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.