Saturday, May 31, 2008

Planning My Summer Schedule

Even though I am going to be plenty busy on the farm this summer I am already beginning to plan my summer out around learning opportunities. When it comes to learning I am still reading as much as I can (not as much as in the winter), working with other farmers when I have a chance, and of course the discussion on this blog is a huge plus! But, because of the Practical Farmers of Iowa I will have quite a few opportunities this summer and fall to get out and see what other farmers are doing. Here are a few of the over 30 Field Days they will be a part of this year. Although I doubt I will be able to make it to every single one these are the top on my list.

  • Grass-Based Organic Dairy Systems (June 21): This will begin at Radiance Dairy which is a 236-acre, 80-cow, grass-based, and certified organic dairy. They process and sell on farm which is pretty cool. I would like to attend because they will be talking about different watering systems and fly control among other things.
  • Grass-Finishing, MOB Grazing, Next Generation (July 16): This one takes place up in Northeast Iowa so it may be more difficult to make it, but I would love to hear what they have to say about the topics of Holistic Management, MOB Grazing, and Generational Family Succession Planning. This event takes place at Herman's Heartland Farm.
  • Live Animal Evaluation (July 23): I cannot miss this one! It is only 10 or 15 miles away and will feature Gearld Fry talking about linear measuring and cattle genetics. This event will be at the DeCook ranch which also hosted a pasture walk last year that I attended. I'm really looking forward to this field day.
  • Grass-Fed Field Day (August 13): Water systems, grazing summer annuals, handling livestock, and more are some of the topics that will be covered at this PFI event. The farm where the event will take place sells finished beef to Thousand Hills Cattle Company and direct to customers. Should be a informational day.
  • Marketing Grass-Fed Beef (August 19): This is probably another one that I shouldn't miss, and it isn't too far away. A couple of interesting topics on this day will be a discussion of deworming with copper sulfate and sorghum-sudangrass for finishing cattle ... along with marketing of course.
  • CRP to Grazing (August 21): Since this is what I'm doing (even though I will be started by the time this day comes around) I would love to check out what they do. It is close by and will be covering some of the ins and outs using cost share to put in fencing and water systems.
  • Monitoring Cattle Performance (August 27): This one looks interesting because it covers a wide range of topics (not just cattle). They will be talking about grazing summer and winter annuals, multi-species grazing, sheep, and poultry. It would be a nice event to attend.
  • Farm Crawl (October 5): I attended this Farm Crawl last year and had a great time learning from farmers in my area. Someday I would love to be a part of this event ... we will just have to see.
You can find all of these events (and more) on the PFI link at the top of this post. I know that I won't be able to get to all of these, but these are the ones that look the most exciting.

Friday, May 30, 2008

CRP for Hay and Grazing

You may have heard the news about the USDA deciding to allow 24 million acres of CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) to be used for hay and grazing after the early June wildlife nesting period. So, by the middle of June farmers and ranchers who have a portion (or all) their land in CRP will be able to use it for grazing and haying. The idea is that it will help ease the pain that the beef producers (high grain prices). Although the announcement was welcomed by many there are also plenty of people against it, and I'm not just talking about the hunters and wildlife people. You can read an article from the Brownfield Network titled, "Opinions vary on CRP haying, grazing decision," by clicking on the link. There is also an audio report at the bottom of the page.

I for one am none too pleased! Especially considering the fact that I just spent close to $10,000 last week so that I could make hay on and graze the land that I already owned. I knew that was going to be the case going into the land purchase, but that doesn't mean that I like it (you can read more on the CRP Buyout on this older post). My big problem ... with a little bit of paperwork and a $75 fee you can graze or hay or both your CRP ground and still get your full payments! I think that is just dumb, especially after I just wrote my check to buy it out (although they would have to continue the program for 5 more years in order it to work for me).

Some hay producers in Iowa aren't very happy about it either. One custom baler (who also owns 400 acres of hay ground) said on the WHO Radio Big Show yesterday that his phone has been ringing off the hook since this announcement came out. The reason for all the phone calls? They are coming from farmers who have CRP (or who think the hay prices will drop because of the news) and also have some hay ground. If they have a marginal stand of hay that isn't as good as it could be they want to cut it and get it off the field right away so they can then come in and plant beans.

My states Ag Secretary Bill Northey didn't think any thing like that would happen, but apparently he was wrong. So, let me break it down for you. If instead of just the 40 acres that I own now I also owned another 40 acres of pasture ground that I used for my cattle I would now be able to throw them on a dry lot for a couple weeks, till under my pasture and charge someone $150 per acre to plant beans, move my cows over to the CRP in the middle of June, still collect $85 (or whatever) per acre on my CRP, in the fall after the beans come out I can seed it back to some sort of grass, and over the winter I can feed some hay that was less expensive than the year before. Sounds like a pretty big deal ... if you love your government spending lots of money.


Thursday, May 29, 2008

It's Funny How One Thing Leads To Another

Of course in the life of a farm one thing leading to another is about what is to be expected, and just yesterday we got a little bit of a taste of that. As I have mentioned before, when you buy a bare piece of land there are many positives and negatives. It is a bummer that there are no buildings, fences, or utilities ... But, on the other hand it is nice that you can put everything in just how you want it. With that in mind and with our house getting closer to beginning we thought it would be a nice idea to get a cheap camper to use as food prep and bunk house for the kids. The idea being that if we had a nice place for them out there they could take naps while we continued working and then we could also have a fridge and stove/microwave to cook some basic meals.

It was really my wifes idea and I agreed that it was a pretty good idea so camper shopping we went. There are plenty of campers for sale this time of year and the older inexpensive ones seem to be selling just as fast as they are listed no matter what the condition. We found a great one for $600, but it sold within a couple of hours of being listed on Craig's List, and the same thing happened on a few others. But, then we found the beauty pictured today and we were able to beat the crowd (it is nice to not have a normal 9-5 job) because he had 4 people that wanted to come and look at it.

We checked it over as best as we knew how and in the end decided that a little vacuuming, scrubbing, and replacing the old cushions would fix this old girl right up. Well, once we started tearing into to her one thing just lead to another. Now, I'm making a list of building supplies ... plywood, 2x2's, new flooring, curtains, new fixture for the sink, and a couple plumbing supplies. Of course that is just what I know of now!

In reality, it isn't that bad, but just not as easy as we thought. With a few more bucks and some elbow grease we should have a nice little 40-year-old camper that can provide a great place for the kids to take a nap or watch a movie. It can also serve as a bunkhouse for those that come to help build and a kitchen as we are working on the farm. Then if we are done with it we can sell it next spring.

I realize it isn't totally farming related, but with this camper we will be able to spend longer days out on the farm working and it will make our lives just that much easier ... if you have (or have had) a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old you know what it is like if they miss too many naps in a row! This is just another step in the process where one thing always leads to another.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Community Supported Beef?

Yesterday I ran across an interesting article on CSA's (Community Supported Agriculture) and the normal risks involved with farming in general. The article is titled, "When things go very wrong: Community Supported Agriculture and shared risk", and is the cover article on the New Farm website. I thought it was a pretty interesting article detailing some of the risks involved in CSA's and market garden farming. The idea is where does the "community support" come into the CSA? CSA's are supposed to spread the risk out for the farmer by bringing in some money up front. But, what happens when disaster strikes at the farm?

That is a good question to ponder and there are probably lots of thoughts that could be kicked around. Many of the CSA farmers mentioned in the article said they didn't really pass on all of the "risk" to their customers and did buy in food or refund money if there was something like a late frost or flood. But, that isn't really what got me thinking after I read the article.

What got me thinking was the idea of a beef/pork/poultry/etc. based CSA. I know these exist in some places and there are something that I would be interested in learning more about. But, the main reason they interest me is the idea of spreading out the risk (and I don't know how I really feel about that from a business standpoint). How would it work for people to buy shares of a beeve or pig? What would sharing the risk look like in that case?

Of course if you were going to give people a weekly subscription of meat then you would need plenty of storage of prepared cuts. On the positive I suppose you could do a better job of distributing all of the cuts and ground meat. Maybe...

So, what are your thoughts on meat/livestock CSA's or CSA's in general? I would love to hear what everyone thinks!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Getting Closer to Fence

Thanks to a couple of chainsaws, our tractor, my wife, and a ton of help from my mother-in-law and father-in-law we made a LOT of progress on the farm this weekend. Before we would just spend a couple of hours out there doing little things and laying out our plans (needed to be done), but this weekend we got some serious work done on the fence lines and we couldn't have gotten so much done without their help. As you can see from the "before" picture above and the "after" picture below there is quite a difference. Also, you need to factor in that the "before" picture was taken in the winter/early spring before the growth kicked in.

Despite the rainy weather on Saturday morning we were able to make it out to a mushy farm in the afternoon and get in about five hours of work. My wife and her dad started clearing the trees and the brush in the fence line that either didn't have old fence in it, or in the places we had already pulled the fence. There was a lot of work to do in those old fence rows that haven't been used for YEARS! My father-in-law would cut everything down and then my wife would stack it all in the ditch. Sometime after the brush dries out and compacts down we will come back through and clean up the ditches, but that is for another time ... after we get a lot more done.

While they were doing that I went to finish pulling out the old fence. The section that was left was pretty short, but it was the most difficult to get out because it was wrapped around and in lots of trees and the wires were really buried underground. After lots of cutting (about ruined a pair of wire cutters) and pulling with the tractor I finally got it all out so we could go home and have supper!

Sunday was super hot and humid, but we didn't get any work done on the farm because I spent the day going to graduation and the subsequent open houses ... lots of good food ...

Monday morning we were out at the farm in the morning and we got in about five good hours of work to finish a little more than a 1/4 mile of the fence line. The pictures don't really do it justice because there was all kinds of brush, bushes, and trees that had to come down ... maybe I should have taken some more pictures of the full ditches! It was great having the in-laws there because we were able to get so much done with the help of my father-in-law and with my mother-in-law watching the kids.

Now we are going to hopefully get some more family help soon, from my dad, and mow along the fence lines after we get the rest of the posts pulled. The mower will take care of some of the scrub and the tall grasses and then we should be good to go! Things are really starting to take shape and we are having a lot of fun...

Monday, May 26, 2008

Decoration Day ... Memorial Day

I am passionate about farming and all that goes with it, but I also have a deep love, respect, and passion for the history of these United States. I am thankful for the life that I am able to live here and for the life and future my children will have. Despite the our complaints or fears this nation is and was built upon a strong foundation by those who have come before us. Memorial Day (or Decoration Day as it was known earlier) is a day to remember those that have fought and died for our freedom. It began as a day to remember those who fought to keep this country united and grew to honor all those Americans who died in battle on this soil and abroad. If you would like to read more about the importance of the day check out this article from Wikipedia.

The video below is of the reading of Sullivan Ballou's letter from Ken Burns' Civil War documentary. Many have probably heard hundreds of times just as I have, but it still tugs on my heart and mind every time I hear it.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

A Saturday Farm Update

Just a quick farm update this morning. Earlier this week we started pulling out some of the old hedge posts still in the fence row. This is pretty easy work with the loader and a chain, but it does take a little while as we move from post to post and hook up the chain. We are checking over the posts and saving back the ones that we think we can reuse. As for the old fence (three barb wired strands and some woven wire), that is just being pulled out and rolled up for scrap. Some of the better woven wire may end up being used on some grapes or berries or something, but for the most part it is pretty used up.

Today was supposed to be a big day of work, but 1/2 an inch of rain decided to elude the wisdom of our local TV weather forecasters so we are going to see if it dries up a little bit my lunch time. I doubt we will be able to plow up the garden like I had hoped to do, but most likely we will still be able to do some work tearing out fence and preparing for the new fence line. There are some trees to cut down and brush to clear before we can put up the new fence.

So, the weather has set us back a little, but we will have to just wait it out. Hopefully I'll have some more updates next week with less rain! I know my wife is really excited to get the garden in!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Busy, Busy, Dreadfully Busy...

For the most part this is a strictly farming blog. I write about my farming experiences, research, current events in agriculture, and even questions that I have. But, life has been dreadfully busy lately both at home, at the church, on the soccer field, and even at the farm! I can tell that it has been busy because here it is after 9:00 am and still haven't posted yet today ... and my hair is still wet from my shower! So, today I thought I would just take a moment to give an update on the unglamorous side of farming. In doing some research for an Epi-Log post the other day I came across a statistic that says over 52% of farmers work off the farm ... I guess I'm just another statistic now!

Home - The house we live in now is on 6/10ths of an acre in town and serves dual purpose as our house and as our youth center. But, now it is for sale (by the church) so we need to make sure everything is spic and span. You can read about it on my wife's blog, but basically I was up until 1:30 am on Wednesday (into Thursday) cleaning house for a showing on Thursday afternoon.

Church - This is a deceptive time of the church year. On one hand it seems like it should be winding down because our weekly youth meetings are ending (Sunday and Wednesday) and summer is right around the corner, but on the other hand Vacation Bible School is just a couple weeks away and so is a pretty big (for our town) Christian music festival. Always lots to do...

Soccer - The season is 10 weeks long and this year it has seemed twice as long for me because there is always pressing stuff that I could be doing somewhere else. I really enjoy coaching the girls and getting to know people in the community, but it has seemed like a long season. We are a slightly disappointing 5-6 right now, but have had to battle injuries, a girl missing games because of a college class, low numbers, and sharing some of our top players with track. Despite that I think we could still end up with the best season in school history.

Farm - We bought out the CRP earlier this week so we are now allowed to do anything we want on our land. I just wanted to go out a dig a hole because I could! Besides that we have started pulling out some old fence and fence posts that were still on the perimeter and I'm guessing we will be done with that after tomorrow if the sun comes out. We spent about 3 hours each day there on Wednesday and then again on Thursday doing some work and meeting with a couple people and it is finally starting to feel like things are getting done. We will clear out the fence rows and then I believe the fencing is the next big project ... bye, bye money ...

Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Lofty Goal For a Farm

One of the readers over at the Epi-Log turned me on to an article/post from (my first trip to the site). The post is by Tom Philpott and is titled, "Da yoots take over Maverick Farms". In this short post Mr. Philpott, who is one of the founders of Maverick Farms, talks about something they are calling a "farm incubator". There is a little video included in the article that mostly talks about CSA's, but there is also an interesting link to the Farm Incubator and Grower Program on the Maverick Farms website. This is what I found most interesting ... and a bit noble!

Basically they have created (or are refining/creating) an intensive two-year internship program that is hands on in planning, farming, marketing, and everything else. Then after the people have completed the program they receive help in finding land and building their own small-scale farming business. This whole incubator idea has been around in the business world for a while now, but it does seem like the perfect fit for the small-scale farming world.

I think this is a pretty exciting opportunity, but I don't think I'm going to be able to jump in a car with my wife and two kids and join in the fun anytime soon. Nevertheless, this "Farm Incubator" idea made me think ... shouldn't all farms (especially the outside-the-box and successful ones) be "Farm Incubators"? Maybe not every farm will take on interns, I understand that isn't everyone's cup of tea, but shouldn't they all take on this lofty goal of encouraging, preparing, and helping the future generation.

The fact that many farm kids left the farm in recent and past history has been kicked around a LOT on this blog in the posts and in the comments, so I won't go into it in too much detail. But, I believe we need to make sure that our small-scale family farms are just like this "Farm Incubator" program, except we can use our own children. As a father of two I want to pass on my love of farming, my passion to work outdoors, my satisfaction in working in God's creation, and my wonder in the beauty of the business and the workings of the farm to my children so that they can share in it also.

In order to do that I think we need to be deliberate in the steps we take to help our children. Get the involved in the work, not just from the age old, "there is work to be do so you better be doing it," standpoint. But rather from the, "you can have ownership and input into this," line of thinking. If we get our children involved, connected, and excited about what is around them on the farm then we can incubate the next generation of farmers! A lofty and noble goal...

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Bud Williams on Grass Farming/Industrial Farming

**We are a little late because of the lack of power this morning...**

After the video I posted on Monday, my thoughts I posted yesterday, and the comments in both of the posts this article from the May, 2008 issue of "The Stockman Grassfarmer" comes at a great time. The article by Bud Williams (he has a recently new column in the publication) is titled, "Grass Farming Must Grow By Giving People What They Want". Mr. Williams' basic premise is spelled out plainly in the title, but he also concludes that there will always be a need/desire for the factory farms because that is what the people want.

In the article Mr. Williams asks,
"As a nation, we went from small farm to family farm to factory farm. How did this happen? Was it because of... Evil corporations taking advantage of us? A government conspiracy to keep food prices low? Cheap oil or any of the other things blamed? No, it was none of these things. It was caused by more people and people wanting more."
I like the path that Mr. Williams is going down. I'm not much of a conspiracy theorist or glass half empty kind of guy and I do agree to a point that if people want to do factory farming because that is what they want to do it is okay. And I do agree that growth in the grass farming world needs to come from public demand for grassfed beef. People need to want it because of the taste, because of the environmental concerns, and because it is just natural.

But, with that being said I don't think the answer is that simple. Evil corporations taking advantage of us … well, I might not go that far, but it is evident that big ag companies do work with the Universities to make sure their products get used. A government conspiracy to keep food prices low … not really a conspiracy, because it was totally out in the open, but keeping food prices low was the main thrust of what Earl Butts did. Cheap oil or any of the other things that are blamed … I'm all for cheap oil, bring it on! No really, sure that contributed to the industrialization of agriculture because now that oil is high we see things changing towards energy conservation.

One more thing, I don't think we went from small farm to family farm to factory farm. Because the small farms were family farms. I think we went from subsistence only family farms to family farms that because of advancements could sell the extras and then to factory farms. The factory farms came at a time when a lot of America's business was being ramped up so it isn't like they became factory farms on their own.

The article continues with more good information and thoughts from Mr. Williams, but ends with the thing that I probably agree with the most,
"If we can't change the factory farms at least we can supple the people who want grass-based products. Make a profit and enjoy what you do, then you can Smile and Mean it!"

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

My Thoughts on the Montana Video

Yesterday I posted THIS VIDEO from Montana. It was produced for a conference on food production and needs that was held in 2007. I don't know what the outcome of the conference was, but I think this video provides a very compelling argument for changing the structure of our agricultural and food system. One thing that is clear to me after watching this video is that having locally produced food is not just about jobs for the farmers, but also about jobs for processors and sellers. If you haven't had a chance to watch this yet carve out ten minutes today and watch it.

Here are a few more thoughts after watching the video a couple of times:

-This video is produced by and is about Montana, but I think you could easily insert Iowa or any other mainly agricultural state and come to the same conclusions. In fact I believe a system like this would be applicable in most of our country, even some of the more populated areas ... with some differences of course.

-One of the craziest things about food in the United States is that if you grow/raise it in your state for human consumption it will most likely leave your state before it comes back to be consumed. Granted, I'm only 28 years old and only have an Associates degree ... but, that just doesn't make sense!

-In 1910 Montana farmers received 60¢ of the food dollar ... now it is 7¢!?! I have heard this statistic in various forms and have commented on it in the past, but every time I see it is just blows me away. If I was a full-on commodity farmer I think it would be enough to drive me to depression. How have we let this happen to ourselves? How can we reverse the trend?

-"A lot of times we take on risks that maybe a normal business wouldn't take on." That was the quote from the farmer in the video. Yet, if you want to farm outside of conventional wisdom it is considered crazy?

Those are just some of my thoughts on the farming side of the video. I could go on and I do have some thoughts on the consumer side, but I think this is enough for today because it does have me stirred up. Watch the video! And then let us know what you thought.

Monday, May 19, 2008

You Should Watch This...

It has been awhile since I have been over to the ATTRA website, but yesterday evening I was looking for some information on their site and I came across the video below. It was created for the Montana Governor's Summit on Food and was pretty interesting. It is about 10 minutes long and I would say that it is well worth the time ... if nothing else, but to make you think. Watch it if you get a chance and the let me know what you think. Tomorrow I will throw out some of my thoughts and observations.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Stacking Hay...

As you can see by the picture on the left I picked up our Massey Ferguson #10 baler yesterday. I've got the hood up on it because I spent the evening cleaning out 3 or 4 years of old hay, barn dust, and other dirties. I have a little more work to do cleaning and then we will go through and grease everything before we start work in the field. If the weather keeps on like it has been this past week I believe we will be baling in the early part of June down at my dad's farm. We probably won't be able to get any hay off of our new farm until late summer or early fall, but with the 20+ acres available at my dad's we should be good to go.

Speaking of hay, I ran across a pretty cool article in the May 2008 issue of "The Stockman Grassfarmer". The article by editor Allan Nation is titled "Dead Apple Trees Can Help Make High Quality Hay". This article was so interesting to me on so many levels and if you have a chance to read it I highly recommend it.

The idea of the article comes from a steam train trip Mr. Nation took across Poland (cool thing #1 :: steam trains). On one particular trip Mr. Nation and his wife took was through the mountains were the Communists mostly ignored the people and they still continue on in the same way of life that they have lived for years and years. He commented on the fenceless farms, the freshly painted houses, the big families, the small size of the farm, and I guess basically the sustainability of these rural communities. I guess bigger and bigger doesn't always need to be done...

But, the thing the prompted the article was the number of dead apple trees that had been worn smooth stacked at the edges of fields. It wasn't until later in the trip that he found out that they were used for stacking hay. The trunk end had been sharpened so it could be driven into the ground and all but the main branches had been trimmed off of these 8 foot tall trees. What he saw was a large family working together in the field (cool thing #2 :: large families working together) to build a stack on this tree.

Mr. Nation goes on to write about the method of "tripoding" as described in a 1950 book that he had recently read (cool thing #3 :: Acres USA is going to republish this book). The "tripoding" method involves three poles, again about 8 feet high, set in a tripod with smooth wire ran on the outside. According to the book the hay is put up on the wires and a hut is made. It is import to leave three air holes, but the method is said to provide a very high quality green cured hay.

It probably won't happen this year and maybe not next year, but I could see a small farm like mine utilize this method. Especially if gas keeps going up!

Friday, May 16, 2008

2008 Farm Bill Passes

Well, the 2008 Farm Bill was finally passed yesterday by the Senate 81-15 and in the House earlier with 318 yes votes. That means that there will be no veto from the President and a bill that was supposed to be done a couple years ago will finally be signed. But, is it a good farm bill? I have been trying to follow as much as I can, especially when there was talk of letting CRP acres out early, and have just a few thoughts after reading THIS ARTICLE from I would also be interested in hearing your thoughts on the new Farm Bill.
About two-thirds of the bill would pay for domestic nutrition programs such as food stamps and emergency food aid for the needy. An additional $40 billion is for farm subsidies, while almost $30 billion would go to farmers to idle their land and to other environmental programs.
-There is where the money is going. I guess I don't have too much to say about that one that wouldn't possibly get me in trouble so I will just throw it out for informational purposes. Although, I wish they would knock a few bucks off of that $30 billion for environmental programs and let me take my land out ... I feel like a properly managed grazing system would be better that just a bunch of scrub brush taking over a pasture.
But drastic cuts to subsidies were not possible, lawmakers said, because of the clout of Southern lawmakers who represent rice and cotton farms that are more expensive to run.
-Gotta keep everyone happy I guess, but the only way that we can get rid of subsidies is to slowly wean people off of them. Maybe next time...
"This bill has reform in it," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "Could we have done more? Perhaps. But if we'd done more we wouldn't have gotten a bill."
-I love that quote ... "Could we have done more? Perhaps." Yep, sounds like a lot of thought about what is actually best was put into this bill.
The farm bill also would eliminate some federal payments to individuals with more than $750,000 in annual farm income — or married farmers who make more than $1.5 million.
-Government money for farmers who make $750,000. I realize we are addicted to cheap food and it is the subsidies that keeps stuff cheap, but at what point do we realize that it may be a little absurd?

There is a lot more stuff in the bill of course and you can read about some of it in the article, but these are just a few of the things that really stuck out to me. So, what do you think?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

An Update From the Farm

Now that we own the land and are starting to get some work and planning done I thought I should take at least one day a week to update the blog as to what is happening. So, that is what I am doing today. As you can see from the picture above we now have an address. This is a rather small step in the whole process, but for some reason it seems to make the idea that we will eventually be living there seem even more real. Now when people ask where we live we don't have to spend 5 minutes trying to explain how we live on just North of the 9th turn on the "Crooked Road to Melcher". Now we can just give them an address, although since there has never been a house there before it won't show up on any maps ... but, it is the idea that counts.

Planning on the building layout is still continuing as we try and figure out the best place to put the pole building house, a hay shed, and our eventual stick built house. Because our land did not perk we have to go with a more expensive sand filtration septic system which meant that we really wanted to make sure we placed it in a location where we could easily tie into the septic line from the future house. I think we have that figured out now, but it did require a little bit of movement to the west of the pole building house. As a side note, one nice thing about the sand filtration system is that you can graze and drive over it. That would not have been true if we could have used the less expensive lateral system.

Also, this week I drove the tractor out to the farm and pulled the hay rake out also. Now instead of sitting under the carport in town it is sitting under a tarp on the farm ... much more useful out there. I started to knock over a few of the anthills after I got it out there and plan on pulling the few old fence posts that are still in the fence line later this week. Now, if I could just a get a mower out there it would be much easier to pull out and put in the new fence. Maybe this weekend that will happen.

And finally, when we were out there Monday night we took a family walk through the pasture and along the woods. It was great to see the kids enjoying themselves so much (our son carried a stick so he could poke all the anthills he found) and it was nice to see how everything was greening up. My wife checked on the berries and is hopeful for a good crop this year. Finding plenty of berries on the farm takes away the sting of having to move away from the patch she has pruned and cared for in the ditch next to our house now. Also, we found that there are still plenty of wet spots on the farm (and around the state). Those will be areas that we need to stay away from during the rainy times of the year, but maybe they will hold on longer in the dry spells...

I will try and keep everyone updated on the doings on the farm and continue to through out thoughts from my reading/research. Thanks for all of the great help!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Dirt Hog :: Chapter 1 Book Report

I know that I haven't finished "Grass-Fed Cattle" yet, but as I left for my soccer game yesterday afternoon I couldn't find that book (there was a LONG bus ride) so I grabbed "Dirt Hog" by Kelly Klober. I had heard good and not-as-good reviews of this book, but if the rest of it is anything like the first chapter (which basically serves as an introduction of the idea) I think it will be a good read. There was a lot of stuff to think about in this chapter, but a couple of quotes really made me think about life, farming, and of course pigs. Here are just a few of my thoughts...

The first thing that really had me thinking was this quote:
"He stepped out of his pickup to bring them closer and bid me to follow him. I started to decline and give the stand answer, which is that some harmful organisms might be carried in my clothes and/or shoes. His answer to my protests will surprise many; it was to get out there."
Here is what I thought. That doesn't surprise me at all, and yet it does surprise me. On one hand it doesn't surprise me because that seems just about right for a confinement farm based on quick growth and nothing else. It does surprise me because I would have never thought that would ever be a thing to worry about, I mean we are talking about pigs ... of which unfortunely, I know too much about being around. They should be able to handle people around them I would think. Mr. Klober often writes in this first chapter that the current confinement system is more about looking good and being easier for the farmer not about what is best for the pigs.

Another big thing that I got out of this chapter was encouragement. This book came out in 2007 and even though the hog market is in the dumps right now I see reason to be encouraged by hog raising, if you do it on the range. If you are rotating your pigs and not spending tons of money on buildings and infrastructure there is still a way for pigs to be the age old "mortgage lifter".

I think this was a great chapter and hopefully just a sign of things to come from the book. If I were to make a recommendation on the first chapter alone I would say it is a must read. But, we will wait and see what the rest of the book holds.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

What to Do, What to Do...

Yesterday evening I drove the tractor out to the farm and pulled out the hay rake because I was getting tired of people commenting about the fact that I had a tractor in town! No, really I took the stuff out there so I would be able to get to work. But, while we were out there we decided to take a walk across our 26 acres of soon to be pasture ground and again the wheels in my mind started to turn. In the past I have considered mowing, baling, or burning, but none of that has happened for various reasons. First of all I don't have a bush hog, secondly it probably wouldn't work to well to mow with our haybine because of the anthills and brush, and finally they haven't made it to my name on the burn list yet (Have I mentioned it has been very wet).

So, as I was walking through the pasture-to-be yesterday I began to think about a fourth option (one of the comments mentioned this) which is just sticking the herd out there and trying to graze it down. There is quite a bit of green grass coming up between the matted down tall switch grass and if they were given enough area they would have plenty of food. Also, I was thinking/wondering if their hooves tramping around the pasture would break down the old switchgrass?

Of course this would be the most inexpensive way to begin conditioning the pasture and it is beginning to feel like it would also be the fastest. With the late planting season this year it has been difficult to borrow/hire/work with other farmers. They just are so focused on their planting right now it is impossible for them to get the old bush hog out of the shed or do baling in May.

So, what do you think? The downside is that I probably wouldn't be able to get as much hay off the ground this year as I had thought was possible. I may be able to scrounge up a pull behind mower in the next week or so and then maybe I would just mow it all, but maybe doing some mildly high intensity grazing along with spots of mowing would be the best bet. Also, Dexters do have a reputation for browsing ... that would help with some of the brush that has sprung up in a few areas.

I look forward to hearing what others think on this subject. Click on the picture above to see a bigger picture of what the pasture looks like.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Acron Raised Pork

In my most recent issue of the The Practical Farmer, published by Practical Farmers of Iowa, there was a very short blurb about acorn fed, organic pigs. Along with the short article there is also a partial transcript of a story about acorn pork that was on Iowa Public Radio in November 2007. The interview includes quotes from Jude Becker (a farmer raising acorn pork) and Kathy and Herb Eckhouse who own La Quercia Artisan Cured Meats, located in Norwalk, Iowa. If you are interested in listening to the radio interview click here.

As a brief aside there was also a nice article by Kelli Miller of Sugar Creek Farm about farm blogging. Good stuff!

Acorn pork is a tradition that comes to Iowa from Italy and Spain (and that region) and according to what I have read produces some of the best hams out there. Others must agree because La Quercia has already taken a bunch of reservations for pork that won't be ready until 2009! Some of the chefs on the waiting list include the Iron Chef and Lydia Bastianich of public TV. That is some pretty crazy stuff!

But, the real key here is what the farmer is doing. Mr. Becker lives up in Northeast Iowa and has been raising organic hogs for the last 11 years. Right now he is raising and finishing 50 Chester-white and Berkshire-cross pigs now and is feeding them entirely organic feed. In the radio interview he said that the goal is to have 50% of their weight gain to come from the organic acorns (what is a non-organic acorn?). His pigs consume about 4 bushels of acorns a day, but it is also important to point out that organic acorns cost between $50 and $60 per bushel!

A couple of thoughts came to my mind after reading the article. First of all I thought ... man, those must be some expensive hams! This is definetly a niche market, but it also shows that there are many niche markets out there and there is probably a niche market available for many farmers if they look for it and help create it. But, the second thing that came to my mind is that although the pigs wouldn't get 50% of their gain from acorns they would receive a portion of it if they were pastured with access to the woods. For me that is just another reason, among many, to raise hogs outdoors in movable fencing.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

It Has Been a Busy Spring...

Mother's Day is tomorrow. Yesterday I wrote about an article that I came across detailing how much a mom's work is worth. Well, today I just want to give a "big thumb's up" and a "way to go". This morning she went up to the bank to turn in all of the bids, plans, contracts, and details pertaining to our building. It was a pretty cool thing to me, but it was like the weight of the world lifted off of her shoulders. She had been doing all of the leg work, pencil pushing, phone calling, and research to put together our materials lists and bids. Now it is in the hands of our local lender.

As I have mentioned before this is a busy time of year for me. Of course I have all of my church work that still needs to be done, soccer season is still going strong with three weeks left, and I've been still trying to get some work done on the farm and with our cattle. With all of that going on there is no way that I could have gotten everything together for our loan. So, my wife picked up everything and took off.

She has done a ton of work, made a lot of phone calls, learned about stuff she probably didn't really care about, made more phone calls, researched different options, and then called more contractors to remind them about the bid they were supposed to be sending us. I have tried to help out as much as I could, but she knew all of the details so I usually just did what she asked.

Above is a picture of the plans from the packet that she turned in today. If you want to read all of the fun details make sure you go and check out "The Beginning Farmers Wife."

Happy Mother's Day to my lovely wife and to all the mothers out there!!

Friday, May 09, 2008

In Honor of Mothers

With Mother's Day right around the corner (don't forget) I thought it was fitting to give them their due. Especially after I found this article from titled, "Study: Stay-at-Home Mom Worth Nearly $117,000 a Year". What they did was look at the various jobs that moms do at home and took those average salaries into consideration. Some of the jobs that were included were housekeeper, day care teacher, van driver, psychologist, chief executive officer, and more. Those stay-at-home moms do all that and more (Mom's who work away from home were worth $68,405, plus their other job's salary).

The article said that a big portion of the theoretical pay comes from the large amount of overtime that moms have to work. Most mom's, according to the survey, work an average of 94.4 hours each week! But, many times they don't receive the credit for so much great and hard work.

I also think it is important to point out that the stay-at-home farm mom probably should receive a raise above and beyond the $116,805 suggested in this article. My wife does everything that is mentioned in the article, but adds in tending the garden, canning food, helping with the yard, and doing chores. If it wasn't for her help, dedication, and encouragement our journey to farming would not ever be an option.

Even though I won't be able to pay my wife as much as she is worth we do take joy in knowing how much money she is saving us. Because she stays at home we don't have to pay for child care, fancy work clothes, as much food (because of the garden and food from scratch), gas needed for going to work, and more. It is a choice and sometimes it is a difficult choice to make, but I am so glad that my wife is able to stay at home.

I love my wife so much and I pray that she can see how much our children and I appreciate all that she does for our family. So, enjoy time with your wives and mothers this weekend and let them know how much you love them and appreciate the work they do.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Around Every Corner...

It seems like everywhere I turn these days I see more and more evidence for a roll back to the smaller family farm (not that they have to be as small as mine). This time the story comes from the May issue of "The Stockman Grassfarmer". The article, titled "Small Feedlots Being Done In By High Priced Feeder Cattle", gives a glimpse into the state of the feedlot industry in the United States. A couple of things that really "hit" me after reading the short article were that small feedlots these days are for 10,000 to 15,000 head, just 200 feed lots (100,000 head or more capacity) finish most of the nations beef, and that it requires $12 million in capital to fill a 15,000 head feedlot.

Check out this quote from the article:
"Top Producer Magazine recently had an article chronicling the decline of "small" feedlots in the 10,000 to 15,000 head range in the Great Plains. This comes 30 years after those then-large feedyards eliminated the 200 to 1000 head Midwestern farmer feedlots."
So, following that logic (and I feel safe doing so) the next in line to go out of business is the 100,000 head feedlots that will be replaced by super feedlots that have a 200,000 head capacity. It would promoted as a step towards maintaining the cheap food that Americans love, but think of all the problems that would ensue.

But, above all the $12 million figure is the one that blows my mind. I totally understand why it takes that much, but it makes me wonder. It makes me wonder why more people aren't doing grass-finishing. It makes me wonder why more people aren't doing Managed Intensive Grazing. It makes me wonder why more people aren't High Stock Density Grazing.

In the "King Corn" movie the huge feedlot owner stated that they would grass-finish animals if that is what people wanted, but that it would cost more. I tend to disagree. But, I'm not out there doing it on a super-sized scale. Although I do know that there are people that do it...

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

4 Inches of Topsoil...

That is what we have at the farm after doing some digging for our perk test. Actually we have about 4 inches of topsoil, 6 inches of a mix of topsoil and clay, and then at least a couple feet of clay (they only dug down a bit over three feet). It's not perfect, but it is pretty common for this area and we probably couldn't have found anything much different if we tried. I guess all that clay could be a bonus if/when we build a pond, but for right now it is kind of a bummer.

The bummer factor is that our ground didn't perk, so we have to go with a more expensive septic system. If we would have had some good perking land (which we are now finding out isn't super common in our area) our septic system could have cost as little as $3,000, but since we have to have to install a system that is quite a bit more involved it could cost as much as $7,500. That isn't exciting, but you need a septic system.

The other side of the soil coin is that it would be nice to build some more topsoil over time so that we could have more organic matter (OM) on our ground soaking up the water (instead of running off the ground). Last summer we collected coffee grounds from a local coffee shop in town and spread them around our garden. Yesterday when my wife was putting in a few plants she noticed more earthworms than the year before in the areas where she heavily put the grounds. Worms are great components of soil building so we will want to encourage their presence as much as possible.

Hmmm... maybe I can get coffee grounds from all over town and fill a spreader!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

"Only 2 Percent..."

It seems like lately I have been coming across a lot of quotes that have really made me think about agriculture in America these days. The latest quote that got me thinking was from an odd source, "AAA Living Magazine". In an article about the Living History Farms here in Iowa (great place) the author wrote, "Now in the United States, only 2 percent of people work in an industry related to agriculture. Even in heavily agricultural Iowa, only 9 percent of people work in that industry."

That really got me thinking ... especially since I had recently come across this quote from Thomas Jefferson, "I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural." When you put two and two together you realize that since only 2 percent of our nation is involved in agricultural pursuits our government is not virtuous. Wow, did I just say that out loud!

In my recent post, "Hog Farmers Feeling the Pinch" there was some good discussion in the comments about going back to more family farms instead of our reliance on the industrial farm model. If you take a look at the comments you will see that the feeling was that it could be done, but that we just had to want to do it.

Wanting to ... that has been something that has been coming up a lot in my ministry work with students. And, the conclusion that I have come to and that we have been discussing a lot is that we just need to begin the change. Instead of waiting for hundreds or thousands to join together in the change we just need to make the change now and then help encourage others to come along with us ... it's applicable in politics, it's applicable in faith, and I believe it is applicable in agriculture.

So, buck the trend and make your small family farm thrive. It will be difficult one all fronts, but it will help lead the change so that we can start inching up that pitiful 2 percent figure!

Monday, May 05, 2008

In Case You Didn't See...

"286,000 Pounds of Meat, Poultry Recalled by N.Y. Company" according to an Associated Press article that I read on This is just another recall in the American food industry and reinforces the fact that food recalls are becoming more and more common. Although there is one thing that makes this recall different than the recent Hallmark beef recall. The beef recall was because of handling of the cattle when they were still alive, while this one seems to be about contamination that could/did happen in processing.

The company Gourmet Boutique, that supplies a little food to Super Target stores, makes many different types of processed poultry foods (chicken salads, burritos, etc.) and it seems that the listeriosis bacteria that was found by the USDA entered the food in the processing step. Once again the USDA did help find the problem, but if 286,000 pounds have already made it to the stores one could say that it is a little too late. According to the article a recorded message that you get when calling Gourmet Boutique says that they have made "environmental changes" at their plants ... ahh, good to know that they made changes after they got caught!

This article isn't surprising, new, or even mind boggling because we have seen it all before, but it did make me think. Are we better off getting our food (particularly poultry in this case) from on farm processing or small abattoirs? This is a point that Joel Salatin has been arguing for quite some time now and he is probably on to something.

I am not sure how much poultry we are going to raise on the farm for selling because it seems like there are quite a few small farm/direct marketing poultry folks around here, but if I did I would seriously consider on farm processing. What do you think?

Oh yeah, I think I should point out that if you head of to the Gourmet Boutique website you will find that they advertise their food as the "natural choice" because they don't use preservatives.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Some Quotes for The Weekend

A busy week, followed by a busy weekend now, and a busy week coming up means a short blog posts. I just thought I would throw out a couple of quotes that I have heard recently and a few that I came across this week while doing some research. Living in the heart of Iowa means that I live in the heart of farm land so I am surrounded by friends, family, and neighbors who are farmers or are closely related to farmers. With that being said here are a few things that I have heard lately:

Friend - "You getting into farming?" Me - "Yep." Friend - "I've got some advice for you then ... DON'T!"

"You aren't a farmer, farmers have lots of land, combines, huge tractors, and all that kind of stuff." (Okay, this may be partly true ... I'm more pastor than farmer)

"Do you know that there isn't any money if farming? Remember the late 70's and early 80's"

"It's not natural to only feed cattle grass."

"You don't give your cows corn ... what are you, one of those organic freaks?"

I could go on and on with this sort of stuff, but I know many of you have heard the same lines before. This kind of stuff just roles off of me like rain on the roof and I'm even beginning to find it somewhat funny. It is like the people that always come up to us and say, "Wow, your kid is good now, but just wait a year." They have been saying that for four years and so far their proclamations have not come to fruition. Remember, things don't have to be the way they are for everyone else!

Here are some encouraging quotes to leave you with:

"Trade increases the wealth and glory of a country; but its real strength and stamina are to be looked for among the cultivators of the land." -William Pitt

"I know of no pursuit in which more real and important services can be rendered to any country than by improving its agriculture, its breed of useful animals, and other branches of a husbandman's cares." -George Washington

"When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of human civilization." -Daniel Webster

"I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural." -Thomas Jefferson

Friday, May 02, 2008

Hog Farmers Feeling the Pinch

It is beginning to feel like wherever I turn I am reminded of the importance of diversified farming and the problems associated with the current specialization the industrial farm model. My latest affirmation came from an article titled, "Hog price pain is different this time around," from the "Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman." My father-in-law dropped off quite a few issues when he stopped by this week and I found a lot of interesting articles. But, this one caught my eye right away.

As you may know, if you read this blog regularly or semi-regularly, we are planning on getting some hogs this summer. Maybe not the breeding stock that I would like to eventually get, but at least some feeder pigs that we can finish for ourselves and a customer or two. We just want to get a feel for pastured pigs and finishing them. But, whenever I talk to local farmers about getting pigs (or farming in general) I get the same response ... "There is no money in pigs (or farming for that matter)."

According to the article the pain that hog producers are feeling in this most recent price down swing is worse than they have felt in other down times (early 90's and late 90's). This is because there has been a huge shift in the hog farm structure even in just the last 10 years. In 1998 when prices dropped to the bottom it was tough on farmers, but they liquidated herds, tightened their belts, and made it through the short-lived down turn. The difference is that 10 years ago many of the hog farmers were at least slightly diversified and were growing their own corn for feed.

Now hog farmers are facing a double whammy even though they are again liquidating their herds. Most hog farmers have specialized to the point that they no longer grow their own feed and must buy in everything. This puts them in the position that they feel the pinch from low prices and from the high input costs (feed, fuel, and equipment).

I think the most interesting thing about this article article is the conclusion that it comes to. John Lawrence, who is a livestock economist at Iowa State University, concludes that there will be better times for hog farmers by the summer of 2009. Basically he notes that herds have been reduced and demand is seeing a slight up-tick, so things should get better eventually.

To me that shows a MAJOR flaw in the current agricultural mindset from the farm economists all the way to the farmers. If we look back throughout history and see that these price down-swings were not as tough on farmers when they were diversified as opposed to when they are specialized shouldn't we learn something? Maybe we should learn that farm diversification is the key?

Well, we should probably learn that, but then it wouldn't fit the "great" industrialized model we have now in agriculture! (That is my very sarcastic statement for the day)

Thursday, May 01, 2008

You Might Be a Redneck if... forget to take your wide-brim hat on a sunny day! That is my story from Wednesday. Yesterday we needed to set up some new temporary fencing for the cows and give our steers/bull calves a little more room also. That meant getting up early and driving to the farm so I could get plenty of work in before I head to get to the soccer field for practice. It was a busy day to say the least, but we got the things done that we needed to get done.

Right now we are not doing the Managed Intensive grazing set up as I would like to to do, but we are doing a little bit of rotation with the cattle. This particular pasture is the fourth one that they have been on since the grass started to green up. The first area is looking really good, but that is the field we are going to save for hay this year. The second area is starting to come back, but we could use some warmer soil temperatures. The last pasture they were on is a little rough now, but that is part of the idea. Of course their new six acre spot is pretty nice right now.

These pastures that we are using now are a mix of fescue and a some other unknown grasses. The are actually pretty sparse and I think we plan on doing a little seeding and renovation after we move the Dexters to the new farm. The idea is to get them ready so we can use them for calving or finishing some of our cattle over the next few years. My dad's farm has more acreage than ours so it is nice to have some expansion possibilities.

If our soil temperatures would actually come up to normal we would have some really good growing going on. Hopefully this will happen soon so we can take them back to the second pasture they were on. If we continue to have cool and cloudy weather we will just set up one more 5 or 6 acre pasture and then start to hit them again.

Thankfully it was a nice sunny day to work. My brother helped, my sister helped, my dad helped, and my step-mom helped. Hopefully next time the rest of my family can make it.
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