Archive | March, 2013

April 2013

31 Mar

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It’s April, and here’s the view of Green Machine Farm from the road.


The snow is melting, the robins are coming up for a visit.


As of last Friday, the long slow slog of buying the farm is over. We now live here as owners, not renters.

Time for a few hundred new projects, like fixing up the barn door.


And moving a few things up from Missouri, like the tractor.


Maybe some cows too…

The SE Menace

20 Mar

So I went to this little UMN Extension workshop today, Producing and Selling Eggs and Poultry.”
There were a number of small scale poultry producers in attendance, and I do mean small.  I was the 2nd largest producer there, with a whole 62 bird flock.  The biggest producer was a lady from down near the Iowa border who had a flock of about 400.  There was even a couple who drove 80 miles down from St. Paul to find out how to sell the excess eggs from their 3 hens that they kept in their backyard.

Anyway, the workshop was pretty straightforward.  Here’s the Minnesota laws that you’ll need to follow, and here’s how to do it.  Easy peasy.

That is, until the presenters, all inspectors with the MDA’s Dairy & Food Inspection Division, start telling us about the silent epidimic.  It already sounds scary right?

Well, it gets pretty for-real scary if you’re an egg producer.

Salmonella Enteritidis (SE) is one of the ~2300 varieties of Salmonella.  This particular form of Slamonella just happens to be the reason that you’ve been warned against eating raw cookie dough, egg nog, merangue, hollandaise sauce, or anything else that’s awesome.


Salmonella Enteritidis is perfectly adapted to living in the intestine of a chicken, causing the chicken no harm, but potentially passing the infection to a human through the consumption of the chicken’s egg.   If a person eats an undercooked or raw egg that’s infected with SE then they stand a fair chance of developing Salmonellosis.  Salmonellosis is usually an unpleasant infection, though in susceptible populations (the very old and very young) it can be deadly.

So you’re a farmer, and you’re producing eggs that might possibly kill someone?  That’s bad.

How about we just run some tests and make sure we don’t have any SE in our flock?  Sounds good right?

Yeah, sounds good until you ask how much testing costs.  The MDA inspectors just grit their teeth and shake their heads, “It’s really expensive. There’s only like 4 labs in the whole country that can test for it.”


So nobody can really afford to test for it, how about monitoring our birds for signs of infection?

Turns out, as SE is perfectly adapted to live in chickens, the chickens show absolutely no signs of infection.  Even a heavily-infected bird will look perfectly healthy, as the bacteria don’t harm the chicken at all.


So it’s invisible, effectively undetectable, and it can hurt people.  How about some liability to top off that pile of awesome?


Yep, the MDA inspectiors pulled no punches when they informed us that, even though SE is essentially undetectable, we would be held liable if we sold any egg that was infected with SE.  The MDA considers an egg infected with SE to be an “adulterated product” and therefore illegal to sell, even if you have no way of knowing that it’s infected, and even if it wasn’t prepared according to the safe handling practices printed on every egg carton.

To top it all off, if you’re ever found to have sold an SE-infected egg, the MDA will, in all likelihood, order your entire flock destroyed.

It’s at this point that there is a room full of farmers freaking out and trying to plan their hasty exit from the poultry business.


Of course, being the level-headed one, I ran the numbers.

Last year was a “bad year” for SE outbreaks in Minnesota.  There were 4.   That’s it.  4.  In a bad year.

Every single one of those 4 originated in a restaurant with some serious food handling problems.  We’re talking raw-egg hollandaise sauce sitting out unrefrigerated for 6 hours bad.  Or didn’t wash the ladle for the pancake/waffle/french-toast batter all week bad.

Of those 4 outbreaks there were: 46 sickened, 9 hospitalized and nobody died (30 sick and 9 hospitalized were from a single outbreak).

In fact, when pressed, none of the MDA inspectors could recall a single death caused by SE.  Neither could they recall a single instance of a farmer being held sued as a result of a SE outbreak.


So while the SE menace might not be as horrific as they initially made it out to be, it’s still something that we’d like to prevent if at all possible.  Here’s what we’re doing to help keep our eggs (and chickens) SE free.

Our chickens come from a hatchery that participates in the NPIP, meaning that they come from a SE monitored and SE vaccinated flock.

We work to safely eliminate mice that are the single biggest natural reservoir [PDF] of SE.

We’re looking into SE vaccinations for our flock.  It’s not supposed to be as effective in older birds, but it might be cheap insurance.

And at the MDA inspector’s recommendation, we’re doing what only us small farmers can do.  Socializing our chickens to reduce their stress.  Turns out that even if a chicken is infected with SE, they only shed the bacteria when they’re stressed.  By hanging out with them and practicing good animal husbandry, we can reduce or eliminate the times that they shed SE.  Try doing that in an industrial chicken barn!

Dancing Tractors

12 Mar

And yes, at 7:23 that was “The Final Countdown.”

You’re welcome.

March Update – $200 Pig Challenge

10 Mar

So it’s now March, and I’ve long since blown by the $200 mark with the pigs.
Judging from my receipts, I passed $200 on February 7th.
Turns out that bagged pig feed is expensive.

Previous total $186.01

150# Whole Corn (Bagged) $27.80
50# Whole Oats (Bagged) $12.40
300# Hog Grower (Bagged) $67.29
480# Whole Corn (bulk) $60.68
200# Soybean Meal (Bagged) $48.63
25# A-D-E Vitamin premix (Bagged) $14.49

New total $417.76

That’s a big jumble o’ feedstuffs, and it bears a little bit of explaining.


First, we started off feeding bagged hog grower that I picked up at Fleet farm. The pigs liked it, and it was unmedicated and convenient enough to pick up, but it was expensive at $659/ton. I had to find something else to feed them.

So I was pleased to find out that the feed store in Pine Island had much cheaper unmedicated hog grower at only $449/ton.  It’s cheap, and a complete ration, but it’s ground into a really fine, almost powdery mix, like cornmeal.  Maybe it’s just me, but I think the pigs enjoy eating the whole grains better.

That’s where the Corn and oat mixture came in. It’s only $400/ton, and substantially less if you start out with some free corn. The free corn, however, doesn’t last very long.

That’s better, even when I had to buy more corn, but there was still something bothering me.

You see, I was buying 50# bags of corn for $8.80. That seems downright cheap compared to other bagged feeds, but it’s awfully pricy when you compare it to the commodity price of corn.
Right now corn costs $7.08 per bushel. A bushel is 56#.
So getting your corn in a bag costs you an extra $1.72 and you get 6 fewer pounds of corn.

As with most things, buying in bulk is wayyyy cheaper.

And until recently, I couldn’t buy in bulk because I had no way of transporting or storing bulk grain.


But then last week, there was a big farm-equipment auction in Racine, MN. My dad was in attendance and picked up this Gravity Box. It’ll hold a few hundred bushels of corn, and as long as it’s not anywhere near full, my little Honda can pull it just fine.

I took it out on it’s maiden voyage the other day. We went to town and picked up 8.57 bushels (480#) of corn.


I only paid $7.08/bushel ($253/ton). That’s oodles cheaper than buying it in bags.
So if you’re out to spend $60.68 buying corn, you can have either 345# of bagged corn, or 480# of bulk corn.

Handling is a little more work with bulk grain right now. I’m storing it in (what else?) plastic barrels. Two barrels was more than enough for the amount I brought home.


I figured that I’ll need 6 barrels to store 1 ton of corn, probably a few more in reality, because a barrel full of corn is a real pain to move, even with a hand-truck.

So, all the corn is moved indoors (in the farm store for now) and soybean meal and A-D-E vitamin mix is in there with it.


I’ve come up with a feed mix that’s working out pretty well using this handy little calculator.

9# Whole Corn.
3# Soybean Meal.
and a smidge of Vitamin A-D-E premix.

12# total.
17% protein.

Right now I feed them that mix in the morning and let them finish off some of the hog grower in the afternoon if they’re still hungry.

I’m not so sure that the vitamin premix is necessary since they’ve got free choice alfalfa hay, but I figure it’s better to be safe than sorry. Maybe it’s just the “coming off of the pre-mix ration jitters” but I feel like I’m probably missing some important nutritional item that’s going to make all the pigs grow a third ear or something.


I just keep reminding myself that the complete hog rations are most important for the folks raising their hogs in a barn on a concrete floor. They never get to go outside and root around in the dirt for their minerals, or eat some tasty alfalfa hay to get their vitamins.

The best part about the new ration is the price. The current batch is $403.13/ton. For the next batch I’ll be ditching the soybean meal (which has already had the oil extracted from it) in favor of roasted soybeans which the local mill sells in bulk.
That’ll bring my feed cost down to $368.24/ton. That’s $291.36 less (per ton) than the bagged feed that I started out with, almost cutting the price in half.

Plus, we get to feed our pigs unprocessed whole grains. That’s a big plus in my book, because less processing means fewer emissions, and it makes it easier for us to transition to non-GMO grains later when we get more bulk storage space.

Barn Owl Box

4 Mar

As I mentioned at the end of my last post, I’ve been seriously rethinking the use of Rodenticides (Rat Poison) here on the farm.

Mice are a problem on most any farm. Any place you have a non-airtight building, like a barn, and lots of animal feed, you’ll inevitably have mice.

Rodenticides are all too often the go-to solution for controlling a mouse problem.  When we moved here to the farm there were buckets and buckets of rat poison in the barn and outbuildings.  Heck, the local farm supply mega-store has an entire aisle of the stuff.

The good thing about rat poison is that it works.  Mice die when they eat it.

The negative consequences, however, are harder to see.

Mice are regularly picked off by birds of prey, leading to poison building up in the bodies of the birds.  Barn Owls are particularly susceptible, with 70% in Canada, and 91% in the UK showing detectible levels of Rat-Poison in their bodies.  Is it any wonder that Barn Owls are said to be “extremely rare”, and in decline in Minnesota?

While Barn Owls are listed as a species of “Least Concern” by the folks that make up the Endangered Species List, their numbers have plummeted by 60% in North America from 1966 to 2002.

That’s a bit concerning.


So no more rat poison.

But what to do to keep all the little mouses under control?

How about trying to attract some of those voracious barn owls?  I mean, they’re too small to eat chickens and they eat the heck out of mice.  Sounds like a good fit.

It even looks like farmers used to be quite accommodating to barn owls, giving them free access to their barns (via Eulenloch, or “Owl Holes”) in exchange for their rodent-hunting prowess.

I’m not a huge fan of an open-barn-door policy.  I’ve already got a few pigeons that have taken up residence in the barn, and they make quite a mess.


How then to give the owls a place in the barn to nest, but keep the poop out?

I started out with a nice box.  About 12″ x 16″ x 24″ per the larger sizes of barn owl boxes.  I just made one out of random scraps of wood I had laying around the workshop.


Then the real fun begins.
Now it’s time to drill a big hole in the side of the barn. And way up high off the ground to boot.


No big deal, just climb 20 feet up an extension ladder and start drilling with a 4″ hole-saw. It’s difficult enough to handle a big drill and hole-saw on the ground. Doing it up on a ladder is…challenging. Taking pictures up there is challenging. It makes me have a purdy face.


Enlarge the hole with a reciprocating saw, and we’re ready to put up the box. First put some sort of bedding in the bottom of the box, apparently barn owls won’t go collect their own bedding for a nest, so it needs to be provided for them. I used a handful of straw.

Then there’s the small matter of carrying a heavy bulky box up a ladder and screwing it to the side of the barn with your one free hand. You do have a free hand don’t you?  Oh, and don’t fall to your death.  That would be bad.


I finished up by stapling some bird netting across both windows in the barn. There used to be glass in the windows, but as with a lot of things on the farm, it ain’t what it used to be.

So now the pigeons have been evicted, and we’ll keep an eye on the nest box to see if we can get any interested barn owls to show up and start munching on some mice.

The long arm of Unintended Concequences

3 Mar

I just finished reading “Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death” by Bernd Heinrich and found it to be quite interesting.  The book is mainly about the “undertakers” of the animal world, vultures, ravens, carrion beetles, and so on.  I have a lot of fun reading a book by a deeply knowledgable author like Bernd Heinrich because I so often get sidetracked by really interesting things that are only given a mention in passing.

In the book there were a few things that grabbed my attention, leading to hours of additional reading on Wikipedia.

Ever heard of a Giant Ichneumon Wasp?  Or seen one in action?  It’s pretty amazing stuff.

Anyway, one bit that really caught my eye centered on the plight of the white-rumped vulture.

The white-rumped vulture isn’t exactly a pretty bird, but it was a pretty important scavenger.  In fact, it may have been the most important (and certainly the most populous) scavenger bird in the entire Asian continent.

That was, of course, before 1992.

Fast forward 20 years, and the white-rumped vulture population has been decimated.  Only about 0.1% of their original population is alive today, earning them a “critically endangered” spot on the endangered species list.

What killed off the other 99.9% of the vultures?


A little painkiller called Diclofenac.

Diclofenac is an NSAID pain/fever reducer, much like Aspirin or Ibuprofen.  Diclofenac isn’t really a problem when it’s used by humans, because as luck would have it, not many people get eaten by vultures these days, Parsi’s notwithstanding.

But in Asia, Diclofenac started to be used in cattle.

When you’re a small farmer in Asia (as most farmers are) you don’t have much land to work with.  That makes it hard to support many cattle on your land, making each cow you have that much more valuable.  If your cow represents such a huge chunk of your net worth, it makes sense to treat it with pain medication if it’s having a rough time delivering a calf or getting lame in one foot.  That $1 spent on a drug like Diclofenac might just keep your cow alive, and keep you out of the poor house.

Unfortunately for the vultures, eating even tiny amounts of Diclofenac-tainted meat causes them to go into kidney-failure and die.  If as few as 1 in 720 cow carcasses are tainted with Diclofenac, the vulture population declines.

“So what?” you might say.  Vultures are kind of icky anyway, what’s the big deal if some of them die off?

Well, vultures turn out to be pretty important.  They have a real knack for disposing of carcasses, again, just ask the Parsi’s.

So when 99.9% of the vultures in a given area suddenly die, the carcasses really start to pile up.  Surely hundreds of wild animals and livestock die every day in a given area.  So what if no one or nothing is around to get rid of those remains?

Turns out, other animals step into the scavenger role.  Feral dogs for starters.  And with feral dogs comes rabies.  Is it any wonder that there are headlines like “Millions of stray dogs terrorize India.”?

And the dogs aren’t alone either.

A crafty predator like the Leopard would love to snack on a few feral dogs.  But a Leopard can’t live on dogs alone, they gotta have a little variety too!  So the leopards just snack on a few people here and there.

What a mess!


Diclofenac has since been banned for livestock use in India (it’s long been banned in the US).  And there are a few big efforts underway to repopulate the White-Rumped Vulture.

So while Diclofenac poisoning might stand as one of the worst ecological disasters in recent history, but at least people are starting to repair the damage.

But it does make me think twice about the potential effects of other chemicals that we use here in the US, like Rodenticides.

Ready for Spring already

3 Mar

It finally warmed up a bit here.  The high temperature has been a few degrees above freezing almost every day this week.  The lows have even managed to stay above 10°.

Word on the street is that we might be getting a day or two with highs around 40°.

That’s shorts and T-shirt weather for all I’m concerned.

Spring can just hurry on up, I’m ready for it.

With that in mind, I got out and cut up a nice stack of lumber the other day.


It was high-time that I put together a few tree-swallow houses.


Four ought to get me started, or at least keep me busy for a few hours.

And then it’s out to tromp through the snow to find a place to hang them. It was even nice enough outside to drag the little munchkin and my lovely camera-wielding wife along with me.


A few screws later, and the boxes are up.


Comon’ spring, we’re ready.

Cheap Pig Equipment

1 Mar

According to my recent guesstimate (using the Walter Jefferies string-method) the pigs have about doubled their weight during their two months on the farm.  The big barrow and gilt are both around 115lbs.  The little guy is smaller, but he had to fight off an infection, so he’s lagging a bit behind.

So they’re growing, which is good.  But they’re outgrowing their feed bowls, which is bad.


They tend to fight over space at the bowl now, and when they get really testy, one of them will just flip the bowl over. That gives them more room to eat, but wastes feed by spreading it all over the ground.


A new feed trough is in order.

I needed something that’s big enough for all 3 pigs, fairly indestructible, and hard to flip. Oh, and cheap too.

Good thing I have more of those free 50 gallon plastic barrels.

Step 1: Divide barrel into 3 equal pieces.


Lacking a compass or protractor, I used this method.

Step 2: Chop it all up with your handy-dandy reciprocating saw (or whatever tool you want).

Three equal pieces. Nice.

Why not halves? Well, halves seemed to be a bit too tall. Pigs may get big, but they don’t get very tall, so they have a hard time eating if they have to stick their heads over the 11″ side of a half-barrel.


The pigs waterer is actually a half-barrel, but it’s dug down into the ground so that there’s only a 6″ lip sticking up.

So, on to step 3: Cut and attach the legs. You’ll want something heavy. I used an old 4×6 that used to be in the chickens room. Two 24″ chunks of wood ought to do the trick.

**See the updated 2015 model with one important change**


Fasten with a handful of screws, trim the pointy bits of barrel with a saw, and you’re good to go.

It turned out to be just about the perfect height. The pigs were a bit disappointed that they could no longer stand in their food while they ate. The slick concave floor of the barrel leads to some slip-sliding pigs.


The gilt was perfectly happy to eat from the new trough.

The boys, on the other hand, preferred to horse around in the snow and mud, as boys often do.


Then the big fella (I call him Hammie) figured out that the barrel smelled DELICIOUS!!
It used to hold annatto food coloring, which smells fairly sweet. Apparently it’s an irresistible aroma if you’re of the porcine persuasion.


This is not unique to the barrel though, pigs chew on everything: my boots, fence posts and even (hot) electric fence wire, hence the “indestructible” requirement.

Despite his best efforts, Hammie was unable to flip the new trough over. I’m sure he will at some point, but at least it’s not going to be an everyday occurrence.

While I was watching them eat from the new trough, the sorry state of the pigs hay caught my attention. That’s the hay, in the messy heap in the background.


Sure would be nice to get that hay off the ground. It would keep it dry and keep much of it from being wasted.

If only I had a small piece of a cattle panel. Say about 4 feet long?


Cut to size with bolt cutters, bend the ends over 30° or so.

Attach to a convenient wall with a few fence staples and a bit of wire.


Add pig, a few flakes of hay. Stir well.



So at the end of the day the pigs are all set up with new stuff and I didn’t spend a dime. Awesome.