Monday, March 31, 2008

You Have Spoken ... Grass-Fed Cattle

Okay, so I only received 8 votes ... as far as I can tell ... but, since four of them went to Julius Ruechel's book "Grass-Fed Cattle" that is the one I am going to tackle first. The sub-title is, "How to Produce and Market Natural Beef" so I totally expect to learn how to do that in the 300 odd pages of this book! Or at least come away with a little bit better understanding. I have read a few grass-fed cattle books now, so it will be interesting to see how this one fits into the mix. I have a feeling it will be closer to a "Quality Pasture" type of book compared to a Gene Logsdon or Joel Salatin style.

One thing that I am continually learning, and being reminded of daily, is that I don't have as much time as I used to for recreational reading. Between work at the church, soccer, family, and trying to figure out all the stuff with the new land I don't have as much time for reading. So, when I do take the time read a book I want to make sure it will be a profitable read for me in the expansion of our farm. Here are some things I hope to get out of the book.

  • I am interested in learning more about stockpiling winter forage and being ready for drought on a grazing operation.
  • Marketing is something I am always hoping to learn more about. A lot of what is said in the different books is similar, but there are always some differences that stick out. I'm always looking to learn more on marketing.
  • Finally, as I thumbed through this book I noticed a worksheet style goal setting and business plan section towards the end of the book. That is something I am really interested in checking out and I probably will have to hold myself back from skipping ahead (not that there is anything wrong with it).

As I flipped through the book I saw that there were many sections and chapters that are similar to the topics covered in other books I have read, so we will see if it is just repetition of the same old stuff or if there is something new. In any case I know that I always learn something. Of course I will report at the end of each chapter some of my thoughts. The discussion that comes out of those reports is better than reading the book!

Look for the book reports coming soon ... I'll have to remember my book light on those long soccer bus rides!

Saturday, March 29, 2008

A Little Something to Listen To...

It's going to be a short post this weekend. Life is getting really crazy now with my job, my other job coaching girl's soccer, my other job trying to become a farmer, and my other job (the most important job) being a husband and a father! Oh yeah, and we are trying to build a farm from scratch ... but, I'll give some more updates on that next week. For today I just want to throw out some links that I found after a friend e-mailed me a link to an interview from Minnesota Public Radio.

First of all, here is the link to the interview on MPR - CLICK HERE - You will have to find the link to the audio on that page. There are actually two people interviewed. Will Allen who runs an organization that promotes and helps build urban gardens and Audrey Arner who is on the steering committee of the Land Stewardship Project's Farm Beginnings program. I'm just finishing up listening to the interview now and it is pretty cool. I wish I was closer to Minnesota so that I could to take that class.

Here are the other interesting links you need to check out in conjunction with the MPR interview.

-First of all check out the Land Stewardship Project's Farm Beginnings.

-Next you can surf over to Audrey Arner's farm, Moonstone Farm.

-Finally, if you want to learn more about Moonstone Farm you need to check out an article from New Farm titled, "Farm, Food and Family" from a few years ago.

One last thing from the interview. Mr. Allen mentioned that the average farmer is over the age of 60 years old now ... meaning we need to be thinking about where our next generation of farmers are going to come from. That is of interest to me because earlier this week I put a "rant" (they wanted to know what I didn't like about farming) on my epi-log. One of the things I mentioned that frustrated me was the farmers that said they wanted to help younger farmers, but didn't follow through by sharing opportunities and knowledge. You can read my post here. One comment I received was from someone who grew up (and I just noticed I had another "farms are bad" comment) on a farm and said that their dad didn't have time to help or teach someone after all of the work. But, how then should farming be shared?

**Okay, one more last thing ... If you have made it this farm, I would like your thoughts on this comment from the epi-log post I mentioned:

I see what you are saying about the "younger" farmer. However, I would have to agree with the previous comment about why someone would encourage another to get into farming. I myself grew up on a farm and saw first hand the work and toil we put in for the very minimal return. Farming is your life, not your occupation. As a kid I was never in any extracurricular activities b/c I had to be home to "do chores." My dad was always late (if he even showed up) for any Christmas programs b/c they were usually during milking time. My dad who is now 51 has a body of an 80 year old. He's had multiple bones broken, shattered, pitch forks stuck in extremities, you name it. I told myself I would NEVER live on a farm. However, just before I left for college, my dad tried talking me out of it and staying on the farm. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I'm thankful that I didn't listen to him and did continue my education. My father as of recent threw in the towel and has now turned his "farm" into a winery. My husband and I dabble in forms of farming. We raise pigs and sheep. No milking for me, but you are right, farming is an art, but I have made it my "side job" as a way to provide healthy food for my family. I would say that the best advice that someone could give the "younger folk" would be to learn to live off the land. Not profit from it, but sustain your way of life.

Friday, March 28, 2008

More Fallout From the Beef Recall

Today I ran a cross a little more fallout from the Hallmark/Westland beef recall. When clearing the articles from my RSS news reader I came across this article, "School Districts That Got Recalled Beef Are Listed". As has been reported in various articles most of the meat that was recalled had already been consumed, but for good measure the USDA just released the schools that had received the recalled beef. As I scrolled through the list (you can take the time if you like) I saw a lot of school districts in Iowa listed. And, I thought ... "boy I am glad my mom, the teacher, takes a sack lunch to school!" Okay, that isn't exactly what I thought, but it did cross my mind.

Running across that list of schools who received the recalled beef really didn't mean much to me until I came across this article, "Food Program Brings Together Schools, Farmers," from a couple of days ago. Basically it tells about the "Farm to School Program" that helps connect local farmers with school districts in their area. Some farmers have formed co-ops to be able to supply the food that is needed while others have just expanded their operation or changed some of their focus.

I think this is a really cool program that probably deserves more publicity and even more adoption throughout the country. In fact it seems like a win - win. The farmers are able to sell their products locally so they don't have to deal with trucking or huge market swings and the students are able to eat fresh food instead of pre-packaged, pre-made, yuck! Of course it would take a change in the way school districts prepare their food, the article points this out also. This alone will probably keep many schools from jumping on board, but I think once people see it working in other places they may be more willing to try.

One thing did bother me though. According to the "Farm to School" website the State of Iowa only has 3 districts and 6 schools involved. I know that the Universities are involved and I was able to read about one school district on the website that is part of the program ... but, in the state of IOWA ... in the CORN BELT ... that is all we can come up with? I don't know where the disconnect is or why this isn't taking off in the state, but I plan on looking into it.

What better way to support our students and our farmers than by connecting them together. There is no reason for all of those districts listed on the USDA site to be buying beef from Hallmark/Westland (I know ... money is the issue) when Iowa can produce all the beef our school kids need. Of course there are many, many, many reasons that more schools aren't participating, and I know what many of the reasons are. But, that doesn't make it right.

Just something to think about on a Friday...

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Working On The Farm Layout

For quite a while I have been planning the farm layout in my head. I have thought about where I would put the hay shed in relation to the house and how far away would the garden be ... even how big the garden would be. But, now it is coming close to the time when I need to stop dreaming about and start nailing down some plans! We have the land (almost), so now we need to choose a building site and start laying out our buildings and future buildings. That will be the key, not only finding a spot for what we can build right away, but also thinking about how things will layout in the future.

There are two main building spots on the land that we are in the process of buying. From the very first time we saw the place we have looked at those two spots and thought that the place on ridge (sort of a ridge, I guess more of a flat spot on the Southern slope) near the woods would be the ideal place. It is down hill a little bit so we could hopefully have a bit of protection from the elements, it is near the woods so we have a neat view, and you could position the house so that you don't really see any other houses from your windows.

But, when we were out there the other day doing some measuring for the land release (for the building loan) we started to have second thoughts. At that building location the house would take up the most level part of the hill, and then we wouldn't be left with much else for other buildings. At the bottom of the hill it is rather wet and mushy in the spring and lots of snow collects there in the winter, so you wouldn't be the best idea to build down there.

I realize that I don't plan on having lots of buildings. But, we will eventually have a house, a hay shed, some sort of equipment storage, probably a brooder house, and of course the garden which will take up space. As I keep examining what we thought was the best site I have a hard time seeing the layout.

The second location is on the corner of the property where the road curves around. It is the highest point and fairly flat. The reasons that we have written in off in the past is because it is close to a neighbor and because it is up on the hill with no trees for protection.

But, it is back in the mix now because it would be the easiest place to layout a "barnyard". We have been researching fast growing trees like the austree to get up a wind, dust, privacy hedge quickly. Then follow that with some quicker growing pines and finally some hardwoods for shade. We need to go back out there and look at how a pole building (that we would live in), garden, hay shed, equipment storage, other odd buildings, and a future stick built house would all layout.

It is time for us to start doing ... instead of just thinking! That is exciting and scary at the same time!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Farming Book Recommendation

Yesterday I posted my last "chapter report" from Ron Macher's book, "Making Your Small Farm Profitable". Today I would like to recommend it to others who are (or wanting to be) beginning farmers like myself or those that are looking to take a different direction with their small farm. It is well written and organized in such a way that it is easy to read in small chunks (a good thing for a busy person). Also, I think it is full of good practical advice and principles to follow (or at least consider).

As I have mentioned in some of the "chapter reports" it is a little different than some of the books by Gene Logsdon, Wendell Berry, or Joel Salatin. While all three of those writers include many practical tips and advice in their books they also include many philosophical thoughts behind the reason to do things certain way. Mr. Macher doesn't get into some of those areas and sticks with the basics. Things like what livestock or crops to choose, what to consider when buying machinery, how to set goals, and so on.

Here are the links to all eleven of my "chapter reports: Chapter 1 ... Chapter 2 ... Chapter 3 ... Chapter 4 ... Chapter 5 ... Chapter 6 ... Chapter 7 ... Chapter 8 ... Chapter 9 ... Chapter 10 ... Chapter 11

Now that I'm done with this book it is time for me to start the next one. Here are my choices: "Harris on the Pig: Practical Hints for the Pig Farmer" by Joseph Harris ... "Dirt Hog" by Kelly Klober ... "Grass-Fed Cattle" by Julius Ruechel. Vote in the comments for what you think I should read next.

**In a totally unrelated note I encourage you to go over to the Epi-Log and vote on the, "Eat Me: Farmer Ethan To Name A Calf After Michael Y. Park". This is a funny little thing that he came up with and I thought it was silly enough to go along with. Of course he already has a vegetarian implying that he should only eat veggies, but that doesn't mean you can't vote!**

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Making Your Small Farm Profitable :: Chapter 11 Book Report

Well, I have finally made it through the last chapter of Ron Macher's book, "Making Your Small Farm Profitable". It has taken me a little longer than I had hoped, but not because it wasn't an interesting read. This chapter is titled, "Where Are We Going" and it gives a brief history of agriculture (according to Mr. Macher) followed by his thoughts on the direction of farming in the United States today in and in the future. This is the kind of stuff that really interests me and I would love to takes some time in the future and read more on the history of agricultural from a practical and cultural standpoint.

Basically, Mr. Macher writes that in the beginning of U.S. agriculture we would use the land until it didn't produce any more and then we would just move and start over. Of course in the 1930's the problems with this method showed their ugly face and people become more concerned about soil conservation and land in general. After WWII people began wanting a "taste" of the country life so they started moving from the cities to slightly more rural areas and businesses and industries followed them. According to Mr. Macher (don't know where the stat comes from) we lose 2 of farm land to development ever minute.

With the industrialization of farming post WWII we began to see that fewer and fewer farms were producing more and more of our food. With that increase those farmers began to specialize and focus their efforts on one type of livestock or crop. Of course this spread everything out so much that almost all of the food had to be shipped a great distance to get to the consumers ... this wasn't a big deal at the time because transportation was cheap.

Of course you had John Deere, the plow, "fencerow to fencerow", bigger is better, and then the farm crisis. In the 1980's there were farms lost, lives taken, and marriages and families broken apart because of the get bigger mindset (and the willingness of the land bank to give money out so freely). Those that survived either barely did or got bigger in the process because they were able to buy up what was suddenly available. It kind of sounds like a bleak picture ... but, Mr. Macher points out some good news. The number of small farms (178 acres and down) is growing and with that the opportunity of small farmers to diversify and make a living.

That is some interesting stuff, and like I said is a book in and of itself that I would like to read. But, he closed with four last points for a beginning farmer (or one that wants to change). I'll leave you with those points:
  • Experiment - Start farming wherever you can (unless you live in my town, then don't have chickens in your backyard). Grow a garden, set aside a small piece of land to do something different, or at least start planning. Just get doing!
  • Rent Land - In some ways I think this is becoming more difficult with the current high grain prices than it was 10-15 years ago when many of these "you can farm" books were written. But, it is still a god staring place and it is important to remember that you can rent a pretty small piece of land (even in town) to get started with a market garden.
  • Lean As You Grow - You don't have to have everything or do everything right away. In fact you probably wouldn't be able to handle it just like I am not going to be able to handle it all at once. But, take is slow and as you learn and experience more then you can grow.
  • Always Watch Your Bottom Line - Bigger isn't better, sometimes you can do more with less or if you can't do much with a little then you probably can't do any better with more! It is easy to treat farming as as "hobby" if you are just getting started and have a town job that is supporting your family and beginning farming. Don't do that! Make sur the farm is working for itself no matter how big it is (this could be as simple as cutting your grocery expenses).

Monday, March 24, 2008

Family Farms and John Ikerd

I don't exactly remember how I came across this, but I stumbled on it sometime last week when I was searching. "Family Farms in an Era of Global Uncertainty" was the title of a lecture that John Ikerd gave at Iowa state about one month ago. By clicking on the link you can find audio of the lecture, notes from the lecture, and an interview Mr. Ikerd did on Iowa Public radio. Mr. Ikerd is a retired professor, who still holds a position at the University of Missouri, an author, and of course a lecturer.

I have not had a chance to listen to the entire lecture yet (or read the notes), but I have listened to the radio interview and Mr. Ikerd has quite a few things to say on the issue of family farming. In fact I loved his definition. It basically goes like this ... a family farm is a farm where the family and the farm are an inseperable part of the whole. The farm would be different without the family, and the family would be different without the farm. That is a pretty interesting definition if you take time to really think about it. He also brought out the point that a family farm needs to be an important part of the community and not harm the community. Food for thought in the state of Iowa...

This quote from Mr. Ikerd is a good summary of much of his lecture and the radio interview:

We live times of growing uncertainty regarding the future of our economy, our society, and of humanity. These uncertainties are all symptoms of the same basic cause: our unrealistic demands on an unsustainable economy. Some have suggested biofuels as a solution to the twin challenges of fossil energy depletion and global warming. However, the greatest challenge for agriculture will be to feed more people better with less fossil energy. The food security of any nation depends on the willingness and ability of its farmers to take care of its land and to care for its people. The future of humanity of in these uncertain times depends on the thoughtful, caring, and committed people who choose to live and work on family farms.

The word "sustainable" pops up a lot in his vocabulary, and I think he has a lot of great things to say and things for us to think about. Of course I don't agree with everything, but that is just to be expected! One thing that I took away is the importance of stewardship ... I think stewardship and sustainability go hand in hand and that comes out in his words and works.

If you have the time I encourage you to check out the radio interview or the lecture. Also, I would love to hear your thoughts on his ideas...

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Have a Great Easter...

Easter is tomorrow so I hope everyone has a chance to spend time with family and friends and celebrate the Risen Savior! That is what I'm going to be doing today and tomorrow at least ... but, I didn't want to leave my blog blank on a Saturday.

So, I found this video by searching for "Iowa" on YouTube. I love my state, and I have never wanted to live anywhere else. In fact I believe Iowa is one of the most beautiful places in the country. But, I can still laugh at myself ... and there probably is a bit of truth to this video.

Enjoy the video ... but, more importantly enjoy the weekend!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Making Your Small Farm Profitable :: Chapter 10 Book Report

Ron Macher begins chapter 10 of his book, "Making Your Small Farm Profitable", with this great statement:
Successful farm management is two things:
  1. Farming is taking all you can from the soil so you can sell the surplus to make a profit.
  2. Farming is also putting back into the soil all you can so you can maintain and increase fertility.
That seems like pretty sound advice to me, and the start of a mindset that sees your farm management practices as a tool (also what Mr. Macher is advocating).

This chapter discusses many of the same things you will see in other books of this type. Rotate your crops to help build and maintain N-P-K ... use your livestock to work for you ... know what your resources are ... work smarter, not harder ... gain as much knowledge as possible through reading, discussion, and seminars ... and build reserves of money, crops, and livestock (if needed). But, there were a couple of sections in this chapter that I payed close attention to.

The first section that I read closely was the section on using family labor. Watch out parents/brother/sister ... I'm coming for you! Okay, maybe not that kind of family labor, although their help is always appreciated, but more specifically my immediate family. Mr. Macher talked about he importance of helping your children learn to love the farm. One thing that I have understood from the beginning of this journey was that if my family wasn't behind it then it wasn't going to happen. With that in mind I want to do as much as possible to get the family involved from the beginning.

Even though my children are only 2 and 4-years-old we are trying to get them involved in farming. We have "discussions" with them about our Dexters, chickens, or other things we would like to do this summer (most include Caleb telling me that he is going to buy a cow for a price that he makes up in his head). We take the kids out to the land and talk with them about what we will be doing out there. We have them help name our calves and make sure they see them when the are born. Basically, we are trying to make it fun for them. As the grow older the ways to "make it fun" will change, but the principles will be the same ... and it will always be important that the whole family enjoys farming.

The final thing that really stuck out to me in this chapter was his section on, "Planning for Farm Efficiency". The reason this section made an impression is because we will be starting from scratch with our farm layout so we should do it the most efficient way possible. One book Mr. Macher quotes says that for, "every 100 feet of unnecessary distance between the house and farm adds up to 14 miles of travel a year for each daily round trip." With that in mind I see the importance of laying out our buildings and facilities according to a plan ... rather than just what looks best at the moment. As we have time (and as the grass is either burned or mowed down) we plan on spending plenty of time at the land and planning our layout. No reason to waste footsteps, especially when you are farming in addition to another job!

This chapter was a good overview of some basic farm management principles and gave me plenty to think about. There is only one more chapter left, so keep an eye out for my thoughts on it and then a short review of the book.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Buy, Rent, Or Hire ... Machinery

My chapter book report from Ron Macher's book, "Making Your Small Farm Profitable", combined with the link provided by Kelli of Sugar Creek Farm (and the other comments in the post) led me to the question of ... "Buy, Rent, or Hire?" In fact it almost sounds like a game show, maybe I should look into the possibilities! But, back to the question at hand. I really started thinking about what to buy, what to rent, or what I should hire done. And to be perfectly honest I was mostly thinking about hay.

I know that no winter will ever be the same, but if next winter is anything like this winter I will need about six or seven small square bales of hay each day to feed our Dexter herd at it's expected size. That does not take into consideration any other livestock we add. Let's just say that we need to feed that much hay for 3.5 months ... we are looking at roughly 683 bales for our cattle alone. I bought some $2 a bale hay this year and it was okay, not great for lactating cows, but good enough for the steers and dry cows. If I wanted some quality hay I know that I would have to pay more than that. Let's just say I can find some for $3.50 per bale ... we are looking at $2,390.50 for small squares, and we hope that is enough. Of course I could go with some big round bales, but there are plenty of things to consider when going that route.

One question brought up in the comments was that 20 acres or so of pasture/hay ground didn't seem like enough to have a baler/rake/mower. I think that is a very valid question and one that I think I need to examine. So, let me just throw out some numbers.

If I were to assume that I am going to have a tractor (at least at some point) of 50 hp or more I would have enough power to bale hay. So, I could go the buying route, but not include the cost of the tractor because I would have it anyways. In my neck of the woods where big rounds are king I have seen plenty of nice working New Holland or John Deere balers selling for the $500 range in classifieds and at auction. A used side-delivery rake will cost less than that as will a pull behind sickle bar mower. None of this equipment is top of the line, but it is usable on a small amount of land, relatively inexpensive, and our family knows how to work on this kind of stuff. I'm thinking I could buy the stuff for $1,500 give or take. That is lower than the cost of the hay for one year and I could use it multiple years. Of course I need to factor in maintenance costs and the fact that I would have to do the work. On the flip side if I was going to have extra hay I could sell it.

On the subject of renting ... I am clueless of the costs. But, I would probably have to rent from a local farmer who may also be planning on using the baler and equipment. That would mean that I would have to work around their schedule and that doesn't always work when we are talking about hay.

Finally, I could hire the hay done. According to this great chart that Kelli pointed me to the average mowing per acre price is $10.70, the average raking per acre price is $5.65, and the average per bale cost is $0.48. It wouldn't take all 20 acres to get the 683 bales I needed, but just by taking the per bale cost we can see that it would cost at least $327.84 for the hay plus the other expenses. I believe Kelli mentioned that they cut and rake their hay so this does look like a good possibility if you can do that. One downside of course would be the timing, but they may be more likely to get it done if there is money involved instead of just shares or if they were renting you equipment.

There are lots of things to consider in this. But, I think one thing is for sure ... it would be silly for me to buy in hay when we could make it on our own. Grazing our 19 head of Dexter cattle won't allow us to bale the entire amount, but when we have some good spring growth we should be able to bale a nice chunk of it (and maybe get a second cutting if we are lucky).

Any thoughts...?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Using Those Weeds For Good...

For the past few months (since I began receiving "The Stockman Grassfarmer") I have been enjoying reading the "Weed Grazing" column. Grazing weeds instead of completely eliminating all weeds is something that hit my radar this past summer when I was on a pasture walk promoted by The Practical Farmers of Iowa. The host talked about one of the pasture seed mixes that he used and the fact that it included a weed (can't remember what for the life of me). Many people on the tour were surprised that he had intentionally seeded a weed, but they all did admit that they had seen their livestock eating it and even selecting it over some grasses.

I think that proves how much of a psychological thing our fight against weeds can be. Kathy Voth, in this months issue of The Stockman Grassfarmer, relates a quote from the 1934 Book of Knowledge. It said, "Agriculture is an eternal war against weeds." Also, in the book was this line about the 'only' benefit of weeds, "is that we add to our own strength by 'vanquishing these bitter foes'." Does this have to be the case?

Of course there will always be troublesome weeds that are no good and even dangerous to our livestock, but we can't paint all weeds with the same brush. Ms. Voth writes in the article that, "many weeds are as nutritious as alfalfa". During the droughts of the late 1930's the Russian Thistle weed helped sustain many small livestock farms. In California the weed distaff thistle is often green when other grasses have given up, and it's proteins can help cattle and other ruminants keep up good levels of rumen microbes.

The article talks about using a grazing management plan to help control the weeds on your land. Of course you will never completely win the battle, but with the help of your livestock you can control the battle and possibly even enhance your pasture by letting your livestock graze certain weeds that could help sustain them in a drought.

So, what weeds do you see your livestock munching on?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Get Ready For Grass Farming

In the March, 2008 issue of "The Stockman Grassfarmer" there is an interesting article by Bud Williams titled, "A Short History of American Grass Finishing". It is almost an understatement to say that grass finishing is not a new idea considering the fact that many animals were created in such a way that they could digest forages for gain and energy. As Mr. Williams says, "It is grain feeding animals that is reasonably new. It mainly came about as a way to market grain."

There was a whole series of events and circumstances that led to the growth of grain finishing, but the article points out a few of the bigger things (this is the type of thing I find interesting because of my love of history). Two of the larger factors in this increase were the lower cost of transportation/fuel and the implementation of tractors on farms. The new transportation/fuel allowed farmers the chance to move animals and feed easily. They could now specialize in finishing steers or running cows and calves instead of have a birth to finish operation. Also, the new tractors allowed a farmer to grow more and also specialize in just a couple of crops. Then they could take advantage of that transportation and move their grains to those finishing cattle. Of course there were many more factors, but these two played large rolls.

But, times are changing. Grain and transportation costs are still relatively inexpensive (at least in the sense that it is possible to buy), but because of the way that our finishers, growers, and processors have become centralized there is a possibility that things will only get worse ... especially for the small farmer. Right now I would guess that is all but impossible for me to jump into the commodity beef, pork, or grain markets. The amount of land, machinery, and facilities I would need would make it impossible. But, instead of looking at that as a downer I need to see it as an opportunity.

Actually Mr. Williams makes good point, all farmers should be thinking about quality grass finishing because you never know which way things will go or what opportunities there will be. There are a couple of problems with that. First of all, much of our grass finishing knowledge has been lost, although there is a lot out there and more coming out everyday. Secondly, much of our beef/dairy herd in the United States have also have forgotten how to finish well on grass ... or more specifically our current agricultural system has bred it out of them.

We need to be learning how to produce quality forages for our livestock and rebuilding those breeds that can thrive in the environment they were created for. The opportunities will always be there, but they may be even bigger with many of the changes we could see coming.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Making Your Small Farm Profitable :: Chapter 9 Book Report

Chapter nine of Ron Macher's book "Making Your Small Farm Profitable" deals with machinery, in fact that is the title of the chapter! The thought of machinery is one of the many things on the front of my mind right now because of our hopefully impending land purchase and the work that will need to be done (house, septic, electric, water, fence, hay shed, etc.). We are going to need to decide what we will need, when we will need it, or even if we need anything at all.

I like the principle that Mr. Macher begins the chapter with. "Machinery and tools should save time or reduce the need for additional labor. Otherwise, they are a waste of money." This is a good basic principle to take into account when you are thinking about the machinery you are going to need. I would also throw in something about whether or not it would be more economical to hire someone or rent the machinery to do certain jobs that don't happen that often. At least until the money or the need is really there.

For example, I can think of lots of uses for a tractor with a loader for the farm. It would be helpful in building our house and hay shed, putting in the fence, and maintaining our pasture and woodlot. If we are able to swing it somehow I think that will be one of the things first on my list. On the other hand, I have been thinking about hay equipment (small square baler, mower, rake, and wagons). Is this a "need" or something that we should hold off on in the beginning. Of course we are going to need to bale hay (probably on 23 or 24 acres) for our livestock, but would we be better off renting or paying someone to do it. There are downsides to both having and renting/hiring and I will have to put a lot of thought into both sides of thinking.

In another section of this chapter Mr. Macher points out that hand tools should also be considered a piece of machinery (remember they can also reduce labor). Hand tools should be the first things we look at he writes and points out the importance of having quality tools that will last and really help make the work easier. Of course you can't do it all by hand, but you would be surprised by what is possible.

There are also sections on fencing, processing equipment, and even computers in this chapter. All of those things can be an integral part of the farm and need to be looked at in terms of cost, maintenance, and productivity. Mr. Macher has also included some charts (that are slightly out-dated) at the end of this chapter that give some variable machinery/equipment costs per hour, per acre, and so on.

And of course I would be remiss if I didn't mention his small section on using draft powered implements. I know that there are a few that read this blog that are doing this or hope to do it and it does offer many benefits for the small farm. I'm just not sure if I'm ready to take that step yet!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

A Few More Thoughts on the Land...

This has been a very busy week! Not just with land stuff, but also with work. I do think that this is just a taste of what is coming ... On Monday I begin coaching soccer (high school girls), we have a bunch of big things coming at church, and hopefully we will be closing on the land in a few weeks and then getting things set with the building loan and building itself. But, before we get into all of the craziness I thought I would throw up a few more pictures of the land and why we like this places so much.

On the left is a picture of the highest point on the property. It is in the Northeast corner and the land slopes away towards the South. This is one of the other places that would be a possible building site, but we like the idea of being closer to the trees rather than out in the open waiting for trees to grow. Also, it might be a good spot for cattle facilities or other things in the future. I will say that I do enjoy the view from up there and like to look out over the surrounding farms!

Here is a picture of the "CRP" land that we are leaving in the program. As you can tell from the picture it doesn't exactly fit all of the guidelines for inclusion in the program, but we will take it ... like I said yesterday, "it is what it is". After the land comes out of the program we are considering using some of this area as an orchard or berry patch, but we will just have to see what would be best over time. It is kind of a pretty hill and I think it will be a good place to do a little hunting!

This is one of the reasons we like this place. There are only two houses beyond where we would like to build and then the road becomes what you see in the picture ... a class "B" road. That means no maintenance and little traffic. The only people going down there (and they could come from another direction not past our building site) are a couple farmers who own the land and maybe some hunters. We are not secluded on a dead end road, but in some senses it may feel like it. As I may have mentioned earlier, the location just feels right for what we want to do and were we see our family moving.

I hope you have enjoyed this week long look at a 40 acre piece of land. Hopefully in the weeks and months to come I will be able to discuss some progress and shamelessly ask for more help! I do know one thing ... this "beginning farmer" thing is about to take on a whole 'nother dimension...

Friday, March 14, 2008

Why This Land?

What makes this land special? Why choose something this size? What about this place really jumped out at you? You may be wondering about our answers to some of those questions, and to tell you the truth we tried to ask ourselves these questions and more as we were making the decision. Besides the fact that we need to find a place for cute calves like Tabitha who was born Monday (more on that another day), I thought I would throw out a few of the reasons that we decided to try and purchase this exact piece of land.
  1. Our number one reason is that it just felt right. It sounds kind of cheesy, but we did spend a lot of time in prayer about this and despite all of the hurdles we just felt like enough doors were being opened to go ahead. It won't be easy, but we think it is the right land ... of course if the something falls through on the loan we would feel okay.
  2. We looked at other properties with houses and buildings and bare plots of land in varying acreages, but this just seemed like the best bang for our (lots of) buck. We could have purchased a place with usable buildings and a nice house, but then we wouldn't have had the land. Or we could have found a smaller piece of land, but then we wouldn't have much room to grow. 40 acres seemed like a good enough size for a small diverse farm and it is the most we can afford.
  3. Location, location, location! On a day when the roads are super muddy and the driving is slow it is only about 12 minutes to the church where I work and about 6 miles out of town, so it is a good distance for us. Also, it is located in such a place that it is easy to get to the farm from Des Moines if/when we could begin on farm sales. And, it is just a pretty view. The lay of the land itself is beautiful and the borrowed views around us are great!
  4. It is a pretty clean property. One thing you face on many farms in Southern Iowa is the junk ditch. You know the place where everyone throws their old appliances or vehicles. My dad's farm has it, my uncle's farm has it, and I know other people who have a similar place on their farm. On this particular piece of land the closest thing to "junk" is two neatly rolled bundles of old woven wire dropped in a spot that was eroding. It is nice and clean!
  5. There are a lot of other reasons, but one last thing we liked about this piece was that it just seemed like the right mix. Just enough timber and the right amount of pasture to have a small diverse farm. We have a woodlot that we can use to heat our house, pastures to run livestock, and places for an orchard ... garden ... and berry vines. The Southernly slope of the pasture is a bonus, and if we want to there are two great places to build a pond. On a acreage of this size it just seemed like the right ratio.
Those are just a few of the reasons we liked this place and hopefully we will be calling it home this summer. There is a lot of work to be done and I know we can't even grasp what all that will entail, but we are excited about what is ahead of us and ready to work together!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Taking Land Out of the CRP

I thought I would take a little bit of time today to share some of what we have learned about taking land out of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) ... you can read about what the CRP is HERE. As I have mentioned before most of the land we are in the process of buying is in CRP right now. In fact of the 38 acres there are 31.5 acres in CRP right now, and as far as we can tell they have been in for about 14 years. But, taking land out of CRP isn't as easy as just deciding to do it ... it takes money and time!

We are planning on taking out the 26 acres of pasture and leaving the other 5.5 acres in the program. Normally land that is placed in the Conservation Reserve Program needs to be land that could be in crop production, but our land owner must have know somebody! The 5.5 acres we are leaving in is mostly a wooded hill on the other side of a ravine. We will leave it in as long as we can and collect the money ... probably until the contract ends.

I have heard of CRP contracts running for different amounts of time, but I think normally they are around 7-10 years in time. When you sign up you must basically leave the land alone, although you are allowed to do some waterway improvements and seeding or even mow a path through the land. It can be used for hunting and mowed down in the winter. But, if you want to take it out of the program before the contract is up you will have to do a few things ... and by a few things I mean give them money.

You must pay back all of the money that has been paid out during the time of the contract. Those payments include the contract money and any other cost sharing money that was given for land improvements. Next you must pay interest on that money which varies from year to year. In our case the interest was as low as 2% for one year and as high as 5.5% for another. Really, the interest isn't that big of a deal. Finally, you must pay 25% of one years payment for "Liquidated Damages". They are quick to point out that the "Liquidated Damages" fee is not a penalty!

Now, it is important to recognize that you must pay this back regardless of whether or now you received it and in some cases if your contract was extended (instead of ended and then a new one put in place) you may have to go a long ways back. I talked with someone the other day who had recently found out that they would have to pay back 14 years worth of payments! I'm not saying it is right or wrong ... just saying how it is.

For us, we are just looking at the CRP buyout money as part of the land expense and we decided that it still made the land reasonably priced for the market. I can understand why some farmers are pushing for a provision in the new Farm Bill that would allow them to take the land out without having to pay back anything, but I don't think it is going to happen.

If you have any CRP questions fire away ... because of this I have learned a lot more about the program than I knew going in! I wish we wouldn't have to pay to take the land out, but it is what it is...

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Pasture Renovation

With so many thoughts running through my head with our hopefully impending land purchase I have decided to dedicate this week to blogging about it and shamelessly asking for input! Today I want to focus in on the pasture. The picture on the right gives you a close up (you can click the pictures for a larger view) of what most of the grass on the land looks like. The pasture is about 26 acres in size and is most a South facing slope. You can scroll down to the past to posts to see an aerial shot. Also, there are two water ways running down the pasture that will need special attention so we don't have a couple of Grand Canyon's on the place!

One of the questions that we are facing is exactly how to get rid of the grass that is there right now. I don't mean we want to kill it all off, but we need to clip it down to size for various reasons. First of all there are huge ant hills everywhere. As you can tell from the picture on the left they are pretty tall. That is Caleb standing on one that is over a foot tall! It wouldn't be so fun to hit those all day long as you were cutting hay. So, we need to make the grass shorter so we can knock down all of those ant hills. Secondly, starting the spring with new growth is probably a good idea for our cattle and for the hay that we will make.

We have two options. Option number one is that we mow it down. I have the wonderful fortune of having a father who test drives lawn mowers. He could come up for a while and knock it all down and find the ant hills (by running into them). One problem with that idea is that you will have a lot of grass clippings on the pasture ... that may or may not be a good thing. The other option is to have the rural fire department come out and burn in off. That would expose the ant hills and give it a fresh start this spring. Right now I am leaning towards option number two, but would love any thoughts on the subject.

The second question I am thinking on is whether or not we should attempt any seeding this spring. For quite awhile the land has been in the Crop Reduction Program (more on that tomorrow) and at some time I believe it was seeded to some sort of switchgrass (not sure on the variety). The stand of grass is pretty strong and there really aren't many weeds in the pasture except for some brambles and berries pushing in on the edge of the woods. But, I am wondering if I should or shouldn't try and inter-seed some sort of clover. Also, I really have no idea how the switchgrass will stand up under Management Intensive Grazing. I have done a little reading on switchgrass as a forage and it sounds like it is good as long as you keep it clipped at about six inches, but I haven't found out how well it does with grazing.

I really can't wait to see things green up this coming spring as the pasture comes to life. I can already image our Dexter herd out grazing on the pasture!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Thing About Bare Land...

The thing about bare land is that it is ... well ... it is bare, empty, and void of buildings! That is the case with the 40 acres that we are in the process of buying, so we will have to build everything that we are going to need. A house, storage, shelters, and fences will all have to be built because we are starting with a blank slate. On one had that can be a bad thing because of all the work that it will take to get things up and running, but on the other hand it gives us the opportunity to do exactly what we want exactly how we want to do it. I'm going to try and be the optimist and run with the latter of those two options!

Let me start with the easy stuff first ... One of the reasons that I brought up the fencing questions a little while ago on the blog is because I knew this land might be a possibility. You can get an idea of the land we are working with from the image at the top of the post. Initially I think we are going to fence along the road and the along the wooded area. I think with a little work the fence on the West side of the property could be usable, but we may end up putting up fence just inside of that and going with high tensile electric all the way around. Yep, right now I believe we will be going with high tensile electric. I'm not sure how many wires yet, now that I'm looking for it I am beginning to see it around quite a bit. In fact there is a PowerFlex dealer not to far away so I think we are going to check them out pretty soon. Once the boundary fences are established we will use all portable fencing inside and then eventually make a few more permanent fences if needed.

As far as storage buildings or livestock shelters go ... we will probably tackle those this fall or as needed. We may make some basic portable shade for the cows and beef up the chicken pen a little, but other than that the fence and the house are much more important building projects.

Which leads me to the house. This is the thing that is probably going to be the most stressful because we don't have a ton of budget to work with. We knew going in that we were going to have to choose between a larger chunk of land or a nicer house. As a family we decided that we wanted the land because we could always upgrade the house!

Right now we are looking at a 36 x 45 x 12 post frame barn (like the image on the right) that would be roughly 1600 square feet. Then we would build our living area inside that barn ... err ... house in an area around 1200 square feet leaving the rest for storage. Of course it would have a slab concrete floor and we would probably build a very small lean-to off the side with a cellar because we live in Iowa (tornadoes). Our house will have no air-conditioning and we will heat with wood in order to save money. We will install some electric base-board heaters for backup though.

We are still going through the plans and talking to builders about putting up the barn for us. Once it is up we plan on doing all of the interior work ourselves and building a bare bones home that will be full of love ... but not much else! This is were living simply and making sacrifices for what we believe we are supposed to be doing becomes real, and we are excited about the possibilities.

A few more details ... there is no electric, water, or septic on the farm, but the power and rural water lines are on our side of the road so it is not that big of a deal. Also, it is important to realize that right now we are looking at bare bones and no frills. In fact we see this as a temporary house or one that we can "fancy" up as we desire. Hopefully we will live in this barn for a while and then turn it "back" into a barn and a on farm store.

I would like to open up everything for discussion and suggestions though. I would especially appreciate and thoughts, links, or book recommendations that would help in the building of the barn/house. Do you have any great economical ideas on insulating a post frame/pole building? Let the discussion begin! :)

Monday, March 10, 2008

Offer Made ... Offer Accepted!

Well, this is pretty big news for us ... This past Friday my wife and I made an offer on a 40 acre piece of land it was accepted! Of course there are still plenty of details to work out, but barring any major problems or unforeseen things we should be able to get it. This has been in the works for over a month now, but because of various reasons we weren't really telling people about it. Plus, I don't like to get my hopes up too much until things are more certain so I didn't want to be blogging about and thinking about it more than I needed to. But, now that the offer has been made and accepted we are pretty excited to talk about the land.

Let me tell you about the land we are buying. As I mentioned it is 40 acres (well, really 38 if you want to be picky) about 6 miles outside of the town where we now live and where I work. In fact it is on the same side of town as the church and the high school so that is pretty handy. Twenty-six acres of the land is pasture that is a very strong stand of switchgrass right now and the remainder is timber. I think that is a very nice ration for the amount of land that we have. With land prices the way they are now this was as big as a parcel as we could afford, so we like how it is divided up as far as timber and pasture is concerned. Most of the pasture is on a gradual South facing slope which means the snow should melt quickly and it will warm up nicely when the sun comes out. The timber area is at the bottom of the hill and then it starts to rise again as it hits the Southern edge of the property.

We really like the location of the farm as it isn't too far out of town, but it is fairly secluded on a road with only two houses past us before it turns to a low maintenance dirt road. We shouldn't have much traffic, but we are in an area that also will be plowed out in the winter. Also, it is easily accessible from Des Moines and the by-pass South of our town. I think that will be a plus when it comes to marketing. In fact only a couple of miles away there is a brand new vineyard and we are near many of the farms I visited on the Farm Crawl last year.

As with any purchase there are a few downsides. First of all, there are no buildings on the place ... and there never has been. That means we will be starting from scratch in every sense of the word, but a blank slate is nice sometimes. Secondly, there is no fence along the road (this property is on a corner). And finally, the 26 acres of pasture and another 5.5 acres are all in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) right now. That means we will have to buy out the land in order to use it, and we plan on buying out the pasture acres.

One last piece of good news. Yesterday at our church annual meeting (I'm the youth pastor) the congregation voted to allow the board to sell the parsonage we live in. That means that we will be able to move to the land! We were ready to buy the land just to have a place to farm, but had really hoped that we could live there also and now that looks like that will be a reality. We are so thankful for the approval of the congregation and the blessings that we have at this church!

But, with that good news comes the daunting task of making a place to live! I will share a little more about some of our ideas along those lines tomorrow...

The first picture above is the aerial shot of the land ... The next picture is a shot of a little bit of the pasture area ... And, the final picture shows some of the woods when we walked around the land for the first time.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Dexters Eat Hay!!!

I'm not sure if any one can relate to this, but let me just say right away that it started out as an experiment. About a year-and-a-half ago we really came to the realization that farming was something that we wanted to pursue. We had discussions with many different people and looked at many different options and decided it was the direction we wanted to go. After some research we decided that we would like to have grassfed Dexter cattle as one of our centerpiece operations if we were able to make a go at this farming thing. So, we started looking for Dexters thinking that it would be nice to have a bred cow or heifer and a steer that we could raise for our own freezer. We just wanted to get a start on something and we worked out a deal with my family so that they could live on the farm.

We found exactly what we wanted, we made the trip and picked them up, and we had the beginnings of our Dexter herd ... or at least a bred heifer and a steer. It was a nice little way to get our feet wet. Well, one thing lead to another and I found some cows for sale in Missouri that I thought I needed and then we had six Dexters. Still not to many, but a nice little amount. We made hay this time and put up what we thought was going to be plenty! Then I found a few more Dexters for sale in Illinois ... and I just knew I needed them. So, after a trip to Illinois we added 7 more to the herd. Our "experiment" now numbered 13! That was 4 boys and 9 girls roaming the pastures of the farm and we were beginning to think the hay might not last.

Now, with that many Dexters roaming around and so many girls that would need to be breed soon we knew that we needed a bull. That is why we started our search for a bull that ended with Hershey. After many trials and tribulations we were finally able to go down and pick him up. There was only one problem ... when we drove out of Five Ponds Farm there was more than Hershey in the trailer. We also brought home a cow and her heifer calf! Now, if you are scoring along at home, the herd total is up to 5 boys and 11 girls purchased! Also, don't forget that we have already had two calves this year ... one of each (boy and girl) ... bring the grand total up to 6 boys and 12 girls and a herd of 18 hungry mouths that all love to eat hay! In fact, with all the snow we had this year they have had to eat A LOT of hay.

That brings me to the conclusion of this little story about our "experiment". Yesterday I had to take some time to drive down to the farm and the over to another farm to buy our third load of hay! What started out as, "plenty of hay for a heifer and a steer," just didn't cut it for a herd of 18 hungry mouths. Hopefully we will be seeing green grass soon and our herd can begin to forage on their own. I for one know that I don't want to buy any more hay this year!

One more word of caution ... make sure you have the details of your "experiment" spelled out completely before you take off on your venture! :)

Friday, March 07, 2008

Beginning Farming 101 ... Online Class

The "NY Beginning Farmer Project" of the Cornell University Cooperative Extension is offering an interesting new class. It isn't necessarily interesting because of the content, but rather because of the method in which you take the class. Beginning March 19th (and for the price of $200) you can take their new class, Beginning Farming 101, online. The course lasts about 9 weeks according to the website and the instructor introduces a new lesson once each week. With each lesson their will usually be materials to read and an assignment or question to answer. Also, it sounds like live video of a lecture or something like a lecture will be available from time to time. You can also watch the video at a later time.

I'm not sure if this class is just for New Yorkers or those that live in the Northeast, but I do find it very interesting. There are plenty of great classes, seminars, and other learning opportunities available here in Iowa, but so far none of them have fit my schedule. When you are farming in addition to a full-time job it is difficult to make enough time for everything, and then when I add in my coaching responsibilities all hope for making an event or class is thrown out the window. But, an online class would be something that is possible.

Many times I have mentioned how important reading is, but there just seems to be another level of learning that can take place when you are able to listen to someone teach and have discussion with others in the same class. That is one of the benefits of this class ... they will have plenty of discussion and interaction available through online forums and e-mail. Like their description says, "You will certainly 'meet' other new farmers and share ideas, plans and helpful resources with each other." As I have seen with this blog, "meeting" other farmers and beginning farmers has been a great help in my learning process.

If you would like to read more about the class you can check out THIS LINK. Or, if you are interested in knowing a little bit about what is covered the "Learning Section" of the NY Beginning Farmer Project website has some of the information they will be covering.

I have contacted them and I'm waiting to hear back about who can "attend" the class (can I sign-up if I'm from Iowa) and to see if there is any space. I'll let you know when I find something out.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Found This Video on Meat Goats...

I was bouncing around some of the agricultural websites that I check from time to time when I have a chance when I came across an interesting video on the ATTRA website. It caught my interest because of THIS POST where I wondered about the possibilities of meat goats. The video below comes from a segment on "This Week in Agribusiness" and deals specifically with marketing. You can watch the video below:

I think there are lots of good things to think about in that video ... both positive and negative. Marketing goat meat is going to be more difficult that beef or pork, there is no doubt about that. But, I do think it does deserve consideration ... maybe not on everyones farm though. After watching that video clip and doing the small amount of research that I have done I think one of your biggest deciding factors is going to be your location. How close are you to a large enough ethnic market, and are they looking for goat?

From that ethnic market I think you could expand into other direct marketing opportunities, but I think it is important to have a good place to start. As I read in one of the articles I stumbled across only 50% of the goat meat consumed in the U.S. was raised in the U.S. That is a staggering number considering the number of farms we have and the way goats graze and forage.

Their foraging and grazing ability is probably one of their most appealing things to a grass finishing farmer. Because you can have goats follow cattle and not decrease your number of cattle they make an ideal addition to the farm. They break the parasite cycle and they eat different types of forages ... even the lovely (YUCK!) multiflora rose.

I'm not sure if meat goats are an option that I am going to pursue heavily at this time (maybe sheep are more along my lines), but I do think they need to be in the discussion and this video gave me some things to think about.

Do you have any more thoughts on goats? I would love to hear from people raising them or that have eaten them. What does it taste like? Are they easy to raise? How big and strong are your fences!?!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

More Thoughts on Small Scale Small Grains...

After yesterdays post, where I mentioned my interest in raising small, and the comments that followed I decided I would try and do a little research into small scale small grain farming. What I found was ... NOT MUCH. Of course Gene Logsdon wrote a book quite awhile ago specifically on this topic, "Small-Scale Grain Raising", but it is out of print and is really expensive. I am going to see if I can check it out via inter-library loan, but for now I did find an article from ATTRA. The article titled, "Organic Small Grain Production" wasn't exactly what I was looking for, and dealt more with a larger scale production than I was thinking of. But, in that article I did find a link to another ARRTA publication titled, "Marketing Organic Grains".

Both of these articles had a large focus on certified organic production methods, but I did find the marketing article interesting. The article mentions that the organic grain markets have a tendency to go up and down (sounds like the conventional markets), but are around twice the price most of the time. But, I am specifically thinking about value-added grain products. If I was going to sell to larger organic grain buyers I would have to produce a large quantity and a highly consistent grain, but what if I wasn't selling the raw materials?

Here are some thoughts that I had. I do not know all of the details that would go into them as far as governmental regulations and I know a certified kitchen would be needed for some of the baked goods, but I think it is something to consider. If I could take a small plot of grain and turn it into consumer consumables and even possible animal food I think it would be an interesting venture.

Things that I have thought about:

-Selling freshly ground wheat flour at local farmers markets or from the farm.

-Selling homegrown corn meal in the same locations as above.

-Using the wheat flour to bake value-added products such as breads, cinnamon rolls, and other baked goods.

-Even possibly producing organic animal feeds.

I would love to hear from anyone who have thoughts on the subject of small grains or marketing them. Also, I have always thought that multiple minds were better than one or in this case multiple internet searches are better than one ... So, if you have run across any good articles, forum posts, blogs, etc. dealing with raising small grains on a small scale I would love to check them out. I'm not sure if I will ever give the small grain idea shot, but I think it is important to explore as many farm marketing opportunities as I can.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Making Your Small Farm Profitable :: Chapter 8 Book Report

I haven't exactly been flying through this book by Ron Macher, but it isn't because of lack of interest! Chapter eight is a real nuts and bolts kind of chapter about choosing what exactly you are going to do on your farm. Of course this is something that many people have already considered to an extent, but Mr. Macher brings out quite a few ideas in this chapter. In fact he touches on at least 26 different ideas and gives a few thoughts on each one. They range from the basics like cattle to more unique ideas that will require special marketing, such as vermiculture (worms). The chapter opens with a series of questions (and explanations of those questions) to think about when you are choosing your various enterprises. Then goes into the section on the different possibilities (including some basic cost/profit comparisons, and finally touches on a couple of things that get debated and discussed on here all of the time ... Diversity and Sustainability.

The questions at the beginning of the chapter were great reminders of exactly how much needs to be considered when you are starting out from scratch. You need to think about things like marketing, water, soil, liability, machinery, labor, pricing, and if there is even room or a need for what you want to do in the marketplace. I think this is important stuff for the beginning farmer to remember and have drilled into their head, but it is equally as important for a farmer who is transitioning to something different or to direct marketing. Some of it seems basic, but I think until you take the time to really research and answer most of the questions Mr. Macher brings up you would be wise to slow down. Something about lacking to plan, planning to fail, or measure twice ... cut once comes to mind! I guess I'm trying to say that it is very important that you know what you are getting into and what it will need to look like. Having all of these questions in one place may be worth the price of the book in and of themselves...

After the section with all of the questions Mr. Macher moves on to suggesting some farming ideas. While I do have a pretty clear picture of what we would like to add to the farm and how we desire to build what we already have, because of my passions and the market that surrounds us, I did find a couple of the ideas interesting and possible candidates for spot on our diversified farm. One of those things was vermiculture. I don't see becoming a "worm rancher" a centerpiece of the farm, but I do think there are possibilities if you are doing on farm sales of meat or other products to also produce composting kits (as was mentioned in the book) or worm castings as fertilizer. My wife and I had the chance last summer to check out a couple who produce (well the worms produce) worm castings. There is not a lot of overhead to get started, and there is a growing market if you are wiling to build it. Just something we may think about.

One other venture that caught my eye, and that had been on my mind, was traditional grains. Not in the sense of large scale conventional row crops, but rather I'm thinking about open pollinated corns or cereal grains for grinding. I have not do a lot of research into the possible markets for these things, but it is something that I plan to look into. If nothing else I would like to raise both open pollinated corn and cereal grains for our farm and family use.

While a Joel Salatin book may give you a good combination of "how to", "passionate encouragement", and a "farming worldview" I think "Making Your Small Farm Profitable" by Mr. Macher is a must read for any beginning or growing farmers such as myself. Just three chapters left...

Monday, March 03, 2008

High Tensile Electric Fence

Well, after my fence post on Saturday it was pointed out in the comments that I had forgotten "high tensile electric fence". I blame it on my "Iowa Farming Bias" (I really don't, but it is a good excuse). Basically what I mean is that as I drive the roads of Iowa and look at fencing I always see the same thing ... woven wire with a couple of barbs on the top. That is pretty much standard fencing in Iowa, so I admit even with all the reading and researching I have done the "Iowa Standby" was the first and only thing that popped into my head. But, after being reminded of the other options out there I dove in and started reading.

One thing I found out right away is that when you Google "high tensile electric fence" or even "how to install high tensile electric fence" you end up with a lot of links to companies selling the product! But, I picked through and did as much reading as I could on sites trying to sell the product and extension agency type of sites giving basic information about high tensile. I would say that there isn't one good source when it comes to this type of fencing, although I think that is true when it comes to beginning farming in general (that is one of the reasons I started the blog).

Here is what I have "learned" ... High tensile seems to be more economical than conventional woven wire or barbed wire fences. It requires a smaller number of posts. You can have it all electrified, partially electrified, or not electrified. High tensile fencing originated in New Zealand. It holds up better than some of the other options, and is easier to install. Those are some of the basic facts that I found in a short afternoon of reading, but I have so many more questions!

Some of the things that I am wondering:

-I have Dexter cattle and expect to have pigs and sheep. How many wires should I think about using? How many should be electrified?

-I have read about those "flex" posts that a few companies are selling. They look pretty nice and are about the same price as t-posts. Should I use those or stick with the old standby?

-Does anyone know of a good book or pamphlet on how to install the fencing?

-I have seen some cost comparisons and read from others that it is less expensive, but what exactly are we talking about? How much per foot realistically?

-How about post spacing? I read that you can do 40 to 50 feet! Is that true?

Of course I'm wondering so much more, but I just thought I would throw those questions out for debate. Other suggestions are welcomed also. I am not set in stone on the high tensile fence, but it does sound very intriguing. If you are interested in some of the sites I used for research check out these links:

"How 2 Articles" at the PowerFlex Website

"High Tensile" section of the Max-Flex Website

"Construction of High Tensile Wire Fences" by the University of Florida Extension

"Why Build High Tensile Fences" from the Ken Cove Website

Like I said three of the four links come from manufacturers, but they were helpful. I think the best links is the top Powerflex site. The links there are pretty good and a couple of them are from outside sources.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Thinking About Fencing...

Lately I have been thinking about fencing. Despite all of the snow on the ground I know that spring is going to be coming soon and with it there will be some opportunities to do some fencing projects that are needing to be done. But, in the world of fencing there are so many options that sometimes I'm not even sure of where I need to begin and what I need to be looking at. I thought I would just open it up for discussion and see what a variety of people think.

Basically our fencing needs will break down into two categories. First of all we need to do some permanent perimeter fencing. This will be a combination of replacing some old fence between us and a neighbor and putting up some new fence along the road. The second fencing need will be interior fencing for Management Intensive Grazing (electric and easy to move).

When it comes to the perimeter fencing the choices range from 4 or 5 strands of barbed wire, to woven wire, to woven wire with 1 or 2 barbed wires on top, and even to 2 or three strands of electric (I saw that on a pasture walk last year). One thing that we have to keep in mind is the variety of livestock that we will be running on the farm. Anything from our Dexters, my families horses, sheep, goats, or pigs could be on the farm so we need something that will work for all of the above. Also, cost always needs to be considered in these types of situations ... what gives you the most bang for the buck?

For the interior electric fencing the options really break down into posts and wire. There are so many posts out there from fiberglass ones with 3 or more wire hooks, to step in re-bar posts with plastic insulators, and even steel step in posts with a pig tail on the top for the wire. Obviously we need something that goes in and out easily, but also works for our short cattle (Dexters). Also, does it matter if the calf can walk under the wire? What type of wire is also an issue. We could use the inexpensive steel, the slightly more expensive aluminum, or the most expensive poly-rope or wire. Here price is a factor, but ease of moving and longevity is also very important.

So, what are you using? What works for you? I would love to hear from anyone who is doing MiG about their interior fencing. I would love to hear from people that are just thinking about it, but have ideas! Basically I'm putting out an appeal for help :)
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