Friday, December 28, 2012

Satisfaction and Taste

A while ago I was lucky enough to be on the panel of a screening for the film "American Meat". As far as food documentaries go this is one of my favorites (right up there with "King Corn") and I suggest checking out one of the screenings if you can! I follow their blog and facebook page from time to time just to keep up with where the film is showing and the response they are getting (and I'm hoping to find out when I can by a copy of the film for myself).

While scanning their facebook feed this morning I saw this quote, "Hard work is one of the most important ingredients in a meal." That really resonated with me so I followed the link to this article and video. The video features chef Dan Barber talking about the fact that seeing the food growing and the hard work put into raising those veggies and animals adds to the flavor. I don't know if I can explain why that is, but I have to say that I agree whole-heartdly!

There is just something great about enjoying a meal that you have worked so hard to prepare. On the farm we are able to have meals consisting of almost every ingredient originating from no more than 400 yards away ... those meals just plain taste great! I believe though that there is satisfaction and flavor to be found from putting the time into preparing a meal from a farmer that you know instead of from a supermarket aisle. There is just more flavor in a meal prepared by the hard and caring work of a cook with ingredients from the hard and caring work of a farmer you have a relationship with.

Sometimes that is the missing ingredient ...

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

It's the End of "Dairy" As We Know It?

On the days leading up to Christmas the story of potentially rising milk prices seemed to be the story de jour. I began hearing about it last week and a little searching found this article from the New York Times on December 20th. Then this report from Fox News on December 21st. Just one day latter, on December 22nd, "The New American" shared this opinion piece. And, not to be outdone (although a little late to the game) the local news station in my area posted this article on December 25th. I'm sure you've heard plenty about this as well.

Of course this "possible" rise in prices are completely related to the Farm Bill ... or more specifically the lack of a Farm Bill and the fact that if no new bill is passed our current farm law will revert to the 1949 laws. I don't really feel like discussing the nitty gritty of the fact that even though lawmakers know that things are expiring they really don't make any progress. I don't really feel like mentioning that when I went to Washington D.C. two summers ago it was to talk about the Farm Bill ... the one that still is not in existence. Nope, I don't want to talk about any of that!

What I do want to do though is ask a question. Specifically I want to ask why milk prices will double (that is what they are suggesting) just because there is no Farm Bill? I mean ... aren't we paying the price of what milk is worth right now? Aren't we paying for the real cost of our milk at the stores? Isn't the market (supply/demand) determining the price? Like I said ... just a question.

In completely related news we are beginning to research and prepare to milk our own cows. This isn't something we are doing because of fear. It is something we are doing because we have tri-purpose cows. It was a small part of the reason we chose the Dexters in the first place, and now that the farm is sort of coming together and the fact that we have just had three heifer calves in a row we finally feel ready to take on this challenge. Of course it will be a while as we tame down cows and really focus on our new heifers.

For now though we have a halter on the calves and are working on making them our friends and we will be reading The Family Cow by Dirk Van Loon (it seemed to have good reviews). I'd love to hear any thoughts or encouragements when it comes to milking on a small scale ... or about the coming "moopocalypse".

Friday, December 21, 2012

Another Farm's Farrowing Perspective

Frequent commenter Donna O'Shaughnessy has been following along with my ramblings on winter farrowing and took the time to discuss her farms farrowing/breeding plans on a post at her blog called Midlife FarmwifeTheir farm is in Illinois and pretty much straight east of my farm, so the weather patterns will be similar to what I'm facing ... which made this information very intriguing. The post titled, "Farrowing Follies" details their farms handling of sows from breeding, gestation, farrowing, and weaning (among other details). There are also good pictures to give you an idea of their set up!

If you are interested in the e-huts that she references here are some plans from Practical Farmers of Iowa. I also like her "hogciendas"and have been thinking about building something like that. Even if I ended up with a different sort of farrowing system they would be great out in the woodlots or for sheep in the winter. Basically I just need more portable buildings that I can drag around with the tractor!

Thank you so much for putting together such a great post Donna!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Sometimes ...

We are under our first "Winter Storm Watch" of the year. Even though it is December 19th and I shouldn't be surprised by this ... I can't say that I'm ready. So ... I have been hustling and hustling and hustling to get some things ready last minute before we have some snow falling on ground that isn't frozen (meaning it will be muddy!). Last minute is the way everything seems to work around here and sometimes it has me wondering why I'm even doing this. Luckily I was at my Uncle Loren's house a couple of nights ago to get some fencing supplies and I was reminded of why ...

I think part of the reason that I farm is because ... well just check out this picture ... because it kind of just runs in the family! I'm not completely sure who that is, but I know that it's one of my uncles and I know that is pigs being raised out side and doing what pigs do best! That is not the only reason that I farm though ... sometimes it is important to remember some of the side benefits of farming ...

You know ... benefits like having a goat so you can hook it up to a wagon and take rides around the farm. Now ... I just need to find a goat ... and a wagon!

(As always ... if you feel liking seeing my family up close you can always click on a picture to make it bigger. Trust me ... they are better looking in these pictures than these days ... kidding, kidding, kidding!)

Monday, December 17, 2012

Winter Farrowing :: Huts and Hay

Winter farrowing has been on the forefront of my mind lately (in case you haven't noticed), and as I look at the 8-day forecast and see highs around 30ºF the many ideas I have keep tumbling around in my mind. So far I've talked about traditional hoop buildings ... greenhouse type hoop buildings ... and of course using a deep bedding system in either option. If you read my post last Friday you were introduced to Becker Lane Organic Farm and the report he did on his greenhouse farrowing building (with in-floor heat). But, as I made my way over to his website and Facebook page I saw the picture above (here is a link to the description of that picture from the Becker Lane Organic Farm Facebook Page). A quick e-mail to Mr. Becker led me to the knowledge that they now farrow outside year-round in insulated huts either made by, or similar to, Booth Pig Equipment huts.

Which all led me to thinking ... maybe a building of any type isn't my solution ... maybe I just need some big straw bales, a wind break, and some insulated huts. In fact Mr. Becker's farm does not even use heat lamps in his huts so he is only using the work of the insulation, bedding, and the sow's body heat. I don't know why I haven't thought about this more since I have known that Mr. Walter Jeffries of Sugar Mountain Farm has been writing about outdoor winter farrowing since at least 2006. You can read about his experience here ... and here! The great thing about Mr. Jeffries posts is that at the bottom of the posts he gives you the outdoor temperature, so you can tell that it is working in cold conditions.

There are multiple things running through my mind as I think more about outdoor winter farrowing. I worry about mud because as you can see in the picture above those sows only have a little area in front of the hut and in the freeze and thaws of our winters in Southern Iowa that space could become very muddy. I can also see that protection from wind and precipitation would be very important to weaning a good number of pigs from each litter. But, in my mind one of the most important things would be good mothering sows. I think it would be important to have sows that were very careful and caring with their pigs in order to protect them from crushing.

Pretty much all that I have decided after a few weeks of obsession over winter farrowing is that I just need to get out there and explore different options that farmers are using in my state. So, after the holidays I hope to do a little "tour" of some different winter farrowing set-ups. If you happen to be in my area and are willing to let me stop by I'd love to hear from you. Or if you wouldn't mind doing a "virtual tour" and sharing it with others on the blog I'd love to hear from you!

For now though ... does anyone have any thoughts on or experiences with outdoor winter farrowing?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Greenhouse :: Hoghouse

Inside a Farrowing Greenhouse at Becker
Lane Organic Farms.
Do you ever find yourself answering your own questions? On Wednesday I wrote about how (with expansion in mind) I thought it was time to add a hoop building to the farm for winter farrowing and winter housing for the grower pigs, but the thing that had always been holding me back was the thought of keeping the building empty for the spring, summer, and fall as the pigs are out on the pasture. Then I randomly found a three-ring binder from the "National Conference on Hoop Barns and Bedded Systems for Livestock Production" (nice short name huh?). As I thumbed through the material I came upon this little tidbit in the "Alternative Systems for Farrowing in Cold Weather" booklet ... "Greenhouse with Radiant Tube Heating".

You can read the article that I came across by checking out this .pdf and scrolling down to page 9. A little more searching turned up this gem from Jude Becker of Becker Lane Organic Farm. The second link there is really a great summary of data and pictures of his greenhouse/hog house construction. Mr. Becker's building was quite a bit more advanced than I was contemplating with it's in floor heating and wood boiler, concrete floor and walls, and eventually it was divided into quadrants with a feeding system. You will also find that his results were much less than stellar, but I think it does give me something to think about for the future.

Some time ago I watched a video online about a farmer that was using a traditional hoop house for winter farrowing. He was using deep-bedding and his pasture huts for farrowing, but also had a heat lamp in the creep area of each hut and a radiant heat tube hanging at the peak. This particular farmer said his goal was to keep the building slightly above freezer so that the sows would be forced out of the common area and into the huts for farrowing. In my somewhat warmer Southern Iowa climate having two layers of plastic with air between them (provided by a fan) may help keep the main area around that 32º some or much of the time.

There are always downsides to every system though. Many of the fabric hoop house owners that I have spoke with tell me that they have had the same tarp on their buildings for 15 years and some even longer. With the plastic I'm sure it would have to be replaced much more often than that and there would be costs and labor associated with that. The benefit that has me most interested in this system though is the ability to have a secondary use for the building in the summer ... by growing some sort of crop once the pigs out out! Of course there is no real "need" for a greenhouse when I would be using it, but maybe I can figure out something instead of having an empty building.

I would love to have a discussion on this topic, or hear any thoughts you all have on the viability of this type of building. Plus ... if you have any suggestions on crops that could be raised in the building ... well ... I'm open to suggestions!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Time Has Come ...

Working on my Uncle's new
Pro-Tec hoop building
A very quick search of my blog posts showed me that back on November 7, 2008 I first mentioned a hoop house structure for livestock/storage. Then again on March 4, 2009 I wrote an entire post dedicated to hoop buildings and hogs. There were other mentions along the way, but in my Annual Mud Post on April 21, 2011 they were the topic of discussion once again. As you can tell from my writings and ramblings they have been on my mind for over four years now! I think it is safe to say that now is the time that they have most consumed my farm thoughts.

In case you missed it, I wrote last Wednesday about the "Tipping Point" that the farm was at and whether it was time to scale up or scale back. My gut is telling me to press forward, but from the past four years of experience I know there are some areas that I need to greatly improve if I want to scale up. One of the most glaring is my winter livestock handling and more precisely the winter pig farrowing. In a perfect world I just wouldn't farrow in the middle of the winter, but I need finished pigs ready for processing throughout the year so winter farrowing is always going to be part of the farm.

So ... for my needs and uses I believe it is time for me to put up a hoop building to use in the winter months. My plan is to continue things as normal in the spring, summer, and fall with the pigs out on the pasture and woodlot. When things turn cold, muddy, and frozen I will bring the pigs up near the house so that I can ensure they have fresh water and plenty of feed at all times ... along with a place to get out of the weather. That is where the hoop house comes into play, and I plan on my building doing double duty.

The buildings that I have been looking at so far are from Pro-Tec and Silver Stream. If I went with a Pro-Tec building it would either be 30' or 36' wide. The Silver Stream building would be 30' wide for sure. The idea that I have is to split the building down the middle length wise so that I either two 15' wide areas or two 18' wide areas. Then I can use one side of the building for farrowing in the winter and the other side for my grower pigs. With that set up in the hoop building I will then be able to use my portable sheds to hold the boar and gestating sows.

Right now I'm planning on four groups of four sows each next winter, so that will give me plenty of room for farrowing (depending on the overall length of the building). One of the great benefits of the hoop house when it comes to farrowing is that I will be able to bring my huts inside and use them for farrowing just as I would in the summer. I believe a set-up like this will help me get the most use out of a building for an operation my size and then allow me room for growth.

The biggest downside that I have been struggling with is that the building will be sitting empty for a portion of the year and I hate the thought of that. So ... if anyone has any thoughts on a crop that I could raise in there during the summer months I would love to hear about it! Also, have any of you put up a hoop building ... any tips or thoughts?

Monday, December 10, 2012

A Diversified Farm

Tacopocalypse's Market Set-Up
I have always known that I wanted a diversified farm with many different enterprises. Diversification is important to me because of the benefits that the farm can receive through having a variety of things working together on the land. In just four years we have already seen healing on the land from our multi-species rotational grazing and woodlot raised pigs. Besides the benefits to the land there are also great things about having multiple enterprises when it comes to the pocket book. One family can only purchase so much pork ... but if we can also offer them chicken, eggs, lamb, and beef then we don't need as many customers. Not that we don't want many customers, but rather that we want to be able to have close farm relationships with our customers.

Lately though I have been thinking about farm diversification when it comes to marketing as well. Currently we sell whole/half hogs directly to customers, at the Downtown Des Moines Farmers Market, individual cuts through pick-up locations, and from time-to-time online through the Iowa Food Coop. The one thing that I have stayed away from is wholesale to stores or restaurants. Part of the reason that I've stayed away from that is that I've always been adamant about keeping all of the sales dollars in my pocket. But, the other reason is that I just haven't found the right fit.

In some ways my thinking has changed though as I think about adding diversification to the marketing. One of the benefits of having a number of enterprises is that if one has a slow year than the others can help keep things going. In some ways the same could be said about a diverse number of marketing outlets. Even though we may be losing some sales dollars by selling to a store or restaurant there can be some benefits.

A couple things that come to my mind right away are the ability to have our product in front of a different set of faces and with extra sales comes the need to scale up a bit which may help out in our other marketing efforts. It has been my experience that by having our products available to more people it benefits all of the other marketing examples. For example we have had customers who purchase from us online through the Iowa Food Coop begin purchasing whole and half hogs from us and sometimes even continuing purchasing select individual cuts. Plus, there are things we could add to the operation if we had more sales that would help in every aspect of certain enterprises.

With all of that in mind I'm beginning to explore some opportunities and moving forward with at least one "strategic relationship" (that seems like a good phrase). There have been chefs in the past interested in working with us on our woodlot raised heritage pork, but in each case it just wasn't something that would work out on the farms end. Now we've found a partner in Tacopocalypse that seems like it is going to work with us on many levels. They are a very popular vendor at the same market we attend (we are across the street from each other) and they also sell at two locations along with the catering side of the business. The thing that is going to make it work this time is that they are willing to use so much of the hog and not leave us stuck with other things to sell. But, more on Tacopacalypse later ...

All of this of course is part of the bigger puzzle that is the farm. It's our job to make sure that all of the pieces fit together as they should and nothing is left with a ragged edge. I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences with various marketing opportunities if you have any!

Friday, December 07, 2012

The Tipping Point and Scaling Up

It is my experience that at some point in the life of a business or an organization things come to the tipping point ... the to the edge of a cliff. Once they are at that edge or tipping point there are a few things that can happen. Number one ... they can realize that they don't really like the direction they are going and either reboot or just plain pull the plug. Number two ... they can just stay the course that they are on and probably slowly fade over time because of attrition or lack of passion and excitement. Or, number three ... they can dive in even deeper and take things up a notch or two (of course that assumes things don't blow up in your face). Realize that I'm not organizational or business management expert, so those are just my non-technical observations.

The farm (Crooked Gap Farm) seems to have hit that tipping point or the edge of the cliff (depending on which mental image you would like to have). We started out with herd of Dexter cattle (a herd that was too big for my lack of expertise) and just six hogs on the farm the first year. From that point we have grown by adding enterprises, markets, and transforming our woodlot raised heritage breed pork into the centerpiece of our farm. Now we are at a point where I feel we either need to make some major steps to scale up the farm and the production or scale back down to a "hobby" level and produce enough food for us and a few others with the leftovers.

My pride says, "Let's kick it up a notch or ten and get going!"

My fear says, "You know it wouldn't be so bad to just have three pigs, a couple of cows, and a handful of chickens ... plus I wouldn't have to get up at 4:00 AM 26 weeks a year for the farmers market!"

My gut says, "I think we can do this ... maybe ... with some help ... I think ..."

Of course scaling up and jumping in even deeper means some changes and a different approach to many aspects of the farm ... all of that will take lots of thought and planning! I'll be taking some time over the next few posts to dig into the ideas ...

Do you have thoughts on scaling up small scale farms? I'd love to hear them!

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Pork Chops Come From Where?

I stumbled across this video the other day and thought it would be a perfect fit for The Beginning Farmer Blog since pigs are such a big part of my farm. It appears that the video is from The Better Bacon Book: Make, Cook, and Eat Your Way to Cured Pork Greatness which is a book/set of videos available only on the iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch. It actually looks like a pretty cool "app" with videos on how-to cure your own bacon, build a smoker out of a trash can, and even some history of bacon. Plus, it is only $2.99 so maybe I'll have a review shortly ...

So, incase you have ever wondered where the baby back ribs came from as opposed to the spare ribs then I suggest watching the video. Oh yeah ... and this guy seems pretty good at what he does! Have any of you ever cut up your own hog or cured your own pork? I'd love to hear your thoughts and tips ...

Monday, December 03, 2012

Truck Farming

I can't tell you how many times people have said to me that they can't believe I am farming without a real pickup (it's even been said here on the blog). Since we began the farm I have been doing all of my farming with a somewhat trusty and clunky SUV. The great thing about the SUV was that I could haul lots of people or take the seats out and use it to take calves to the vet, haul buckets of corn, pick up feed from the feed store, and even take large round bales to the cows (that involved a couple of chains and I would not suggest trying it at home). I used the poor SUV to push things (the license plant is hanging on barely), to pull trees out of the timber (the better the tread on the tires the better off you are), and of course to pull the stock trailer to pick up and drop off countless pigs, sheep, cattle, and chickens.

But, last year I decided to step up into the pickup world ... I purchased a mini-sized Chevy S-10 with 4 cylinders and five speeds! It worked okay for piling full of coolers and driving to the farmers market, but for any sort of "truck" job it fails miserably. That is why when the rear-end on the no longer trusty SUV took a death blow this year at the end of summer I knew it was time to step up to a "real" truck ... one that had a bed you could fill up, one that could pull big things, and one that was big and loud and red!

There is just one thing though ... If I believed in luck I would have to say that I have bad luck when it comes to purchasing vehicles or just plain vehicles in general! So, even though I was excited to get a truck I was not excited about looking for one and buying one ... which is why it took two months. Finally after getting the feeling that my friends were tired of me borrowing theirs ... I landed on this beauty ...

Now I am a real farmer ... I have a big red truck that is loud and can pull lots of heavy things! It's not a new truck ... it's not a low mileage truck ... it has some rust covered up with paint ... and it has your typical bumps and bruises. But, it will be a nice addition to the farm and I know that my friends will appreciate me not borrowing theirs (really they have been a huge help though!).
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