Water Holding Capacity, Soil vs. Straw Bale Garden

August 9, 2022
Straw Bale Garden, August 2022

Three inches of rain from midnight until 6 am, with most of it coming hard between midnight and 2 am, and I’m happy to report most of it soaked in!  2022 is the year I truly learned to appreciate the water holding capacity of soil.

Clearly my straw bale garden was going to be superior to my wife Isabel’s garden.  How could it not be?  I read the book.  I looked at the beautiful photos.

Weeds are an ongoing struggle in Isabel’s garden.  If the book is correct, I should have nary a weed in my straw bales.  The only thing that concerned me was how much the Joel Karsten, the author, talked about a watering system for the straw bale garden.  

Mr. Karsten recommended a soaker hose running the entire length of the straw bale garden and run daily on a timer, so as to never forget watering.  I figured I could turn the water on and off myself, but I did install a soaker hose when I made my straw bale garden.

And boy am I glad I did, as you can probably predict, straw bales don’t hold on to water very well, and the garden needed daily watering.

Isabel’s garden on the other hand thrived without daily watering.  Its good soil, and the previous fall I covered with a thick layer of homemade compost.  

I come away from the experience with a greater respect for the water holding capacity of soil.  And I know whatever I can do to improve my soil’s capacity, the better I’ll be able to grow things, because I never forget the saying, ‘Water is the best fertilizer.’

We farmers spend a lot of our energy thinking about the minor details, probably because we’re bombarded by advertisers trying to sell us on the minor details.  But its important to remember that no product we can purchase is as valuable as an inch of rain at the right time.

If I can improve my soils to hold more water, essentially I’ll be getting water at the right time, when its dry and the plants need it.

So I’m super happy to see very little runoff this morning, creeks aren’t up, the water is soaking in.  With these 3 inches of rain we probably have enough water for the rest of the growing season.

I probably won’t do a straw bale garden next year.  It doesn’t make much sense when you’re blessed with as good of soil as we are.

Isabel’s Garden, 2022
Straw Bale Garden, 2022

Here is another photo of the straw bale garden. You can see I’ve given enough water as the bales are breaking down. The only thing that did really well for me is a couple of the tomato plants.

I traded meat for plants with my DCFM neighbor Mark this spring. He’s got some good stuff and I’m really starting to enjoy some black cherry tomatoes. But as usual, the best thing from this whole experience is what I’ve learned.

Revelations aren’t free.


Matthew’s Reminder

July 7, 2022
Running of the Bulls

WARNING: Detailed and Long Post.  I wrote this to remind me of our selection goals and to hold myself accountable.  If you’re not me or Larry from Madison, I suggest you skip this long post.

100% Calf Crop.  If you’re a cow/calf producer and you aren’t weaning a calf from every cow, I’ve just saved you time by identifying what should be your #1 goal.

But, but, but.  I know, you have more butts than a Piedmontese stud, and its your herd, and you aren’t going to take my word for it.  Why should you?  Who am I anyway?

I’ll tell you.  I’m a guy who’s been farming his whole life, made most every mistake once, sometimes twice, (I’m a slow learner), and hung in there long enough that we make a living farming.

But you’re still not going to take my advice about your herd.  And you shouldn’t.  Its your herd.

So, where are you going with your herd?  Can you verbalize your goals?  Have you ever written them down.

Write down your goals!

You know who we lie to the most?  Ourselves.  Writing down your goals keeps you accountable to yourself.

I’ll use our farm as an example.  These are the traits we’ve identified and written down as being top priority for our farm.

Our #1 trait is Disposition.  

Why is Disposition our top trait?  My work crew is 2 elderly parents, a wife, and a toddler.

I loaded two old bulls the other day with the help of my wife and Grandpa.  Grandpa got to ride his 4 wheel drive ATV.  My wife and I walked through ankle deep mud, and one of her boots leaks.

To inspire my wife’s courage I used audible cues, “Come on honey!”  She came on.  We got the bulls loaded and I hauled them to market.

At the end of a long day I looked for my supper and I realized it was going to be something I remember my mom serving my dad from time to time.  In our family its a dish called, “Find it yourself.”

So yes, Disposition is going to stay at the top for the foreseeable future.  We need to have cattle we can work with.

Our next most important trait is Calving Ease.  

I anxiously watched my first heifer of the calving season try to push out a calf, Wednesday, April 6th, 2022.  20 mph wind was blowing rain sideways.  We don’t have fancy calving barns so we wait until April to start calving here in southwest Wisconsin. 

I told my wife we were going to have to wait until this heifer had her calf safely before we went to Platteville.  We had planned an outing to Farm and Fleet, maybe lunch at Culver’s, but that was on hold while we waited.

And I prayed that the calving ease bull we used was truly easy calving, as it was not going to be easy to help this heifer if she had a problem.  The pasture I have these heifers calving in is pretty nice, with stockpiled fescue, and hills for drainage, and draws to get out of the wind.  

But it would not be easy to help her as we would have to walk her through the muddy winter hay feeding lot, up to the pen by the barn, and then either haul her to my parents corral or haul the catch chute up to my barn.

Well it took most of the morning, but the heifer had her calf unassisted, with my dedication to calving ease only strengthened.  We missed our lunch at Culver’s, but happy to have a live calf.

I should mention we want both kinds of calving ease, direct and maternal.  Direct calving ease estimates how easily a bull’s calves will be born.  Maternal calving ease estimates how well a bull’s daughters will calve. 

The final trait we select is Soundness.  And by Soundness I mean feet and legs, breeding, and udder. 

If your cow can’t walk because of long hooves or poor legs, she won’t stay in the herd.  If the bull and cow can’t connect, no calf.  And if the newborn calf can’t stand up and put his mouth around a functioning teat, Matthew has to stop whatever else he’s doing and get the cow into the corral and help the calf nurse. 

The first Soundness traits keep you in the cattle business.  The last Soundness trait keeps me from being annoyed, and since I don’t like being annoyed, its definitely staying in our Soundness criteria.  

For our farm, that’s it!  3 Traits, Disposition, Calving Ease, and Soundness.  If you think I’m cheating by subgrouping 3 traits into soundness, then fine, call it 5 traits we select.

What do you select?  Keep in mind, the more traits you select, the less emphasis and progress you can make on any one trait.

What don’t we select?  Off the top of my head, weaning weight, yearling weight, milk, maintenance energy, average daily gain, dry matter intake, marbling, carcass weight, yield.  And everything else, except for one trait I forgot to mention.

We like red cattle.  Most of our neighbors have black cattle.  We like red cattle, so we select red cattle.  Maybe you don’t care what color your cattle are, fine, its your herd. 

What traits do you select?

Remember to keep it simple!  The more traits you select, the less progress you will make in any trait.

Let’s take a ludicrous example and say that you and a buddy have talked it over and decided that cattle need long tails to swat flies.  The longer the better.  You both decide to add tail length to your selection criteria.

Now this is a great trait to make progress on, because its measurable, and most likely highly heritable.  All you have to do is measure tail length at a consistent time in your cattle’s life, select the best, and breed the best to the best.  You will increase the tail length in your cattle.

Now your buddy is a reasonable person, and she likes well balanced cattle, so while she does select for tail length, she also selects for disposition, calving ease, weaning and yearling weight, and she does a little direct marketing of beef, so she even looks at the marbling EPD.  

You, on the other hand, are not a reasonable person.  You don’t care about anything besides tail length.  You measure tails and you breed the best to the best.

Now let’s say you and your buddy are consistent in your selection and keep after this for several years, several generations, who is going to have cattle with longer tails?

Your buddy may have well balanced cattle with beautiful tails, but you, you unreasonable person, will have cattle that can swat a fly off the tip of their nose!

When people talk about long tailed cattle, your name will go down as the visionary, the pioneer.  You’ll be the Thomas Edison of long tailed cattle.

Now depending on what traits long tails in cattle is correlated with, will determine what your cattle look like.  Maybe they’ll be tall, wild, quiet, easy calving or require c sections to calve.  You don’t care.  You wanted long tails and you got them!

So, I ask you, what do you want?  And will you have the guts to go after it?  And will you have the courage to hold yourself accountable and write it down?


Celebrate: Larry and Greta

July 4, 2022

Dane County Farmer’s Market is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year!

The Dane County Farmer’s Market, (DCFM), is a big part of our life.  And I realized, for many of our regular customers, it’s also a big part of their life.

Because just as regular vendors make a market, so do regular customers.  It’s a community. 

So we are going to celebrate this community with an ongoing series.

——-

It’s always good to see Larry and Greta at market.  Larry is even one of the few people to give me positive feedback about blog posts.  He doesn’t even seem to mind the ones that are too long.  Thank you, Larry and Greta!

How long have you been attending DCFM:  Since we moved to Madison 20 years ago this fall.

DCFM memory:  The relationships with vendors.  With apologies to Matthew, we’ve known some vendors for all of those 20 years.  They’ve seen our kids grow up and we’ve visited some of their farms.

Curious Farmer favorite:  Selfishly I don’t want to say but flat iron steak, skirt steak and brisket are all really great cuts.

Go to meal:  With the flat iron or skirt, just hit them with some lime juice, salt and pepper before grilling and chopping for taco Tuesdays.  


Celebrate: Marty and John

July 1, 2022

Dane County Farmer’s Market is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year!

The Dane County Farmer’s Market, (DCFM), is a big part of our life.  And I realized, for many of our regular customers, it’s also a big part of their life.

Because just as regular vendors make a market, so do regular customers.  It’s a community. 

So we are going to celebrate this community with an ongoing series.

——-

It’s always great to see Marty and John on a Saturday morning, sometimes more than once, as they run for errands and run for exercise.  Marty and John also help run the store when I need a pit stop.  Thank you, Marty and John!

How long have you been attending DCFM?  We have been attending for five years.

DCFM memory:  Best memories are the friendships we have developed.  It became a Saturday morning ritual before the pandemic, go to the gym, grab coffee with Susan and Jeff, walk the Market and then Genna’s for a bloody mary.  

Curiousfarmer Favorite:  Flat Iron and Rib Eye steaks

Go to meal:  my go to is probably the Flat Iron – it’s lean, tender and I almost always do some sort of chimichurri sauce with it since you can vary the herbs depending on what you have on hand.   Cooks in just a few minutes – always a good choice!


Wild Abundance

June 26, 2022

After a morning eating too many sweets at The Dane County Farmers Market, my son and I checked the cattle and foraged for Pigweed and Golden Oyster Mushrooms. Isabel combined with onions and cooked them up and served them with a new product for us, Beef Bacon. Delicious!


Celebrate: Alyssa and Dean

June 12, 2022

Dane County Farmer’s Market is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year!

The Dane County Farmer’s Market, (DCFM), is a big part of our life.  And I realized, for many of our regular customers, it’s also a big part of their life.

Because just as regular vendors make a market, so do regular customers.  It’s a community. 

So we are going to celebrate this community with an ongoing series.

——-

When I asked for stories, I knew they would be interesting, and Alyssa and Dean are no exception, read on to find out.  Thank you, Alyssa and Dean!

Name: Alyssa and Dean

How long have you been attending DCFM?

Alyssa has been shopping DCFM for approximately 30 years.  She started going when she was in college and has been a regular ever since.  Dean is from WI, but lived in Indiana for many years. He has been shopping DCFM since meeting Alyssa and moving to Madison 7 years ago. 

DCFM memory:

Our favorite DCFM memory is that our second date was planned around a trip to the market.  Alyssa gave Dean her personal tour of the market, we did the fossil scavenger hunt in the capitol and watched the market from the observation deck, then picked out some beautiful pots of purple asters for Dean to take back to his patio in Indiana, and finally a late outdoor lunch at Graze. He has a photo of Alyssa holding the asters and it’s still one of his favorites.  The Dane County Farmers Market has a very special place in our hearts for so many reasons. 

Curiousfarmer Favorite:

We have two favorites…the beef tenderloin and the breakfast sausage links!

Go to meal:

Breakfast Bundles (aka “burritos”): Hickory Hill Farm eggs, Hook’s 6 year cheddar, Curious Farmer breakfast sausage, Snug Haven spinach, onion, tater tots, Penzey’s Bavarian Blend seasoning, Bushel & Peck’s Cherry Bomb hot sauce all wrapped in a tortilla. Simple and delicious every time!


Celebrate: Barb and Caitlin

June 5, 2022

Dane County Farmer’s Market is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year!

The Dane County Farmer’s Market, (DCFM), is a big part of our life.  And I realized, for many of our regular customers, it’s also a big part of their life.

Because just as regular vendors make a market, so do regular customers.  It’s a community. 

So we are going to celebrate this community with an ongoing series.

——-

Barb makes nearly every market, usually with her daughter Caitlin.  This dynamic duo shop and power walk the capitol square before the crowds arrive.  Thank you, Barb and Caitlin!

Name: Barb and Caitlin

How long have you been attending DCFM? About 30 years

DCFM memory:  Going to the market with our young children who are now adults and getting pastries so they could share with the birds. Love the way more produce shows up as the season progresses.

Curiousfarmer Favorite: I remember meeting Matthew at one of the first Markets of the year – the weather wasn’t very nice, but CuriousFarmer was there and I had a conversation with him about natural bacon and he actually offered it!  As we were chatting it turns out Matthew was a partner with Jordandal Farms, so it was really a nice way to start a relationship with a “new vendor”.  I think his natural bacon is some of the best!

Go to meal: Hard to pick just one – really depends on the weather.


Celebrate: Sadie, Matt, and Emersyn

June 1, 2022

Dane County Farmer’s Market is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year!

The Dane County Farmer’s Market, (DCFM), is a big part of our life.  And I realized, for many of our regular customers, it’s also a big part of their life.

Because just as regular vendors make a market, so do regular customers.  It’s a community. 

So we are going to celebrate this community with an ongoing series.

——-

Sadie is a regular at DCFM, usually with her daughter Emersyn, and once in awhile we get to see Matt, so this Saturday I jumped at the opportunity to snap a photo of the whole family.  Thanks guys!

Name: Sadie, Matt and Emersyn

How long have you been attending DCFM?: 7 years 

DCFM memory: All of them – especially the early mornings where we grab our favorite coffees before we get started.

Curiousfarmer Favorite: It’s hard to pick because everything is so good, but the hamburger patties have been a big hit lately. We also like to stay stocked on pork sausage for a variety of meals.

Go to meal: Chorizo sausage and potato burritos, quick and easy, plus the chorizo is so flavorful, I don’t need to add much else.


Planting Apple Trees With Derek

May 26, 2022

I meet some interesting folks at the Dane County Farmer’s Market. Derek’s family runs The Flower Factory stand, a couple blocks down from my stand.

Derek stopped by one Saturday last year and we got to talking. Turns out we have similar interests in permaculture and have read some of the same books, including Restoration Agriculture by Mark Shepard.

Mr. Shepard talks about starting apple trees from seed, which is always going to be interesting because apple trees from seed are always a hybrid of their two parents. If you want a known variety of apple tree, you need to graft it onto another tree or rootstock.

Derek mentioned he had started several apple trees from seeds, but wasn’t sure if he would find space to plant them. I had been thinking about planting apple trees, as my son and I love to eat fresh apples every day they are in season, and pigs love apples.

A plan was born to trade apple trees for meat, we just had to wait until spring. Well that time came last Sunday as you can see by the photos. 16 apple trees planted next to our pig pasture.

My Dad even got in on the act, hauling water on his ATV.

Derek, like me, is a curious person. We look forward to eating some of these hybrids. Maybe we’ll have the next great apple. Even if we don’t, I’m sure me and my son and the pigs will enjoy!

Hi Matthew,

As promised, here’s the list of the apple trees that we planted at your farm. I have the maternal line as a D number, and then the apple variety that I collected seeds from after it. It will be interesting to see how much variation is within a maternal line. 

Going North to South

Antonovka
D30 – Wolf River
D27 – Hudson’s Golden Gem
D34 – Turley Winesap
D30 – Wold River
D34 – Turley Winesap
D13 – Caville Blanc d’Hiver
Antonovka
D34 – Turley Winesap
D28 – Pink Perl
D35 – Buford’s Red Flesh
D30 – Wolf River
D26 – Snow
D26 – Snow
D26 – Snow
Antonovka


Celebrate: Stephanie and Mitch

May 22, 2022

Dane County Farmer’s Market is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year!

The Dane County Farmer’s Market, (DCFM), is a big part of our life.  And I realized, for many of our regular customers, it’s also a big part of their life.

Because just as regular vendors make a market, so do regular customers.  It’s a community. 

So we are going to celebrate this community with an ongoing series.

——-

Not all the customers have been attending for decades, its nice to see newer customers as well.

Its been great getting to know Stephanie and Mitch the last few years.  Thank you, Stephanie and Mitch!

Name: Stephanie and Mitchell

How long have you been attending DCFM? About 3 years

DCFM memory: Our favorite times at the market are when we get there early, so it’s just starting to get warm and there aren’t many other customers yet. It’s nice and peaceful and you have more time to talk to the vendors. We also make a morning out of it and often get coffee at Ancora afterwards. 

Curiousfarmer Favorite: Ground beef because it’s so versatile and Turkey for thanksgiving.

Go to meal: Beef and broccoli, with the stew meat.