Saturday, February 27, 2010

1,000 Words :: Not Enough

The old adage says that, "a picture is worth a thousand words". But, in the case of this picture I don't think the image does the real view justice and I'm not even sure that 1,000 words would be enough to describe the track of the sun's rays jetting through the tree limbs ... the snow shining on the tops of long branches ... the quiet surrounding ever step I take ... the crispness of the air that you feel with every breath ... the shine of the sun reflecting off of the snow crystals covering the ground ... the contrast of the trees and the blue sky beyond ...

Yep, I'm sure a thousand words are not enough! But, it was a beautiful sight as I was out cutting wood this afternoon.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Answering a Few Questions...

There have been a few questions in the comments section of some recent posts that I haven't had a chance to answer yet, so I decided I would just take a moment today to throw up some of my thoughts/answers.

Earlier this week Rich asked, "Now that you have raised purebred heritage pigs, cross-bred heritage pigs, and conventional pigs on pasture have you noticed that the heritage pigs actually do significantly better on pasture? (and) What about meat quality? How does the meat from purebred pigs compare in taste, etc. to convention crossbred pigs raised on pasture?"

Well, we have gone through a few cycles of pigs now but I wouldn't say that we have raised anything truly conventional out on pasture. By that I mean that all the pigs that we have raised here (even if they weren't heritage breeds) have come from at the very least an outdoor based situation. So, they have naturally been more adapted to the outside. I doubt that if we purchased some three-way crosses from a local confinement operation we would have the same results. That being said I do feel that they have all been fairly competent at foraging, although the Hampshire/Berkshire crosses were probably the least impressive.

You will find though that you get a faster growing pig and probably larger litter sizes with the added benefits of heterosis that the crossbreds have. That is just the nature of things and does make a difference.

As far as taste goes ... I'm not sure if I'm the best judge, but our customers have been very pleased. At a drop-off the other day though I was talking to a chef (who loves Berkshire pork the most I think) and I think he had something when he said that in his mind much of the taste can come from the way the animal was raised. Of course there are bred differences and you can look at blind taste tests to see heritage breeds often score at the top, but there is something to be said for the way an animal was raised.

In the comment section of my post regarding Michael Pollan's lecture in Iowa Rob asked what some of the things that I disagree with Michael Pollan were.

The most obvious depart I have from Mr. Pollan is how the animals became they way they are with their incredible ability to do just the things that they need to do for themselves and the environment around them. I believe they were created that way ... he doesn't. But, that doesn't discredit him in my book and hopefully it wouldn't discredit me in his.

As I said, I agree with most of what he says but I'm fearful that he comes across as a bit elitist. Some of that is not his fault and just the circumstances of being a journalist that has decided to go against conventional agriculture, but I also feel that some of it comes from the way that he attacks the problem. I'm not always sure what the best approach is (so saying that may be hypocritical), but I do say there is something for going about it the way the King Corn guys did it ... by bringing in both sides to the discussion.

Finally ... Rich, I'll try to get a picture of me next to some of my cows!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Looking Ahead

I'm on or around the internet for much of the day at work, but at the house we don't have a TV (due to lack of reception) and in my vehicle I no longer have AM radio. What that has meant this winter is that there have been quite a few times when the snow just up and surprised me. Generally I hear about the big storms because everyone is talking about them every where they go, but the little ones (3-5 inches) just seem to come out of nowhere. Likewise when it hits -6 in the middle of the week (like it has this week) it often hits me like a ton of bricks.

So, lately I've been doing something I rarely do and I've been looking at long range forecasts hoping to catch a little break and at least have some positive thoughts about the weather. When I say long range I'm talking 10 to 15 days ... which I think means they are highly inaccurate, but if they tell me what I want to hear I'm going to check it out at this point in the winter.

Example #1 :: The 10-day forecast from As you can see the beginning of March is showing us temperatures slightly above freezing, but maybe not quite enough to do a lot of damage to our deep snow. The one nice thing about this forecast is the sun ... sun is nice, although it can be a bit deceiving on below zero days like today.

Example #2 :: Now on the left you will see the beginning of March forecast from They actually do a 15-day forecast and the days after this look even better, but for comparisons sake I decided to just look at the same days from each site. For obvious reasons I'm a big fan of this forecast (as long as it comes true). I mean who can argue with highs in the forties! That would mean some melting snow (and mud), less bulky clothing during chores, and less wood for the fire. But, I'll admit that I'm just a little bit skeptical.

What does all this mean? I think it means that it's been a long winter! Although, I will admit that there have been times when it was nice not knowing what was coming and just being surprised the ebbs and flows of the weather. I can't even begin to imagine what it was like for a pioneer family in Iowa in the 1850's when the were really starting to settle our area.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Snug as a Pig in a Rug ... err ... Hay Pile

Yesterday was a big day for the pigs on the farm and an even busier day for me (I really wish it was summer, not just because of the snow, but because I could use some more day light). I spent yesterday and this morning getting ready for some new pigs, and after some work at the church I headed out to Norway (the town, not the country) to pick up some Hereford feeder pigs and a Hereford boar (I think I will name him, but that will come later). I decided to add a few more feeder pigs because our Hereford pork is selling so well and I wanted to keep that going.

The trip there and back was fairly uneventful except for the wind and snow blowing across the road, but I was glad that I ended up at this particular farm to pick up pigs. This farmers grandfather was one of the men who helped establish the breed in the 1930's and the family has been raising Herefords ever since. It was pretty cool to see him still working in the family business and sticking with the breed that his family helped develop.

Once home though is when the real fun began. Job number one was to unload the six feeder pigs into their new home and then the boar into his pen. That was a relatively easy job, although I did have to take some time breaking the gates out of the snow and ice pack. Oh, and did I mention it was dark? But, once the trailer was unloaded the real fun began ...

I had to load a pig to take to the locker tomorrow ... in the dark ... from a rather large pig pen ... while said pig would rather be sleeping! Needless to say, the loading process took awhile because the little piggy didn't really want to go exploring in the dark. So, I was just patient and calm and once the pig was finally in the loading pen things went very smoothly and it jumped in the trailer.

The moral to the story ... umm ... try harder? I guess sometimes that's just the way things go and you really can't do anything about it ... that's the moral to the story!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Everyone Should Have Chickens ...

This evening, thanks to the Practical Farmers of Iowa e-mail list, we were able to add forty chickens to our simple flock (which prior to this had only six members). As you can imagine this is quite an addition! These chickens are all Red Star's and we were able to get them free because they were spent hens (using that word loosely because he was still getting about 28 eggs per day, just not enough for profit margins). The farmer needed room for his new flock coming in, so these needed to head off the farm quickly ... that's where I came into the equation!

Hopefully we'll get a few eggs, but that wasn't the main reason for getting them. We have been hoping to get some spent hens before this coming summer to follow our cattle out on the pasture. They do a good job cleaning up the bugs and larvae in the cow patties and help break parasite cycles. I think it was Joel Salatin who said that it would be worth it to have a flock of mean old roosters following the cows because of the job they do even if it meant replacing them every year. Now, we'll have some chickens to follow along and probably get some eggs.

These girls are set up in the shed next to the cows and are already exploring their new little kingdom. Between the cows mooing and the chickens clucking it really is starting to sound like a good old fashioned barn! Which got me to thinking ... everyone should have some chickens around if they can. They are beautifully simple and mesmerizing to watch ... their simple cluck can be very soothing ... the way the move and flap around at times is just hilarious ... and, they are even fun to hold and catch! That's just my little public service announcement encouraging everyone to get chickens. If your town allows (unlike ours) they even make great additions to the backyard, but if nothing else find a friend or family member in the country and see if you can't have a little flock out at their place.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Michael Pollan ... in Iowa

Like it or not ... Michael Pollan is coming to Iowa to deliver a lecture with the same title as his latest book, "In Defense of Food". I had not heard about it until the other day when I happened to be driving around the minivan (while my truck was stuck in the snow) and the hosts were talking about his upcoming lecture (I have no AM in my truck, so they may have been talking about it for a few weeks). Anyways, after I heard about it on the radio I also noticed an editorial piece in my latest Farm Bureau Spokesman. I guess the word is out there and I'm just late to jump on the bandwagon!

Here are the details if you are up around the northeastern part of Iowa :: Monday, Feb. 22nd at 7:00 PM at the Decorah Public Library (book discussion) and then on Tuesday, Feb. 23rd at Luther College he will be giving his lecture also at 7:00 PM. (click on the links above for more details)

The Iowa Farm Bureau (IFB) and others concerned with the strength of agriculture are strongly encouraging farmers to attend the lecture and ask Michael Pollan the tough questions, because he can't answer them (that's the IFB's stance not mine ... link). I too agree that Iowa's farmers (as many different types as possible) should attend if there is a way, and that they should ask the tough questions.

But, it is important that everyone not only asks the tough questions of Michael Pollan, but also of themselves. The IFB states that Mr. Pollan has, "written many biased articles" (who hasn't) and also that he, "has a lot of good ideas, but he also has some very dangerous and misguided ones." Again ... who doesn't!" So, by all means go to the lecture or the book discussion (and report back here if you do), but go with an open mind.

As a member of the IFB and someone who has read and enjoyed Mr. Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" I think this has the possibility to be a very profitable lecture/question and answer time. I did not agree with all of Mr. Pollan's ideas and opinions, but at the same time I could see a lot of the beauty in creation (he does not however believe in creation) through the agricultural system he writes about and envisions. We just need to be willing to learn and work together ... remember, he does have, "a lot of good ideas" ... even if he is a bit opinionated (that's what the IFB tells me at least).

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Not Exactly Spring

Last year for various reasons there were a couple cows (although one cow hasn't had a calf for a few years as far as I know and I'm still not convinced she is bred) that did not have a calf. Because of that (and the joys of setting up a farm on the fly) our calving has begun already. We were shooting for calves when the grass was green, but I guess now we are having them when we are dreaming of green grass! Nonetheless, cow and calf seem to be doing fine and I hope things continue down that direction.

The little bull calf was born early this afternoon inside the shed. As I was doing chores this morning I noticed some tell-tale signs that she would be calving soon and guessed that today was going to be the day (I had know she was getting close for a bit now). So, I decided to separate her from the rest of the herd inside and throw in plenty of bedding for the cow and the soon to be calf on the ground. It seems like it was just another carefree Dexter birth!

I am still amazed at how little these calves are when they come out ... and so very cute looking! As you can see this little guys is black and in the picture he was still getting his cleaning from momma. Also, while I was out there I was able to see him eating. I'm always glad to see that when we have a bull calf because for some reason the few bull calves we have had haven't been as smart about the whole eating thing! But, this guy has it figured out.

Hopefully we'll have a few more calves to come ... But, I'm perfectly okay for them to wait until it is a bit warmer out!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

5:51 PM ...

... That is the time that the sun will set today. And, while I will readily admit that I could use some longer days right about now, I also won't complain because as it has already been mentioned ... the sun is gaining and we are on the downhill side of things right!?! In fact, by next week the sun will be setting around 6:00 PM. I think daylight until after 6:00 PM will add a little spring to my step (at least as much spring as coveralls and big boots allow). The early nighttime does make for some interesting nights on the farm.

As you can see from the picture above (it was a very clear night ... and cold ... and windy) I end up doing quite a few chores out in the dark. Of course this is nothing unique to our farm, it is just part of the deal. But, as a beginning farmer and a full-time town job guy I end up doing things when I can ... often that when is in the dark.

Before I leave in the morning I do chores that need to be taken care of first thing (feed and water). Then after work I check on the feed situation and get started on all the other stuff that may need to be done. This winter I've split plenty of wood with the help of my head lamp and warm clothes ... moved hay and other feed with my tractor (and the working headlights) ... and, I have even cut up sections of firewood with the chainsaw at night because it needed to be done.

Two conclusions that I've come to. Number one ... I'm thankful for that headlamp that my mom gave me for Christmas! It makes things much easier than trying to hold/position a flashlight while I work. And, number two ... working late at night helps me sleep better because I'm tired when I'm done.

Monday, February 15, 2010

An Update on the Powerflex Fence

With all of the snow and ice we have had this winter I thought it would be a good idea if I gave an update on how our Powerflex fence has been holding up and performing this winter. This past summer we installed a six wire hi-tensile fence along the road (two sides of our property) and then a three wire fence along the woods. We used the Powerflex posts and plenty of wire. As I was going through the building process I had a few neighbors drive by and discuss problems that I would most likely face this winter ... our fence is one area were the problems have been small.

Right now we are running about 5.5 to 6 kV at the fencer and maybe a bit less at distant parts of the fence. In the summer we were running around or above 10 kV. I will take the blame for the lower readings right now, because I still have some temporary fence out there that is buried in the snow and probably not helping matters at all! But, even with the lower voltage we have not had anybody test the wire or cause any real problems. In fact I know that it still packs a bit of a punch ... personal experience.

We are not charging the lower wires right now, but there are spots were we have snow drifts three or four wires high. Again, I'm sure that is drawing it down a bit, but it hasn't been a problem. Another thing I've noticed is that the animals respect the wire ... even with the lower charge. Our pigs were contained on one side of their pen by a single polywire about six inches off the ground. That wire was long ago buried, but still they walk along the edge of where it used to be visible. They respect the shock I guess!

All in all this first winter with the Powerflex posts and hi-tensile wire has been great! No real problems to speak of and as long as I remember to plug the extension cord back in after taking the tractor out of the shed (good ol' temporary electricity) we are good to go. Of course I can't wait until spring when it's tall grass shorting out our fence ...

Sunday, February 14, 2010

O Winter ...

It seems as if we should be on the downhill side of winter. But, after all the snow, cold, ice, rain, snow, cold, and yuck we have had this year (our local school has canceled classes 9 times) I'm just not sure. Just this past day or so we have added a few inches of light fluffy snow. At this point though I don't think it really matters. All it does is add to the pile ...

The winter has been difficult. I thought last winter was difficult and that the second one would be much better ... I was wrong. The winter has been difficult ... that is all I really feel like saying. But, what am I supposed to do about it? How is anything I do going to change the weather? So, I guess I just grin and bear it ... or at least bear it (not so sure about the grin).

Here are some of my thoughts on winter:
  • Big snowflakes, even after 50 plus inches of snow for the season, are still beautiful on a Sunday morning. I may not like the fact that they are adding to the snow total, but I can't deny their beauty.
  • Seeing your breath on a cool and crisp snow covered morning is invigorating ... even if it feels like the cool crisp mornings will never change over to warm summer mornings.
  • A warm fire in the house keeping everything nice and comfortable is a good feeling ... almost a feeling of independence.
  • I like cutting firewood ... in the snow ... in the silence ... alone.
  • I cannot control the winter (or much else for that matter) ... and everything is probably much more beautiful because I can't control it.
  • Frost covered trees and fence and all ... that is pretty incredible.
  • Winter will end and then spring ... followed by summer ... followed by fall ... repeat all. That I can be sure of and then I can do the best in each of those.
It has been a difficult winter. More difficult than I would have imagined or expected, but that does not mean that is the end ... as long as I can keep my head up and keep sliding these feet through the snow.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Eat a Pig, Save a Breed ...

(It is true that this picture has nothing to do with pigs. But, as I was out doing chores this morning this was the beautiful image that I saw ... and all the hogs were still asleep in their huts. I didn't feel like I needed to wake them up from their slumber just for a photo op.)

As new producer members of the Iowa Food Coop this is only our second month with product listed. Last month we sold bundles of our Berkshire/Hereford pork, but this month we were able to list individual packages of our pure Hereford pork. So far it has been selling fairly well (probably better than I expected), and those sales made me think of the importance of eating the rare breeds in order to support the rare breeds.

It almost sounds counter productive to eat a pig from a breed that has dwindled to less than 2,000 individuals nationwide (according to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy website), but if people aren't interested in eating them ... well, then there is no need to raise them. If you are interested in supporting and helping heritage breeds survive you have to eat them and support them through your purchases!

I chose the Hereford breed because it seemed like it was well suited to the small-scale farming that we are doing and so far that has proven to be true. As I have mentioned before the breed was developed here in Iowa and Nebraska from Duroc, Chester White, and Poland China lines. Being developed in the 1920's I believe they are uniquely breed for an outdoor farrowing and finishing system.

Another thing that I have found to be true is that they are a fairly easy tempered and docile breed. I realize that my pig experience isn't vast, but of all the swine that have graced the farm these pigs have been the easiest keepers and by far the easiest to load! In my book that is a big plus.

If you are in the area and interested in supporting a small, but important, breed we are going to be taking two more to the locker later this month. We will then have cuts and packages available through both the Iowa Food Coop and directly from the farm.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Muddy Hole Farm?

I love the farm name. I love the history of it, I love the sound of it, and I even love the looks of it. Unfortunately it is not a unique name in the food industry, so it is time that I seriously consider a name change. This is something that I have been putting off because I liked our original name so very much. But, as our farm business grows and we look to expanding this summer and beyond through various sales outlets it is important that we have a name that we are going to stick with and that we can get out in front of our customers and potential customers.

The picture above is a map showing a portion of George Washington's Mount Vernon estate. He had the land broken up into six (at least) farms and had a name for each of them. Mansion House Farm is out because of the obvious things (maybe Barn-esque House Farm). Union Farm is out because I just don't find it very appealing, Dogue (sounds like vogue) Run Farm is out because it is difficult to pronounce, River Farm doesn't work here, and Little Hunting Creek Farm just seems a bit long.

That leaves Muddy Hole Farm (I would like to know the story behind that name). With our pigs I would say that it fits perfectly! And, can you imagine all the neat little advertising images that we could come up with? But, maybe the name just doesn't scream "neat little family farm". Although ... it could grow on me ...

So, do you have any thoughts on a historically driven farm name? Daniel Webster's farm was called Elms Farm. Patrick Henry's first farm was Pine Slash Farm. Any other ideas?
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