Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Every Farmer Has the Pasture They Deserve

Well the Practical Farmers of Iowa Field Day or Pasture Walk is behind us. Terry Gompert was great and offered excellent feed back. This is a compilation of what Terry talked about and showed us as well as a few of my own thoughts.  First off, one of the fundamental things that I and many others struggle with is asking the right questions.  It is not a matter of, I wish I did not have this weed in my pasture, but a matter of why is it there? Is it really all that bad?

One of the fundamentals we discussed was about soil life. The plants above the earth, really are an expression of the soil life below ground, and the management applied to it. In Iowa and much of the Midwest, most of our soil is denuded of soil minerals (at least in the top 6 to 18 inches) and of soil life.

Many deep rooted plants (like many of our native prairie plants and many of our noxious pasture weeds) are deep rooted plants. They are able to cycle nutrients from the lower soil profiles to the surface where they can be put back into the soil. How are they put back into the soil? Either by having the animal eat them and pass them or by having them be knocked down by livestock and added to the littler layer above the soil. This litter layer has two zones that we observed. A primary surface layer, where litter looks like light colored dead vegetation and a second layer where it was not soil and not the light colored surface layer. It was interesting to see the definition between the second litter layer and the soil. Terry took the spade to the ground and cut out a chunk several times so we could see these layers.

The second litter layer was about an inch on much of our unburned and unplowed land. Terry said that is good, considering that much of Iowa has none or has a very thin second litter layer. Part of the reason Iowa has little litter layer is that tillage destroys litter and many of our traditional grazers like their pastures to look like a golf corse (the litter layer is not added to because the grass is never really allowed to grow to any real height). Terry said, that we should aim for this layer to be much larger, say 12 to 18 inches. This litter benefits the pasture by holding moisture, eliminating all most all runoff, by helping to keep the soil cool (soil life starts to dies around 80 degrees), and by serving as great material for many of our predominant cool-season pasture grasses to root into.

Leadplant a Deep Rooted Native Legume in Our Pasture

Soil life ranges from soil microbes, to the various dung beetles, up to badgers. Farmers in this state spend so much of their time killing this life and replacing it with expensive inputs. Anhydrous ammonia is a common nitrogen input that is applied in the fall or the spring by injecting it into the soil. It is used to boost corn (a very nitrogen demanding crop) yields. Anhydrous ammonia kills soil microbial life, the natural nitrogen fixers. You ever wonder why organic research that compares cropping systems on land that has had it soil life killed, makes organics looks do bad? Anhydrous ammonia was originally used to harden the ground so we could make quick landing strips, vegetation also happened to grow back very quickly and the soldiers noted it and took that back to their farms.

On our farm, the one thing we need to be careful of is wormers. All chemical wormers are toxic to dung beetles and we need everyone of those we can get. We did see a few dung beetles in some of our week to two week old cow patties. Dung beetles take dung and roll it into holes in the ground where they lay their eggs in them. Dung beetles are one of the best things you can have for spreading a manure patty around and getting it into the soil, short of another cow's foot.

I learned a few things about the plants on above the soil. I learned that a close graze encourages legume regrowth and that leaving more standing residue encourages grass regrowth. A diverse pasture is a healthy one. This is in contrast with my forages education that says 3 to 4 species is optimal and more then that is not really adding much (I am now unlearning what I leaned in school), but Terry says some of the best  pastures he has been in have over a hundred species in them. We are replicating a native ecosystem so we should have as much diversity as we can, especially amongst deep rooted plants. That will promote nutrient cycling, create more efficient layered forage canopies, and promote soil life and wildlife diversity.

I learned how to read a cow patties. The perfect shape is round with a divot in the center. You want it to be able to see the fiber in it and have a deep brownish-yellow color in the center. A greener center is a sign that the animals are getting to much protein and not enough roughage so graze them where they are at longer.

When looking at our farm specially, Terry said, "keep doing what you are doing and be observant." Terry liked that we move our livestock daily, that our chicken pens are like the ultimate pasture rejuvenators, and that we have very diverse pastures. He encouraged me to run my chickens in a mobile coop behind the cattle in rotations, something we would like to do, but are not yet there. I need to be careful that we are giving enough rest time between grazings to some of our less persistent pastures, because regrowth was coming back very very slowly on parts of the north side of the farm. Terry also told me not to worry about the annual weeds I was getting in some of my pastures and were all over in my 12.5 acre planting. We walked the field and many of my seedlings had gone to seed this ear. Terry said, "graze it next June or July so this years seed can get worked into the soil and the stand will be better established." Terry also though the cattle looked good and fleshy on our pastures. It is good to get some good feedback and to know that all the work is paying off. I love the expression Terry used so I wanted to repeat it here, "every farmer has the pasture they deserve."

Friday, August 27, 2010

Getting Ready & A Surprise

We are getting ready to co-host a Practical Farmers of Iowa grazing pasture walk with Terry Gompert. Terry is part of Nebraska Extension and is a holistic management expert. We are expecting around 30 to 40 fellow farmers to came and look over the farm tomorrow afternoon. Needless to say, we have been trying to spruce the place a bit. The yard is looking decent, despite the large swamps that exist in it, and some of things that have been lying around the yard have gotten picked up and put away. It is nice too, that the flood water has gone down and the roads are all open again. All that remains is a brown landscape around the river valley and a plethora of mosquitos.

The conditions within our chicken building are improving. The wet ground has receded a bit. I put tile in the north half of the building, but could not get the standing water to flow through the muck and into the tile so I dug some drainage channels that have allowed me to get much of the water out of the building. Since the tractor is living outside, because it is to wet to get the tractor into the building without getting it stuck, I have moved much of the chicken stuff into the area the tractor would normally be parked and out of the murky north end of the building.

There is no Tractor only Chickens

I have resolved to never have have this problem again with this building as I am making plans to tear it down next spring. From one of my old poultry production books from the 1940's, I have adapted plans for a 30x20 dedicated poultry building. The new building will have a concrete floor, and will have a 20x20 space for laying hens and a 10x20 space for sperate brooders. I want to insulate the building, have washable walls, and large doors so I can take a small skid loader into the building to clean it out. Janice won't let me have a skid loader to begin on the foundation until my fencing project is done; she is a smart woman. She is also working on a materials list for the building so we can use Craiglist to buy needed parts and try to keep the overall cost down to around $2500.  I hope to have the foundation pored before winter so we can work on framing over the winter. The building will allow us to have clean brooders to keep illness down, and raise the laying flock to 150 birds. The bump in laying hens translates into between six and seven thousand dollars in egg sales a year.

New Chicken Building Floor Plan

Turkeys are doing alright. I pushed the last batch outside, because an illness had set in amongst the inside birds and I wanted to get them away from it. We lost several birds due to smothering outside. I think we are currently looking at finishing around 75 birds, down from last years 120 birds. I am seriously considering moving away from the giant white turkeys and using only bronze turkeys. If we do that, we will raise our turkey price from $3.50 per pound to around $3.90 per pound. This will be something that we will survey our customers about at the end of the production year.
Second Turkey Batch out on Pasture

Our last batch of chickens have been the complete opposite of the turkeys. They came, they took off well and all 175 of them are still here. They are still inside, but will likely be moving outside next weekend, weather permitting.

Lastly, our surprise. Last night, I went out to the pasture and I came upon a new heifer calf. We had a cow that was purchased exposed, but just never calved. I presumed that she had not been bred, because I expected the calf back in July and had given up on it. I am still trying to figure out how I am going to breed the other two cows that are still nursing. I have a sire selected and can purchase straws of his semen, but I have little experience with artificial insemination so am not fully sure how to precede. Well that is it for now, but let me know if you have any questions, comments, or thoughts.

New Heifer Calf, With No Stripe

New Calf close up

Friday, August 13, 2010

Islands in the Stream

Since the last post, the generally crappy summer weather has finally caught up with us. Since the spike our rain gauge sits on washed out from under it, we don't have an accurate reading of our recent rainfall. According to the local television station, we have had around 10 inches (25.4 cm) of rain in less then a week. That just wreaks havoc on things. My home town, Ames has had large parts of the town under water and the drinking water knocked out. The old skunk river that I grew up in Ames near, is the same river that I can see from my pasture, except we are down stream. The water in Ames has subsided, but it is still rising here.
Looking Southwest From The Highest Point On the Farm

Looking Northwest From The Highest Point On the Farm

In these pictures from our land, the river is usually back in the very distant tree line on the horizon. If the river crests higher then 2008, it is possible that some will reach our land, but it will nor do any damage. For use the flooding means a much longer drive into Pella as five area bridges across the skunk river are under water or unaccessible. 

The real damage was done on Sunday night and into Monday morning when the first batch of turkeys, which was already struggling a bit this year got hammered by wind and rain. The winds opened up their pen and the rains doused them. When I got to them, I swore they were all dead, but they were in a deep hypothermic shock. Janice and I moved them into the bed of the pick-up and drove them into the garage and suspended heat lamps from the ceiling. When the Sun came out, I drove them out to the pasture where they could heat up before putting them into a new pen. Long story short, 49 turkeys did not survive, but we were able to salvage 27 birds. We still have our second batch of turkeys inside, so we will not go without turkey. We had tried to expand turkey production this year, but we will now be hovering around last years numbers of 120 to 130 turkeys. Turkeys also represent our largest profit margin so the loss stings our bottom line a bit. 

Trying to Save Turkeys

The water has not spared our chicken building either. Unlike 2008, our water table is so much higher and we have just lost the whole eastern half of the building to nasty mud and water. I have moved feeders and the nesting boxes to keep the birds on dry land. Our building is not a great poultry building and this recent endeavor is the last straw. I am working on plans to build a new building next year. We will be planning the build later this fall and into the winter. In a perfect world, we could pour the building pad this fall, but I am not going to hold my breath. 

It is not been all bad, Hazel has been a gem to be with during the day. When ever I have felt beat-up by the weather, her smile has brought be back to task. 

Hazel's First PFI Field Day

We have also brought the yard back from the jungle that it was. The fencing on the south draw has all of its corners built so now it is just a matter of hanging the wire. We still have more work to do on the larger central draw. The biggest boon was the visit to our farm by Temple Grandin. She is great expert in livestock handling. We had dinner with her and several friends. Temple thought our livestock looked good and she gave me some advise on our future livestock handling facility project. There have been more downs then ups recently, but we will make it though. 

A Visit From Temple Grandin