Archive | June, 2012

Future Farm? – Zumbrota

30 Jun

Zumbrota, Minnesota.

Hey that rhymes!  +1 point on the awesome meter.


The Pros:

  • Decent size: 100 acres, with only 10-15 in woods/timber.
  • Right (1/2 mile) outside a pretty cool town of 3500 people.
  • Big craftsman farmhouse, barn and lots of outbuildings.
  • Pond in the center of the farm.
  • Pastures just came out of CRP, and they look pretty nice.

The Cons:

  • The house needs some updating and serious energy-efficiency improvements.
  • Barn and outbuildings need various degrees of cleaning-up or tearing-down.
  • Closest neighbors are a subdivision that borders the property to the North.
  • Closest business is McDonalds.

So unlike most of the properties so far, this one has a house on it. It’s 1890’s construction and while pretty awesome looking, isn’t the most efficient thing around. It could also use some serious updating on the inside.

It seems to be a common trait among houses in Minnesota that the bathrooms all feature some crazy 1950’s Fiesta-ware-colored fixtures.


The barn looks to be an old dairy barn, like most in the area. It’s structurally sound, but needs a good cleanup, some paint, windows, doors, etc.


There are several other outbuildings on the place, but none really worth mentioning except for this newer metal building directly behind the barn. All the rest are in pretty sorry shape; Bad roofs and rotting wood abound.


We walked down to the pond that sits roughly in the middle of the farm. It’s in the middle of the pasture which just came out of CRP. On the far side of the pond is a cornfield. The owner is renting out 47 acres to be row-cropped.


The pond was in nice condition with lots of birdsfoot trefoil in bloom all around.


View from the dam looking North.


The former CRP pastures were full of Timothy and Birdsfoot Trefoil. I also saw a bit of clover and alfalfa poking up here and there.


Sure, there are some weeds in there, but nothing that can’t be brought under control with a bit of managed grazing.

Future Farm? – Lake City

29 Jun

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Lake City



  • Good size at just a tick under 100 acres.
  • Highway 63 frontage, 2 miles outside of Lake City (a really cool town of 5000)
  • It has a pond.
  • The view!

The Cons:

  • Steep! This place isn’t a hill-top, it’s bluff-top!
  • No buildings, electric, well or septic.

This place lets you know right off the bat what it’s biggest problem is. It is steep! The driveway seems like it’s going up at a 45 degree angle, and it just keeps on going! I was thoroughly winded by the time I made it to the top.


As I mentioned, it has a pond. It doesn’t look like a great pond, but it’s better than nothing. At the very least you could pump water from it to tanks around the farm.


There is one benefit from all those bluffs, and that’s the view! From the top of the hill you can see Lake Pepin. It’s really beautiful up there.


Future Farm? – Pine Island

27 Jun

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Here’s another farm we looked at during our trip. This one was outside of Pine Island, Minnesota.


The Good:
137 acres, one of the biggest we’ve looked at.
Good balance of tillable to woods.
Zumbro River flows through property.
One small barn in pretty good shape.
Land lays pretty well.

The Bad:
7 miles outside of an ok small town.
Not on a main road, poor prospects for on-farm store.
No well, no electricity, no septic.


The place is on a gravel road, which cuts through the lower part of the property.


The Zumbro river runs through the property parallel to the road. The river is pretty nice in terms of free water for the cows, and just being pretty and all. But it also means that there are some DNR restrictions, like you can’t build within 100 yards of the river; and there’s always flooding to worry about.


On the North side it’s all uphill of the road. Quite sharply uphill in some areas. I don’t quite know how they get away with cropping stuff this steep without terraces. The view from the top of the hill sure is pretty though.


Consumer Reports – Meat on Drugs

25 Jun

Looks like Consumer Reports is the latest organization to throw its weight behind the antibiotic-free meat. Full story here.  In their report “Meat on Drugs” they have gone so far as to label the widespread use of agricultural antibiotics a “major national health crisis.”

It’s nice to see a big well-respected consumer advocacy group like this come to bat against routine sub-therapeutic antibiotic use.
I don’t have any problem using antibiotics to treat an animal if it has an actual infection.

The problem is that most antibiotics used on farms is mixed in the animal’s feed. When antibiotics are mixed in with animal feed it’s no longer being targeted to sick animals.  Instead, it’s going to the entire population, where it will treat the sick animals, but it will also “treat” otherwise healthy animals who’s immune systems are capable of defeating an infection on their own.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria don’t come from sick (clinically infected) animals; those animals get treated with more than enough antibiotics to kill the threatening bacteria.  Antibiotic-resistance is bred in those animals who get a constant low-dose of antibiotics.  The low (sub-therapeutic) dose is enough to kill most (but not all) bacteria.  Those bacteria that aren’t killed are the basis for a new antibiotic-resistant generation.

The most infuriating thing about this whole deal is that the FDA has known about it for decades without doing anything.

FDA issued (a notice of hearing) in 1977 on proposals to withdraw approval of all subtherapeutic uses of penicillin in animal feed   and nearly all subtherapeutic uses of tetracyclines (oxytetracycline and chlortetracycline) in animal feed because of a threat to human health.

Several non-profit groups sued the FDA in 2011 to get them to finally do something about the problem they noticed way back in 1977.  A few weeks after the ruling they announced a voluntary phase-out of antibiotics in animal feed.  Don’t worry, they’ve got this totally under control.

So what can we do about all of this?

Choose meat raised without antibiotics.  Buy from a local farmer who you trust.  If you buy meat from the store, look for “no antibiotics” or “organic” labels.  Ask your favorite restaurant where they get their meat, and if it was raised without antibiotics.

We’ll all be better off for it.


Future Farm? – Rochester, MN

25 Jun

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Well in case you hadn’t seen my Twitter feed, I’ve been in Rochester, Minnesota for the past 4 days. We looked at some apartments, a few houses and yes, farms.

For the time being we’re trying to scope things out up there and get an idea of where we’d like to end up.

Here is one of the first farms we looked at.  Hopefully we won’t end up in a place like this…


The Pros:

  • a few miles outside of Rochester, MN – close to primary market
  • creek cuts through corner of property – free livestock water

The Cons:

  • Uncooperative / reluctant sellers – priced high, bad future neighbors?
  • Kinda small – 80 acres with a lot of it in woods/timber
  • Unimproved land – lots of up-front investment for well, septic, electric, buildings, etc.
  • Poor pasture condition – undesirable species, water issues.


Here’s one of our first views of the place.  What’s not showing up well is the incredible amount of wild parsnip that was growing here.  Wild parsnip is considered an invasive species, and can apparently cause of some quite unpleasant burns. Fortunately, the wild parsnip was in full bloom, making it relatively easy to see and avoid touching it.


After slogging a ways through the marshy pasture and deciding I couldn’t cross the creek without risking a throurough soaking, I gave up and headed back to the car. The tallest grass in the pasture (no idea on species) was easily 6′ tall, but the majority of the grass (seen underneath with the brown seed-heads) was broom-sedge.


I carefully threaded my way back through all of the wild parsnip and we headed out to the next farm.

Scenes from Hauling Hay

21 Jun

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It’s haying season here in the midwest.  Hay mowers, rakers and balers dot the countryside.

I see plenty of trucks driving around with hay trailers in tow.

I like our hay trailer best, mainly because it’s also a flatbed trailer.  Just bolt on the three pipe racks that dad welded up, and you’ve got a hay trailer.


Load some hay.


And load some more hay…


It can get rather tricky pulling that much weight with a 2 wheel-drive truck, but Cinco is an expert driver.


Hank just waits for the tractor to come ’round, then begs a ride in the air-conditioned cab.


The tree swallows in the back field are multiplying rapidly. The five young ones from the last brood were watching us from the fence.


Meanwhile the adults were hanging out back at the nest, presumably getting ready to start the second brood of the year.
Tree Swallow nests are pretty easy to discern. About an inch and a half of grass with white feathers on top.


The Alfalfa in the CRP field looks a bit far gone.


But the Red Clover is holding up like a champ.


Corporations, Universities, and the Future of Conventional Agriculture

18 Jun

I happened across this article the other day which details a report by the group Food & Water Watch on the connection between corporate money and Land-Grant University research.  I have at least some familiarity with this relationship, as I currently live less than 2 miles from both “Monsanto Place” and “Monsanto Auditorium” at the University of Missouri.  That’s about $3 million in corporate donations within walking distance.

As I’ve discussed before, some of the research coming out of land-grant universities these days is appalling, and they know it.  While I think it’s helpful to point these shenanigans out to the public, I don’t spend too much of my time or energy on them.

Sure conventional ag as we know it may be causing problems, but conventional ag is necessary to feed our growing population; and fortunately for us (sort of) the damage is largely self-limiting.

Don’t believe me?  Lets take a look at the current trends in fossil fuels, water use, antibiotics, animal welfare, and herbicides.

Fossil Fuels: We all realize that fossil fuel prices are going nowhere but up.  And anyone who’s heard of Hubbert’s Peak can tell you that the trend is unlikely to letup.  There is a reason that the big equipment manufacturers are all competing to make more fuel-efficient tractors.

Water Use: Some of the biggest produce growing regions of the US are in quite arid climate zones. The sames goes for a lot of the grain-producing plains states which draw from the Ogallala Aquifer which is being rapidly depleted. Farmers in these regions are rapidly switching to new water-saving technologies just to stay in business.

“Only the highly efficient water users will survive and those are the growers getting on the train and going to drip systems or center pivots.”

Antibiotics: So the big problem with routine sub-theraputic antibiotic use in farm animals is that we’re seeing increased antibiotic resistance both in the animals and in people. The UDSA admits that using antibiotics in animal agriculture is causing problems.

“I believe it is more helpful to acknowledge that antibiotic use in animals contributes to the problem and that prudent antibiotic use should be encouraged in all sectors. The agricultural community must accept part of the responsibility.”

Combine the increasing consumer pressure for antibiotic-free meat with the increasing cost of antibiotics as more bacteria evolve resistance to the cheap ones, and we’re all going to see fewer antibiotics on the farm in the future.

Animal Welfare: A 2003 Gallup Poll found that 96% of Americans say that animals deserve at least some protection from harm and exploitation.  A solid 62% majority support passing strict laws concerning the treatment of farm animals. Consumers are capable of living with a background-level of cognitive dissonance in their lives (eating factory-farmed meat, while thinking it’s unethical to do so) but as soon as something pops up in the news, and brings the issue to the forefront we see action like California’s Prop 2, or Missouri’s Prop B. We also get distribution-side changes, where big buyers like McDonald’s demand changes in their suppliers practices.  I think that 20 years down the road animal ag is going to look a lot “kinder and gentler” than it does today.

Herbicides:  Discriminate herbicides, and the genetic-engineering that allows them have, for all their faults, both reduced total herbicide usage, and increased productivity. Unfortunately, this effect will not be long-lived.  There are more and more multiple-herbicide-resistant “superweeds” sprouting in fields all over the world. Much like antibiotic-resistant bacteria, herbicide-resistant weeds will continue to to out-evolve our chemical defenses until the herbicides are either too expensive, or cause too much consumer concern; like Dow Chemicals’ new “Agent Orange Corn.”

“Most important, weed biotypes already exist that are resistant to these herbicides; Thus, it would be naive to expect any of these new weed-control tools to solve all of our current weed-resistance problems.”

Considering all of these factors, I think that the conventional farms of the future will look a heck of a lot more like what’s going on at the Rodale Institute, and the land-grant universities would be wise to get ahead of the curve by investing in similar research.


A Delicate Situation

18 Jun

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As I drove up to the house today, past the broiler pen, I noticed a green tarp laying up against the side.  Now I knew that the storms we had yesterday ripped up the tarp that covers the pen, but that was mostly covered by chicken wire.

What was that tarp doing?


Turns out that we caught something in the live trap.
A skunk to be exact.
The secret to not getting sprayed by a skunk in a live-trap is to hold up a tarp in front of you as you approach. Skunks are scared of people and toothy animals, not tarps.

But how exactly do you get a skunk out of the livetrap?
Answer: carefully.

First, he goes tarp-and-all into the back of the truck, and down the road a mile and a half.


Then very carefully, open the door and hope the little critter gets the heck out of there without getting too…vindictive.


Nobody got sprayed, and the skunk now safely away from the chickens.

Got one!

14 Jun

Caught an opossum in the live trap by the broiler pen.

Now if we could only get the fox that showed up in the driveway, or the big coyote that keeps showing up…

Farm Walk: Martz Farm

14 Jun

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It must be farm-walk season here in the midwest because we just went to another one last night.  This one was put on by the Boone County NRCS office, and held at the Martz Farm (they don’t have a website, so the map will have to do).

The Martz farm was a bit more of your typical NRCS-endorsed Management Intensive Grazing (MIG) operation.  This is very much the type of management that was taught at the NRCS grazing school that my dad & I attended earlier this year.

The whole thing kicked off with a dinner provided by NRCS. Fred Martz then got up to say a few words about his farm, and then continued to say a few words for the next half hour. We quickly figured out we were in for a long evening because he’s a talker.


We then loaded up on the 3 trailers and headed off for the tour.

First stop: sheep.
All the ewes had been brought up by their barn for some reason. They have around 100 head of Katahdin hair sheep which are all grassfed and grass-finished. There’s an LGD (a Pyrenees) in there if you look real close.
I was pretty amazed that a farm that large (450 acres) was that close to the city limits. I could tell just by some of the plants growing (bush honeysuckle, trumpetcreeper & redbud) that we were close to a city.

Next up were the finishing cattle. These three were the remaining finishers for the spring.


Not bad looking, for angus (I’m not a giant fan of the breed). They weren’t fattened out completely yet, but they were getting there. Fred Martz explained that they have trouble finishing cattle on pasture, so they supplement 6-8lbs of corn per head per day to fatten them up.


While he probably has a valid point given the likelihood of endophyte-infested fescue in his fescue-dominated pastures, it does illustrate one of the differences in the MIG approach versus the Mob-Grazing/Holistic management approach.
Did I mention that we just happened to run into Greg Judy and his interns and several folks from the Green Hills Farm Project there?
It made for some interesting commentary.

Anyway, the tour continued, on past a few sheep that hadn’t made it to the barn. They were without the protection of a guard-dog, but they did have a guard-llama.


As the tour wound on we stopped out by their best paddock, paddock 12 (of 40!) where Fred explained their nutrient-management program.


Their paddocks do get some occasional commercial fertilizer and lime as recommended by soil tests. Again, this is pretty much by-the-book NRCS MIG practice.

The last stop on the tour was the spring-calving brood herd. They run two separate herds, one spring and one fall-calving. These cows were currently calving, with several replacement heifers in the mix as well. Their red angus bull was in with them.


Fred explained that they were in the process of switching over to red angus to get more heat-tolerance. They apparently use AI sires for a handful of cows every year, with one bull in to make sure everyone else gets bred. He also said that they’d had some trouble with conception rates, so had started feeding corn to their breeding cows to get their conception rates back up where they needed to be.

There were a couple of cows, the one on the far right in particular who were damn spooky. They were transfixed with two little girls in the crowd, and it’s a good thing the little girls weren’t being too loud or active, as those cows might have ended up in another paddock.