Archive | November, 2013

Thanks for the Turkey

28 Nov

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The water in the scalder was heating up.  The water was on, the plucker was ready, the knives, bags and scale were laid out on the table.  I woke up early to eat breakfast and feed the pigs before we started butchering the Turkeys on Thursday before all our customers started coming over to pick them up at Noon.

I headed to the barn with a bucket of feed for the pregnant pigs, and that’s when I noticed something odd.


We had locked up all of the turkeys in the barn for their last night, and right around the turkeys’ area there were lots of turkey feathers on the ground.
Too many turkey feathers on the ground.

A quick peek in confirmed my suspicions.
Dead turkeys.
And two dogs that were pretty sure they were going to be in trouble.


In spite of their innocent faces, they were right, they were in trouble.

I went through all the turkeys, and though not all of them were dead, they’d all been chewed on to a significant extent. We put the still-living ones out of their misery and buried them all out in the field.

Customers were all called and notified that they would need to procure their Thanksgiving dinner elsewhere, and we’d be sending their deposits back in the mail.

My sisters’ dogs each received a new restriction on their license.

Endorsements: Cows, Chickens, Pigs, Cats.
Restrictions: Turkeys.


We then praised the decision to butcher a few turkeys Wednesday afternoon to get all the kinks worked out of our butchering setup.

At least we have something to go in the oven on Thanksgiving day!


We have turkey, and we are thankful.

Turkey Fight!

23 Nov

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I’ll say one thing for the Turkeys, they are occasionally entertaining.

Like this little fight that broke out the other day.  Five minutes of Toms grabbing each other by the wattle and neck-wrestling.


They don’t actually fight much these days, they got most of the fighting out of their system in October when we transitioned them from pasture pens to free-range.  All the toms had to establish their pecking-order amongst all the unfamiliar turkeys that they were now hanging around with.

Thanksgiving is drawing near, and soon the turkey fights will end.

The Pigs: 2013

19 Nov

The Pigs: 2013

All the way back in January, it seemed to strain credulity to believe that we could sell 3 entire pigs.


How quickly that all changed.

We spent the vast majority of the year explaining to potential customers that we were sold out of pork.  We weren’t helped out by our hunt for a good butcher, which took an early wrong turn, leaving us with 2 pigs we were unable to sell at retail.  It’s a good problem to have, but it’s still frustrating to be short of pork for so much of the time.

For our first year having pigs on the farm, we’ve so far sold 7 pigs, with an additional 5 more finishers that will be ready to go this winter.


As a pig-raising novice, I had to rely a lot on buying feeder pigs this year.  A feeder pig is a young pig, weaned from it’s mother, that is bought for the purpose of feeding or “fattening up” to it’s market weight.  If you have no time or money for breeding stock (like me at the beginning of the year) then you buy feeder pigs.  Feeder pigs are a lot easier to manage, but they put you at the mercy of other producers who may not be farming up to our standards.  Around here, you can safely assume that all feeder pigs are from confinement hog farms unless you’re presented with evidence to the contrary.   I don’t like the idea of supporting confinement farms, so using feeder pigs had to be a temporary measure.  We’re very glad to be moving away from feeder pigs going into next year.

2013 saw the beginnings of the breeding swineherd here at Green Machine Farm. We now have 4 breeding gilts and one boar. I knew I wanted to raise some rare pig breeds, but not knowing exactly which one, I decided a scatter-shot approach would be best.  We have two Large Black Hogs, one Gloucestershire Old Spots and one Tamworth.  The 5th breeding pig was a particularly good-looking feeder pig (a spotted poland china) that was too good of a pig to butcher.

Before we got our little boar pig, we borrowed a boar from a friend.  The piglets from that pairing will be coming along at the end of January, providing much of the pork that we’ll sell next summer.  It’ll be a while yet, but I’m pretty anxious to try our first heritage-breed pork.

Overall, I love having pigs around.  They’ve been a lot of fun to interact with, much smarter and more sociable than a cow, but all those smarts can lead to some interesting problems.  For example, just a few weeks ago the pigs figured out that the turkey feeders were nothing more than large metal corn-filled pinatas.  Fortunately, a single electric wire can cure pigs of most of their bad habits, rendering the turkey feeders untouchable.

The pigs were a huge help this year in clearing out all the weeds and brush around the farmstead. In it’s near decade of abandonment, the land around and between the farm buildings had grown up in a nearly inpenetrable array of Burdock, Thistle and Buckthorn.  All invasive weeds (or trees) and all quite a pain in the butt to remove.


A pain in the butt to remove unless you have a nose that is more like a plow.  Then it’s apparently no problem at all.

The pigs ate the burdock first, with gusto.  Then they attacked the thistle, once it had been knocked over by a hoe-wielding farmer.  The pigs helped to clear out many of the young buckthorn trees. The young buckthorn trees aren’t very strongly rooted, and as such, are no match for a pigs nose.

Looking ahead to 2014:

I’m heading into next year with enough pigs (potentially 56) that I feel pretty nervous about how I’ll get all of them sold.  I would love to sell more pigs by the half and whole hog next year.  Selling halves and wholes is a lot easier for us, a lot cheaper for our customers, and more sustainable all around. This year, I put exactly zero effort into selling halves and wholes, and selling 2 pigs that way and turning away many other potential customers.
Next year, our pigs will go towards maintaining a steady supply of pork for our retail customers (farmers markets), growing our half and whole-hog customers, and selling any surplus pigs as feeder pigs.  In the worst case scenario we’re only 1.5 miles from one of the biggest salebarns in this part of the country, so we could sell extras at the feeder pig or market hog auctions.

Wrong Tool for the Job

12 Nov

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The cold weather seems to have sounded the death knell for our cordless power tools here on the farm.  I’ve had my trusty Milwaukee cordless drill for at least 6 years now (it’s kinda hard to think back that far) and it’s still going strong.


Well, everything but the batteries are still going strong.  My dad has a very similar Milwaukee drill, the hammer-drill model, so we have quite a few 14.4v Ni-Cad batteries between us.  Now all but one of those batteries are dying.  This means that all the little projects around the farm are taking longer and longer as we have to wait for batteries to charge.

In my recent gutter-installing exploits (gotta get it done before winter) I’ve been hitting the wall with batteries.  The Milwaukee will drive the big 7″ gutter-screws when it’s charged up, with enough power to strip the heads out if you’re not careful. Up on a ladder it’s hard to be careful, so I try not to use it.


The Hitachi impact driver does a better job, but with only one battery, there’s a lot of waiting around for it to charge as well. So what’s a cold, impatient farmer to do?

Call in the big guns!


Electric 1/2″ impact wrench, 1/2″ to 3/8″ reducer, 3/8″ to 1/4″ reducer, 1/4″ deep well socket, 1/4″ square drive bit.
There were two scenarios for how this was going to play out:
Scenario 1: Everything works out perfectly.
Scenario 2: Everything breaks in the most expensive way possible.

I’m happy to report that Scenario 1 was the order of the day.
The gutters are finished! At least some of them anyway…


Redneck tool misappropriation FTW!

The Cows: 2013

11 Nov

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We went into our first year with pretty low expectations.  Better than having high expectations and being disappointed later, right?


Well, turns out that the downside of low expectations is that if you run into the right kind of market, you just might be gobsmacked by the demand.
That’s pretty much how we felt about selling beef this year.  It was a constant battle to get butcher appointments in time.  At the beginning of the year we had no idea who which butcher we should use, which complicated matters even further.  We quickly figured out that the first butcher we used, Lorentz processing in Cannon Falls, wasn’t going to work out for us.   When the first cow sold out quicker than we expected, we called Lorentz to schedule another butcher date.  This was in mid-June.  They informed us that they *might* have one open spot in September, but they wouldn’t know for sure until August sometime.

Instead of waiting around for 3 months with nothing to sell, we started using Huettl’s Locker in Lake City, the same butcher we use for our pigs.  That makes the logistics much easier for us, since we can take cows and pigs to the butcher in one trip, and pickup all the meat in the same place.

Once we’d had a cow butchered by Huettl’s we quickly figured out that we like working with them better anyway.  Huettl’s is a small father & son outfit that does pretty much everything.  They do beef and pork, custom processing for our whole, half and quarter customers, and USDA processing for our farmers markets.  We can usually get an appointment inside of a month, and they’re generally really easy to work with.


With the cow-calf herd, it was a more difficult year.  Very early in the year, while the cows were still in Missouri, we lost a cow just after she gave birth to a calf.  And it wasn’t just any old cow, it was one of the 5 best cows that we decided to keep.  Before moving up here to Minnesota we sold off most of our older and larger cows.  There just wasn’t any sense in shipping a cow across state lines and feeding it through our first Minnesota winter unless it was a really good cow.  So to have one of the 5 good cows die during calving wasn’t exactly a great start to the year.

This summer, our 4 mama cows gave birth, but the first of the 4 calves was stillborn. Drat.   So this year we sold 7 calves, but only added 4 to our herd.

We were lucky in that we brought all of our weaned calves up from Missouri last year.  That meant that we always had a few calves that were big enough to take to the butcher.  Going into next year, we’ve got 9 calves that will be ready (at various times throughout next year) to go to the butcher.  We’re making plans to sell 12 cows next year.  That means we’ve got to buy 4 weaned calves sometime before spring.

The second continuous battle that we were waging this year was the battle to build fences faster than the cows could eat all the grass contained therein.  You may have noticed a few posts about our fence-building exploits, but that just scratches the surface.  This farm had about 2 acres of securely-fenced pasture when we moved in.  Not even close to being enough for 25 cows.   Now at the end of the year we have close to 40 acres of securely-fenced pasture.  That’s a lot of fencing that we don’t have to do next year.

As we get more fence built, we can start rotationally-grazing, which will boost the carrying capacity of our land.  It’s been amazing to see how these long-neglected pastures have responded to being grazed again.  The cows have knocked back a lot of the invasive trees and brush, opening up more soil and sunlight for grasses to grow.  Moribund old pastures have been rejuvenated by the more indiscriminate grazing of the cattle, with many long-dormant forage species popping back up in the cows wake.  I’m really excited to see what the pastures look like next spring!

Looking ahead to 2014:

Next year we’ll need to start rebuilding our brood herd, adding a few more cows and (maybe) replacing the bull.  We’ve kept a few of his daughters back to be mamas next year, so he’ll need to be replaced with another unrelated bull.  We’ll also need some feeder calves to make up for our diminished breeding herd. We are looking into applying for a cost-sharing program to build fence and water-lines for a rotational grazing system through the NRCS.  If it works out, we’d get a lot of our grazing infrastructure into place next year.

Otherwise, it’s a lot of the same old cow stuff: fence, graze, beef.  Mmmm, beef.

State of the Farm: 2013

5 Nov

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The farmers markets are over for the year, our production is winding down and the long process of getting ready for winter has begun.

Add to it that we’ve been here on this farm for a year, and it seems like a good time to take a look back at the 2013 season.

2013-05-18 12.01.05

Overall it was a very good year.  We were caught off guard by the demand for meat and eggs at the farmers markets that we attend. The whole season seemed like a constant scramble to keep up with demand.  We sold 50% more beef than we had expected, and fought tooth-and-nail to keep enough pork, chicken and eggs to sell.



We attended 3 farmers markets this year and will likely keep all 3 markets for next year.  In Eagan we immediately recognized that the market there was a keeper.  The Red Wing market was a bit slow to take off, but near the end of the season our Red Wing sales had grown to 70% of Eagan’s sales.  Not bad for a town that’s so close to us.  The Zumbrota market is our hometown market, so we didn’t exactly go in expecting to sell much.  We didn’t end up selling much in Zumbrota, but it helps us meet our neighbors and contribute something to the local scene. On the plus side, it looks like the Zumbrota market will be under new (very capable) management for next year.


Around the Farm:

For starters, we’ve had just about 10 years of deferred maintenance to catch up on around here.  For the past 10 or so years this farm was owned by a property development group.  They were apparently planning to bulldoze the whole place and put in a big subdivision.  That plan stalled out with the county zoning department, and then the housing bubble popped.  So the farm sat, the buildings rotted and the pastures grew up in weeds and trees.  After all, why bother to maintain a place you’re planning on bulldozing someday soon?

For the past year we’ve been tackling the most urgent projects: fixing the chicken coop, cleaning out the barn, fixing a few doors and gates, installing a new waterer and building lots of fence to keep all the critters in. That’s to say nothing of all the plain old boring “cleaning-up” that we’ve been doing.  By now we’ve got some pretty impressive piles of scrap-metal, brush and old boards.  It would be easy to complain about all the work, but we knew exactly what we were getting into.  We must just be gluttons for punishment.


The Pastures:

We really grazed the heck out of most of the pastures this year.  I’d go so far as to say some of them were downright overgrazed.  For our pastures, this year, that was actually a good thing.  Hungry cows can do a lot of damage to scrubby trees that are trying to take over a pasture.  Once the cows “grazed” on the trees enough that we could see through, the tractor went in and mowed down the trees with the brush-hog.  The lots around the barn were tag-teamed with cows and pigs to get rid of all the weeds and brush.  With a little mulch and reseeding, we ought to have quite a bit more grass to graze next year.


The Crops:

We bought the farm this year with the cropland already rented out.  A local fella (a guy that actually grew up on this farm) has been farming the cropland this year.  We would like to start farming the cropland ourselves, even planting some non-GMO corn (or other grain) to feed to our animals. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like we’ll have the time or equipment to do our own cropping in 2014.  Another year of renting out the crop land will allow us to focus on the really important stuff that needs to be done.


What’s Next:

In 2014 we expect to still be plugging away at that decade-long backlog of maintenance and repairs. Hopefully we can finish up our perimeter fencing, get more water out on pasture and really start rotationally-grazing the cattle and pigs.  The Farm Store needs a new roof, the Well House needs to be torn down, the Chicken Coop and Barn both need some structural repairs, and we hope to get most of that accomplished within the next year.

In the midst of all that we hope to keep adding to our wildlife projects, encouraging barn owls, barn swallows, bats and tree swallows to take up residence here.  It helps them by expanding their habitat, and it helps us because they eliminate pests around the farm.

I’m going to write an individual post about each farm enterprise and I’ll link them all back here when they’re posted. I like the idea of keeping it all out here on the internet, it makes it a lot easier for me to look back and see where we’ve been and how far we’ve come.

The Cows: 2013

The Pigs: 2013

The Layers: 2013

The Broilers: 2013

The Turkeys: 2013

Free Oak Trees!

4 Nov

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I’ve had my eye on this oak tree behind the chicken coop.  Just in the past few weeks I’ve noticed plenty of little tiny oak seedlings that have sprouted around this particular tree.

We’re pretty lucky to have a lot of big mature oak trees around the house.  I like the shade and (eventual) firewood that they provide, and the pigs love the acorns.  Actually, I love the acorns too.  Free pig food, who wouldn’t love that?


Anyway, the mature oaks are great, but there is a distinct lack of young oak trees coming up to (eventually) replace the mature trees.  There are plenty of (near worthless) soft maples and an almost insurmountable number of invasive buckthorn trees.  It’s clear that a little oak-tree management is in order, for the pigs and us.  Eventually.


Dig around the oak seedling.


Dig down some more.


Have you ever heard that “there’s as much tree below the ground as there is above ground”?

I’m calling BS on that.  These oak seedlings are scarcely 4″ tall, but they all have a tap-root that goes down at least 2′.  That’s way more tree below ground.  Enough that I gave up transferring entire trees into buckets after the third one.

The rest of the trees were dug up as bare-root saplings. That went much faster, just a few strategic prys with the shovel, and you can pull up a tree.


I spent over an hour digging up trees I ended up with about 20-25 trees.  The local soil & water conservation district just released their tree order form for the next spring.  At $40.75 for a bundle (25) oak trees, I just made $40/hour. Not bad.

I may never live to see it, but eventually we’ll have this farm covered in trees that produce tons of free wildlife and livestock feed.


Hay Season 2014

2 Nov

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It’s that time of year again, the hay auction has started back up for the winter. Due to some construction going on at the Pine Island Coop, the hay auction has been moved to the Livestock Salebarn in Zumbrota. That’s pretty great as far as I’m concerned. The auction is now about 1.5 miles from my front door. Can’t beat that kind of proximity.


Anyhow, I wandered on down to the auction this morning to get an idea of what we’re going to need to spend on hay this winter. I’ve been keeping an eye on Craigslist, and have gathered that hay has come down in price by 25-30%. But around here Craigslist is always higher than market price for hay and straw. Checking the USDA hay report can help get an idea of the true market prices for hay, but the auction is where the real prices are set.

At the auction I quickly found, much to my relief, that prices were much lower this year (at least for now).   Last year I paid $55/bale for some pretty rough-looking hay.  This year the junky-looking hay is bringing $22/bale.  That’s quite an improvement, at least if you’re a buyer.  The top end of the market held out about the same.  The highest prices today were $87/bale, compared to $180/bale last year.  Only the small square bales of hay were still pricey.  There weren’t many lots of small bales for sale, so they held up near $8/bale until the very end of the auction.

All in all, I think it’s shaping up to be a much better year for we hay purchasers. I also really like the fact that the Zumbrota salebarn is hosting the auctions.  That means that they have the auction report posted online soon after the auction ends.

Fall Fencing

2 Nov

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A few days back we had our first killing freeze of the fall. The garden, all but the cole-crops, promptly gave it up and died. For the animals, this means that there won’t be any new grass to munch on for the rest of the year.  The only thing left to eat is the 3-acre field that we planted in alfalfa earlier this year.

We cut the field once for hay, but we were hesitant to graze it until the first freeze.  It was a dry summer, which could have put our alfalfa in jeopardy of being killed off this winter if we grazed it too soon.

Now that the colder temps have put an end to it’s growth, it’s time that the cows have a shot at all this alfalfa-y goodness.


There was, of course, a problem. This particular field is fronted by our county road and was completely unfenced. A solid boundary fence was in order.

It took a few days, but after driving and welding up a few brace posts, we managed to get a 4-wire electric fence strung up along the road, a run of just a shade less than 1000 feet.
We’re trying something a little different with our steel fence posts.


We welded a few bolts on, then bolted a pressure-treated 2×4 to the post. That way the insulators go on with a couple of screws. Technically, the insulators go on a steel post with only a couple of screws, but pre-drilling every one of the holes takes a very long time. The drill-pipe that we use for fence posts is some very thick stuff!

We’ve also tried another insulator option for the big steel posts.


This one uses more bolts welded to the post, but with “donut” insulators on each of the bolts. We took a small piece of wire and tied the high-tensile fence wire to the donut insulator. This seems to work out particularly well in hilly areas where the wire naturally pulls up or down on a post, keeping it snug against the donut insulator.

In a few years we ought to have a pretty good idea of what insulator setup works the best.

Until then the cows will enjoy their last few weeks of munching on the green stuff.


After the alfalfa’s all gone, they move on to a more expensive meal, hay.

The New Girl

1 Nov

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I had an early morning drive up to Afton to Little Foot Farm to pickup a new pig.  This little girl is a registered Gloucestershire Old Spot, which will round out our breeding herd for the next year.

The pickup went off without a hitch, but I was a bit worried when I stopped for gas and didn’t see a pig in the back of the truck.  She just decided to burrow down under the feed sacks that I’d put back there.


The little lady is getting used to her new home in the pig prison for a few days.  We don’t want a repeat of Harry’s escapades.


I have been assured that the new girl meets our cute pig criteria. They’re all pretty cute when they’re little, but there’s just something about spots…