Monday, October 1, 2018

voices

There have always been voices, many of them strong voices, speaking up for farming and the people of farm country.  Never have they been taken very seriously.  But now there is great trouble in the country and  more than a few citizens are thinking that we have about reached the end of some things about how we live and govern ourselves.  In the hope that the mood to hear may now be there that wasn't before, I lift up three strong thoughtful recent voices.  All of these people have thought long and hard about the problem and have dedicated their lives to seeking solutions.

 
From Wendell Berry, “Leaving the Future Behind. . .”: “If a place-a family farm, a country town and its neighboring countryside, a city and its tributary region-does not keep and care for and use enough of its natural and human goods for its own maintenance and its people’s thriving, the result is destruction, permanent damage-even, as I will dare to say it-climate change.”

From Paul and Phyllis Van Amburgh in the March 2018 issue of Graze: “The time has come for us to bring consumer dollars through to our stewardship. The transfer of wealth has gone on too long. Producers have been harvesting the health of their cattle, mining soil organic matter from the ground and working themselves too hard.”

And from Quebec dairy farmer Gerard Vermeulen in support of Canada's dairy program:
"This is not nice what I'm going to say, but I think you people need to hear it," he says. "Go in Quebec, drive around the countryside, look at the farms. The tin is painted; the tractors are put away. There are a lot of nice farms in the States, I'm not saying they are all run down, but there's a lot more farms that are run down in the States than Canada."

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Love

CONVERSATIONS WITH THE LAND
My daughter, our youngest, came to visit overnight with her brood of four in tow. It was dark and I startled her coming up to the house on my way from shutting in the chickens for the night.
“How do you do that?” She demanded. “Walk around in the dark without a flashlight?”
I told her that it was long familiarity with the place. I said I didn’t need a light because my body knew every inch of this farm. I finished, rather lamely I suppose, by saying that “It amounts to love, finally.”
Whatever the truth or fancifulness of that, it is so that my fascination with the place increases daily as I age. Among the many things that interest me about my life and everything that surrounds it, my interest in what this place is going to do next is chief. Late in life I have begun to hunger for the names and habits of plants and animals that I now know I have lived surrounded by and had always taken for granted. I want to know what they want, if that is the proper way to think of it, what their lives consist of, why they are here and what pleases them about their immediate surroundings. And especially is this so lately regarding the changes in the weather, or climate if you will and the response of the farm to those changes.
This summer, for the third consecutive year we have had rainfall that can only be described as excessive. This summer has featured an extraordinary surplus of rainy days in addition to the heavy amounts of rain, making field work nearly impossible. It is difficult not to see that some of the rainy days are a blessing in disguise as nearby areas have in the process been hit with five to seven or eight inch rainfalls in the course of a single night. We have essentially been missed by the heaviest of the precipitation. Other related things are different. Humidity readings stay above fifty percent pretty reliably. It does not drop off a day or so after a rainfall. The wind does not blow. Consequently, the house does not cool overnight and in the mornings. These things are unexpected here where we have sayings about the prairie winds (There goes Grandma, bucking the wind again!) Traditionally we have expected occasional humidity readings of seventy percent or higher, but at least as frequently, twenty percent or less. We expect thunderstorms complete with electric light shows in the sky and the occasional tornado, but not every week. It seems as if the elements of our weather are stuck and we are on constant replay.
The pasture project is the only thing we have going here that has been working well in the excessive rain. But the cattle have compacted some of the lower areas and the higher traffic zones. I know this because of the increasing size and hardness of the callous in the center of my right hand, which I use to push in the fiberglass rod posts we use to subdivide the grazing, but also because of the plants I see. We have not had much problem with ragweed, either the common or the giant, which befouls so much organic planting, but we do now. It is ragweed that shows up in the entire paddock nearest the lowest and wettest area of the pasture. It appears to like compaction. We have always had patches of Canadian thistle wherever the cattle have torn up the sward eating a hay bale or where several bulls are tussling. Canada thistle is useful in fixing small areas of compaction with the taproot, but I doubt that ragweed will be. Cattle will eat the buds off thistles, but they avoid ragweed like the plague.
It is this general trend of wetness that has increased our problems with compaction on our heavy clay soils. Some farmers have taken to coping with this by rotating their grazing in and out of a year of crop production, enabling the use of primary tillage, usually a plow or heavy chisel plow. I question the usefulness of that approach on our farm, as any new seeding we do seems overrun with weeds for several years before coming back into production with good forage. Perhaps we have too large a weed seed bank. Presumably some of the neighbors think so.
It all must be viewed in the framework of what we think the trend is going to be for the coming years. If it is going to be continued wet, we have to look at real and major changes here as the land is quite low lying and the soil composition is not at all porous and fast draining. It is quite possible that some of the areas lower in elevation will begin to revert to the sloughs and wetlands they were before we whites came here, and that we will not be able to engineer a solution. After all, water only leaves a place by running to a lower place or by evaporation, on its own or through a plant.
Of course, if this wet trend is to be followed by a dry one, we would be best served by not being too rash in the solutions we devise today. There was drought here in 1988 reducing crop yields by more than two thirds. With that in mind, it seems that a good approach to the ragweed would be to try to control the seed production by early enough mowing, and to till the heaviest infestations followed by a seeding of Reed’s Canary grass. This grass, where we have it currently, allows no ragweed or thistle either in its stand. Once established, which will be after several very weak years, it can be very aggressive, to the point that it will be difficult to get a clover to thrive as companion. White clover seems to have worked the best for us; Alsike survives the wet conditions better, but is low growing and short lived, two or three years at the most. Canary grass will do well on higher and dryer ground too if it gets a few years time to colonize those swards.
We can get low alkaloid versions of the Canary grass which are quite a bit more palatable than the common type, but it still makes better cow feed than for growing livestock. And a real advantage of the older stands of Reed’s Canary is that they form a thick loose sod which will stand up under animal traffic that would otherwise pug the soil. I cannot imagine a compacted soil under a stand of Canary grass.
So we could let a few wetter acres produce cow feed rather than high octane finisher grass. It seems contrary to willingly give up striving for top production. The attitude is pretty deeply ingrained in us farmers. But perhaps affection teaches what school and reading, or even experience cannot always. Perhaps asking the farm what it wants is the question with which I should always have started.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

transit

Mr Torkelson wanted to call the safety of Metro Transit into question.  The entire thing turned out to be nothing as riders on Metro Transit are safer than they are in most of the rest of their lives and the numbers show it.  The local Fox News affiliate which reported the non-story yesterday did its best to leave Minnesota in suspense as to the safety of the buses and trains.

It is useful to remember that this Mr. Torkelson, together with his seatmate Mr. Hagedorn, both from the New Ulm area, was last seen explaining to a roomful of upset constituents the reason why the state Department of Agriculture should not be offering to the citizens a voluntary program to help them test their water for nitrate levels.  The pair ended by asserting that the women at the mike probably could not really understand how laws are made. And this in defense of a secrecy that farmers who care about their land and their farming would love to see broken.  And so once again, the pressing need to ask real questions about agriculture and how it is done takes a back seat to cheap hot button "get me elected" non issues.  There are farmers who do not worry about nitrate tests of the ground water because they have deliberately chosen to operate in ways that keeps that from happening and they would love for once a chance to be heard.

This is how it is in politics and how right wing politicians are made, that is, by making up stories about scary brown and black people using a system few of their real-rural-constituents ever will, and using a right wing outlet to publicize the stories, and get them elected.  We are so easily lied to!

Friday, September 21, 2018

wet

Two inches in the gauge this morning, total of the last three days and once again we are put in the awful position of being happy at a circumstance that brought others five and six inches of rain, plus extensive damage.  Even with the way we have lucked out so far for the last three years, we have gotten far too much rain and far too many rainy days.  Whatever the causes of the current climate upsets, it is certainly true that the water cycle is broken.

It is satisfying to think that at the present time, our entire farm with the exception of 45 or 50 acres that is in standing ripening corn, has living roots in the soil.  After three springs and summers of coping with lumps and hard crusts to try to make seedbeds, we are happy that we pushed ourselves and the equipment to the limit to get oats sowed back on the land where we had to destroy corn to control weeds that we couldn't cultivate in June, as well as land that we harvested grain from in late August.  We had three days, during which we also needed to make the final crop of hay, to get it accomplished and we made it.

Currently, we have 100 acres in permanent grass/clover pasture, 50 acres in corn, 60 acres in grass/alfalfa hay, 30 acres in complex cover crop for annual hay and fifty acres in oats cover.  I wish these last 50 acres were in perennials, but am happy to have the oats there.  This is important.  This is for the future and not just next year either.  We and all other farmers need to learn some new things.  Our only impact upon the weather is a very indirect one and that is our soil and how we manage it.    

Thursday, September 13, 2018

cover crops

Five Principles of Soil Health

Keep the soil covered
Minimize soil disturbance
Increase crop diversity
Keep living roots in the soil
Integrate livestock

If what I have been saying in the last several posts is true, tillage is a problem. And related to that, we have in agriculture a very long tradition of using annual plants-which must be planted each year-almost exclusively since the very beginnings of agriculture thousands of years ago. Until the late twentieth century annual crops meant tillage. In the middle of the twentieth century crop chemicals became available and there is now a group of farmers that are practicing annual plant production exclusively with use of crop chemicals for weed control in generally just two crops, corn and soybeans. Now, though, an individual who suffers from cancer has received a land mark settlement against Monsanto, makers of Roundup herbicide, which he claims caused his cancer. Other cases pend, and evidence mounts that all is not well. I fully expect to hear that all our foodstuffs are contaminated with one or another of the crop chemicals and that all our body tissues carry these chemicals, all with bad or unknown consequences. The future for heavy and regular, or even any, use of crop chemicals is not good.

On the other side of it are a group of organic farmers still depending very much on tillage for control of weeds. I am one of those. There is a tendency toward self righteousness in it. We sometimes fail to remember that tillage of annual plants is what destroyed the fertile lands of the Middle East centuries ago and also what reduced the organic matter levels in our Midwestern soils so drastically and so fast, all of this well before the advent of crop chemicals.

There are several approaches to reduce tillage in organic cropping systems. None of them are perfect. We can study carefully the impact of crop rotation on the control of weeds in the cash crops. It really does matter what is planted after what and we need to know more about both the crop plants and the weeds. We need to use cover crops, which are planted not necessarily for harvest, but to keep the soil covered and filled with living roots for as many months as possible. Cover crops can do double duty, for good planning can result in better control of weeds by use of covers and we already know that cover crops that are planted before, after, or interseeded with the crop plants do a huge service in building carbon-organic matter-into the soils.

We can also do whatever we can to embed our annual plant production into a system of perennials and perennial production. This is our practice. Our cropping acres spend just three years in annual crop production, which then alternates with three years of perennial hay for the cattle to winter on. This in addition to our permanent pastures means that at any given time two thirds of our acres are in perennials. Many of the smaller vegetable producers, such as community supported agriculture farms, are doing this very well.

And we can applaud the development of perennial wheat-Kernza-by the Land Institute in Kansas and do whatever we can to encourage this kind of research, both in and outside of the University system. This is a critical event in agriculture, as it moves us toward perennials.

Planned grazing systems are the gold standard for soil health. Cover crops and crop rotation with perennials can help us duplicate that effect on the cropping acres. There is much to learn.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

organic matter


The differences between soil samples in a very rainy time on our farm as shown in the post just below, is connected with the water cycle and the carbon cycle, both of which are involved in the idea of climate change. Returning our soil to good health is a critical part of coping with and mitigating climate change. And it is always easier, when faced with a big problem, if one can grasp a good handle on it.

Earth’s water cycle is denatured because the soil does not hold water well enough. Hence too much runoff to the surface water with attendant flooding and erosion, both field and streambank. Too much surface water in a warming environment leads to excessive rain as well as flooding. You see where this goes.

It is apparent that our pasture soils hold water better than those under a cropping use. Note the crumb structure with its openness between and among fragments. This is evidence of an abundance of little critters in the soil, millions of species, most of them yet unknown. Their presence is in itself evidence of a higher proportion of carbon in the soil. We know this to be true because we have a higher organic matter reading in our pastures than in our cropping areas. Soil organic matter is about 58% carbon. Our farm has high readings in both pastures and cropping practices, which is very encouraging to us. But our levels, at five to six and a half percent organic matter, are still only half of what they were thought to be at the time of white settlement. It is sobering to realize that in the short time of three or four generations that amount of carbon was lost to the air through tillage, which exposes the soil and burns off organic matter. Since organic matter level is generally read in terms of the top six inches of the soil, each tilled acre has contributed a tremendous weight of carbon to the atmosphere in that time. I am not mathematically adept enough to quantify this. It is, in any case, huge.  Is it comparable to the loads dumped by coal burning and petroleum use?

So one of the things we can try to do in order to help stabilize the water cycle is to change the carbon cycle on the farm. We do this, in farm terms, by building organic matter in the soil. And we know that not only does tillage of the soil work against building organic matter, but also that a planned grazing practice encourages organic matter. This is because of the essentially “pulsing” effect of the animal impact. The periodic grazing of the plants cause them to slough off some of the root structure building humus-organic matter-in the soil. It is this event, plus the regrowth of those same roots as the grass grows back, which kicks the activity of the soil critters into high gear and will increase the amount of carbon in the soil over time.


Sunday, September 9, 2018

Soils

 Tools to help you hear what your farm is trying to tell you are simple enough-in this case a spade and several pails.  Pictured to the right here are two samples from our farm, spaded up today, September 9th, 2018, just five days after our most recent rain which was two and a half inches.  This of course is the latest installment of another very wet season here, the third in a row.


 **************************************
The samples above are from our corn field, a field now three years in row crop (corn-soybeans-corn) on the left in my right hand and on my left, and your right, from our permanent pastures, seeded twenty years ago and grazed rotationally in a managed system.  Note the fracturing of the soil under grass, the way in which the roots have divided the soil mass into stable particles not very subject to erosion.  There is very much soil life in the pasture sample, virtually millions of little critters doing their thing in a healthy soil.  This soil structure with all its pore space stands up well to excessive rainfall as the formation constantly allows the admission of air.    
The other sample, in contrast is showing the stress of the wet weather.  Even in our soils with their high organic matter content and even with our practice of holding each parcel in row crop for three years only before it goes back to hay production, the soil simply cannot maintain the structure under the pounding rains and is susceptible to ponding, runoff and erosion.  This soil needs more roots in the ground for more of the year.  It shows that we need to improve in our use of cover crops to provide that.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

obsolescence

The phrase planned obsolescence gained currency in the early seventies, concurrent with environmental concerns and the establishment of "Earth Day".  Today however, it is increasingly difficult to avoid the conclusion that much more was implied than we thought.  The "throw away" culture that was a concern then has expanded exponentially until today it includes throw away people, also known as the multi colored working class.

Consider the explosion of advertisements touting the value of daily home delivered meal packages, by use of, if not now, we are assured, soon, a driverless vehicle.  See where I am going?  Not only do we not need a driver to deliver, but what he/she/it would be delivering would be substitute food, food which would be machine made, thus probably void of much in the way of nutrients, to a home where people are most happily incompetent when it comes to preparing food.

The evident pride connected with all of this gives especial punch to the thought that human uselessness appears to be our modern goal.

Wendell Berry's useful little essay written more than fifty years ago gains currency as we go.  The title is a question:  "What are People for?"  Indeed!

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Farmer thinking


Traditionally farmers have kept in their minds the idea that a problem can be a solution.  In these pictures, the rocks that must be collected and gotten off the cropping acres and especially the hay fields so that cutting equipment is not damaged can be used to firm up the generally soft soil at the entrance to a livestock area to help hold up the tractor or skidloader carrying bedding in or manure out.  Thus a problem in one place becomes, by means of work and thought, a solution in another.  Many barns and outbuildings formerly were built on foundations of collected field rocks, and for the same reasons.  The results of rock picking work also work well for controlling erosion by means of slowing water runoff.


A higher order of this thought pattern leads to thinking about using one enterprise to correct and improve another.  Thus, when free range laying hens are introduced into an area where hogs are fed, they will disrupt the fly cycle by scratching apart piles of wet wasted feed in their search for good things to eat.  The hens do not require much in the way of feed during the season, preferring instead the results of their own search and find.  The eggs are excellent, with bright orange yolks.

Flies are no longer a problem on the farm yard we share with the hogs.  But they do pester the cattle on their pastures and we are now in the process of expanding the egg production and making some of it mobile so that we may follow the cattle through the pastures with rolling egg laying houses, letting the chickens find what is out there that would taste good in an egg.  As one customer exclaims:  "Those eggs are like gold!" 



Saturday, July 14, 2018

cattle working

When it is time to handle cattle for treatment or sorting or whatever, there is a sequence of moves to be carried out.  First the herd is brought in from pasture.  The easiest way is chosen, and this is made easier so far as the cattle can be made to think it is their idea.  The human handler needs to have his mind engaged.  When the herd makes it to the yard, they land in a lot which is much smaller than the pasture paddock, and with more substantial fences.  After a calming five minutes or so, another gate is opened and the cattle are allowed to drift into an area close to the handling.  By this time the cattle are mostly moving themselves.  The fences and gates grow more substantial as they progress and if the handler understands them well, they grow calmer as well. 

After another passage of time, they are brought slowly around a corner to land in a well fenced box. The handler knows the cattle have a built in tendency to circle around him at a certain distance.  From there they will be brought up in the box, a few at a time, toward where they entered and calmly squeezed with a gate in a rough semi-circle until one of their number steps into the approach chute, which features seven foot solid plank walls.  The rest follow.  One at a time, they get to the working, or squeeze chute and put their heads into the headgate, where whatever procedure is needed can be carried out. 

Is it just me, or is this a pretty good description of what is happening to us humans sponsored by Silicon Valley and Amazon?   Our situation gets tighter all the time, more under control.  Ownership is being centralized, on the farm and everywhere else. All repair work is being abolished in favor of planned obsolescence.  Local retail is being put out of business, first by Wal Mart and Menards and Home Depot, and now by Amazon.  Soon the package delivery services and the Post Office they have crippled over the years will be owned and/or controlled by Amazon.  And like the cattle we keep stepping along, thinking we have a myriad of choices.  It is past time to ask what people are for.  The headgate is looming just ahead.   


Wednesday, July 11, 2018

heat advisory

Heat and humidity, seemingly on the increase, puts us here at Pastures A Plenty in the circumstance of needing to pay close attention to the livestock, providing shade, sprinklers and sometimes extra fans, while we watch ourselves for signs of heat exhaustion.  This weather, 92 degrees and humid, is dangerous. 

Saturday, April 28, 2018

calves



 The snowstorm of April 14 and 15 demonstrated once again how powerful the life force really is.  As was pointed out before, we had two calves born before the event and then the cows took several days off.  The calves in these two pictures were all born since the storm, born wet and onto snow.  The boys got some corn stalks spread for help in getting them off the snow, and soon out of the mud.  You can see in the pictures how very hard this was on the pasture paddock, with the pugging and the mud showing, where they are being fed.  But there too, we can have some confidence that the same strength that is in the calves will also be in the grass.  Livestock farms teach this over and over.  Nature is anything but weak, if we would just try to stay out of her way a little. 

Friday, April 27, 2018

spring

It is a slow and difficult spring here at Pastures A Plenty.  Sometimes a livestock operation as exposed to the elements as is ours suffers from it.  And yet, we managed to luck out in the late April snowstorm.  Two calves were born before the storm hit and were doing well.  Then the cows took a five day break while the weather blew through before they started calving again.  So far, they are all happy and healthy out there.  Andrew needed to spread several bales of cornstalks to give the cows and new calves a way to stay out of the mud, with which we have been plagued since middle March.

Another big concern is the hog production.  We use bedding in every aspect of it and by this time of year our hoops and buildings are all bulging with mixed stalks, straw and manure.  We itch to start hauling to the pile where it will soon be applied ahead of the crop, but the frost is in very deep this year and is keeping the soil surface soft and wet.  Too soft and wet to haul heavy loads of manure out.  So we are faced with the choice of piling it temporarily closer to the yards and house and hauling it out when we can.  Extra work and an unsightly mess.  But that is what farming is sometimes. 

Sunday, April 8, 2018

"Man shall explore without ceasing
and the end of all his exploring
will be to come to where he started
and know the place for the first time"
T.S. Eliot (from my memory)

How much better could our farming be if we kept this poem in mind?

Monday, April 2, 2018

biomimicry

The idea is that nature has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with.  Animals, plants, and microbes are the consummate engineers.  After billions of years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival.

Biomimcry Institute, posted at the Niagara Parks System

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

curious

It is curious that those who are advancing veganism as a one size cure all for everything from obesity to climate change have not seen fit to talk to any farmers.  Now by "farmers" I do not mean commodity groups or political pressure groups or traditional farm groups.  I mean rather some of those farmers who would respond favorably to being called biodynamic or organic or grass farmers.  If an emissary from the intellectual capital of the world-New York and environs-were to make it into the great middle part of the country, she may find a satisfying number of people involved with the land who know that the Middle East is an area desertified by civilizations that fed the overwhelming majority of their people plant based diets. 
She might also find farmers that could tell her that in this time of complete compendiums of knowledge-ask Google-we know fewer than a tenth of the species that we think live in the soil, and even less what they do.  These farmers would know that most of what they know of the soil, they have learned from observation, not academic study.  They would be able to say that perennial agriculture such as pasture and hay crops is most beneficial to the soil, that some of this benefit could be mimicked by using cover crops in and between annual cash crops, that the soil needs animal impact.  Most of these farmers keep steadily in mind that bison, wolves and Indians built the hugely productive grasslands in the country's midsection. 
These farmers know that the best measure of soil health we have today is the percentage of organic matter, that this percentage drops with regular tillage and compaction but is built with perennial plants and grazing animals.  And they are beginning to understand that good grazing practice can build it faster than we previously thought.  People who understand increasing organic matter and its function know that it reduces erosion on land in use and it sequesters carbon. 

Friday, March 16, 2018

grazing land

I spent the morning and much of the afternoon tromping across 120 acres of possible rental land coming out of CRP.  I was trying to investigate the possibilities for a cow calf herd being maintained there.The whole experience was difficult in the snow melt and through the volunteer trees and brush, but there are some things to be happy about.  One of these, though, was not when I happened upon the southwest perimeter, a high steep knoll sloping down toward an occasional creek behind me.  We had already told the owner we would rent the land for grazing only, that it was not suitable for row cropping and to do so would be wrong.  Looking down from my perch on the knoll, across the property line, I could see the effect of corn cropping on inappropriate land.  There was a six foot drop off from the perimeter to the tilled corn field and the soil on the corn field was completely yellow in that location.  The topsoil that should have been there, and was there on my side, due to the CRP use, was gone on the other side, run to the bottom and the creek that drains it.  Perhaps five feet deep on the near side to a foot down to the yellow on the far side and a width of seventy five feet and more.  Tons and tons of valuable black soil, gone forever.  As a farmer, I was sick looking at it

This is on us, both us farmers who have forgotten how to be farmers and the politicians who aid and abet our view of ourselves as economic animals only, with no agriCULTURE anywhere to be found.  


Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Sunrise at Pastures A Plenty



We made an important change in our farrowing pens to compensate for sow behavior.  As you can see in the top photo, which shows two empty pens, sows are able to come up toward the black gate and visit with each other across our center alley.   This results in manure and urine being deposited too high in the pen and the slope toward the gutter-on the near side of the photos, but not visible-causes the entire pen, bedding and all to be constantly wet.  We found we needed to blind the pen so that the sow could not see the animals across the center alley, but would need to stand down in the gutter end of the pen in order to visit through the fence.  (This grate in the pen partition is partially visible in the lower photo) 
The materials used for blinding the pen were medium weight sheet steel welded on to the pipes of the pig creep gate and primed and painted.  We invested perhaps three hundred dollars plus time spent to make this changeover on all of our thirty strawed pens.
You will notice that the sow in the lower picture has given up on seeing her mate across the center alley and is concentrating her attention on the animals next to her.  To encourage this behavior, we do all our feeding from the outside alley, on the floor, as well as cleaning the pen, which of course must happen there.  We do distribute bedding from the center.
It is important to add that this is a good layout for farrowing as well, for the sow at farrowing wants to back into a cave like surrounding so that she may birth her pigs while keeping a watchful eye on the open area from which danger might approach, which is us, in this case, from her instinctive point of view.  That deposits her piglets up into the warm well strawed area.  This kind of understanding of pig behavior is important in layout of any new farrowing construction.  It is easier not to fight Mother Nature.