Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Summer Routine & Happenings

We have not sold the house yet. We have had several productive showings, but nobody has put in an offer yet. It is hard to plan for what this production season might look like or how long it might take before we get to work on actually moving livestock out to the new place. The uncertainty about things is really wearing on both of Janice and I. 

Now that it is Summer, my Daughter is out of school and is out helping me around the farm to get chores done every morning. That currently involves watering sheep, feeding and watering baby turkeys, releasing layers, and moving, feeding, and watering the broiler chickens. 
Supervising a Cattle Move

New Chicken Pen on Pasture

The broilers are running large again, and are scheduled to go into the processor at the end of this week. Just in time to start doing deliveries next week in Des Moines and Pella and in Ames the week after that. I look forward to a break from taking care of these guys as broilers are quite labor intensive  and parts of that labor can be very physical. 

 Excited about Baby Turkeys

Turkey Pullets at Play

Turkeys arrived two weeks ago and are doing "knock on wood" great. We started with 103 and still have 101. That is the best start turkeys have had since possibly our first year of raising them. 
They have about two to three weeks left in the critical development stages where they are prone to dying, but so far I am very pleased with how things have been going.

Juneberries Getting Ripe

Elsewhere on the farm, the berries are ripening. June berries and sour cherries are getting picked right now and frozen down for later use. Mulberries look to be ready and will likely be next on the list. My Son loves Juneberries so much that he often points at the trees and makes some sounds to let us know he wants us to pick him some berries to eat. 

New Calf, One of Three

Cow Herd Following Me to New Pasture

The cattle herd seems to be doing well. We have two animals going to the locker next week, so beef should be available again by the middle of July, just in time for high grilling season.  We are still working on selling off two breading animals and then we will get our herd down to a more confirmable size and bring in some needed income. We had one heifer calf two weeks before I moved cattle into our warm-season grass pasture, and then two bull calfs were born shortly after the move. 

Leadplant on Growing in the Pasture

After moving the cattle into the warm-season grass pasture, I noticed that there is finally Leadplant growing in a few places down there. I put a little bit in the planting mix in hopes of getting some more established on this farm, but I had pretty much given up on it since it has been around 5 years since that field was planted from crop ground  to native prairie pasture.

Not so Little Guy that Loves the Outdoors

I figured our little guy should make an appearance lest his sister dominate the photos. He loves being outside and soon will be out with the livestock more. We will keep you posted about the move whenever that happens and we look forward to seeing customers again at deliveries starting next week. 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Non-GMO Conversion

We polled customers this spring and they said overwhelmingly that having a non-genetically modified (non-GMO) ration for the poultry was very important to them. We listened to your feedback and talked with the farmers that mix our feed and together we set out to build a ration that is free of GMOs (the most common GMO soybean is also known as Roundup Ready).

Customer Survey Results

Until this year, our ratio has been primarily composed of open pollinated non-GMO corn and purchased soybean meal. Although it is possible to buy non-GMO soybeans, it is much much harder to find non-GMO soybean meal. The real problem with soybeans is that you can't just throw them into a grinder-mixer, you have to roast them. Soybeans have to be heated to break down enzymes that make it hard for mono gastric stomachs (Chickens, Turkeys, Pigs, Humans) to absorb the protein in them. This roasting process is usually done at very large facilities and creates a system where farmers sell their beans on the open market and buy back this generic roasted product. In the US, 85 percent of of soybeans are GMO, so it is easy to see that most of the soybeans in the purchased meal was likely GMO.

Chickens on Pasture in Recently Constructed Pen

To get around this, we will be using soybean meal that is made from food grade soybeans for human consumption. There was an exhaustive search done to investigate where a roasted non-GMO soybean product could be located and that list was very very short. The resulting change is not a cheap one. Generic soybean meal used to run $450 per ton and the non-GMO version comes in at over $1000 a ton. In other words, our feed has gone from $0.20 per pound to $0.33 per pound.  Our birds are eating right around four pounds of feed per pound of gain, resulting in a cost increase to produce the birds of $0.52 per pound. With high chick prices and a bump in locker fees, we must raises prices to try and preserve the small margin that already exists on our birds.

The change resulted in a $.60 rise in chickens per pound, a $0.50 rise in turkeys per pound. Our eggs have been sold at a loss for over a two years now, so we moved to correct the price and roll in the added feed cost with a $1.00 increase per dozen eggs.

Whole chicken: $3.90/lb
Cut up chicken: $4.10/lb
Large eggs: $4.50/doz ($4.00/doz with return of our clean container)
Medium eggs: $4.00/doz ($3.50/doz with return of our clean container)
Whole turkeys: $4.25/lb
Smoked turkey halves: $7.00/lb

Cattle and lamb prices will not change, as their diet is already GMO free and they do not eat grain. Demand for lamb has been very soft and we are strongly considering phasing out lamb over the year. 

Despite what the customers and my wife were telling me, I must admit that I am terrified by this price change. It is a massive shock to our system financially on the front-end of this process. I can understand that some customers might want to retract their orders. They are welcome to do that, and I would not hold that against them. As I see it, this is a leap of faith. We are taking the first step. 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Changes are in the Works

It has been much longer then I thought since I last blogged. We have been pretty busy on this end as the weather has finally improved and our production is off an running. We have a schedule up on our website, broilers are in the brooder, and cattle and sheep are grazing again.

Cattle Grazing Again

There are some significant changes in the works. We have a close friend who is working on our new website, to help us update our look and streamline our messaging. We are looking at reusable bags for our customers with our logo and website on them. This is a minor change, but we think it might be worthwhile over our current reused plastic bags. Janice conducted a customer survey and is taking a very close look at sales data. The results of our survey have us investigating two major changes.

We are looking at liquidating our sheep breeding stock and getting out of sheep after we process our remaining lambs. Based on the survey, we have very few people who purchase lamb from us and managing the herd is quite labor intensive. The meat still in our freezers from last year is almost entirely lamb. It is possible that we could do lamb again in the future, but that would likely be a result of customer demand. We might also look at a model where we just buy lambs in the spring and finish them on grass. These are all options we are weighing right now.

The last and largest change we are looking at is changing our poultry ration. Currently our ration has corn in that is open pollinated and non-GMO. Unfortunately the soy part of our ration is made from conventional GMO soy meal. The problem with soybeans is you can't just throw them into a grinder and grind them, like you can corn. You have to heat them in some way to break down enzymes in the soybean that make it challenging for monogastric stomachs to process the proteins in the soybean. This is usually done in larger commercial facilities and creates a system where farmers sell beans on the open market and buy back processed beans of the same open market. It is not an easy task to source non-GMO soymeal and we have seen prices that are more then double our current GMO soybean meal. Our customers have indicated that it is important to them that we cut the GMO soymeal, so we are working on it. It will inevitably lead to a price increase for our customers, but we are trying to limit what that increase would look like. If you are a customer and you have any additional feedback you want to offer, we would greatly appreciate that right now.

In other farm news, we had an offer that came in last week on our farm, but it has not been finalized yet. I am hopeful that we can work the wrinkles out of it and create a binding contract out of it. We have chickens in the brooder that should be ready to go to be processed in mid June. I started planting 200 trees at the new farm. It is slow going, but I would like to have most of it done this week. Lastly, I am trying to get things sold on this farm (sheep, some cattle breeding stock, tractor, etc.). Things are pretty hectic right now, but I think we are at least moving in the right direction.

Brooder Black Board

Chicks in the Brooder

Tree Planting Moves Forward in Ernest

Monday, March 31, 2014

Let There Be Building

Spring is trying to get started as the weather struggles to yield nice days and the grass just begins to color the hills green in places. We are starting to to make plans for this year, by finally ordering chicks.  The uncertainty regarding the farm move is a nagging shadow over the plans. Facilities at the new place still require a lot of work. We need to fill in gaps in the fencing, replace rotten posts in existing fencing, get power hooked-up, and bring in water and get a water source hooked-up.

The new farm building just went up this past week. We have a number of photos below showing its construction. I am pleased to have the building finally available to us. So much of our equipment spent the winter outside, including the new tractor. Of course, now the tractor is running sluggish and will likely need filters changed and possibly the oil changed as well, but at least it started after this winter. I am just glad to have it out of the elements.

Farm Building Going Up

Framing Nears Completion

Steel Starts to Go Up

Our Daughter Investigating the Structure

Building Complete from a Distance

Building Complete Close-up

The first batch of broilers will arrive from a new source in Iowa the fourth week in April. That is two weeks later then I would have liked, but I was late to place the order and there seems to be a general shortage of hatching eggs at the moment. I also placed an order for turkeys, much earlier than I normally would. We will start turkeys the first week of June and see how things go.

Stay tuned as we try to pull things together and begin our production season soon. I hope to launch our new website, get our customer newsletter released, and send a survey out to our customers by the end of April. Considering the number of things that need attention because we have made almost no progress this winter on things, and how busy all of our weekends are in April, it will be a significant feat if we accomplish most of what we set out to do.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Awakening From A Long Winter Slumber

This winter has been something else. The cold weather has been unrelenting with dozens of days  below zero. It has been hard on the animals, it has made it harder to sell our home, and it has been very draining on our family. I will admit that I am tired of spending two hours a day out in this weather. Add in my Mother's passing, and the uncertainty about our 2014 production season, and you have very demoralizing conditions. Despite all of these challenges, we are determined to press forward. 

Winter Sunset From The House Yard

It is now March, and the Sun's power is far more noticeable. We are finally melting snow off the ground rapidly. Unfortunately, the ground is still very much frozen so almost all of the snow melt is runoff. Our forecast finally sports highs in the 40's and 50's. I think the -13 degrees temperatures of early in the week are finally behind us and we can look forward to more seasonable weather setting in. 

Stream Across the Yard

Following the Stream

The weather has made things hard for lambing season. We lost one lamb to exposure and the cold weather contributed to the death of another lamb, and forced me to make a bottle lamb of another. I have a little flock of two bottle lambs that follow me all over the place and often try to trip me. 
I have only have eight surviving lambs in the barn. We last three lambs and have seen many more single births this year.  I do have two ewes left to lamb, and I have my fingers crossed that we might yet see more twins. 

Some of Our Ewes and Lambs

Flock of Two Bottle Lambs

With the rough weather, we have been unable to do much of anything outside except keep the livestock fed. I am looking forward to that changing. Our new 50' by 50' building was delivered to our building site this morning. I am hopeful that the crew can start on it soon as I don't really want the building sitting on the ground for an extended period of time. 

Marked Site for New Building

The farm move does give us the chance to reevaluate things. A friend is rebuilding our website at the moment. I think we could use an update as our website has become pretty dated. Janice did a great job building our original site, but that was nearly 8 years ago. We are also considering looking into playing with our poultry feed ration to use a Non-GMO soybean meal. We are evaluating if it is even possible and what it might cost. 

This biggest change we are debating is weather or not we will phase out lamb as a product we will sell.   Right now, our sheep herd generates very limited income. The sheep do break-up cattle parasite loads, but we only run sheep on a limited part of the farm. Hair sheep also browse weeds and brushy vegetation quite well on our farm, but our future farm is much more open. Hair sheep also require considerable fencing to contain them, and I am concerned that predator pressure and the number of neighborhood dogs is much higher at the new place. I am not sure that sheep make as much sense on the new farm. To help us find answers to this questions and a few others about delivery scheduling, we are working on a survey that we will send out to our customers in the coming weeks.

The children have been a bit cooped up this winter as it has been too cold to play outside much. That being said, they have remained quite healthy this winter. Our Son's ears have really improved a lot; our family doctor credits not going to daycare all winter. The little guy is such a cuddly fellow and is quite a bit of fun to play with. Our daughter continues to be more independent and is much better at expressing herself since she started school last fall. All and all, we are all doing pretty good. Hopefully, we can continue to remain healthy and get to spend more time outside in the coming weeks. 

Little Shriek Fan

Inside Beach Day

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

I Love You Mom

Janet Marquardt, suffered a massive stroke on the evening of February 8th.  With the whole family assembled, we removed her from life support on February 12th; she passed 5 hours latter. After the hurried planning of the funeral and visitation, the whole things is still surreal. The reality, that at only 32, I have lost my mother and my Children their Grandmother, is still hard to comprehend. I was driving home from town alone tonight and thought of her. Normally, I would give her a call to catch-up on the 20 minute drive. The last time I talked with Mom, was a few days before the stroke, and I can honestly say the last words I spoke to her were "I love," and she replied back "I love you to." 

Janet Marquardt July 3rd 1955 - February 12th 2014

The following passages are thoughts I prepared for Mom's funeral: 

I never really appreciated how complex a person Janet was. To me, Janet was my kind and caring mother, but after talking with many of her friends and colleagues over the last week, I have grown to appreciate her in a new light and love even more the lady she was. 

Janet, or Sissy as her colleagues named her, was an advocate for women and minorities in the workplace, was sassy and smart, and was a bright ray of sunshine in what can be a hard place to work. Be it telling stories of her dogs and travels, sharing pictures of her children and grandchildren, or even decorating her desk for holidays, for 33 years Janet was part of a team of people she loved and they loved her back.

As a mother, colleague, and friend, Janet was approachable in the way few people are. You could tell her about anything and she would listen. She would not judge you, she would support you. When I started farming, I faced considerable skepticism. Where others questioned, Mom supported me.
Janet was not the kind of person to seek out attention, but she was tickled when the spotlight found her. She was often a quiet presence that was always part of the picture, if seldom in it.
She was a lover of animals, especially horses and dogs. Be it cradling a bottle lamb, letting a calf suck on her fingers at the Marquardt farm, or bringing bags of treats for Snip, her horse, and all his friends; Janet loved creatures of all kinds.

She loved history, especially the civil war and world war II. On family road trips we used to sing Goober Peas, Dixie, and When Johnny Comes Marching home. I remember Dad would get tired of it after a while and want to turn on the radio. When Hazel was born, I made it a point to sing these songs from time to time when I put her down for a nap, so she would remember them.
Janet was an avid reader, and ravenous consumer of audio books. She encouraged her colleges through the book club she helped create.

Mom loved living in the present. She loved experiencing new places, admiring the relationship between horse and rider, having fun shopping, going out with the girls. She loved amusement parks from roller coasters to log flumes, but most of all she loved her family. She was a grandmother of four and she found a way to let each of them know that they were special to her.
I will always cherish the memories I have of Mom, and remember how free she was with her affection to her children and grandchildren. I see my mother living on in my kids; in how my daughter will walk right up to a perfect stranger and make friends with them, in how my son at only 15 months will haul a book around and give a pleading squeal asking to be picked-up and read to, and how both of my children have a curiosity and love of animals.
Daring, mischievous, caring, fun, talkative, intelligent, frustrating, friendly, sassy, and compassionate are all words I could use to describe my mother. I love you, Mom.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Confronting the Cold

It has been all over the news, but we have had some of the coldest weather I can really remember and certainly the coldest temperatures and windchill since I started farming. On Monday, the  high temperature was -3 F and the low was -14 F with wind chills driving temperatures to around -50. We just got back from vacation Sunday night late and the temperatures were an unpleasant surprise to come home to. They even canceled my daughter's preschool on account of the cold Monday and Tuesday.

When I got home the cows had broken through a temperate fence and hunkered down in and around the hay bales for cover. After two very tight flights hauling kids through the airport as fast as we could go, I did not have the energy to extract the cattle from the hay bales and get them more shelter that night. Luckily, I had moved the sheep inside the building before I left for vacation in preparation for lambing in a few weeks. The building was a whopping 10 degrees Monday morning, still more then 20 degrees warmer then outside. Luckily, sheep chores did not get more difficult because of the cold weather.

Sheep inside our farm building

The chickens require a little more attention in this weather. This is the first time since I built the new building that I had to break thick ice on the unheated chicken water buckets. I am also collecting eggs twice per day so we limit the likelihood of having eggs freeze. Since we use roll away nesting boxes, where the eggs roll forward away from the hen to a collection grove, the hens are not usually sitting on the eggs to keeping them warm. 

Frozen chicken waters

Chickens that are happy to drink again

The cows proved the most challenging to deal with and are most of why I spent three hours outside Monday choring. The first thing I did, was to get the cattle a new bale of hay. So, I rolled a bale down the hill and pushed it over on its side before cutting the bale wrap off and putting the bale ring around it. The bale they we eating on before they broke into the hay was 3/4 gone and was quite exposed to the wind. I then had to pop some sheep net out of the ground using a hammer and pry bar so the cattle could get back to their water and also make use of the outside sheep shelters, since the sheep were inside the building. 

Cattle moved to the south side of the building

Cattle in a more sheltered place

Cattle now making use of the outside sheep shelters

 Then I had to cut the cattle off from getting into my bales of hay. I started by setting up some temporary posts and running a temporary fence line. I had to take a cordless drill and make holes in the ground for each of the half dozen posts.

Temporary electric fence posts put in with the aid of a cordless drill

 I also had to open the cattle water. I love my Cobett waterer, but that was the worst ice I had ever seen on the thing. It was 4 inches thick where the cattle last drank from it and 6 inches on the other side of the waterer. It took several minutes of work with the hammer and pry bar, but I got it open and then the cows, who were impatiently waiting for me, started drinking.

Thick ice on the Cobett cattle water

The cows swarm the Cobett once the ice is off

Lastly, I had to deal with the little things that happen when you move livestock into an area you don't usually have them. I had to reconnect that section of fence to my electrified fence because I had cut the supply line a year or two back for some forgotten reason. The I found that several calves decided to escape through a gap in the the wood fence that I had always intended to close off. So, that project got completed  and the calves got rounded up and returned to the pasture, but not before I chased them around the house yard far longer then I would have liked given the temperature.

Former small gap in the fence that the calves decided to exploit

All and all it is good to be home. It is hard traveling with children and it is nice to work on getting them back into a routine. I think my Son is the happiest to be home since he is not nearly as outgoing as his sister. It could also be that he was tired of ridding around in the back seat of a mini van with his father for several days. 
Watching Daddy int he back of the mini van

I am looking forward to preschool opening up again and life retuning to normal,  but Hazel and I did enjoy a morning of playing with Duplo blocks together.  I will keep you posted as the weather moderates and I get a chance to tackle some farm projects that could use my attention. 

Showing Daddy the rolling Duplo tower