Contour Strip Cropping, Farm Update

July 19, 2014

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There must be some sort of dubious record I am setting this year.  The top photo was taken July 6th.  It shows the contour strips, which is how we farm the hillsides in Wisconsin to prevent soil erosion.

The green in the foreground is a little strip of hay next to the road which was cut and baled in June.  Next up in the photo is very mature, cut hay.  Yes, the last of first cutting was made in July.  The green strip in the middle of the photo is hay which was cut and baled in May, and is now ready to be cut for a second time.  The light colored strip above that is my oats and hay new seeding which is cut and drying, waiting to be baled.

So, yes, I made first cutting hay in May, June, and July.  I know of no other farmer who is as on the ball, and behind, as myself.  At least I’m still laughing.

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The bottom photo shows my sweet corn on June 26th.  Beyond the sweet corn are the farrowing huts.  I’ve had 14 beautiful June litters.  Beyond the farrowing huts are my grass-finished steers.  I started them grazing hay fields at the end of June.


Hummingbird Moth Caterpillar

June 30, 2014

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The forage peas continued to grow, reaching over four feet in height.  They are flowering now and producing pods.  I snapped these photos when I turned the sows into fresh pasture.  The caterpillar in the bottom photo is a big one, and the second one I’ve seen, so I decided to try and identify it.

It looks like its a White-lined sphinx caterpillar, (Hyles lineata), commonly known as the Hummingbird moth.  This is exciting to me because I’ve only seen a Hummingbird moth once in my life.  They’re really cool because they look like a hummingbird, until you watch their movements and realize they’re too slow to be a hummingbird.

I read a book this winter, “Attracting Native Pollinators,”  by the Xerces society.  It’s all about what we can do to improve the habitat for our native pollinators.  In a future post I plan to share some of the fun plantings I’ve done this spring.

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Sorghum/Sudangrass and Forage Peas for Pig Pasture

June 20, 2014

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I planted two forages for a pig pasture this spring which are new to me.  I’m very pleased with the forage peas.  I’m not happy with the sorghum-sudangrass, but don’t feel I utilized it correctly.

I no-till planted both into last year’s pig pasture on April 23rd.  I used my single-disc John Deere grain drill, which is not considered a no-till drill, but works great when the ground is mallow in the spring.  I planted about 25 lbs to the acre for each.

Above you can see what most of the pasture looks like.  Three-foot high forage peas growing thickly.  The warm-season sorghum-sudangrass has been overpowered by the cool-season peas.

Below you can see an open area where each plant is growing side by side.  The sorghum-sudangrass is thriving here.  It looks like corn.  The pea is the green and white leaf on the left.

The sorghum-sudangrass is called Surpass BMR 6, and is from Lacrosse Seeds.  I can’t even find the forage pea on their website.  It’s safe to say the pea did better, but I believe it’s all in how I used them.

Planting them together and early in the spring is an advantage for the peas, and the results bear witness.  I shouldn’t have planted them together, but I wanted to try both plants and wasn’t sure I would have another spot to plant in this year.  Waiting another year is just too much.

I also think the sorghum-sudangrass would have like to have been planted deeper, but no-till into mallow ground worked great for the pea.  On a side note, Buckwheat no-tills very well in the spring, although it is not supposed to tolerate frost.

 

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I couldn’t resist including the photo below with my model sow amongst the purple and red flowers of alfalfa and red clover.  The sow was pictured last September as a gilt with her beautiful litter.  She has large, erect ears, which make it seem as if everything is exciting to her.  Maybe everything is.

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2014 Winter/Spring Farrowing Update

March 11, 2014

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It was much colder than average for this time of year which made it difficult.  One morning was eleven degrees below zero F.  One snowstorm of several inches occurred.

I only opened the huts to let the sows go out to drink, eat, and urinate/defecate.  Keeping the huts closed help to keep some of the sows body heat in the hut.  Having the huts in the hoop barn kept the moisture from the snow from being a factor.  I used about one bag of wood shavings for each hut and gave a fresh slice of straw daily.  This was on top of a base of wood chips from Menard’s.

The sows all farrowed within a week of each other.  They averaged over 11 piglets born alive.  Now, about ten days later they have an average of 8 piglets nursing, so there was a good deal of loss.  When conditions are this difficult, it seems that piglet vitality plays a large part in survival as well as the mothering ability of the sow.

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As the temperature warmed into the 30s F, I left the doors open and put the rollers on to keep the piglets in but allow the sows to come and go as they please.  The piglets only stayed in for a few more days before they began to jump out.  So I’ve removed all the rollers now and the piglets are able to explore.

The piglets in these photos are only a week old.  It’s amazing how precocious they are.  Look at the open mouth on the black and white piglet below, trying to decide if my boot is worth eating.

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Winter/Spring Farrowing 2014

February 21, 2014

Farrowing Huts in Hoop Barn

This is my newest farrowing setup.  Last winter/spring when I had all that trouble in March with snow and cold, I decided I would try putting the farrowing huts inside a hoop barn.  You can see by the ice on the bottom of the closest hut that it’s still cold in there, but I shouldn’t have as much of a  moisture problem as I did outside in the snow and cold.

Since I stopped farrowing in my parents’ heated barn in 2011, I’ve tried four different ways of farrowing:

The warm, dry months of July, August , and September are ideal for farrowing outside.  I’m convinced that if sows had plenty of space and material to build their own nests, no predator problems, and feed and water, a farmer could do absolutely nothing and would average over 8 piglets weaned per litter during this perfect time.

Farrowing in huts on frozen ground with snow and ice surrounding is what I tried last winter/spring.  I managed to wean 7 piglets per litter,  but it took tons of bedding and manual work and was stressful.

Farrowing in huts in the warmer months is easier than when it’s cold.  I probably sleep the best with this method as I know if a sow and her litter is in a hut with a roller on the door to keep the piglets in, they are safe from predators and the elements.

Finally, farrowing in a hoop barn with homemade pens is the first method I tried in January of 2012.  This worked surprisingly well except for a couple of litters born when the temperature dipped to zero F.  I made temporary pens out of wire hog panels, giving the sows plenty of space, removing the panels when the piglets were a couple of weeks old.  It was quite a bit of work, letting the sows out of their pens for feed and water twice a day, but it was a nice environment for the pigs and the farmer.

So putting huts inside a hoop barn is my fifth iteration.  I plan to use this system only until mid-spring, then I will go to huts outside.  As always, I plan to keep statistics and share the results by the end of the year.


Outdoor Farrowing, 2013 Summary

December 4, 2013

I had great expectations to improve over 2012′s average weaned per litter of 7.8 piglets.  8 piglets weaned per litter isn’t much of an improvement, but I’ll take it, especially considering the way 2013 farrowing started in a blizzard.  But an average of 8 doesn’t tell the full story as this is a tale of two seasons, difficult spring and easy summer.

2012 was difficult because we started farrowing in January in a hoop barn and lost several piglets when the temperature dropped below zero F.  I thought I could avoid that problem in 2013 by waiting until March to start farrowing.  March 2012 was 80 F and dry, a bad precursor to the drought which would follow, but ideal weather for farrowing.  March 2013 was the opposite, cold and wet, snow, rain, plummeting temps.

I had an idea about how much bedding would be needed in each farrowing hut.  Boy was I wrong.  I didn’t think about the ground under the hut being frozen, so it was extremely cold for the pigs and when the body heat of the sow warmed the ground it became wet.  The first two sows farrowed and 17 of the first 22 piglets froze.  I felt desperate and depressed.

Well, I remembered what Professor Freeman taught me.  Environmental factors are greater for plants than animals for a simple reason: animals can move, animals can modify their environment.  I knew the sows’ instinct to save their piglets was strong, I just needed to give them a chance.

So I started buying truckloads of wood shavings.  I had them slide whole pallets of bagged wood shavings into the back of  my trailer.  I trudged through the snow with a bag on my shoulder and started with two bags for each hut to soak up the wet and cold.  And the sows responded, making dry nests for their piglets.

17 spring litters farrowed 193 live piglets for an average of 11.4 per litter.  They weaned 119 piglets, an average of 7 piglets per litter.  So the preweaning mortality was 38.3%.  Considering how badly they started, I considered it a success to save only 2 out of every 3 piglets born alive.

I let the sows have a long lactation and then weaned all the piglets at once.  Since I didn’t have enough boar power to breed 17 sows, I decided to artificially inseminate, AI.  I was successful the previous fall with AI, settling nearly all the sows, which resulted in these spring litters.  But the spring was a different story as  some of the sows had already started cycling and I was busy with spring work, spending not nearly enough time watching for signs of estrus.  I got exactly 0% of the sows settled with AI.

At this point, I think anyone would say I was in a major swine-farming slump.  A beginning farmer may be thinking swine-farming is not for them.  But my years of experience has taught me that perseverance is what is required, and since I’m my own boss no one gets to decide I fail except for me.

Luckily I had some young boars and gilts which could be used for breeding.  So I put the boars in with the gilts and sold the sows as culls.

The gilts farrowed in July, August, and September.  The first gilt had 14 weak piglets with all but 5 dying quickly and I thought, “oh no, my slump continues,” but thankfully, the next litters were strong and healthy.

The weather was warm and dry.  Many of the gilts farrowed in huts, but some picked their own spots in the woods.  I used very little bedding and did very little work.  It was a joy to experience.

15 gilts farrowed 158 live piglets for an average of 10.5 per litter.  They weaned 138 piglets for an average of 9.2 per litter.  The preweaning mortality on this group was only 12.7%.

The final statistics are 32 sows and gilts farrowed 351 live piglets for an average of 11 per litter.  They weaned 257 piglets for an average of 8 piglets per litter.  Preweaning mortality averaged 27%.

I’m modifying again for 2014.  Sows will start farrowing at the end of February.  I plan on putting huts into a bedded hoop barn and farrowing there for the spring litters.  For the summer litters I’ll continue to just stand back and let them do their thing.


Wood Chips from Menards

October 9, 2013

DSCF1484Menards is a home remodel retailer similar to Home Depot.  They have a facility in Illinois which takes all the old wooden pallets used in their business and grinds them up and runs it by a large magnet which removes the nails and metal.  They then give the finished wood chips away if you will haul them.

My uncle has a large straight truck which is used mostly to take mulch and potting soil into Chicago in places a semi tractor trailer can’t access.  He brought me a load for $450, which covers his gas, but not much for his time.  The photo above shows about 60% of the load, as I had him dump it in front of two hoop buildings.

I’m able to use my loader and put it about a foot deep in two hoop buildings.  It makes a great base onto which I spread straw weekly, or as the pigs need it.  When I haul the manure onto the fields I can still see some of the wood chips, but it appears they break down rapidly in the field because I have never seen any intact later.

In the bottom photo you may be able to see a sow eating at the large feeder.  Since I’m using more pasture for my hogs I’m using some of my hoop buildings differently.  In the warm months when they can be out, I have shelters in the pasture, but I let the hogs come into the hoop building for water and feed, fencing off the rest of the hoop building and using that part for machinery storage.  In the cold, wet months I’ll give the hogs access to the rest of the building.

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Rye Cover Crop, Old Pig Pasture

October 2, 2013

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I moved the remaining farrowing huts and mowed the rape and old hay on one of my pig pastures.  I filled in the wallows and other places the pigs rooted with my loader.  I then scraped up the manure from a hay feeding area for my cattle, and spread three loads of this manure on the pasture.

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I used an old soil cultivator  to work up the soil.  This implement is more for finishing tillage rather than starting it, but I own it and I just wanted to lightly and quickly till to mix in the manure and to ensure good soil-to-seed contact.  I had to raise the implement up a few times when some long stems of rape bunched up.  Otherwise it did fine.

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My plan is to grow organic sweet corn here next year.  I’m concerned about weeds, so I talked to an old organic farmer in my area.  He told me to plant cereal rye the fall before I want to grow organic corn.

Rye has an allelopathic effect on  other plants.  Rye releases compounds which inhibit the germination and growth of other plants.  This effect is greater on smaller-seeded plants like weeds, but less of an effect on a large-seeded plant like corn.

I read an article in Progressive Forage Grower titled, “Monitoring nitrogen dynamics in cover-crop mixtures”.  The study showed how a nitrogen-fixing cover crop such as hairy vetch was able to improve yields when no nitrogen fertilizer was added as compared to a non-nitrogen fixing cover crop like rye.  Since I plan on adding no commercial nitrogen, I thought it may be good to include hairy vetch with the cereal rye.

Unfortunately, I read it a little late to incorporate the results into my planting.  I wanted to get the field planted before a rain to help germination.  I planted it last Friday, September 27th.  It rained that night.

However, my thinking is my plants will have more nitrogen available than in the study because I have manure to spread on the field.  The rye is known for sucking up the available nitrogen in the soil and will release it back into the soil in the spring when it breaks down.  The challenge as I understand it is to kill the rye and have it breaking down, releasing nitrogen to the newly growing crop as the crop needs it.

Rye can be a challenge to kill.  The earlier paper I cited said rye should be incorporated into the soil when it’s 12 to 18 inches high.  A wet spring can make this a challenge because rye is known for its fast growth.  I’m not sure what I will use for spring tillage.  Rotovating is more popular now, and my partners own a rotovator, so maybe I’ll use that.

Back to this year.  The photo below shows how I planted the rye.  I used my 12 ft. John Deere grain drill followed by a 12 ft. Brillion cultipacker.  The cultipacker helps to break down any clumps remaining and ensures good soil-to-seed contact.

I planted about two bushels or 110 lbs. of rye to the acre.  I checked the field today and the rye is shooting out of the soil less than a week after planting.  I’ll probably post some photos in the future to track its progress.

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Placentophagy in Swine

September 26, 2013

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Placentophagy is when a mother eats her own placenta.  I wrote an earlier post about how most of our cows do this.  But I never allowed the sows to do this, preferring to keep the environment neater.

But as I’ve transitioned from my parents’ heated farrowing barn to outdoor and hut farrowing, I noticed something.  If I wasn’t able to reach into the hut and take out the placenta right away, it would disappear.  I realized the sow was eating it, and since none of the sows were leaving the nest for at least 24 hours for water or feed, I figured whatever nutrition was in the placenta may be beneficial.  So for the fourteen gilt litters this summer I made a point to leave the placenta, while still removing any dead piglets.

Researching this post led me to a greater appreciation of the placenta.  One website says “the placenta is the only organ that belongs to two people at the same time.”  Another website says the placenta functions for a baby’s vital organs.  As a baby reaches full-term, the flow of maternal blood to the baby is around one pint per minute.  The surface of the placenta is covered with what is basically a single cell with millions of nuclei.  The surface area of this cell is over 100 square feet.

While the placenta is amazing, the claims for placentophagy are not scientifically proven.  This doesn’t mean they’re wrong, it just means they’re not proven.  And in a case like this where the powers-that-be have little to gain, I think it may be some time before anything is proven.

Being a man, I would never eat a placenta because it seems too much like cannibalism to me.  But if I was an expectant mother I would give it some thought.  If I made the choice to not eat the placenta, I think I would do like Native Hawaiians and plant it with a tree.


Summer Litters, Link-Love Sept. 2013

September 19, 2013

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Duroc gilt in the woods with her litter of eleven piglets.  Fourteen gilts farrowed this summer.  It’s amazing how well they do in the warm months compared to the struggles I had last March.

Most farrowed in a shelter, or I put a shelter over them after farrowing, as I let each choose her own spot to farrow.  Two gilts were in a spot in the woods inaccessible to a shelter so I left them alone.  They raised ten and eleven piglets each.

I wouldn’t have had the courage to farm this way without reading other bloggers, specifically the granddaddy of farm bloggers, Walter Jeffries.  Recently, he posted a photo showing a 300 lb, eight-month-old boar, raised on nothing but pasture and dairy products.  Walter is a paradigm shifter for me.

I’ve been without a computer for the past couple of months, hence my lack of posts, but I’ve kept up on the farm blogs I read and enjoy and wanted to share some more with you.

Bruce King wrangles with government agents and speaks at government meetings.  I love hearing about his civic adventures.  He also purchased a confinement dairy farm recently and is transforming it to his vision.

Andrew at Green Machine Farm writes about his new life as a farmer.  He educated us on bat houses recently.  Would you believe he made a bat house out of plywood, painted it black, and placed it on the south side of a shed?  How anything could survive a midwestern summer in that box and not cook to death is beyond me, but Andrew informs us he already has bats living in it.

Gordon Milligan is a train conductor in Chicago.  He has a dream to farm and raise his own food when he retires.  He and his wife recently purchased a farm in Iowa and are anxiously awaiting the day they will call it home.

Lastly, I read a blog from a farmer in France.  I like to see what Brent is doing with his farm because the soils and underlying limestone are extremely similar to my farm.  He grass-finishes Salers cattle, grazing alfalfa/orchard grass hay fields.  Check out his blog and see if the photos of his land seem similar to mine, like in the photo below of my steers grazing a fresh hay field.

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