Archive | 2016

I Figured out the Barn!

10 Jun

I’m a very happy fellow these days.

You see, I’ve just solved a three-year old dilemma that’s been aggravating me every time I move cows or pigs around the barn.

And all it took was accidentally setting up this panel just so.

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This makes absolutely no sense, I know, but bear with me as I explain in excruciating detail.

Our barn is an old (built in 1890) dairy barn.  This is a problem because, being a dairy barn, it is built for dairy cows.  Other farmers may understand my dilemma by now, but for those of you not so well versed in the nuances of livestock, I offer this by way of explanation.

Dairy cows are (generally) very docile. Historically, small dairies would fit their cows with halters or collars (where cowbells hang) that would allow the cows to be lead into their stall in the barn by the farmer.  Dairy cows must be milked several times per day, and it takes a pretty gentle animal to stand still and be milked by it’s primary predator.

If your cows are so docile that you can lead them exactly where you want them, then you don’t need much in the way of handling facilities (gates, chutes, alleys) to get them were you want them.

But the problem is that we don’t have any dairy cows.

Instead we have beef cattle and pigs.  These critters, bred for their meat, are decidedly less docile.  Technically speaking, they have much larger flight zones.  Whereas a dairy cow would let you approach and put on a halter, a beef cow will (at best) let you barely touch it’s nose before it turns and flees.  Some beef cattle, like those raised out west with little human contact, have flight zones that are best measured in football fields.

So, to make a long story short, with beef cattle and pigs one needs to have handling facilities that are up to the task of moving, sorting and confining small herds of skittish livestock.  These facilities should be more than a collection of gates, chutes and alleys too.  Any decent handling facility needs to “flow.”  That is to say, the livestock need to move through the handling facilities without a lot of yelling, crowding or other goofy intervention by the farmer.  Good flow leads to lower stress on the animals (and by extension lower stress on the farmer) which leads to better meat.

As I’ve noted before, there are tons of resources available about how to design handling facilities that are perfectly suited for moving livestock of all types.  Lots of these plans, especially the ones that Temple Grandin has come up with, should flow livestock through with minimal stress.

Unfortunately (as I’ve also noted before) the nice little diagrams and layouts they give bear little resemblance to centuries-old dairy barns.  So those of us who are rehabbing old barns are left out in the cold.  It’s easy to see what the best facilities should look like, but impossible to see how those facilities will fit in any preexisting structure.

Thus the three year conundrum: How to fit usable handling facilities in our existing barn?

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Here’s what I was thinking about for the past three years.  Please excuse the fact that my hand-drawn barn layout isn’t quite to scale.  Either way we can see that following the traditional chutes & alleys approach is a complete train-wreck.  The biggest problem (#1) being that the straightest path to the holding/sorting pen is through a door that is smack-dab in the middle of a wall.  For humans this is not a big deal.  We know what a door is and how to approach one.  Livestock, on the other hand, are not big fans of doors and will go to great lengths to avoid them unless they’re placed in a corner.

Sure, you can more easily herd cattle through the second door back in the corner but there you will run into problem area #2, the big fat middle of everything that is too short, too wide and just too in-the-way to put a chute.  Even if you did manage to shoehorn a chute in the middle of all this mess you’d only create a bigger mess at point #3 where four of your hypothetical chutes collide into one epic mess.   Even if you did manage to build facilities like this it would ruin the everyday usefulness of the barn because you’d never be able to move through the barn without opening and closing a couple dozen gates.  That’s not something I’m interested in trying with a full bucket of feed in each hand.

And this all brings us back to the accidentally placed gate.

That one gate (placed diagonally across a “chute”) got me thinking about things a little bit differently.
What if there were no chutes?  What if we thought about funnels instead?

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This layout solves nearly all the problems inherent in the barn’s original design.  First (#1) we can funnel the livestock into the far door where they will go into the barn of their own volition (with just a little bit of pressure from me).   Inside the barn we get to the first proper funnel (#2) that leads into the holding/sorting pen.  The beauty of this setup is that it works on the same principles as the vaunted Bud-Box.  The basic idea is that cattle like to turn around and go back out the way they came in.

Better yet, when they leave the holding/sorting pen, the way out is also a funnel (#3) which leads to an almost immediate release of the pressure that cattle experience from being in close confines.  Area #3 also doubles as a smaller sorting pen for the pigs.  Pigs, being smaller than cattle and having smaller flight zones, need a smaller sorting area.

As with anything on the farm, it may look good on paper, but the proof is in the pudding.  As such, I’m happy to report that I’ve now sorted cows and pigs through the barn with the new “funnels” setup and it works SO MUCH better than anything else I’ve ever tried.  Setting it all up is many times faster and easier than the old way, which is a lot easier on me.  The funnel approach is also much less stressful on the cattle.  There is hardly any balking at going in the barn, and even the most skittish cows will walk out of the barn instead of running (a sure sign of low stress).

Happy accident, happy cows, happy pigs, happy farmer.

Chuck Wagon

29 May

We recently refitted the Winnebeggo to include a lot of new roost bars that were needed to accommodate all the new hens that will be calling the Winnebeggo home this summer.

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All the new roost bars made it necessary to remove the 55 gallon barrel that was the heart of the winnebeggo’s watering system.  Couple this with the fact that accessing the 30 pound hanging feeders under the sides of the Winnebeggo was becoming a pain in the neck, and we began to dream up a different solution to keeping the chickens fed and watered out on pasture.

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And so the Chuck Wagon was born.  We acquired an extra running gear last year for a good price, so we promptly added a few 4×4’s to form a solid base and strapped on the single biggest water container that we have.

The chickens now enjoy a massive 325 gallon water reservoir in the form of a big IBC tote that we intended to use this past winter for the Mega-Waterer 2.0

As with anything that’s going to be bumping around the pasture, keeping things in their place is always a concern.  We (probably) addressed this well enough with a big handful of conduit clamps.

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The water distribution is pretty simple given the relatively compact layout of the chuck wagon.  The IBC tote feeds two waterers, each housing 10 nipples each.

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There is also a hose with it’s own valve.  The hose has the Plasson quick-connect fitting that allows us to fill the tote with water from any of our pasture water fittings.  This also allows us a hose to fill up the dog’s water bowl, or give something a quick rinsing-off out in the pasture.

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And that brings us to the other half of the chuck wagon equation, the feed.  Bedecking the chuck wagon in a dozen or so hanging feeders didn’t sound like a great idea, so we had to come up with another kind of feeder.

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We ended up with a pair of big hoppers made out of 1/2″ pressure-treated plywood.  The hoppers are 4′ wide, 21″ across the top and 3″ wide at the bottom.

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Oh, and each hopper has a bottom that’s made out of a 1″x10″ on the bottom and 1″x6″ sides.   To keep it all upright during it’s pasture travels, both hoppers are braced together and to the 4×4 beams.

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After adding a few bits of roof to the feeders, it was nearly time to fill them up with feed to see how much they’d hold.

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The answer we got was 21 buckets, or about 650# of feed in each feeder, for a total of 1300 pounds.  Between the 1300# of feed and the 325 gallons of water, we’ve cut down our labor in feeding and watering chickens significantly.

The Chuck Wagon was not without it’s shortcomings. The first few days of use saw several intense rainstorms, which pointed to a need for more protection for the bottom of  the feeders.

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We quickly sorted it all out with a few extra scraps of metal roofing.

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The chickens approve.

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All 450 of them have been out on pasture for nearly a week now and they appear to be quite happy.

Spring Grazing 2016

18 May

At this time last year our cows had been out on pasture for a little over a week.

This year, due to a mild winter, they’ve been out on pasture since April 27th.  They even had 17 acres of winter rye stubble to nibble on before the real grazing kicked off.

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And while the weather did open up the opportunity for earlier grazing, it was the three-years of infrastructure that we’ve built (fences, improved pastures, water lines) that have allowed us to capitalize on the early grazing season.

We had our first cow sent to the butcher on April 8th, which seemed a bit optimistic.  Finishing a cow after a Minnesota winter without grain or lush grass seems like a completely impossible task.

Much to my surprise I picked up these ribeyes from the butcher.

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I have no idea how we pulled that off, but those suckers are more marbled than they have any right to be.

Piglet Brooder

15 May

Since we got the new brooder all setup with a propane brooder, we’ve not had need of our old Hover Brooder for the chicks.  But this being Minnesota in the spring, we did have a few cold snaps that left us in need of supplemental heat for our piglets.

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All but one of our sows have farrowed (given birth) so far this spring.  The piglets and their mother spend the first three days inside the barn in a farrowing pen.  On or about day three, when the time of greatest danger to the piglets has passed, they’re processed and turned out into group housing with their mothers.

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This year we’re using our three-sided pole-barn for community housing for all of our lactating sows. The pole-barn doesn’t have electricity, but it’s close enough (one extension-cord length) to the chicken coop that an electric hover brooder is an option.

The hover brooder for chickens is a pretty good starting place for a piglet brooder, but there are a few important modifications, because pigs.

First up, piglets don’t need to be as warm as chickens.  Chickens need brooder temps of at least 100°F, pigs can get by with 80°F

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Since we needed less heat we pulled out two of the five sockets in the chick brooder, leaving us with three sockets in a straight line.  With three bulbs we can go up to 750 watts, but we used smaller bulbs to end up with 375 watts of heat.  That turned out to be plenty to keep the piglets cozy.

The next problem we needed to address was the porcine propensity to play around with absolutely anything they can lay their snouts on.  In a situation where a heat lamp is in proximity to said porcines, the heat lamp bulb will presently meet an untimely end.

Which is to say that piglets will break every heat lamp bulb.
Every. Dang. Time.

Usually snapping the bulb off at the base, leaving it to your friendly neighborhood farmer to painstakingly extract with a pair of needle-nose pliers.

Not cool pigs.

So you see my problem.  Fortunately, I figured that simply covering the bulbs with a bit of 2×4 fence wire would be enough to keep the pesky piglets at bay.

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As it turns out I had an even better bit of fence-type-stuff to make a bulb-guard out of.  Once upon a time we had a baby crib that was broken by an overly rambunctious toddler.  This toddlers father, being a connoisseur and collector of choice junk did endeavor to save the wire frame that held up the crib mattress because it looked an awful lot like a heavy-duty bit of 2×4 fencing.  Waste not, want not and all…

And don’t forget the usability considerations, the wire guard needs to swing out of the way for easy bulb changes (heat lamp bulbs have the life expectancy of a mayfly, so there will be lots of bulb changes).  We used three eye screws and three hooks to keep the thing in place.

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Obligatory piglet pile photo.

And Margo, because sometimes a momma just wants in on a piglet pile too.

 

Little Hoop House on the Prairie

9 May

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Look!  We built that.

It’s really not so big of an accomplishment, having now built one I can assert that hoop houses are quite easy to build (relatively speaking).

So without further ado, here is the whole process.

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We decided that we’d love to have a semi-mobile hoop house and that required building said hoop house on skids.  Here we’ve got a trio of 4″x6″x14′ timbers (pressure treated, of course) that make up one skid.

The hoop house is a 14′ wide, 36′ long contrapion that we bought from FarmTek.

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The FarmTek kit is supposed to be anchored by pounding these big pipes into the ground.  Having chosen skids, this was obviously going to have to change.

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We chose to drill some big holes (1.75″ holes to be exact) into, but not all the way through, the skids to accept the pipe.  There was just the small matter of cutting off most of the pipe to get rid of the bit that was supposed to go underground.

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To make sure it all doesn’t come apart in a stiff breeze, the pipe is “pinned” to the skid with a nice big lag bolt.   The rest of it goes together pretty much according to the instructions.

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After looking at the High Tunnel Hoop House Construction Guide [PDF] from University of Illinois Extension, I’m convinced that I could do another hoop house for cheaper, but the FarmTek kit was a pretty nice place to start for a beginner.

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The Hoop House Construction Guide got me all adventurous and made me try out a roll-up side.  That ended up being a fantastic decision.

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The FarmTek kit pretty much leaves you to finish the ends of the hoop house as you will.  One end of ours got a big window, about 2’x6′.

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The other end got the old screen door that used to grace the side of the farmhouse.

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After a few days of waiting for the weather to cooperate (winds gusting to 40mph aren’t ideal conditions) we managed to get the greenhouse film stretched over the frame.

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The film, which is really a fancy name for 6mil UV-stabilized plastic is held in place by this nifty stuff called “wiggle wire.”  Ripping down 1″ lumber for battens is certainly cheaper than using the aluminum channel and wiggle wire, but the wire gives you the ability to go back and fix any mistakes without ruining the greenhouse film, a hefty advantage to us hoop house n00bs.

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No building would be complete without a little sharpie art by the flamboyantly-dressed artist-in-residence.

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After skinning the ends with greenhouse film there wasn’t much to do but wait for the first order of chicks to come in.  Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait for long, having had only finished the hoop house a scant 24 hours before the chicks were due to arrive.

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The next day, when the chicks arrived we got a crash course in solar radiation, thermo-regulation and the promise of a much less fossil-fuel-intensive manner of brooding chickens.

I quickly found out that the hoop house (with the window, door and roll-up side closed) is capable of reaching internal temperatures in excess of 120°F in the sun.  While chicks need some pretty stifilingly-warm temperatures to be comfortable, 120°F is too darn warm.  Thankfully the roll-up side makes a quick work of ventilating such a space.

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The rest of the chick-comfort problem was solved by the addition of some additional shade via an old tarp hung in the big fat middle of everything. The big metal disc under the tarp is our propane brooder that keeps the chicks warm at night.  In it’s former location inside the barn, the propane brooder had to run all day as well. This year, thanks to all the free solar heat in the hoop house, the brooder never kicks on during the day.

All told the hoop house is working out well for a brooder, it just demands a fair bit of vigilance in getting the ventilation setup every morning when the sun comes out.  This already has us kicking around ideas about building a dedicated brooder-house sometime in the future, something with a little more thermal mass and insulation.  The hoop house (and a warm spring) have allowed us to start chicks over a month earlier than last year.  We’re always looking for ways to brood chicks earlier, because that means we can have chicken to sell earlier in the market season.

 

Chicks are here!

4 May

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We’ve been working hard to get our new brooder house setup because today was the deadline.  Today is chick day.

I’m happy to report that everything went off without a hitch.

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The chicks seem pretty happy with their new setup, and we’re happy because it’s one more thing to scratch off the to-do list.

Stay tuned for all the gory details about the hoop house we built for the little critters.

 

The Babes of Spring

19 Apr

Spring is doing it’s thing.

That means that we’re running around trying to get a handle on all the new babies that are popping up everywhere you look.

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The sows have started farrowing, which means that there are now plenty of little oinkers running around.

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We figured out that not quite all of our big mean barn cats are male.  The cat in question (a very skittish creature named Emer-cat) was found to be female when she was spotted behind the stack of strawbales with her new litter of kittens.  This has, understandably, become a major locus of activity for the preschool crowd.

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Speaking of which, there are other babies that are keeping us plenty busy too.

Gotta love springtime on the farm, it’s almost too much cute to handle.

Pastured Poultry Pen v3.0

11 Apr

As our farm continues to grow we find ourselves outgrowing some of the equipment that we started with.  This time it’s the pastured poultry pens.

The old model (v2.1) is still a great bit of equipment if you’ve got lots of time and not a lot of money.  After all, the coroplast election signs are free and the rest of the materials only add up to about $50 per pen.

The downside is that the old pens aren’t the sturdiest things around.  After a two years of wind, snow and the incessant meddling of wayward cattle, the coroplast pens were in need of major refitting if they were to see another year of service.

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Witness the exquisite condition of the old pen (on the right) compared to the new v3.0 pen (on the left).

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We started with the same base as the old v2.1 pen.  A pair of 2″x6″x12’s for the runners and three 2″x4″x8’s to tie it all together. The footprint is 8’x12′ and we’ve been pretty happy with that size.  It’ll house about 50 full grown broilers when moved daily.  If you’re hurting for space you can get 75 birds in a pen, but you’ll have to move it twice a day.

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Once you’ve got the base squared away it’s time to dust off that hoop-bender you built.

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Get 14 or so sticks of 3/4″ EMT conduit and mark them at 12″

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and at 87.25″ then make like Bender Bending Rodríguez and, well, bend them.  The bend should start at the 12″ mark and continue to (or a bit past) the 87.25″ mark.  

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After bending, cut the hoops at the 87.25″ mark and you should have something like this.

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Now take two of those hoop-halves, connect them with a 3/4″ conduit union and set them arrange them on the base thusly.

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Cover the structure with 4 sheets of 12′ steel roofing and fill in the gap with chicken wire.  No need for additional bracing, the EMT and steel roofing provide ample rigidity.

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One big change for the v3.0 pen is that there is no chicken wire down at pig, predator & dog height which ought to help keep the chickens a bit safer.  It should also keep them more comfortable as the young broilers benefit from having a solid windbreak, and the older broilers like to have plenty of shade.

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Now to fill in those ends.  They get the same treatment, sheet metal on the bottom, chicken wire on the top, but there is the small matter of providing a structure by which to attach said material.

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I like 2×2’s for this purpose, really 2×4’s that I’ve ripped in half because that’s cheaper.

And have I mentioned copious bracing?  Bracing is awesome.

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While one end is almost frighteningly easy, one end has a door in it, which takes more time than anything else to get put together.

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The door is going to be quite a bit bigger on the v3.0 pens, witness the old v2.0 door sitting on the new v3.0 frame.  The center height of the new pens is right about 5’6″ which is a marked improvement over the old pens which required a lot of stooping and crouching to get inside.

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Building an odd-shaped door is always lots of fun.  But at least the rigid metal skin on the bottom half makes it a lot easier.

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The top half of the door will be chicken wire, so I decided to use a spare bit of 1/2″ EMT conduit to make the top curve of the door.

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Braced copiously of course.

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And then find a nice spot to mount the door latch.

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And the strike.

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And suddenly you’ve got a door.  A nice big door.  Good for carrying those big 4′ chicken feeders through.

The best part is that the chickens can no longer see you (the farmer) through the door.  When broiler chickens, which are bred to have voracious appetites, see you coming they quickly pile up against the door that you’re approaching.  The new door should stop all that sillyness and let me get through the door without so many chickens underfoot.

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A bigger door also allows us to move the water bucket inside, which means that the cows can no longer continue their campaign of water thefts and waterer sabotage that they’ve been waging against the chickens.  The cows will now have to walk an extra 100 feet to drink from their water tank, the poor dears.

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After the first pen was completed it went out in the barnyard for torture testing.  The pigs and cows quickly put it through it’s paces as a scratching post.  It has survived without any damage whatsoever, which is a huge improvement.

The new pens are equal parts more expensive and heavier than the old pens.  The expense is now something like $150-175 per pen.  That’s still eminently reasonable given the huge increase in durability, but if you’re bootstrapping yourself into a new farming venture the v2.1 pen is still a good option at less than $50.  Just be aware that the v2.1 pens are not going to last long, especially in a mixed-livestock situation.

The biggest downside to the new pens is that they’re significantly heavier.  All that extra metal means that it’s no longer feasible to drag these pens around by hand without a little help.  I think one of the Salatin-style dolleys might be in order.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2016 Crop Plans

25 Mar

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We’ve just wrapped up our crop planning for the year, and here’s what it looks like.

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This year, at least on the crop map, we’re going to look like an awful lot of other farms around here: planting corn & beans.

True to form, we will be doing things a bit differently than most.  Sure, the soybeans we’ll be planting are the same-ol’ same-ol’ variety that we planted last year, but soybeans require processing (roasting specifically) before they can be fed to livestock, so we plan on selling our beans at the local feed mill just like everybody else.

The corn is a different story.

With all of the pigs, chickens and turkeys that we raise, we end up buying a fair amount of corn.  And we know something that many other farmers are just beginning to figure out: there is a lot of demand out there for critters that are fed a non-GMO diet.  I see a lot of farmers online (I’m looking at you r/farming) who can’t seem to accept this new reality.

It seems that they’d rather spend their time complaining that:

A.) consumers don’t know what’s best for themselves

B.) they can’t make any money farming

The solution seems pretty straight forward to me, just grow what people want to buy and you’ll solve both problems (radical, I know).

So this year we’re getting into the non-GMO corn game.  Nobody around here sells non-GMO corn, so this is the only way for us to get some to feed our critters.  We’re putting 12 acres into corn this year, which should yield 1,980 bushels if we get the same yield that we did the last time we grew corn. That’ll put a pretty big dent in our feed bill.

 

A photo posted by Andrew (@greenmachinefarm) on

I was very pleased to find out, upon crunching all the numbers, that the non-GMO corn we’re planting ought to come out a little cheaper than the last corn crop we planted. It’s said that when planting non-GMO crops you save some money on seed, but spend more on chemicals (herbicide & pesticide) making the non-GMO crop more expensive.  That might have been the case for us if we weren’t following a better crop rotation.

2016 corn crop (non-GMO) following soybeans

Seed: $49/acre

Chemicals: $125/acre

Fertilizer: $62.42/acre

Total: $236.93/acre

 

2014 corn crop (GMO) following corn

Seed: $116/acre

Chemicals: $49/acre

Fertilizer: $238/acre

Total: $403/acre

 

Crop rotation saved us a fair bit of money on the fertilizer, beans fix nitrogen into the soil which means the crop that follows beans needs less fertilizer.  But even if the fertilizer was the same the non-GMO corn would only be $9/acre more than GMO corn.  The savings on seed is almost enough to offset the increased spending on chemicals.

So that’s the plan.  It’s only a plan on paper at this point, so we’ll see how it works out as we transition to farming in the dirt later this spring.

Spring Baby

21 Mar

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Springtime on the farm = Babies.

Usually that means piglets, chickens and such, but this week it means that we have a brand new human.

Meet Arlo, he’s 3 days old and fairly adorable (I’ll admit to a slight bias in this regard).

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We decided that since we’re getting the hang of raising livestock, we’d give raising humans another shot.  Baby humans take quite a bit more care and feeding, but they’re supposed to be pretty cool.  This particular human came in a bit smaller than his sibling at “only” 9lb 5oz.  His mother is grateful.

And I’ll leave you with a little game I like to call “Father or Son?”

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