Thursday, April 29, 2010


So, it's not very often that people get excited about a couple of blades of green grass. But ... I'm beyond excited ... I'm ABSOLUTELY excited!! Each time I drive into town it's like all the other pastures with their thick cool season grasses are laughing at my acres full of warm season grasses that are not growing much now as they wait for the ... warm season! I was excited to drill in the new grass seed, but I'm a "right now" kind of guy and it's been killing me not seeing anything growing out there. But, if you look closely at the picture on the right you can see a few thin blades of grass poking through the ground and even some clover in the front! Needless to say, I'm excited ...

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Making Farm Decisions...

Yesterday evening I wrote about Holistic Planned Grazing as it was laid out in Greg Judy's book, "Comeback Farms." One of the things about holistic management is the idea that your decisions impact everything involving your farm. That is very true when it comes to all the decisions I make on the farm ... not just the ones that have to do with livestock and grazing. For example ... this is the first year since we moved to Knoxville that I'm not coaching soccer. I loved coaching and working with the girls on my team, but a decision to continue coaching while trying to begin the farm would have had effects felt beyond just my busy schedule. Of course my family suffers when I'm gone for games and practice only to come home with chores piled up. But also, it is difficult to keep your focus on so many things at once and I would find myself at practice with my mind wandering to the farm or the other way around. So ... I guess I had to look at the whole picture and make a decision that was best for my family and the farm and look at how that decision would impact everything else. Plus, it was a decision that I couldn't make on my one (like all farm decisions).

The decision to not coach soccer was a fairly big decision and it's easy to see how whether I coached would have a far reaching impact. But, taking a look at how far reaching the effects of a decision may be is even important to think about when you are making what seems like relatively small decisions in the whole scheme of things. Like right now ... I'm thinking about getting a truck because there are numerous times when it would come in handy on and around the farm. What I need to do is look at the whole picture and decide if it is an investment that would help the family and the farm or if it is something that is not a "need" because the expense or addition would hamper things somehow.

So, here is how my thought process is moving right now. Of course I'm looking at the financial aspect of the decision. How much will it cost? Where will the money come from? Are the places where that money would be better spent or saved? But, that is only part of the story. The vehicle I'm using right now is an SUV which is great for hauling the family around and does great pulling trailers, but isn't as handy going to get wood/feed/stopping at an auction among other things. On top of that since it doesn't get the greatest gas mileage we don't use it for family trips. Would we be better off with a more useful farm truck and a family vehicle? Or is it just too much hassle!?!

On the surface I look at a decision like this and think, "Just make the stinking decision and get a cool red truck!" But, reality dictates that I don't have an endless supply of funds and time so I need to look at the hows and whys of every situation to best use the resources I have. As you might guess my mind rambles over the decisions that have to be made (much like the writing in this post), but I think making a decision based on reality rather than a knee-jerk reaction will help sustain the farm.

**Just an FYI :: My Expedition is for sale now ... I've decided a truck would be a plus, but only after I sell my current SUV and then shop with the money in hand. You can click on the link if you're interested ... consider it helping a beginning farmer if you purchase it ;)

Monday, April 26, 2010

Comeback Farms :: Chapters 22-23 Book Report

Now we are getting down to the nitty gritty ... the stuff that really has me excited as I read through this book for the second time. In chapter 22 Greg Judy introduces the idea of "Holistic Planned Grazing." And, this is where things get exciting! In think it is important that before we go any further here we define the word "Holistic" as Mr. Judy is using it (because I have a feeling it is one of those words with multiple definitions). He writes, "The term 'Holistic' as used here means that we are managing for the health of everything. Holistic management focuses on the importance of working in sync with nature to mimic natural processes." Later he writes, "Every action and decision you make has an effect on everything in your operation."

Mr. Judy particularly focuses the operation/work of Ian Mitchell-Innes who is a South African rancher he works 14,000 acres and uses Holistic Planned Grazing to manage his farms. He grazes 4,000 to 6,000 head of cattle per day on a 100 acre paddock! Did you catch that ... 4,000 to 6,000 head and 100 acre paddocks ... that blew me away and think this is the point where I would have said, "This can't work for me," if I hadn't continued reading on. Mr. Mitchell-Innes has seen his ranch improve endlessly through his management system that focuses on using the livestock to improve everything. Oh, and Mr. Judy also is quick to point out that all the improvements that Mr. Mitchell-Innes has made on his land has come without the use of lime and fertilizer. You just have to read the chapter to get the rest, but if you can't tell ... I think it's great!

In chapter 23 Mr. Judy answers the question of how this high density grazing thing can work with numbers fewer than say ... 4,000. He has been doing mob grazing (another phrase you will see a lot) with 50 to 250 head of cattle and believes that it will work on numbers smaller than that, and I tend to agree. When he was writing this book he was mobbing up his cattle herds in densities between 100,000 and 500,000 pounds liveweight per acre and he writes the results were "dramatic". The main issue and difference between this mob grazing and Management Intensive Grazing that he used to be doing was that in the MiG system they were focusing on keeping the grass young and grazed before it went to seed. With the mob grazing they allow the grass to get older and by doing so let the root system fully rejuvenate so that as the season progress the grass can handle the weather changes better.

I could go on and on! But, I would just suggest at this point you pick up the book and read for yourself. I for one can't wait to get my cattle mobbed up once the grass starts to take hold and get growing. The benefits seem endless ...

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The First Farmer's Market ...

In less than a week we will be setting up at our first farmers market ... EVER!!! On Saturday, May 1st the Living History Farms in Urbandale, IA will be hosting their Farmer's Market preview inside the visitors center and Crooked Gap Farm will be there selling our heritage Hereford pork. If you aren't familiar with the Living History Farms it is a living history museum that features farms from different periods in Iowa's history. Because of that this market isn't like every other market in the Des Moines area and it will feature demonstrations and hands on activities for every one attending ... along with live music from time to time I hear! I think this market is a perfect fit for our farm values and my love of history.

Needless to say I'm pretty excited about this new chapter on the farm. But, at the same time I'm a bit apprehensive because this will be another first for me (I should be getting used to "firsts" on the farm). So far I have secured the correct permits and insurance along with locating a source for dry ice in town to keep everything frozen. I'm working on some business cards and information sheets to hand out at the market along with a few other displays (newspaper articles featuring the farm) and we have our canopy tent ready for when the outdoor markets begin in a couple weeks.

What am I not thinking of though? I know I'm missing lots of different stuff here because I've never done this before! So, I'm calling on the expertise of all you farmer's market vendors and consumers. What kind of things should we have when we set up and what kinds of things do you look for as a consumer?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Comeback Farms :: Chapters 20-21 Book Report

These two chapters deal specifically with livestock guardian dogs. A topic that I don't know too much about (except that we do have a Great Pyrenees), but that will be very important if I have some sheep coming to the farm this summer. Greg Judy speaks very highly of livestock guardian dogs and seems to have a pretty high rate of flock safety with their use, so I was very interested in seeing what he had to say about selection and training of a guardian dog. These two chapters didn't disappoint! I don't have time for many thoughts today, so I will just throw out some highlights from the two chapters that really stuck with me.
  • When selecting your puppy pick out one of the puppies that comes to you right away. When it comes to a guardian you don't want a timid dog.
  • As soon as they get their puppies on the farm they are put with the sheep. That is where they are fed and that is where they sleep. To get the sheep used to the dog they sometimes place them in a pen right next to the sheep so they get used to them being near.
  • Another way to bond your dog with the sheep is to place the pup in a pen (Mr. Judy uses an electro-net pen) with an old ewe and force them to bond. Then when you place the dog out with the entire flock there will already be a connection.
  • Don't let the dog bond with you. We purposefully let our dog bond with the family because we wanted a family guardian dog. But, in doing so Jack hangs out around the house most of the time protecting this area. For a livestock guardian a pat on the head each day and a "good job" is probably enough.
  • Mr. Judy made a neat little "feeding pen" on skids to allow the dogs access to a self-feeder, but keep the sheep out of the dog food. This is a really good idea!
After reading these two chapters (and re-reading them) I'm on the lookout for another dog with sheep on the horizon. This one will be a true livestock guardian dog ... not a people guardian.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

"Food, Inc." and Thoughts Afterwards

Last night "Food, Inc." played on the Iowa PBS channels (and maybe nationwide?). That is pretty interesting in and of itself, but what I found more interesting was the show that played afterwards here in Iowa. "An Iowa Journal" (this link will take you to the full episode, but you can also view clips below the main video) was featured after the film and included an interview with Craig Lamb (head of the Iowa Farm Bureau) and Neil Hamilton (Drake University Agricultural Law Center and 10-acre market gardner). Obviously a film like this would bring out a lot of opinions here in Iowa, a state that leads the nation in corn, soybean, egg, and hog production.

One of the words that kept coming up in the discussion was "choice". But, I don't think everyone agreed all of the time on what "choice" actually was. If you have 50 minutes of free time I would encourage you to check this out. I had it running in the background while I was doing some other work and found it very interesting to listen too.

If you do have time to take a listen tell me what you think ... was it an unbiased discussion? Did they pick out bits to cling on to that didn't tell the whole picture? I'm just curious what others think.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Realities of this Beginning Farmer ...

In a perfect world things would go differently than the do in reality ... When I started this blog (a long time ago it seems) I was just beginning the research phase of this whole farm adventure. I was starting to pick up books and talk to people, but at that point the farm was just a dream and the land to have that dream on wasn't even on the radar. In the perfect world I would have gathered as much of that knowledge as I could and then when there was a place to farm I would have just jumped in with all of me and thrown myself at the farm until it worked! The reality of it is that I've got about one foot (mostly just a toe hold) on the farm right now.

Today is a case in point. Just last week (at least I think that's when it was) I blogged about the Greg Judy event happening in the northeast part of the state. Today was the day that it was going down and regardless of the distance and the fact that I had youth group in the evening I was going to be there ... I mean how many chances will I have to listen to Mr. Judy and I really thought attending would benefit the farm and my management of it. But, the workshop is now over and I was never there. That is the reality of the farm right now.

That picture up there on the left ... that's what my pasture looks like right now. As I mentioned the other day, warm season grasses are just that ... warm season. And, they haven't decided to take off so much yet. Also, the years in CRP and the growth of the scrub brush have left things pretty bare in spots. In the perfect world this seeding would have taken place the first spring I was on the farm ... in reality it happened on the third spring, but at least it happened!

So what do you do when the reality does not match up with the perfect world on the farm? I think you make sure your priorities are in order and you just keep going. As much as I would like this to be a sprint the reality is that it is like an ultra-run (that is something crazy people do ... think 100 miles).

Monday, April 19, 2010

Seeding Pastures

After I finally figured out how to get the no-till drill set and calibrated (at least I think I did) I was able to get going on actually getting seed into the ground. I drilled my mix (Pradel Meadow Fescue, Perennial Ryegrass, Orchard Grass, Italian Rye Grass, and Alice White Clover) Saturday afternoon and evening and did about 5 acres. It was nice to see the visible progress of slowing cover more ground and getting a start on adding some cool season grasses to the pasture. It also gave me plenty of time to observe and think as I was bumping along on the tractor. Here are some of my observations:

  • There is clover coming up in quite a few places. In fact it is the only thing that is growing on the clay that covers our septic filtration area.
  • There really was a lot of bare ground in the pasture. In some places the switchgrass stand had just become very thin and in other places the brush had gotten so think that it shaded out all the grass. That was especially true in the area where I mowed down the brush yesterday.
  • The lack of quality grass and the bare ground was kind of depressing at times.
  • I have no idea what I'm doing! Yesterday while I was taking a break from the tractor I tweeted, "Ever feel like you're doing something, but not sure if you're doing it right? I do ..." I knew that seed was leaving the drill, but if it will ever grow ... of that I'm not sure!
  • Warm season grasses are just that ... warm season. As I look at my pasture I don't see the lush green that surrounds the farms around me ... oh for some lush and thick grass. It will come in time.
  • I'm excited about the possibilities of mob grazing ... if ever there was a farm that could use some good microbe management this is it!
  • Now ... I'm praying for grass to grow!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Comeback Farms :: Chapters 17-19 Book Report

Chapters 17, 18, and 19 of "Comeback Farms," by Greg Judy are three very encouraging chapters that each deal with topics that are very similar, yet different at the same time. In chapter 17 Mr. Judy writes about the money side of the hair sheep component on his farm. He sells his lambs both at the local livestock auction and direct to customers and believes that both can be profitable with no-input grassfed hair sheep ... although it is much more profitable when he sells directly to the customer. The figures he gives for the financial side of sheep in this chapter are pretty encouraging and make me feel like running out and getting some right away (even though I understand everything doesn't go by the book all the time). But, I think the profit possibilities are real and I love the comparatively quick turnaround that lamb offer. This is not a two-year proposition like grassfed beef, so your money won't be tied up quite as long.

Let me just add this on the topic of hair sheep ... there is so much that I'm learning now that I wish I would have learned before I got going! I believe if I was starting over now and using the experience and knowledge I have gained that I would have started with pigs and sheep and then added just a couple cows. The pigs and sheep offer such a quicker path to income and have a much lower starting cost! So, if you haven't started yet and livestock is your dream ... think about that.

In chapter 18 Mr. Judy talks about brush goats as a piece of the puzzle on his rented farms. I'm not adding goats (unless it's just a goat that I can make faint), but I can see how they would be a nice addition in his situations. He only keeps about 20 goats on his farms and he does not use them within his mob grazing system. They are allowed to take care of the brush clean up and the provide a little meat for sale each year. I would say that they are just another "tool" in his management system.

On the other hand though, chapter 19 is about Tamworth pigs and that topic does get me excited. I will admit that I do love the Herefords so far, but every time I read about Tamworths I get excited and want to find some! It's things like this quote that get me excited,
"It is a true treat to watch them graze in the pasture. They walk along at a steady pace with their heads bobbing just enough to take in the top 2-3" of clover or whatever their target may be. They graze at lightning speed, just taking the best tender part of the plant as their snout passes over it."
Yep, I need to find some Tamworths! I have really enjoyed having the pigs on the farm and think that they are a great addition to any pasture based system.

Friday, April 16, 2010

First Time for Everything ...

It seems like every week I'm doing something for the first time on the farm ... and all too often I'm trying to figure out how to do that thing by myself. That is what is going on today. I'm trying to figure out just how this Truax no-till grass drill works. I'm starting to get it figured out and I have a plan, but I'm worried about getting the settings right for the pounds per acre that I want. I do have the manual, but it doesn't seem like it explains as much as I would like it too. Such is farm life ...

So, with that being said ... I'm going to head out and try to defeat this thing and get my pasture seeded!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Follow the Crooked Gap

Along with the new name we are rolling out a few other things for the farm ... or at least rebranding them I guess. You can now become a fan of Crooked Gap Farm on Facebook (and I hope you do). But, if that wasn't enough for you then you can now follow me (and Crooked Gap Farm) on Twitter. If you don't know what Twitter is ... well ... it's basically a quick way to follow the daily happenings of someone. I'll be "tweeting" (I guess that is a verb now) about the various things going on at the farm and all that I'm doing for the farm. I hope you follow along on Twitter ... if you look to the right you may have noticed that I've been "tweeting" for a while now. I just wanted to give it a test drive before I made it official.

Now, I must admit that there was a time when I thought all of this social media stuff (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) was a bit too much. But, as I think about the possibilities I have to admit that I'm kind of excited about these new accounts. It really fits in quite well with the transparency and connections that I want this farm to be about. I really do want customers and others to know the daily ins and outs of the farm ... whether they are mundane or exciting. I want people to know how the weather is affecting things, what it takes to start a farm and continue everything else, and the tasks that go on each day.

I guess it was a natural progression really. First the blog ... then a Facebook page ... and finally a Twitter account that I can post to no matter where I am on the farm (via my cellphone). So, feel free to join us on Facebook and follow me on Twitter!!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Crooked Gap :: A Heritage Farm

For the past few months (and probably longer) I've been fighting with the idea of a new farm name. I Absolutely loved the Stoneyfield name, but there was just too much confusion from a name recognition standpoint, so a new name was needed. The problem was finding just the right name that I loved. Eventually I realized that I just had to go with something and stick with it! So, after months of thinking and trying on several different names for size it's settled. The new farm name is ...

... Crooked Gap ...

As you can see from the logo we've also added a new tagline ("A Heritage Farm") that fits well with the farm and the values of the farm. There is just so much to love about the heritage breeds because they were livestock breeds that were developed to thrive in low input situations and pass on hardy genetics to their offspring. With that in mind I'm particularly focusing on the the older breeds that fit well into the this farms system of management. Plus ... it gives me a good excuse to focus in on my love of history.

You may be wondering about the name though ... Simply put, the farm is just off of what is locally called "the crooked road to Melcher," so I thought it would be a fitting name for a farm. And the "Gap" portion of the name helps tie everything back to history. You may have heard of some of the famous "gaps" that played an important part in our nations growth and expansion. One of those famous "gaps" is Cumberland Gap which was the main highway for settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains.

All of that local lingo and those historical connections led to Crooked Gap. On top of all that though is the fact that I just like the name. I think it's unique and fun and fitting! Plus, I don't think we'll be having to do a name change anytime soon ;)

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Greg Judy in Iowa :: April 21, 2010

What perfect timing! As I'm making my way through Greg Judy's book, "Comeback Farms" (for the second time) ... he is coming to Iowa. On Wednesday, April 21st from 9:00 AM until 5:00 PM he will be in Calmar, Iowa at the Northeast Iowa Dairy Center. As you can see from the flyer below he will be covering quite a large number of topics (in a short amount of time) and there will be a lunch. If you are a Practical Farmers of Iowa member this is a free event ($25 if you're not a member).

Even though this event is almost four hours away I plan on attending as much as I can. I have to be back in town by 6:00 PM, so I won't get it all in. Nevertheless, I think it's worth it and I can't wait! If you are in the general area I hope you will join me at the event.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Comeback Farms :: Chapters 15-16 Book Report

In chapter fifteen Greg Judy writes about the flock of hair sheep he began with and how he suggests going about beginning your own herd. On his farm they started out with purebred St. Croix hair sheep from a small herd that had never been wormed. The gentleman that Mr. Judy purchased his sheep from had been building his parasite resistant flock for some time and had already gone through the struggle of severe culling and loss of sheep to build the genetics he needed. I've got to admit that I think that is a great way to go ... especially if you are going to start out with a small flock like I would like to.

The small flock of St. Croix's was not all that Mr. Judy wanted for his farm. In fact he mentioned that he would like to have a flock of 500 ewes. After searching all over for more St. Croix hair sheep he found that they were hard to come by ... or as much as $500 for ewe lambs. As you might guess that would be a bit too much to pay if you wanted to build a large production flock, so he moved on to "Plan B". That plan involved buying a flock of Barbados hair sheep. What they are doing now on his farm is using the St. Croix rams to breed to the Barbados ewes in hopes of building up their parasite resistant flock. It sounds like a good idea ...

Along with parasite resistance Mr. Judy has a few other goals for the type of sheep that are part of his flock. His goal, "is to build a flock that needs no wormer, no lambing assistance, no feed, no hay, no shelter. They must have extreme flocking instinct, lamb on pasture, get no shots of any kind, wean their own lambs, shed off every spring, lamb every year, require no hoof trimming, and have good mothering instincts." As you can see that is a pretty lofty goal, but once it is reached they will have a flock that fits perfectly into their system and that uses very few inputs!

Chapter sixteen deals with developing the parasite-resistant flock. I can sum it up pretty quickly. Cull ruthlessly ... get sheep from your area ... find sheep being raised the way you want to raise them ... and ... cull ruthlessly! Of course he adds a bit more, but I think that's a good summery.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Comeback Farms :: Chapters 13-14 Book Report

What has been going on since I blogged last? Rain, a bit of rain, rain, wind, heat, sun, rain, a little more rain, hail (and damage to the roof), and more rain. It has been bleh ... needless to say I've been out slogging through the mud and trying to tie up other loose ends as the farmer's market season draws near. But, I have also been finishing up "Comeback Farms" by Greg Judy and thinking about putting some of those thoughts into practice on the farm. These two chapters deal with multi-species grazing ... specifically sheep ... specifically hair sheep!

In chapter thirteen Mr. Judy talks about the benefits of multi-species grazing. He says that he had been dragging his feet for years because of all the fears he had about adding sheep or other animals. What I really appreciate is that he takes each one of the fears that he had and then shares how they worked through them on his farm. I thought I would share a few that really hit home with me from this chapter.

Extra Fencing :: He uses 5 wires of hi-tensile electric on the perimeters and then 4 wires for the interior paddock divisions. I'm pretty close to set in that regard.

Worming Sheep :: They are focused on building a 100% parasite-resistant flock of sheep on their farm, so they cull for that and have found quite a bit of success it seems.

Sheep Need Shelter :: Mr. Judy provides no shelter for his sheep on pasture and they lamb out on pasture as well.

This quote from the chapter gives a good perspective on the benefits of multi-species grazing, "What was once nuisance plants, weeds, brush, etc., become food for your animals. The cattle eat the grass and legumes. Sheep go after the broadleaf weeds, blackberry and some grass." Reading this kind of stuff (and the resolutions to the perceived problems) gets me really excited about the possibility of adding sheep!

Chapter fourteen deals specifically with building fence for sheep and goats. It is nice to have some details of what works on their farm. I especially like the description and pictures of the five strand gates he makes using polywire tape. There are two gates that are at the bottom of the pasture on the farm and this is exactly the kind of gate I was thinking about building. Now I have an idea of how to do it!

As you can tell (and will tell as I cover the next few chapters) I'm excited about the possibilities of hair sheep ... there will be more on that to come.

Friday, April 02, 2010


This has been one of those weeks where I just feel like I have been running, but not accomplishing very much. It has been go ... go ... go, but not a lot of huge visible results. I guess there will be weeks like that though.

One thing that I did find today was this dandelion (it's not a weed) pictured above. It's the first one that I've seen this year and it was nice to see something so bright and beautiful on a cloudy day. It did get me thinking about dandelions as a forage though ... here is an article I found online. The nice thing about dandelions compared to the other forages I'm going to plant this spring ... I don't have to purchase seed for them and I'm sure they will eventually show up!

Here is a tidbit from the article by Christoph E. Weder Ph.D.:
"Well what does it all add up to? What is the impact of dandelions on a forage stand? For four consecutive years, the same researchers from the University of Wisconsin studied the effects of dandelions in cut hay. Their findings were interesting. First, dandelions did not normally decrease the total biomass of the forage stand. In fact under well managed pastures they added to the biomass. As for feed quality, they found that dandelions had protein values many times in excess of 18%. The only downfall was that they had higher moisture contents than other species in the stand and could affect dry down in haying situations."

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