Saturday, September 2, 2023

Important work

 Surely, I thought when I awoke this morning, there is something important going on in the world today.  Seemingly surrounded by the sound of revving truck engines and related racket, I soon figured out that the dairy factory just north was cutting and stacking silage and that my farm was fortunate enough to be on the route between the field and the pile.

One thing that my seventy five years mostly spent here has taught me is that progress on the farm must always somehow entail hauling bigger amounts in bigger containers around in bigger circles.  It quite generally also involves an increase in noise.  "Sound and fury"

Friday, September 1, 2023


 Meaning to check the fence just before quitting time yesterday, I walked through the passage way to the north side of the grove.  When I stepped out from the last line of trees I suddenly found myself surrounded by butterflies.  I stood for a time enthralled, while butterflies circled my head and shoulders, occasionally perching on my sleeve for a bit.  

They were Monarchs, every one.  I think they are beginning to clump together for their long lifetime journey to Mexico.  One day very soon they will be gone.

I noticed dragonflies out over the hay field, in the middle distance, seemingly circling the millions of butterflies.  Dragonflies are predators, apex predators.  But somehow, I doubt they were threatening the butterflies, which seemed pretty much to ignore them.  I suppose the butterflies to be more threatened by birds.

That scene all along the northern edge of our grove, which I planted years ago, and which is a full quarter mile in length lifted my heart.  When I planted those trees, my head was full of profit margins and straight corn rows.  I thought I was planting a windbreak for us and the livestock.  

But today I am trying to grow aware as I grow old and I see other uses for trees, butterflies, hay fields and dragonflies.  One can rejoice in being alive at seventy five!

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

season change

The first hint of fall here on the prairie came in early August when the heat let up for a bit and the nights got cooler.  I could just about feel the ending of fast growth and the turn toward maturity in the crops and also, of course, the weeds.

Our pastures went dormant in July this year, due again to the heat and lack of moisture.  Now, with the beginning of what we can hope are the fall rains-we have gotten three plus inches in the last two weeks here-hope is rising that we will have good grazing into the fall.

The temperatures are coming back up again which will help the corn mature.  But the lengthening nighttime hours that August brings should moderate this hottest of all summers. 

I am reminded of conversations I had with a grazier some years ago who was beginning to be discouraged by the way in which his cool season grasses too often hardened off in summer while his neighbor's corn maintained its lush green color through the heat. We can learn from this perhaps.  In a sense this is the difference between our cool season pasture grasses and the warm season annual corn.

We tell ourselves European stories.  And it is Americans who bred up corn, while it is Europeans that provided our pasture grasses, such as brome, orchardgrass, fescue and so forth.  The Americans in question are, of course, natives and that is why that particular agronomic history has never been developed.  We have always had extreme difficulty admitting that the native population knew anything, or could do anything useful.  If we will pay attention to American stories, we will find that the natives bred up corn centuries ago, particularly in Central and some of South America as well as the southwestern corner of the USA.  The European pasture grasses are out of context, while corn is in its ancestral home.

Grasses are warm season, such as corn, sudan grass, sorghum, big and little Bluestem and Indian grass, or they are cool season, such as orchard and brome, meaning they grow best in the cooler parts of the growing season. We have a continental climate here in the upper Midwest with extremes of heat in summer and cold in winter and that is why the pasture grasses harden off and become dormant in summer while the warm season grasses such as corn, are just hitting their stride.

Thursday, July 27, 2023

Heat update

Today is the third day of challenging heat.  Tomorrow promises somewhat cooler temps and we will need to see what the humidity will be.  Yesterday was butcher day and Andrew needed to get the hogs to the butcher in Belgrade.  There are risks in moving hogs in this weather. Most livestock trailers do not cool as well as they should, and even if they do, any air moving is very hot, mid nineties yesterday.  Andy generally has a good supply of ice frozen for these kinds of situations.  The hogs will play with the ice chunks, which helps them to cool down around the head and neck.  We also wet them down as regularly as needed, both in their hoop living quarters and in the livestock trailer.  Hogs do not sweat and wet skin is helpful for them to survive extreme temps.  Andy moved the delivery into the morning.

The cattle were grazed out in the sun on Tuesday in the regular pastures.  On Wednesday, I held them on the yard in their lot and fed them hay.  I put a bale in late last night and spent two hours early this morning finishing the fence around the grazing in the hay field that Andy had topped the day before to reduce the risk of alfalfa bloat.  By eight o'clock I had the charge in the fence up to 2000 around the thirty acres.  Not really enough, I thought but it will have to do.  Due to the rain on Tuesday and the high humidity, the grass stays really wet, pulling the charge down in the fence.  

I let them out into the new grazing at about 8:30 this morning and they grazed out there, staying close to the shade available north of the farmstead grove.  When I checked them after the noon, they had found their way back to their customary trees to pass the heat of the day.  Things are going to be easier after that first trip out and back in!

We are due for some R and R now tomorrow.  We better not let the pile of work here bully us out of a bit of easy time after the three day emergency we have just farmed through!

Tuesday, July 25, 2023


 The heat predicted for some time lands on us starting today.  Temps of 95 plus are expected plus a rising humidity.  We have been busy with preparations.  Today we move the bales off the nearby hayfield and set up fence along the adjacent corn field.  The cattle will be able to shade up on the yard in the north pen under the shade of trees planted just twenty years ago, and then spend the evening, overnight and early morning grazing the stubble plus ten acres of poor stand we have left them.  This should last a week or a bit more, and we hope for a weather change by then. 

For the hogs, Andrew has been spreading fresh bedding in all the hoops.  When manure is stored under foot it composts, creating heat.  This is an attribute of hoop hog production.  To counter this, we must spread fresh bedding regularly so that the pigs are not lying in manure and soiled bedding, which is hot.  

Additionally, we are able several times a day to wet the concrete area where the feeders stand so that the animals can stay wet.  

Heat causes work here as surely as cold does in winter. 

Sunday, July 16, 2023


 The leafhoppers were blowing in the west wind and hitting me in the shirt, neck and face as I walked back to the tractor and mower in the west hay field after the noon dinnertime.  I had started work this morning on cutting the nurse crop of oats, mustard and various other weeds off the new hay seeding.  We seed hay every year and also take a like amount out of the older hay stands to plant corn in the following year.  

Lately we have had trouble getting a good stand because of the dry conditions.  This spring I rigged the old grain drill to route the legume and grass seeds down into the openers rather than just scattering the seeds on the surface ahead of the drill and hoping for the best.  I was gratified to see, as the mower cleared a bit of each swath, that the new hay sprouts seemed satisfactorily thick.  We seem to have beaten the dry conditions, at least for this job this year. 

I like mowing.  I like it for the smells of new cut hay and then toward the end of the day, the smell of wet plants beginning to cure.  But most of all, I like it for the abundance of bird and insect life on display.  Soon after the first trip around the field, the swallows-barn swallows and tree swallows and purple martins-show up to work at harvesting the insects kicked up by the activity in the grass.  Swooping in graceful arcs, they no sooner swallow one insect and they are aiming for the next.  They will work at this all day. 

They are soon followed by the hawks and eagles, patrolling the cut over parts of the field, ever alert for the exposed mouse, mole or gopher.  This day I saw no mature bald eagles, but several juveniles, which lack the white head showed up.  The red tail hawks, formerly known as chicken hawks when farmers kept chickens on the yard, dominated the show.  Most of them were well fed by evening.

Butterflies were everywhere, sometimes the target of the swallows.  There were Monarchs and Viceroys and several dark and also white ones I do not have names for. 

 When I was taking a break from driving and walked a short distance from the idling tractor I heard and saw meadowlarks.  It was a pair, but these were Eastern Meadowlarks, not the Western version so common here when I grew up.  The Eastern is a beautiful bird and welcome, but its song cannot compare with the nine or ten note multi fluted call of the Western. Maps show the Eastern territory as far west as Wisconsin while the Western shows up throughout southern Minnesota and points west.

The call of the Western Meadowlark was the sound track of my youth here on the western Minnesota prairie.  I last heard it two years ago in our pastures, and if it is gone from us for good, I will miss it and mourn its passing.  And I hope my farming operations do not have anything to do with its leaving.

As I lifted the bar for the last time in the evening, and headed for home, I saw a turkey buzzard feasting on something in the middle of the field.  An unlovely but necessary bird.

The next day, walking out to inspect my work, I spotted the first dragonfly of the year.  We have arrived at midsummer. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2023


    June is crunch month.  Most farmers would say this. But it is particularly accurate about farms that are diverse.  And it is even more so when the diverse farm has gone to organic production. We have three livestock species on our farm, and use corn plus a hay seeding consisting of two or three grass species and four or five legumes.  Plus a new seeding of Kernza which management we are trying to learn as we go.  And then of course there are the weeds, too plentiful to count.  All of this diversity, we now know, is just what the soil needs to be healthy.

    Hay and corn conflict with each other. The corn, if planted in April which we hope for, may make it from six or eight inches on June 1st to four plus feet on June 30th, thus putting whatever weeds are in the crop out of reach of the cultivator because the corn is too tall to cultivate.  The hay, meanwhile, generally needs cutting in the first week of June and then raking and baling.  All of these operations on the corn and hay are best done in afternoons when the dew is gone.

    And yet, hay and corn are tightly linked with each other.  And especially is this so on an organic farm.  It is the hay with its legume component that builds nitrogen fertility into the soil.  Hay is going to be necessary to get the cattle through the winter.  Corn is pig and chicken feed.  The very best seed bed in which to plant the corn is tilled hay ground.  The generous root structure that has developed under that grass/alfalfa/clover combination not only offers the best chance at fixing atmospheric nitrogen into the soil, but the root decomposition the next spring at corn planting time offers a seed bed par excellence.  Nothing else comes close.  This hay ground tends to be a bit drier than other acres, thus allowing some of the corn planting to happen earlier.   

The fact that the hay crop has for several years prior been cut and baled several times each year means that annual weeds have mostly sprouted and been killed. The perennials, such as thistles, have had their root strength considerably diminished due to the frequent cutting. 

    Hay and corn go together.  The smart farmer is going to figure out how to get all that work done in one month.  Perhaps the best approach is to custom hire some of it.  Or maybe livestock work can be scheduled away from June as much as possible. For the diverse farmer, getting out of hay and corn production is not optional.  It is the very core of what makes a diverse and organic farm work.