Archive | 2014

Square for Meat: still not there yet

31 Dec


Before we did our first market we went ahead and ordered up a pair of Square credit-card readers to use with our smartphones.  I initially had very high hopes for Square as I was looking over it’s capabilities.  In addition to the credit-card reader, Square has a web-based “register” that can do all sorts of useful stuff, like generate sales reports and inventories.  Unfortunately for us, the one feature set that Square does not support is pricing by weight.  All the cool features of the Square register depend on running all transactions through Square, which is made difficult when you can’t input variable prices. This meant that Square was relegated to a credit/debit-card processing role for us for the past two years, even though it is capable of much more.

As we look at growing our sales at our new market next year we’ve come to the realization that our checkout process is going to be holding us back.
All of our beef and pork comes labeled with only the weight printed on the package. We have to calculate the price for each individual cut and add up the total on a little adding-machine that we bought. After we’ve made change, bagged up the goods and sent our customer on their way, we record the sales on a sheet of paper.
We break down our sales by category: Beef, Pork, Chicken and Eggs.
It makes for really useful sales records, but it’s very slow and we’re prone to missing things.


I took another look at Square’s capabilities this past month and found that there have been a few changes.  While Square sill does not support pricing items by weight, they have come up with a few workarounds.  They’ve also come out with a POS/register system that supports scales, UPC scanners and the like.

The UPC scanner sounds like it could be really useful if it would work out right. Our butcher uses a Hobart Quantum scale to weigh and print labels for all of our beef and pork. This scale is capable of printing type-2 UPC codes on all the labels. The type-2 codes contain two bits of information in them. What the item is, and what the item costs. Type-2 codes were designed for use with meat, where weight (and therefore price) varies with each cut.
So we know it’s possible to get labels with individualized UPC codes, it’s now up to Square to see if they can read such codes. Square’s website is tragically devoid of much useful information, after browsing a few youtube videos it looks like I may be out of luck. I glean that Square’s software is limited to using UPC codes for a PLU (price look up) function. No word anywhere about Type-2 UPC codes.

I called up Square, and after explaining my question a few times and waiting a few minutes on hold, I heard back that they do not support Type-2 UPC codes.

The good news is that sometime in the past two years Square began supporting variable-priced items. We can at least get the prices printed on labels, input those prices by hand as a variable-priced item.

Looks like that might have to do.

I think it’s a problem they’ll get around to fixing, but not until all this chip-and-pin card stuff gets settled.

Hello Feeder Calves

18 Dec


The cows and bull may be gone, but they’ve made way for this big group of feeder calves.


Twenty eight new calves.

That makes a total of 33 calves for the upcoming market year.
They’re all penned up in the barnyard for a few days while they acclimate to their new surroundings and get used to electric fencing.

The Cow Obesity Epidemic

16 Dec


I’m beginning to think that there’s an obesity epidemic among the cattle here in Minnesota.

I’ve spent some time at the local salebarn trying to buy some calves, and I’m always amused at the cattle that get the best reception by the auctioneer and the bidders.  The cattle that earn praise (and high bids) are almost always obese.  The auctioneer will opine, briefly, (he’s an auctioneer after all) about what good-looking cattle they are.  They’re “good heavy cows” that have been “fed hard” by a local farmer of high-esteem, or “reputation kind.”

The problem is that, if you apply any sort of objective measurement by any reputable authority the “choice” cattle around here are too fat.

Take for example this Holstein steer.


I can just make out the pin bone beneath the tail, the hook bones are completely invisible.  That’s really saying something for a dairy cow, as they have very prominent hook bones.

I’d put him at a solid BCS-7 if not 8.


The beef cattle, Angus in particular, were even worse, with most qualifying as a BCS-8.  The Angus were pretty flighty, not wanting to stand still to have their pictures taken, so here’s the best I have.


Aside from all the running around, it looks an awful lot like this:


Too fat.
Is it any wonder that local butchers get complaints about their beef being too fat?

too fat shortribs

Compare that to our cattle, which we typically butcher at a BCS-5


And let’s not even talk temperament.  I saw an Angus bull (as well as a few Angus steers and heifers) try to charge everyone in sight today.

Farewell Cow/Calf Herd

11 Dec


Today was a bit of a sad day.

After hearing that we’d be doing the Saint Paul Farmers Market this coming year, we’re getting out of the cow/calf business (at least for the time being).

We loaded up all of our eleven bred cows and the bull into the livestock trailer and hauled them to the other side of town where they’ll be put up for auction in tomorrow’s bred-cow auction.


After a quick assessment of the sales figures of the Saint Paul market we concluded that we’re going to be able to sell many more cattle than we can raise ourselves.  When we came up with the grazing plan with the NRCS this summer we came up with a pasture carrying capacity of 35 head of cattle. In all likelihood we’re going to be able to sell 35 cattle per year with our new market.  That means that we don’t have enough land to support 35 feeder cattle (the cattle we sell as beef) as well as their 35 mama cows and a bull.

Until we can rent, lease or buy more land (which will be a while at current sky-high land prices) we’ll have to settle for raising feeder cattle only.  This is going to make things a bit harder for us, as we are giving up control of our cattle genetics, and forcing ourselves out onto the feeder calf market (which is also sky-high right now) to procure all the calves that we’ll need.  After our bull and cows are sold at the auction tomorrow we’ll be plowing that money right back into more feeder cattle, enough to get us through the coming year of farmers markets.

With the recent improvements in our fences and watering system, we should have plenty of grazing to get feeder cattle fattened up on.  With no breeding or calving to worry about we will be able to concentrate more on maximizing our grazing and turning grass into beef.

Hooray! Oh No!

10 Dec

We’ve been looking for another farmers market to attend next year. We were hoping to land another market in the south suburbs (of the twin cities) like our markets in Eagan and Apple Valley.

We were not expecting to have the Downtown Saint Paul market fall in our lap.

For those of you not from the area, the downtown St. Paul market is THE biggest market in the state, quite possibly the biggest in all the surrounding states.  We’re talking 8,000-12,000 people per day.  Compare that to our biggest market so far (Eagan) which sees about 3,500 people on it’s busiest day of the year.

Right now I feel like a high-school kid who’s just been signed by the Yankees.  (or something like that, I don’t play sport-ball)

Market starts on April 19th, so that means we have 4 months to prepare.

Based on the rough sales numbers of the farmer we’re replacing, we’re preparing ourselves for 5-6 times the sales volume of our three markets last year.

No idea how were going to make it work, but we’re sure gonna try.





2 Dec


Some months ago (6 of them to be exact) a bulldozer showed up in our alfalfa field.


First there was a driveway.


Then there was a hole.


Then a foundation.


Then there was most of a house.


And finally, there is electricity.


My parents have now ended their involuntary experiment in living the entire month of November without electricity (at least when the generator wasn’t running).  They’re now snug in their new house with 18 solar panels on the roof, a dozen huge batteries in the basement and enough fancy electronic gizmos to make it all play nice together.

One farm, two fossil-fuel free households!

Advanced Craigslisting

2 Dec

A while back I wrote a bit about how I’m using a little web-based service called IFTTT to automate the Craigslist searches that I tend to do a lot.

It’s been two years of farming here, and we still use Craigslist constantly to get stuff that we need like goats, grain bins, feed bins, IBC totes, fence posts and a tractor.

The best deals on Craigslist tend to go very quickly, so having IFTTT tip you off about new Craigslist ads can be a real benefit.

While I really like IFTTT, it’s primary limitation was the quality of the search query that you define.  I had initially put in some rather basic search queries. I’d just type in the normal stuff that I would search craigslist for.  If I wanted a grain bin, I’d tell IFTTT to search for “grain bin”.

This strategy works, but it does return a lot of results that are just noise. Craigslist searches the entire title and content of a post for the terms in your search query.  As a result the query “feed bin” may return results for a Minolta copier (with auto-feed and 10-bin sorting!) that are entirely irrelevant. You have some rudimentary control by narrowing the category you search in.  You can cut out most of the copiers by searching for “feed bin” within the farm & garden category.  This does risk missing out on a few really good deals where the person who posted the ad has miscategorized it (same goes for misspelling).

This still leaves us with one big problem.

A feed bin is not always a feed bin. As with a lot of farm equipment, there are often multiple names for the same object.  Depending on which farmer you ask, you may hear about their “feed bin” “bulk tank” “grain bin” or “feed tank” all while referring to the same piece of equipment.   You could add a new IFTTT recipe to cover each of these name variations, but then you will undoubtedly add to the “noise” that your search results return.  Now you’re returning dozens of new listings every day for irrelevant listings for copiers, combines, aquariums and grain dryers.

This is where a good search string can really help you out, and since you’re letting IFTTT automate the search, you only have to come up with a complicated search string once.


It’s time to learn advanced Craigslisting:

When you type “feed bin” into the Craigslist search box, Craigslist sees:

feed AND bin

Space = AND


But what if you want an OR?

On Craigslist you can signify OR with a bar | (that’s Alt 124 for you PC users).

Using an OR we could search

“feed bin | grain bin | bulk bin”

and Craigslist would see

feed AND bin OR grain AND bin OR bulk AND bin


To winnow down things a bit more we could use parentheses to make groups of search terms.

It’s a bit redundant to search for feed bin, grain bin and bulk bin when they all share the word “bin.”

We could instead search for

“( feed | bulk | grain ) bin”

which Craigslist would interpret as

feed OR bulk OR grain AND bin


Using two groups would widen the search a bit more

“( feed | bulk | grain ) ( bin | tank )”

which Craigslist would interpret as

feed OR bulk OR grain AND bin OR tank


If you’re still getting some consistently irrelevant results you can use a minus sign to indicate terms to exclude from your results.

You may want to exclude results about grain dryers by adding “-dryer” to your search string.

That would make

“( feed | bulk | grain ) ( bin | tank ) -dryer”

which Craigslist would interpret as

feed OR bulk OR grain AND bin OR tank BUT NOT dryer

You have to be careful when excluding results (especially excluding numbers) as it looks at the ENTIRE content of the post for prohibited words.

It’s possible to exclude results for larger grain bins by adding “-000” (excluding bins with multi-thousand bushel capacities) but you’ll also exclude anything with an even $1000 price or any listing with a “000” in the phone number.


If you want to get really fancy (and try to nab the good deals that get overlooked due to spelling errors) you can add a “wildcard” to your search using an asterisk.

Searching for “grain bi*” will let Craigslist return that odd listing that some unfortunate fellow posted for a “grain bim” but it will also return “grain binder”.

On a related note, never search Craigslist for “barley” and expect to get many ads for the cereal grain crop.  You will return plenty of results for “barley used” kids toys & clothes.


These advanced Craigslist searches are quite helpful when you’re looking for a very specific item in a fairly wide category.  For example, we’re currently looking for a commercial chest freezer with a sliding-glass display top.  While there are tons of home and commercial freezers and refrigerators on Craigslist, a display top freezer is somewhat rare.  They are also known as “ice cream freezers” which only adds to the problem.  After a bit of fiddling around I came up with a search string that works pretty well:

“( ice cream | display | glass ) ( true | kelvinator | arctic air | commercial | nsf ) freezer”

Now if anyone posts one on Craigslist in my area, I’ll be notified within 15 minutes.  Not bad.

Distillers Grain Handling

6 Nov


So we’ve got a few months experience with feeding wet distillers grain, and we’ve come up with a few things that make our lives a bit easier.

Picking up the grains from the distillery is pretty simple.  We drop off an empty 275 gallon IBC tote, and they load a full tote in the back of our truck with a forklift.

At home we have a bigger 325 gallon IBC tote for a “holding tank” that we transfer the newly-gotten grains into.  This keeps us from having to lift a full 1-ton tote out of the truck with the front-end loader of the tractor.


So far we’ve been feeding the distillers grains mixed with cracked corn.  We have the “holding tank” up on two pallets, the perfect height to get a 5-gallon bucket underneath.  A bucket usually gets about 2/3 distillers grain and then topped off with cracked corn.  No need to mix, just pour it in the trough.  The pigs take care of the mixing as they root through it trying to hoover up all the corn first.

Anyway, to transfer the grains from the “pickup” tank to the “holding” tank we connect a 2″ suction-hose to the valve on the bottom of each tank and let gravity do the rest.  Keep in mind that the “pickup” tank is on a pallet in the bed of our truck, a good 3′ or so off the ground, plenty of room for gravity to work it’s magic.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to go…

In reality the bigger particles of grain tend to settle to the bottom of the tank.  Those bigger particles have a nasty habit of clogging up the valve and/or hose, bringing the whole gravity-assisted transfer to a grinding halt.

We’ve tried lifting the pickup tote higher (to increase the hydraulic head) with the tractor.

We’ve tried blowing compressed air into the pickup tote to push the grains through with pneumatic pressure.

None of it works very well.


Except this.

This is the best option we’ve come up with so far.  It’s a leftover scrap of 1/2 EMT conduit attached to a leftover scrap of garden hose.  Very fancy.


We smashed the end of the conduit flat-ish with a hammer.

To use this very fancy piece of equipment, just stick it down into the full tote of grains with the smashed end pointing toward the valve.


Attach it to the spray-handle of your regular garden hose and let ‘er rip. By constantly adding a little bit of water right around the valve, where the grain tends to plug up, it keeps it all flowing quite nicely.

Adding water to the grain mix will result in a little more volume, but after a day or so of sitting in the holding tank the grain will have settled out again, and the excess water can be siphoned off or drained out.

While this is working out pretty well for us right now, we’re quickly approaching the time of year that this will no longer be feasible. I don’t want to be fooling around spraying water everywhere when it’s well below freezing outside.

I’m looking into unloading the totes straight into troughs for the winter months, bypassing the holding tank completely. Without water to aid in the unloading process I think I’ll have to bite the bullet and buy a trash-pump to facilitate the transfer.

A Quick Illustration of the Absurdity of Commodity Markets

5 Nov


Lets just say you bought a feeder pig in June.

That pig would have weighed about 50lbs. and cost you a princely sum of $70.00

Five months have passed and now you’re little feeder pig has grown into a full-fledged market hog.

You’ve spend five months feeding and caring for the little guy (or gal) and you bought enough feed in June to raise your pig to maturity for the price of $89.75 (corn & soy only at June 2014 market prices)


Pig cost – $70

Feed cost – $89.75

Total – $159.75

You load up your pig and haul him/her (for free) to the auction barn to be sold.



Your hog sells for $142.50

Congratulations, you make a gross profit of -$17.25

That’s right, you’ve just paid $17.25 for the privilege of raising a pig.

Oh, and lets not forget the $0.57 you owe the National Pork Board.

Piglet Processing

4 Nov


We weaned the last summer litter of piglets today.


I thought I’d take the opportunity to explain a bit of what we currently do to process our piglets in their first few months of life here on the farm.

For the first 72 hours of their lives, the piglets are left alone with their mother in a pen inside the barn.  We’ve discovered that the less we interfere, the better things go for everyone.  I’m thinking real hard about moving the farrowings out of the barn if at all possible next year.  The barn remains a fairly high-traffic area, and the sows can get a bit riled-up when too many people or (especially) dogs are moving through the barn in those first few days.

Anyway, the first bit of necessary trauma in the piglets lives comes during their third day.  That’s the day that we do the bulk of the piglet processing.  We first remove the sow, leading her away to a separate pen to be fed.  The piglets are then “ranked” by physical appearance (gilts first, then boars) and given a corresponding number.  A litter of ten piglets would be numbers 1-10.

The piglets are then ear-notched and weighed. The ear-notching is a permanent ID for each pig.  One ear is the litter number, the other is the pig’s number within the litter.  This notching will never wear off or fade away, which is a big benefit with pigs who can quickly manage to tear-out or wear off most other kinds of ear tags.

I also record the number of teats on each piglet.  While you may have heard the saying “As useless as tits on a boar.” the number of teats on any pig (boars included) is actually pretty important.  Teat numbers are very heritable [PDF], and directly correlated to litter size or fecundity.  If we want to keep any piglets as breeding stock when they get older we’re going to want the pigs with the most even-numbered teats possible.  Odd numbered teats usually mean that 1-3 of those teats aren’t really going to do their job, so they’re to be avoided.

The last bit of trauma on day three is limited to the boars of the litter.  This is the point at which we turn them from boars into barrows.

That’s right, they get the ‘ol snip-snip.

So after 15 minutes of trauma, we’ve got one subjective and two objective assessments of each piglet, plus they’re all permanently ID’d and (if necessary) emasculated.

The piglets are then reunited with their mother and put out in a paddock with any other lactating sows who’s litters are within a week’s age.  The piglets then get to lead a pretty drama-free life for the next 57 days.


At 60 days we do the next bit of piglet processing.

We typically “catch” the piglets while they’re eating in a creep-feeding area away from their sow.  After a good physical barrier is in place between the piglets and sow, we get to work grabbing piglets.  At this point the piglets are significantly harder to catch.  They weigh between 18-50lbs. and they really don’t want anything to do with people (unless those people are offering food).  The piglets are caught, weighed and they all get a new nose piercing.


At 60 days the piglets are usually too heavy for us to use our tabletop scale.  We use the tabletop scale at 3 days, but it maxes out at 40lbs, so I have to “borrow” my wife’s bathroom scale for the second piglet weigh-in.  You may notice that the scale is quite a bit off in it’s calibration.  I intentionally set it so that when I step on the scale (without a piglet) it shows an even 200lbs.  When I grab a piglet, anything over 200lbs is the weight of the piglet.


The piglets all get a ring in their nose through the septum. The ring keeps the pigs from rooting up our pastures too much.  With a ring through their septum, the pigs can still root but it does limit the really deep rooting that they tend to do.

After weighing and ringing the piglets are then weaned.  This is the point at which they are separated from their mothers and begin their lives as feeder pigs.

I’ve been thinking about keeping a gilt from one of the last two litters to replace one of our Large Black sows who was sent to the butcher shop.  I have two good candidates.

Candidate #1 –

Litter of 13, 8 weaned. (2nd parity)

14 teats

4.8lbs at 3 days

51lbs at 60 days


Candidate #2 –

Litter of 12, 10 weaned. (1st parity)

14 teats

2.92lbs at 3 days

18lbs at 60 days


Do I choose the fast grower or the good mother?