Archive | July, 2014

Goats, but not these.

31 Jul


We’ve come to the realization that we’re fighting a losing battle against some pretty serious pasture weeds on our farm.


There’s the usual bull thistle and Canada thistle, along with burdock and a little bit of nasty wild parsnip.
We tried to keep the weeds in check with mechanical means, a scythe and our 7′ John Deere Brushhog, but we’re quickly falling behind.
It was time to try a method of biological control, namely goats.

Cows won’t eat any of the aforementioned weeds, as they prefer to eat grass and legumes. Goats on the other hand, prefer to eat a lot of broad-leaf weeds and leafy browse that cows won’t normally touch.

There were, of course, a few problems with this solution. First, you have to keep the goats in the fences. My fears about this were largely allayed after talking to a farmer who raises Boer goats inside of a 2-wire electric fence. We use at least a 2-wire electric fence for our pigs, so goats shouldn’t be a problem right?

The second problem is that goats, like all livestock right now, are absurdly expensive.
So how was I to resist when I saw someone advertising two free goats?


Meet the newest additions to the farm: Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.
As it turns out, paying for goats was probably a good idea. These two are Pygmy goats, which as the name suggests, means they are quite small. They take a 2-wire electric fence as a mere suggestion, easily slipping underneath a 20″ wire to go exploring.
Furthermore they seem to have been “pet” goats, being accustomed to being fed grain. They’d rather stand around and beg for feed than go out and eat any weeds, not that they could eat much at their diminutive size.

I think we’ll try this whole goat experiment next spring with some proper Boer goats and see if they don’t do a bit better job of things.  I don’t have the first clue about raising goats, but I’m not going to let a little thing like that get in my way.

Goodbye Penny

31 Jul


On a farm you have to get used to being around a certain amount of death.  As the saying goes: if you’ve got livestock, you’ve got deadstock.

But livestock and pets are two different things.

Waiting to see the Vet, 2014.

Yesterday we lost our dog Penny.  I got a call that she’d been found by the highway, hit by a car.  I drove over, picked her up and rushed off to the vet.  Initially we thought she’d be fine, just a broken leg.  But the vet soon discovered that she likely had a collapsed lung, as well as debilitating damage to both rear legs.

Penny quit breathing 15 minutes later, before my wife could make it to the vet’s office to say goodbye.

We buried her in the front pasture and planted an oak tree over her.
She was a good dog.
She will be missed.

Adopting Penny from the Humane Society, 2008.

Fly-By 2014

26 Jul


My Uncle Glenn stopped by to visit us in his new airplane on his way to an airshow in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.


A few of us got our first up-close look at a real live airplane.


We seized the opportunity to do a fly-by of our farm and snap a few photos.


Thanks Uncle Glenn!

Hay already?

23 Jul


It seems like winter is still a long ways off, but it’s never too early to start putting some hay up for next year.


We just hauled in the first round bales of the year, 9 bales of alfalfa and 14 bales of oat hay.

Last year we used 100 round bales of hay to feed the cows through the winter, which means that we’ve got just a tick under 25% of the hay we’ll need for this winter.

Baby Pigs!

9 Jul


Well after a year or so of raising pigs we finally had our first successful farrowing on the farm!

Trixie, one of our Large Black sows had a litter of 6 piglets early Monday morning.


Five of them have now made it through the “danger zone” of the first 3 days when they’re most likely to accidentally get killed or injured by their mother.  Sadly there was one little boar pig who got stepped on and didn’t make it.

The other boar and his four sisters all got their first checkup this morning.


The little fella eyeballing the camera just went from a boar to a barrow (he was castrated). All of the piglets got weighed and ear-notched. This ought to help us keep tabs on their growth and make better decisions about our breeding program going forward.
I’m now convinced that ear-notching is the way to go with pigs. The little guys hardly seem to mind it, protesting at being held immobile without so much as a whimper at their ears notched. Plus we have several pigs with ear tags and I’m not all that impressed with how they hold up to the rough-and-tumble antics of pastured pigs. The tags work fine for feeder pigs, but by the time a pig is big enough to breed the tags are all but illegible. Annette, our GOS gilt, is our only breeding stock with an ear-tag. Being purebred, she is also ear notched, as required by most breed registries.

Electric Gates

9 Jul


I thought I’d give a quick rundown of our electric gates for any farmers or other folk out there on the interwebs who might find it useful.

There are pretty much two kinds of gates for electric fences: conducting and non-conducting.

We much prefer non-conducting gates when at all possible.  Non-conducting gates are “dead” as soon as you unhook them, meaning that you can open the gate and lay it on the ground without fear of shocking yourself.  This also means that that the entire electric fence system won’t be shorting out while the gate is open and it won’t make a snapping sound that will scare the livestock.

To have a non-conducting gate you either have to string a conductive wire overhead or bury it underground.


We bury most of our electric gates because it’s less of a hassle getting big equipment over a buried line than under an overhead line. In theory you should bury your conductive wire below the frost line. Here in Minnesota that means 6′ down, which ain’t gonna happen. We go for about a foot down.


Just deep enough to fit all this. We use 3/4″ PVC conduit with 2 sweeps on each end. This gives us plenty of space and protection for a single insulated 12.5 gauge wire. In the above photo it’s all dry-fitted together to check that it works out to about the right size.


Prime and glue the straight bits together first, then snake the wire in, leaving plenty extra sticking out each end.


Then slip on the already-primed sweeps. In this instance we’re using two electric wires. This particular gate is for our 5-wire lot fence. Due to the heavy weed loads in spring and heavy snow loads in winter we have the bottom two wires on a separate cut-off switch which requires a separate wire for power. I’d like to try a flood-gate limiter for the bottom wires eventually.


With all the wires snaked through, it’s time to glue up the conduit. Snaking two insulated wires through 4 sweeps would be nearly impossible if you were to try it after gluing.


Once it’s all assembled, put it in the trench and bury it. Due to the uneven ground at this gate, we hauled in a few loader-buckets full of sand to even things out a bit. It makes the digging much easier.


Before making the electrical connections you’ll want to bend a drip-leg into the insulated wires. This makes any water that runs down the wire drip off onto the ground instead of running into the conduit. For bonus points seal up the ends of the conduit with some silicone caulk.


Now finish it all off with a gate!
We just started using electric rope for our non-conducting gates. It’s beefy, somewhat stretchy, and best of all visible. I have yet to blow through an electric rope or tape gate with the ATV, something I cannot say about wire gates.

Just tie a handle onto a length of electric rope with a figure-8 knot.  The figure-8 is as strong as the rope itself and is easily adjusted.  Throw an insulator on the “hinge” end of the rope and you’ve got yourself one heck of a non-conducting electric gate.

Bad Year for Tree Swallows

6 Jul


Over the past few weeks I’ve been keeping an eye on a few active tree swallow nests in our tree swallow houses. Everything was going pretty well until today.

Today I swung by to check on the six tree swallow chicks that were within a few days of fledging.

I was shocked to find all but one of them dead.


After leaving the surviving chick alone for a few hours I noticed that the adult tree swallows where nowhere to be found.  They had abandoned the nest for some reason, leaving their chicks to starve.

When I went to pull the surviving chick out of the nest I realized the cause of the predicament.  The nest was seething with thousands of mites. Yuck!

Apparently mites are at their worst in very wet weather.  We just wrapped up the wettest June on record, so it would follow that we’re in the midst of a very bad year for mites.


I took the survivor over to the chicken coop where I gave him a thorough dusting with wood ash and DE (diatomaceous earth), which is what we give the chickens to control mites.  He (or she) was surely relieved when there was a veritable mass-exodus of mites from his feathers.  Not knowing what to do next, I put in a call to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota and will probably try to drop him off at their place in the cities when I’m up there next.  I’m guessing he’s 13-14 days old, which means he could fly in 4-8 days if he gets enough to eat.

A quick check of the other nest boxes revealed one other abandoned nest with fledglings (all dead) and several other nests that had been abandoned before chicks hatched. Many of the nest boxes had mites crawling around on top, trying to hitch a ride to a new home.  I gave all the boxes a dusting of DE, which should help keep them bug-free now and well into the future.
Here’s hoping that next year shapes up a bit better for the tree swallows.

Minnesota Moonshine, our new Pig Feed.

4 Jul


Yep, you read that right, we’re getting the pigs all liquored up!

Well, not really liquored up, but they are getting some tasty new feed courtesy of one of Minnesota’s newest distilleries!
I took a quick trip up to St.Paul last week to meet Bob McManus of 11 Wells distillery and pick up a load of the spent grains.


Historically, breweries, distilleries and farmers have had a very productive relationship. Breweries and distilleries all make a lot of so-called “spent-grains” in the production of their delicious libations, and we farmers are more than happy to dispose of those grains for them. This saves the distillery money because they don’t have to pay to dispose of their “waste” product, and it saves us farmers money on feed for our livestock.

I’m particularly excited that 11 wells is primarily using a heritage variety of corn called Minnesota 13. This particular variety of corn has a long and storied history of use in making moonshine in Minnesota and it makes a wonderful feed for our pigs. The distilling process takes almost all of the starch out of the corn (and wheat, oats, rye, etc.), leaving a high-protein, high-fiber liquid feed supplement.

The biggest problem for us as farmers is learning how to handle this new form of feed.
For starters we got our hands on a big 325 gallon IBC tote to hold the mash (grain & water mix).


I was thrilled to find out that IBC totes have standard 2″ threads on the big ball valve at the bottom of the tank. That means that most standard 2″ pump fittings will spin right on, like this quick-release hose fitting.

Feeding the new stuff is a bit different than feeding a dry feed. The wet distillers grains need to be mixed with a starch (corn) to be a well-rounded feed for the pigs. I’ve experimented with ground, cracked and whole corn and I prefer mixing the cracked corn.


The pigs don’t care what form the corn is in. They absolutely inhale the stuff in any form.
So far it’s a bit more work and a bit less expensive than using a dry feed. I’m sure that with more experience we’ll iron out the kinks and get a fairly streamlined system for handling the wet distillers grains.