Thankful for Driftless Grass

November 27, 2014

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This bull is fifteen months old.  He was born August, 2013.  Wintered on his mama’s milk and hay.  Weaned onto spring pastures in May.  Grazed Driftless region pastures and hay fields for  another six months.  And now stands there weighing close to 1300 lbs.  His shrunk, sale barn weight was 1260 lbs, a few days later.

If you are a cattle farmer, the above paragraph may be difficult to believe.  If I heard this story a few years ago, I would have found it difficult to believe, and would have been on the lookout for qualifier words.

Qualifier words are used to hedge a statement.  They give the speaker wiggle room.

An example:  Someone says, “I pretty much exercise every day.”

Some people hear that and think, “Wow, that person exercises a lot!”

I hear the qualifier and break it down into fact and wish.  The fact in this statement is that the speaker does not exercise every day.  A good guess is that the speaker wishes he exercised every day.

I used one qualifying statement in the first paragraph.  Can you find it?

DSCF2064I said he weighed “close to” 1300 lbs.  The fact is he did not weight 1300 lbs, or I had no way to know for sure what he weighed, hence the qualifier.

If I ended the first paragraph on that sentence, it would have neutered the whole paragraph.  It would have been a list of what I did, followed with a guess statistic.  If that was all I had, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to write this post, as I’ve written before about how I manage my fall-calving herd.  But the sale-barn weight, an actual pay-weight, gives heft to the story.

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Standing next to the bull in the middle photo, and in the bottom photo, is a fall-calved steer, similar age as the bull.  The steer did well and weighs around 1100 lbs.  Steers don’t gain as fast as bulls.

I sold most of my fall-calved yearlings, but plan to keep this steer and three others through the winter so we can have beef quicker next spring for our farmer’s markets.  They’ll probably be butchered after a month of good grass in the spring.

Why did we have a yearling bull?  He looked tremendous as a calf, so I sold him to my parents to be used later as a breeder.  They later had second thoughts about the temperament of the genetics from that line, so we sold him.

I was disappointed as I thought he was a tremendous bull, but this blog post is a way to make lemonade, I guess.  We probably wouldn’t have know his true weight if we hadn’t have sold him, which brings us around to the title.  I never cease to be thankful for the richness of the grass in the Driftless region.


Electric Fence for Piglets

October 24, 2014

 

 

 

 

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My goal is to have more animals on pasture, more of the time.  This was supposed to be a celebratory post about how I am accomplishing this, but now it’s the middle of October with cold rains and mud, and I’m starting to appreciate the concept of confinement.

The piglets are four to ten weeks old.  Old enough to wean, but I didn’t need to rebreed the sows yet, waiting until November in order to have March litters.  So I wanted to wait, but the piglets were starting to turn into gremlins.

Hence, the low electric fence you see in the photo.  It runs along my driveway keeping the piglets “confined” to sixty acres or so on the south side of my farm.  In reality, they probably only use about six acres surrounding the two acres which their moms are confined in.  I’m taking advantage of the piglets’ natural inclination to stray only so far from their moms.

I gave the piglets their own shelter in the sweet corn patch and their own feed and water.  They really started eating grain, but continued to nurse and graze and eat other stuff like pumpkins.  They were doing very well, with the biggest ones weighing over fifty pounds.  They were so big in fact, a litter of ten was unable to all fit around their mom’s udder.

But I started having some problems.   The sows began to come into heat, (they were cycling to breed), at about eight to ten weeks into their lactations.  Interestingly this is about when our cows return to heat after calving.

A single electric fence separated the sows and litters from the gestating sows and Taiphan, the boar.  Until they came into heat, the single electric fence had  been enough to keep them apart.  But the desire to mate must have caused one sow to go through the fence.  The boar was too rough with her, and I found her the next morning barely able to walk.  So I put the sow into a recovery pen, essentially weaning her litter.

That litter, and the other big piglets found a way to go through the cattle lot and into the barnyard where they started desodding the yard very quickly.  The cold rains made mud, which they tracked into their feeder.  It started to look a lot less like piglet nirvana, so I made the decision to wean and house the piglets in a hoop barn.

 

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After bedding the hoop barn with straw and hay, I made a run from the lactating sows pen to the hoop barn, and in 24 hours had all the sows locked into the hoop barn.  I put an electric fence across the gate opening at sow height, allowing the piglets to come and go as they pleased.

The next morning I shut the gates and all but three piglets were in the hoop building.  I caught the three piglets with my hydraulic trailer and then sorted the sows out of the hoop barn and they were weaned.  Below you can see a photo of a sow and different ages of piglets in the hoop barn.

The piglets are doing very well in the hoop barn.  They are warm and dry.  They have food and water.  They have straw and hay to manipulate as they please.

But I’m conflicted because they are no longer able to run where they please, dig, graze.  It’s a tradeoff and balancing act, something I’ll have to continue to work on as I strive toward my goal of more animals on pasture, more of the time.

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It’s All There!

September 18, 2014

 

 

DSCF1925The 2014 Midwest Wild Harvest Festival was held at Badger Camp, overlooking the Wisconsin river valley.  I loved it.  The people were friendly and excited to learn.  The instructors were inspiring.

I learned about food preservation from Leda Meredith.  Sam Thayer was his usual irreverent self.  And Doug Elliot was as entertaining as he was informative.

Below is the largest poison ivy vine I’ve ever seen.  Doug said loggers used to eat a little bit to immunize themselves against its effects.

 

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I visited with Doug over the course of the weekend and I heard him say, “It’s all there,” several times.  It’s a vague enough saying you can use it just about anywhere.  I think the first time I heard him say it was out on a nature walk, and the next time was in exclamation of the excellent chili, (great food, by the way).

It’s all there, that’s your motto isn’t it?” I asked.

“Well I don’t know if it’s my motto,” Doug said.  “But’s it’s not a bad one to have.”

“It just about says it all,” I said.  “I think I’m going to make it my motto.”

And I am.

I think about my boys who used to love to put lego projects together.  We would scissor open the bags containing all the tiny pieces, and they would follow the instructions step-by-step, ending up with the prescribed toy.  I remember the drama that would ensue if one piece was missing, as now it wasn’t all there, and everything was ruined.

Now we have a drawer filled with loose lego pieces.  My five-year-old nephew makes a bee-line to that drawer when he comes over.  He happily builds something excellent, and then we let him take it home.  We joke that we are slowly transferring the contents of the drawer to my sister’s house.

But we never worry about drama with the lego drawer.  I think it’s the combination of  passion with autonomy, and the sense that it’s all there.  Nothing is missing, and they are confident in their abilities to create something cool.

 

 

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Attracting Native Pollinators

September 8, 2014

 

 

 

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I lost my mind for a couple of months this past spring.  I purchased and planted, weeds.  As with many insanities, mine started with the premise of a good cause.

I’ll admit to being a sucker for good copy, and the marketing department at Prairie Moon Nursery has got to be one of the best.  They don’t even call their spring catalog a catalog:

“Native Gardner’s Companion. Presented by Prairie Moon Nursery. Seeds and Plants of Authentic North American Wildflowers for Restoration and Gardening.”

There isn’t even the word catalog anywhere on the cover.  They aren’t in business to sell me something.  They want to partner with me to restore North America.

I had an open area in my permaculture windbreak which could use something, but I didn’t want large trees or bushes.  So, in the interest of restoring North America, I purchased the “Butterfly and Hummingbird Kit for Moist Soils” from Prairie Moon.  Below is a photo taken June 20th, a couple of weeks after planting and mulching.

 

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This next photo was taken August 10th.  It was fun to see results so quickly.  The flowers are already attracting many native pollinators.

 

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Attracting Native Pollinators” is a book published by the Xerces Society.  The Xerces Society works for invertebrate conservation.  I read their book and I studied the Prairie Moon Nursery catalog and website, as well as the Prairie Nursery catalog and website.

As a consequence of all this learning, I now see flowers.  It amazes me every time I learn something new and my vision changes.  We see with our brains, not our eyes.

So I couldn’t help but notice this huge colony of pink flowers along Highway 23 between Darlington and Mineral Point.  It’s Joe Pye weed, a great flower for native pollinators.  The top photo in this post gives you a closer view.

And I realized how crazy it is for me to plant wildflowers thinking I’m helping the native pollinators.  If I really wanted to help the pollinators, I would start a movement to stop cutting and spraying herbicide along the roadsides.  There are acres and acres of excellent habitat alongside every road.

 

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Twin Beef Calves are Trouble

September 1, 2014

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Twin beef calves are trouble.  Maybe some of you have a breed of cattle that regularly takes care of twins without human intervention, but my cattle do not.  Invariably, a cow will claim one calf and forget about the other one.

Fall-calving started about the middle of August.  These two twin heifers were born one evening.  Since they were both wet and hadn’t nursed yet, I decided to wait and see if the mother would claim both calves, or at least allow both calves to nurse once to receive the valuable first milk called colostrum.

Colostrum contains antibodies from the cow which provide passive immunity to diseases until the calf begins to develop its own immunity.  Antibodies are able to pass through the calf’s stomach because it is porous.  A calf’s ability to absorb colostrum through its stomach wall diminishes rapidly, and is pretty much done within 24 hours.

The next morning I checked and found the cow had taken one calf and left the other.  So I took the abandoned calf home and gave it a bottle of Colostrx.  This is a purchased product which is a substitute for the mother’s colostrum.  That night I gave the calf a bottle of milk replacer.

The next day I checked the cattle again and was surprised to see the other twin had not nursed.  The mother of the twin had large teats, but not excessively large, perhaps the twins had a difficult birth and weren’t quite bright enough to find a teat.  I saw that the calf was hungry and trying to find a teat, but I could tell that none of the teats had been nursed.

I called my Dad to come and help me take the calf out of the pasture.  I anticipated a more difficult time, because the cow was very attentive to this twin, unlike the twin she had abandoned.  It was a good thing I called him because after picking up the calf and carrying it away on the ATV, the cow followed close behind and I needed his help to get out of the gate and keep the cow in.

I gave the second twin a bottle of milk replacer.  I didn’t bother with Colostrx because the calf was 36 hours old.  Now I had two bottle calves, and wasn’t looking forward to the morning and evening chores of feeding two calves.

I thought about the way the cow followed me on the ATV.  There isn’t any cattle-handling facilities in the rented pasture, but there is a round horse pen.  I thought that just maybe, I could lure the cow into the horse pen.  I knew there would be no way to chase her in, with acres of wide-open spaces.

I set up a small hazing fence near the horse pen with some panels that were nearby.  I opened the small gate to the horse pen and then drove my ATV out to the cow.  When she saw me she began to follow me.  As she started to slow down, I made my noise which sounds like a calf mooing and she picked back up.  I stopped the ATV a ways away from the gate and got off and walked into the horse pen.  I bent over in the weeds like I was doing something with a calf and made the mooing noise.  The cow followed right through the small gate.  I jumped up and shut the gate behind her.

I called my Dad and he brought my truck and trailer and we hauled her to his corral.  The next morning we put her in the catch chute to restrain her, and started the slow process of teaching the calves to nurse an udder.  The cow kicked a little, which made our job more difficult, but we got both calves to nurse enough.

We did this process maybe three more times, then we transitioned to a small pen, with one person keeping the cow’s attention, while the other person maneuvered the calves towards the cow’s udder.  We did this process three or four times, morning and night, and now they’re nursing on their own and she’s claiming both calves as her own.

We will still keep them in the corral for a couple of weeks and then transition to a pasture away from the other cattle after that, to ensure she doesn’t lose one of the calves.  As the calves become stronger, they will also make sure they don’t get lost.  Oftentimes the twins will stick together as the mom goes off to graze.

I’m thinking I’m going to have to stop calving in the rented pasture.  It’s impossible to check them if they want to hide in the thick woods.  And there isn’t any handling facilities if there is a problem.

I’ve been pushing my luck for too long.  If I prepare for trouble, I’ll probably have very little.  If I continue to not prepare, I feel I’m due some bad luck.

 


Sweet Corn Summary and Links

August 27, 2014

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My go-to meal for the last three weeks.  The sweet corn was raised without herbicides or pesticides.  It’s a wonderful experience when a successful experiment results in such good eats.

I planted a rye cover crop last fall, rotovated twice in the spring, rotary hoed twice after planting, and cultivated twice, keeping the corn ahead of the weeds long enough to produce a good ear of corn, even though the weeds are thriving now.

The last time I tried to raise sweet corn without herbicides was a disaster, with the weeds getting ahead of the corn, resulting in production losses.  That time I only chisel plowed, disced, and cultivated once.

My plan for next year is to use the same protocol as this year, except possibly not using the rye cover crop.  That may prove to be a mistake as the rye has alleopathic properties.

I wonder if I should be looking at weeds differently.  Instead of a problem to overcome, maybe I should consider them as a volunteer crop.  Instead of weeding, maybe I should be harvesting.

Tama Matsuoka Wong is a businessperson who has taken her interest in wild edibles to a new level.  She partners with restaurants to put wild edibles on the menu.  Her website is  Meadows and More.  Discovering the way Ms. Wong approaches wild edibles is invigorating my thinking about weeds.

Finally, while I’ve spent the summer thinking about sweet corn, I wonder how much corn I’m getting from other sources.  “Children of the Corn” is an interesting infograph if you’ve ever wondered about the corn industry.

The one problem I have with the infograph is when they talk about water usage.  Sure, corn uses water, but it gets cycled back into the atmosphere.  It’s not like it’s being used up, never to be seen again.

Comment if you have any thoughts about these topics.


2014 Midwest Wild Harvest Festival

August 21, 2014

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I’m all signed up and excited to attend the Midwest Wild Harvest Festival, September 12th-14th at Prairie Du Chien, Wisconsin.  It’s three days and two nights of foraging fun at Badger Camp.  I can’t believe it’s been seven years since I attended something like this.

Below is a photo from a foraging weekend near Lacrosse, Wisconsin.  Sam Thayer is in the left of the photo.  He and his wife Melissa, are two of the organizers of this festival.  A fun added benefit for me, and for the rest of the campers, he said modestly, is that my pork will be served at some of the meals.

I don’t think it’s too late to sign up.  If you are interested in wild edibles, this will be a weekend you won’t forget.  I hope to see you there!

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