while she busies herself with this job, even to the point of ignoring us as we observe. This process may take from an hour to a day to complete, depending upon the individual personality of the sow. When she finally has the pile of straw pushed and manipulated to her satisfaction, she will push her nose through the center of it to make a channel ending by lying on her side and beginning the labor process. Human commotion and interference must be kept to a minimum during this process.
After farrowing, care is taken to make sure the piglets have found the creep area and heat source there. Piglets need a higher temperature for comfort than does the sow and will huddle close to her udder by instinct. If we can tempt them into just a bit of separation, it makes it easier for the sow to get up for feed and water without damaging the babies. This nursing or lactating phase is continued on our farm until about five or six weeks, longer than the conventional practice, which is more like ten to fifteen days. We think that important strengths, such as disease antibodies are passed to the piglets by this practice. We also think both sow and piglets want this longer period together.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Getting it done

Saturday July 15th was our solar field day.  We were host to forty or fifty people, friends, solar installers, agency people and others with an interest in our new array of solar panels, which so far have performed admirably, producing enough electricity to operate our two large walk in freezers and a variety of office equipment with a bit of power over to sell to the grid.  Very satisfying.

This week Josh and Cindy are in Ames, Iowa for a week long class and seminar featuring a master German sausage maker.  This is the second such class.  We expect good results for our business and you should expect good things for your taste buds!

And the rest of us are here on the farm, taking care of customers, scheduling meat and filling orders, raking and baling hay and helping the livestock through the 100 degree  heat index days.  Cooler weather and slower times ahead, we hope!

Saturday, June 17, 2017


     Cattle will eat Canadian thistle.   Even cattle that have not been trained for it.  I have been discovering this by accident as I concentrate the herd in early June to graze the grass that has gone reproductive.  They will take the blossom off, plus a few leaves below the top as they get more restricted in what is available.  I have not seen thistle feed analyses but I suspect it is pretty good stuff as the plant is taprooted, thus pulling nutrients up from deep in the profile.  I would prefer alfalfa or sweet clover for that task, of course, but you work with what you have.

       The thistle come in wherever the cattle have congregated, especially under wet and muddy conditions.  It is a first colonizer in earth's ongoing battle to heal itself.  But I notice that pasture slowly takes the area back, the sward pulls the compaction out as the thistles are controlled.  This is different from what happens in the cropping areas, where compaction from early wetness, excessive wetness in our case this year, must be broken up with the tillage equipment, often making it into hard chunks which will not allow the seeds to sprout without a regular rain, and sometimes not even then.  Another winter seems to be the only cure.  Much of the problem here is that the cropping is annual.  Pastures are perennial plants largely.  I think the earth regards annuals as nothing more than emergency or interim plants, and that is why it is difficult indeed to maintain and improve soil health using annuals alone. 

Monday, June 12, 2017


Once again, we lucked out here at Pastures A Plenty.  We got the rain, which was welcome enough and enough wind to twist and break several old trees while blowing some branches off a few younger, more valuable ones.  Nothing at all compared to hail deep enough to snowplow and broken barns.  We know our turn is coming, just not when.  And it is difficult to believe that the winds are not stronger and more frequent each year. 

Livestock all came through with flying colors.  The cattle were a bit restless in their pasture before settling in to wait it out, the pigs snug in their straw and the hens had not yet be let loose for the day.   Branch cleanup today.  

Sunday, June 11, 2017


     An inch and a half in less than twenty minutes this morning, accompanied by a high wind, which makes me think the actual rainfall may be somewhat higher.  I walked out when things had quieted a bit to see the damage.  The neighbor's field to the east which hosts the thirty acres of the eighty acre lake bed that is not part of our sixty acre pasture and which was all planted in row crops featured standing water, sort of a ten thousand lakes aspect.  I walked across our grass cutting across two recently grazed paddocks plus the one the cattle were in and had no trouble.  In fact, I found no mud.  The grass sward had sucked that fast rain up instantly.  There was no run off on our side of the lakebed.  None.  The neighbor's water will run somewhere and since we have the low point on the eighty acres, that somewhere will be our grass, if the drainage tile cannot take it up fast enough.

     We have fought this situation for years.  Now, with a grazing practice well established there, we have made a bit of money on that fertile but poorly drained area these past ten years, for the first time in my memory.  We still must manage it carefully, now with the cattle, rather than tractors, while we hope for the best with the neighbor's water.  My question would be about why there is no serious encouragement of any form of agriculture that uses perennial plants, since they obviously have such a wonderful ability to moderate our thunderstorm weather in terms of runoff, erosion, downstream flooding and so on.  There has been nothing of note for my forty years of farming.   I don't expect to live to see any.  That is not the way we do things here in the USA.  We wait until it's a disaster, then come with a little bit of half hearted charity and blame the whole situation on God.    

Saturday, June 10, 2017


     I stood by the second floor window of the motel room just outside Platteville, WI looking across the highway at the WalMart and the Menards nestled side by side.  It would be difficult to name two other corporations that have been more destructive of small town America, this by destroying the respect for labor, among other things.  I could imagine the hopelessness of the public meetings before these buildings were built, similar to the uselessness of the public hearings ahead of the imposition of Big Milk within two miles of my farm. 
     I don't mean to argue against hearings and public meetings, for they are important institutions in our democracy.  It just seems increasingly evident that much of the change in us that makes these huge concerns possible has already been done before the meeting.  We have decided against supporting each other and putting our shoulders together to demand what we need, and rather, in favor of an individual and differentiated "success".  Now it seems we shall have neither and what is left to us is a kind of curdled hopeless individualism, the kind that puts a Trump in the White House.
     We chose not to superintend the government and keep it from curtailing rights of labor, we chose to move away from our urban problems rather than solve them, we chose to focus on size rather than quality in agriculture.  Even today we choose to not worry much about our erosion of voting rights or our rapidly eroding and desertifying soil or our exploding prison population or our denatured food. 
     After all, we have instead retained the right to criticize a WalMart or Menard's worker using food stamps in the grocery store in the nastiest terms available, while wondering what is the matter with our local downtowns and lumberyards.  When we look at a WalMart or a Menards or a Home Depot or any of the rest of them, or Big Milk, for that matter, there is a sense in which we are looking at our own mental furniture, acquired and installed since FDR.  Poor stuff.  Hardly fit to sit on.  Fit for serfs, not free men and women.    

Saturday, June 3, 2017


I thought my last column in Graze might interest some of you:

      My ongoing association with Graze has put me in the position of having a by proxy association with all of you, many of whom are dairy farmers. I have often thought that I have learned more about my farming and its main livestock feature, which is hogs, through my tenuous connection with graziers and dairy farmers than through any of the hog connections available to me. This is because the hog industry is dead in the water, and has been for several decades now. Practitioners are more interested in finance than in understanding the hog and its possible relationship to the farm and the land. Dairy is following that route now about two decades later and it occurs to me that as many of you become outcasts or outlaws in your own occupation, as have I over these last years in regard to hogs, you might be interested in what is happening just a state or two over from most of you, to improve your understanding of the world being forced upon you.
     I heard of the latest happenings in Wisconsin’s dairy industry piecemeal, as we hear most things in these times of instant and sometimes irresponsible communication. First came a note over Facebook from a former 4H kid and neighbor who currently lives in Wisconsin of dairy farmers being pushed off the truck. Then later came the news that the processor involved was Grassland Dairy Products and that they were cutting people off without notice because Canada had changed its interpretation of dairy products for import and was no longer willing to identify the ultra filtered Grassland milk product as an “ingredient” at the border, allowing tariff free import and then call it “dairy” at the Canadian processing plants, enabling the plant to use it in cheese manufacture and undercutting Canadian dairy prices.
      Politicians got involved of course, yelling about restraint of trade and patriotism and such and I am not going into that. What is more important in my view is the item that kept popping up in the news reports to the effect that Grassland was bankrolling a 5000 cow dairy expansion in Wisconsin while it was cutting off its own supplying farmers and blaming Canada. We are once again being rolled. I recognize the symptoms from the hog wars. If it is not “no one wants to raise pigs” it is “we don’t have enough pigs” to “we need a steady supply” and then “we have too many pigs to buy your pigs.” Then there is “you need us to keep your feed mills, vet services, markets open”. They teach this crap in public relations school, I swear. It applies everywhere people are producing anything independently to cover corporate efforts to tear that system apart.
      Here are some things you should know. 5000 cow expansions are pocket change. I live here on the northern prairie in the I-29 sacrifice zone. A bit over ten years ago, a dairy factory supposedly “owned” by a Morris family, about fifty miles north of here, expanded into this neighborhood. They built a 3000 cow factory and called it Dublin dairy (the name of the township). It is six miles from the farm here. Several years later, they started another one, this one called Dublin Two, and positioned three miles from the first. It features ten thousand cows. Somehow, at the same time they got permission from authorities to expand the first one from 3000 to 10000 cows. Last year, about ten miles east of the second factory, another ten thousand cow establishment went up. This one is called Meadow Star, though what exactly it has to do with a meadow is difficult to see. I can’t wait to hear what the PR geniuses will come up with for a name of the fourth one, being built just two miles from our farm. I hear the bulldozers at work every day this spring. When they get it up and running, it too will be ten thousand cows. That makes forty thousand milking cows and the young stock that go with it (Chippewa Calves is what they call that establishment, the name of my county). This is all within perhaps twelve miles end to end. 
     I don’t know if they are done building yet. Neither do I know what the money source is. I am pretty certain it is not local. The milk goes to a plant across the state line in South Dakota (lower wage structure and labor standards than Minnesota)
      The last two factories have local sponsoring farmers, on whose land the facility is built, usually eighty to one hundred or so acres. These farmers shepherd the project through permitting. Some of the motivation for building seems to be access to the manure. The first two were initiated by the family in Morris (Riverview Dairy), but all four seem to be linked. It is all the same template. The farmers involved are large crop operations, virtually the only farmers we have left unless you want to count the hog factories. These farms currently range from three to eight or nine thousand acres. Additional huge crop farms are linked in from the start through a series of contracts for feed, be it a relatively small supply of alfalfa hay or a huge tonnage of corn silage as well as corn for grain. Some of the younger generation of these farms supply the custom cutting and harvesting that go with the harvest. 
     These same farms and others contract to get the manure, which is all liquid as the fiber portion is dried and reused as bedding. The manure pipes are laid out in the road ditches and inserted through culverts for miles in all directions to get the product to the land where it is knifed in. Typically the Environmental Impact Statements call for four thousand plus acres to spread the material. The factories often claim to have more than that lined up. Mother Nature, of course, is still in charge of the rain and will decide whether any of these acres are actually accessible in the fall when spreading is typically done. That fact doesn’t appear in the EIS.
      There is a blueprint for these things. And I think it was laid out only after careful social study of this rural area and its people. Note that these efforts have all the influential farmers on board at the start. These are the six or eight wealthiest farmers in each county, those folks that the federal representatives know very well they must please. Increasingly now, they have control of the state legislature as well. They are the county commissioners. They sit on the Soil and Water Conservation District, making sure it does nothing. They are on the Extension board, what is left of it and control township boards and village councils.
      The rural working people, meanwhile are in the midst of a fifty year slide in income, population, influence and well being. They are scared of sliding further. As I pointed out several months ago in this space, the towns are shutting down, the schools are shrinking and each year it gets more difficult to keep the state government from cutting funding further. There is little or no opportunity. Kids move away. Depression and drug abuse climb annually. A few locals will get a chance to drive trucks for the dairy factory, as everything moves and must move around these establishments, except of course, the cows. There is simply nothing left in the way of gumption to attend public hearings and speak up for a level playing field for smaller farms and a decent regard for people’s homes and lives. All four of these factories went in without a ripple of protest.
      Assuming this last establishment follows suit, all of these factory sites include bunkhouses. There are three per site, they are two stories and about eighty feet long each. They would house perhaps eight families each. It seems likely to me that these were built to ensure some separation of the workers from the people in town, thus damping down race hatred. The crews on the sites are all brown skinned. These include staff veterinarians trained in their home countries, giving the lie to the story about saving local vet services. I don’t know if the employees are legitimate immigrants or if they are here illegally. I am not going to get involved in that. 
      And these factories are now of a size to be “too big to fail” which will leverage whatever government help turns out to be necessary in any severe downturn. This is what you in dairy are up against. All I can say is that were it not for our family’s efforts starting two decades ago to maintain control of our pork as nearly as possible to the table of the eaters, our farm would not be viable today.

Thursday, June 1, 2017


     I see that the majority sneaked the PUC/REC bill, which removes any PUC oversight of the rural electric coops vis a vis solar and wind into an omnibus bill the governor felt he needed to sign, so now we are back to wrangling with the power coop, whose staff does not particularly want to talk to or deal with us.  I do not like omnibus bills, and I even more despise the way in which the right wingers have been able to run the entire state even from the position of controlling only one house of the legislature, and now of course, two. I helped elect this governor.  Don't I get a say in how the government runs?  The right wingers have this power simply because they put their own agenda ahead of the good of the people of the state.  Democracy is sick in our country these days, and there is some question if it will recover.

    The power coops need to realize they are fighting a losing battle, that solar and wind are coming, and that like any farmer knows, sometimes you end up eating a dead investment.  They need to admit this about their coal contracts, and they-the boards and managers-need to sit down with the people interested in dispersed solar and wind and see what can be worked out that both encourages progress in alternative energy and treats the coops fairly in return for their line, transformer and meter investments.  This was always a better idea than needing to depend on the Public Utilities Commission, but the board and management at Minnesota Valley, our power coop, has always been too arrogant to do that.  It is doubtful that it will happen now.  

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Big America

Big agriculture, or really big America goes about its business in my backyard, building yet another ten thousand cow dairy factory. Every day now when I walk out on the land to check the fields or the cows or to pick a few rocks, I hear the clanking tracks of bulldozers and the horn as they reverse. Two miles away. Yesterday a friend and I mused about the land on this farm that has, as I put it, a water problem. This poor drainage, and the obstacles to a remedy is much on my mind, having bedeviled me for most of my life. We have so few acres to carry on our farming, it seems a shame to have to live with sogginess that doesn't really rise to the level of wetland. She said jokingly that it probably wasn't possible to haul in ten feet of black dirt to raise the sixty acres. We laughed, but uneasily, the way a person walks in a cemetery. You see, we knew that though such a thing was not possible in our world, it is in theirs. Raising the level of earth and "correcting" an issue with subsoil is exactly what they are up to over there and they are doing it with bulldozers and hauled in gravel base. We have done what we can to protect ourselves. We tested the well for static water level and pumping drawn-down so that if they ruin our well with their huge water use, we will have evidence to use in court, always assuming courts continue to exist in Trump's America. But I don't know what we could do to protect our herd. We already live with the misery of epidemic PED and PRRS in our hog business, pretty much the fault of confinement concentration of hogs. Bird flu runs rampant in that huge turkey industry next door. It hangs over all of us with the constant threat that it may jump to the human population. I find myself increasingly conversant with myth, which is so often truer than truth. Icarius flies too close to the sun now, and the wax is beginning to melt from his wings. We are trying to figure out how not to fall with him. The time is getting short.

Monday, May 22, 2017


Mark, a high school classmate of mine now retired, told me in the coffee shop today that he saw me and the dog out working with the cattle several days ago while passing on the road. It was scenic, he said, just like a Terry Redlin print. He said I was lucky to have something like that to do as I got older. I agreed wholeheartedly and made a mental note on the way home to take time off from endless calculating about how to make a living without hurting the land to notice and appreciate the sheer beauty of what surrounds me! So rare in today's world and so precious! Jim

Monday, May 1, 2017


Now comes news from a Wisconsin friend that dairy farmers there are being pushed off the milk truck due to being at the outside fringes of a cheese plant’s collection area at a time when the plant has a surplus of product coming in. These people are facing quitting if they cannot find another buyer. I have been trying to square this with the fact that we are soon to have 40,000 cows within perhaps ten miles here, and the industry comes within not much more than two miles from our site and our cows. This thick concentration of cows was all pretty much built within the last decade and a half. The glaring contradiction involved in what seems to be unlimited expansion in an industry already oversupplied with product is a tribute to how fogged our brains are with modern economic superstition. I lived through the end of the open market on hogs several decades ago and saw and was impacted by the tremendous and uncontrolled expansion there. We needed to build our own meat sales business to stay in hog farming raising hogs the way we wanted to raise them. I learned that arguments from a human perspective simply get steamrolled. Human hopes and dreams including the simple desire to be at home and to be respected have no currency with modern industry(agriculture). It doesn’t matter about noise and dust, about ever increasing truck traffic, about risk to the water supply or enlarged disease exposure for neighboring herds. Nor about the viability of independent vet services and feed mills. The effect of oversupply upon real people, real farms, real small towns, their main streets and their schools is out of consideration. Humans simply do not count in this accounting. But the cows are ruminants. They can process grass and forage, including the cellulose. This fact changes everything. Scientists tell us we have already lost about 40% of the topsoil and fertility we had at the beginning of white agriculture in the Mississippi Valley. Scientists also inform us that carbon in the atmosphere is around 400 parts per million, a dangerous level. Perennial plants are critical here. Increasingly now, studies of grazing’s impact upon soil health show that if the grazing is planned and properly managed it brings carbon back out of the air and puts it into the soil. This is a “carbon pump” driven by grazing’s constant root die off and then rebuilding for the next grazing event. It is what we also call building of organic matter. Organic matter is carbon in the soil. On our farm, we show organic matter (OM) of 5 percent in our cropping acres, which is a six year rotation including hay while our permanent grass, where we graze the herds in a planned rotation is at 6.3%OM. This after only fifteen or twenty years of managed grazing! Spade use in the pastures show living grass roots at a depth of sixteen inches and more. We can work to increase this as we learn to use better plants in our grazing, such as the new grain producing wheatgrass which features a huge and deep root system. What if we could bring the top two meters of soil to life producing food and building carbon stocks? For any of this to happen, we need to open the gates and bring the cows out onto the land where they belong, reversing a trend started many years ago when we first hauled feed to the cow and manure away.

Sunday, April 16, 2017


Every year the farm demonstrates Easter. This year we had the first of the spring crop of calves born on Friday and Saturday before Easter Sunday. Perfect looking little black calves, two heifers and a bull, they carry with them much of the hope to adapt our cow herd increasingly to the grass as we go into the future. Their sire was a three quarters lowline Angus bull while their mothers are black Angus/Hereford crossbreds. They will be smaller than their mothers at maturity and larger than their sire. The whole scene symbolizes hope, which we do have in spite of these dark times. And we wish it for you as well. Jim

Sunday, March 12, 2017


Katherine Paul and Ronnie Cummins report in Alternet that the Organic Consumers Association, along with IFOAM Organics International and others, supports the French effort to meet the carbon reduction goals set at the Climate conference just held in Paris. France “has launched the 4/1000 Initiative which, distilled to simplest terms, says this: If, on a global scale, we increase the soil carbon content of the soil by .04 percent each year for the next 25 years, we can draw down a critical mass of excess carbon from the atmosphere and begin to reverse global warming. How do we achieve those numbers? All we have to do is help just 10 percent of the world’s farmers and ranchers adopt regenerative organic agriculture, holistic grazing and land management practices — and by help, we mean direct a portion of the billions of dollars earmarked for climate solution projects to farmers who regenerate the world’s soils. Using the French government’s modest estimates, we can transfer, via enhanced plant photosynthesis, 150 billion tons of this carbon back into the soil in the next 25 years. Scientists estimate the world’s soils have lost 50-70% of their carbon stocks and fertility.” The USA, of course, wants nothing to do with any of this. This is not the typical slant on news relating to climate change. Much more usual is geoengineering cheerleading. Naomi Klein, also in Alternet, says: “. . .an American entrepreneur named Russ George dumped 120 tons of iron dust off the hull of a rented fishing boat; the plan was to create an algae bloom that would sequester carbon and thereby combat climate change. Mr. George is one of a growing number of would-be geoengineers who advocate high-risk, large-scale technical interventions that would fundamentally change the oceans and skies in order to reduce the effects of global warming. In addition to Mr. George’s scheme to fertilize the ocean with iron, other geoengineering strategies under consideration include pumping sulfate aerosols into the upper atmosphere to imitate the cooling effects of a major volcanic eruption and “brightening” clouds so they reflect more of the sun’s rays back to space.” “The risks are huge. Ocean fertilization could trigger dead zones and toxic tides. And multiple simulations have predicted that mimicking the effects of a volcano would interfere with monsoons in Asia and Africa, potentially threatening water and food security for billions of people.” “Bill Gates has funneled millions of dollars into geoengineering research. And he has invested in a company, Intellectual Ventures, that is developing at least two geoengineering tools: the “StratoShield,” a 19-mile-long hose suspended by helium balloons that would spew sun-blocking sulfur dioxide particles into the sky and a tool that can supposedly blunt the force of hurricanes.” Some of this stuff would make Jules Verne blush. And when contrasted with the reasoned approach of the Organic Consumers Association, it reveals a real disconnect between those who believe in technology and those who believe in people. Why would not anyone choose to have a little faith in people rather than take the huge chances that go with bringing large technological solutions to bear on a huge problem, resulting in possibly disastrous consequences for all of us? Matt Tabbai points to the problem. Mr. Tabbai, writing in Rollingstone says that the time to turn off Donald Trump was forty years ago, when we started to compress all reality into soundbites on television news. We have several generations of Americans now that cannot think about anything deeply, that really do believe all issues are encompassed in a few words, that solutions are easy and generally violent, and that television shows reality. And this has everything to do with how the elites get away so easily with convincing us that every problem is to be solved by certified smart guys in labs, while we commoners fritter away our time on football and shopping. Yes, our institutions have failed us. Our news media castrates our minds. Education teaches myth rather than history, computer rather than science, techno talk and video making rather than English. It is a wonder any of us can think clearly! Neither party represents anything but money in our “representative democracy”. Take the Democrats for instance: Suppose that when Justice Lewis Powell wrote the note to the financial and political elites in the early seventies about taking the country back from the middle and working classes and establishing the elites once again firmly in the saddle, the Democratic party had reacted by saying that it would continue to be the party of the working class(all races) rather than embarking on its half century march into the pockets of Wall Street. Hard to imagine! But in that circumstance, would there even be a Donald Trump today? Not just as a political candidate, now, but also as a carnival barker, and purveyor of televised “rich without working” fantasies? How much audience would he have in a nation of people that felt heard in their government, that felt vitally involved in the progress of their society and valued in their neighborhoods? Does not a degenerate politician need a degenerate populace to hear his degenerate palaver? Alan Savory, the thinker responsible for the principles of Holistic Management says that “the magnitude of world desertification. . .one of the factors responsible for climate change, has already grown beyond the power of any human organization to handle. So great is the challenge now. . .that only ordinary people can do it-you and I-teachers, farmers, foresters, range managers, mothers and fathers. . .” This is a legitimate hope. And this we try to practice-haltingly and imperfectly-on our farm. It is what we can try to do.

Friday, March 10, 2017


Our organic and farmer conferences continue to amaze. There are a good supply of us greybeards on hand of course, but each year there are more and more young people, many couples, little kids running everywhere and babies being carried. It gives us hope for the future but we must hear their most common comment-"We can't get access to land"-and see to it that changes. We must not waste this generation of bright young people! Jim

Monday, February 27, 2017


We spent Thursday through Friday at the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Conference. Seeing long time friends is always wonderful. It is a fact that we who do things a little differently in agriculture are so scattered and sparse that it takes a regional conference like this to relax and feel among friends. And the large numbers of young people with their children and babies is heartening. The mood among us older ones at least was pensive. Many face retirement without really knowing how best to proceed. All too many have no one to help into the business following us. And current political events point to a real wrong turn taken by our politicos, and perhaps all of us, beginning decades ago. How did it get so terribly wrong? We have work to do, no matter our age. The first question is about order and priorities. What needs to come first? It is my hope that as we work to pull us and our country back from rage, hatred and fear and to heal those corrosive attitudes we can also see some of what needs to be restored in order for us all to live a satisfactory and conserving life here on earth, and to take on that work. We have reached a critical point in our country and the world. Let none of us shirk the task.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017


One thing that upsets the feeding plan to outwinter-feed on pasture-the cattle is a thaw. We have had several this odd winter already and the cattle generate an amazing amount of mud. They punch holes in the sod, destroying the pastures, and fouling the feed. It is becoming apparent that we must always have a plan B. Now typically we feed the cow herd on the cropping acres. We couldn't this year because of the wet late summer and fall. This meant we weren't able to get all our cornstalk bales-bedding-hauled in. Cattle out there would wreck the bales, so we gave it up and kept them on the pastures. Now they need to come off, to the lots I suppose, much as I hate it. The Sustainable Farming Association has made available several videos of Alberta, Canada farmers winter feeding their cattle and I am fascinated by the idea of placing the bales in October and then bale grazing by means of an advancing hot wire for the winter. But this winter shows me that at least part of that layout must be on the cropping acres for use during the warm times. The mess can be more easily corrected if you are just planting corn anyhow.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

soil health

The fourth annual soil health conference sponsored by the Sustainable Farming Association runs this week in Fergus Falls. I can't go and am really missing it. We have had someone, generally me, there each year as this is critical stuff. Attention to soil health, to the multitude of microscopic critters and plants that should be in the soil, is key to so much. Those critters grow plants which cover the soil and provide food for animals and us. Soil critters stabilize the soil, keeping it from washing and blowing away. And they sequester carbon, something all of us need to understand as we try to stabilize our climate that we have been burning so much carbon into. Sequestering happens as organic matter in the soil is built, and building that requires living roots in the soil at all times of year. It requires regular cover crops featuring a variety of species and it is likely to mean more farming with perennial plants instead of annual. These things would be revolutionary in agriculture and the pity is that so few know about them.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

winter work

This year we needed to keep the cattle on the permanent pastures rather than sending them back to the cropping acres for winter feeding.  So there they are, munching on hay while being "watched" by our newly installed array of solar panels.  Meanwhile winter was kicking up with snow and wind last week while we needed to wean the pigs, move their mothers back to the gestation area and install the next group of pregnant animals in the farrowing pens.  "The difficult we do right away, the impossible takes a little longer!"  But as always, we are grateful to have important work to do.