Friday, December 31, 2010

Mistakes ...

Tomorrow is the first day of 2011 which means that I've had this blog floating around for the past four plus years. In those years I have transitioned from book reading to farm buying and finally to kinda farming. But, one thing that has been consistent over all of those years is the fact that I have made mistakes. I made mistakes in my planning, I made mistakes in my early decisions, I made mistakes in my initial farm ventures, and I've made plenty of mistakes after moving to the farm and trying to ramp things up.

They say you are supposed to learn from your mistakes and I guess that is what I've been trying today. I'm beginning to feel like I should write a book about my mistakes and the lessons I've learned because it seems like the mistakes/lessons grow by multiples of ten! And, I'm beginning to think that sometimes it takes a few repeat mistakes before I figure the lesson out ... Here are some lessons that I've learned that were in my mind tonight as I was working outside ::
  1. When you've never farmed before there are lots of little things that you would never think about. After a couple years in I'm still finding those little things and I count on finding them as long as I farm ... it's an unpredictable game.
  2. You have to have shoulders like a rain coat so that things will just roll off of you. There are ups and there are downs ... and when you start from scratch there will be plenty of downs.
  3. Slow down. I don't like slow, but you need to slow down regardless ... unless you have enough capital to just force things along.
  4. Cold weather just plain stinks ... period ... end of story.
  5. Don't paint yourself in a corner ... that means a lot of things at different times, but I think it's an important lesson!
So, there are just a few of the lessons that I was thinking about tonight as I was outside in the wind (those 60º temps are long gone by the way). One of these days I should write down all of those lessons ... all of those little things that never even crossed my mind as I was reading all my farming books and dreaming. Maybe ... maybe I'll just write a book ... I always wanted to be a writer when I was a kid, just like I always wanted to be a farmer ...

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Make Hay When the Sun Shines ...

The old saying says that you have to make hay when the sun shines. I've decided that another good saying would be, "When January is coming, pound in fence posts when the temperature hits 60º and the ground is soft!" So ... since the all of those factors were the case this evening I spent the night outside with my headlamp and post driver. Here it is almost January and I find myself still preparing for winter ... it's not something I'm happy about, but it is reality so I'm taking it as it comes.

What I'm trying to finish up is the winter area for the pigs. I have the hut for them ... I have the straw for them ... I have the spot picked out ... I don't have the fence done quite yet. But, I will have it done soon and then hopefully everything will come together quickly. The place I have for them is north of my shed and I'm going to place some tin along the west and north sides of the fence and of course they will have the hut to go inside that will have straw bedding. It should work out this year for the few pigs I have and then I'll see what happens next year.

Not much on the farm is very permanent and this new pen I'm building fits into that "not very" category. I'm just finding that most of the time I'm not quite sure exactly where I want something on the farm, so it is best to keep things simple and then just change it up if I don't like it. It may take a little more work in the beginning because I'm always putting up ... tearing down ... and putting up again, but I think in the future it will make the farm better suited for me and the way I want to farm.

For the time being though ... I'll just take all the 50º plus days I can get!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Snow :: Mush :: Ice

The title says it all. Before Christmas the snow came. It wasn't a lot of snow, but it was enough to give the state a white Christmas and frustrate me (I really was hoping for a no snow winter). Now there are warmer temperatures and there is rain in the forecast (that will create the always exciting mush). And then by this weekend things are forecasted to cool down again and that will turn the mush back into ice (actually ... of the three choices I prefer this one the most). All of this is rather irrelevant in the whole scheme of the farm, but it does keep chores interesting and makes me wish that I would have made it a bigger priority to get chains for the tractor this year!

Last winter I pretty much got anything stuck that could get stuck and I decided that it wouldn't be a good idea to head into another winter without tractor chains. But, as the summer went along and I was never able to find any in the sweet spot of my price range (read inexpensive, but still high quality) I now find myself in a sloppy position with no chains. This isn't the end of the world though and just means I need to take precautions. One thing I do in if I have want to take the tractor down to the woods or something like that is put a bale on the 3-point spear so that I bit more weight on the back end. It's not the best solution, but it does help some.

The big thing that is going through my mind right now though is the farmer's market season. Last year I did my first market and while it was a good experience for learning it didn't quite make enough sales wise because it was not very well attended. This year I won't have much more product during the market season than I did last year, but by the time fall comes around I should have more hogs ready to go, a crop of lamb, and maybe a steer (possibly poultry as well). That could mean as many as 18 hogs that would need to be sold, potentially 30 lambs, and some beef. I'm afraid that without making any more customer contacts at a market this summer I will have a tough time selling out in the fall/winter.

Any thoughts on the upcoming market season? I'm open for suggestions ...

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Forcefully Positive ...

When I was a kid my farm was the hardwood floor of my bedroom floor in town. The boards made the perfect rows for my tractors and harvesting equipment and the bottom track for the closet door always became the cattle feed trough. It was a ready made farm and I think I was a pretty good bedroom farmer. I'm pretty sure that I spent countless hours with the rug rolled up in my bedroom farming and dreaming! But, now that I'm a grown up farmer the reality of the farm isn't quite as romantic as that farm on my bedroom floor ... for one thing I don't have box full of tractors and implements!

When things got tough on my bedroom farm I could just box everything up and call it a day. On my grown up farm I'm not able to pack up and move on to the next game ... and sometimes I dwell on that. So tonight I'm forcing myself to come up with three positive things on the farm right now. Three things that I can look at and feel good about ... hopefully I'm not up all night thinking!
  1. Even though the days are going to get colder and I'm pretty sure there will be more snow there is one positive that I can hold onto. Since it is now officially winter the days will begin growing instead of shrinking! According to this calendar I should gain 45 minutes of daylight between the January 1st and 31st. Despite the cold and snow that I know will come over the next month the extra daylight is something I can get excited about! If I'm wrong about this ... well just don't tell me and let me live in my dream ...
  2. Despite the rogue sheep that keep getting out (although with some extra posts they seem to be staying closer to home) I'm pretty pleased with the way they have been adjusting to the farm and handling the winter weather. There haven't been any super snow storms yet or week long cold snaps, but the wind has blown and it has gotten pretty frigid. It just seems like they sheep flock up and hang-out when the weather gets bad ... and they are doing well. I'm hoping this apparent hardiness is something that sticks with them throughout the winter and carries on into the lambing season. That would be just very nice thank you very much ...
  3. I have hay and straw and I think maybe ... possibly ... hopefully I have enough. I know that I have enough straw on the farm now to last the winter (although I'm not really set-up to use it yet) and with 47 plus bales of hay on the farm I'm thinking it might be enough. Honestly I'm not quite sure how much hay I will need, but I have enough hay for the initial bales I purchased to get through December and then the 47 bales I just purchased to make it until grass shows up. They're heavy and tightly wrapped bales and I think they will be enough, but with the sheep now and the uncertainties of winter weather I guess I'll just have to see how it lasts. On the whole though I'm glad to have it and relieved. Last winter it was a constant search and battle for hay ... hopefully that will not be the case this year.
There ... I did it ... three positives from the farm! Now I just need to keep those in the front of my mind and just tackle everything else as it comes ...

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Future of Forestry ... Or Farming

"How will the legend of the age of trees
Feel, when the last tree falls in England?
When the concrete spreads and the town conquers
The country’s heart..."

Oddly enough this is not the first time that I have mentioned a poem on my blog (I actually love poetry when my mood is right). In fact not only have I shared poetry more than once, but this is even the second time I've referenced "The Future of Forestry" by C.S. Lewis. I encourage you to read the poem ... and then read it again ... and maybe one more time for posterity, because I'm not sure if a poem can sink in the first or second time through. For some reason this poem has been on my mind lately and I'm not exactly sure why, but I do have a few thoughts ::

  • While I'm not very convinced that the last tree will ever fall in England (or anywhere for that matter), or that the country will be covered with concrete from shore to shore I do get the concept. I understand what Mr. Lewis was getting at. I think I've mentioned this before, but my mom spent 36 years teaching grade school in Waterloo, IA. The same Waterloo, IA that is surrounded by farms in every direction, is the home of multiple John Deere factories, and holds a yearly event called Cattle Congress! But, as the years progressed in her teaching career her students lost the connection to the farm, and even basic knowledge of the farm. My old toy tractors became her teaching tools! It isn't so much the reality of farms going away that is scary, but rather the connection with them.
  • In the middle of the poem the students are asking, "What was a chestnut?" and "What was Autumn?" Think of those questions in farm terms ... Is it possible that we could get to a point where children would ask, "Where does bacon come from?" or "What is a farm?" The story of the farm needs to be told. The Farm Bureau is saying that the farm story is needs to be told and local farmers all over the country are saying the story needs to be told. That is probably one major thing both the small-scale/local/natural/direct-marketing farmers and the large-scale industrial agriculture farmers can agree on.
  • But really, I think the reason I ended up on this poem again is because the farm kind of has me down lately. I feel like I'm getting knocked backwards more than I am even taking baby steps forwards and it frustrates me. And so with my farming heart in that state I ended up on a poem about forests and concrete and England ... and for some reason I was a little renewed and a little more excited about the farm. But, I still don't know what it's all going to look like in six months ...
I guess what I'm really trying to say is that you should read the poem. I don't know if I understand it very well (I think I know what I get out of it at this moment though), but I really enjoy it and I've been reading it a lot. And, I'll ask a similar question to the one I asked after I mentioned this poem for the first time back in February of 2009. What are you reading now? More specifically, are you reading anything that is energizing your passion for the farm?

(As for a farm update ... I'm still messing around with my tractor that has battery/generator/shorting issues ... hopefully sometime I can tell you what the real problem is)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Different Day :: Same Story

Saturday and Sunday were both very similar days. Both days included work at my town job (Saturday at NAPA and Sunday at church), and both days included trips down the road to pick up straw and unloading hay at the farm. The good news is that I now have 47 more bales of hay sitting out in front of the winter lot and that makes me very much relieved! Also, in between unloading the hay I was able to make three trips to bring back the large round bales of straw ... only 5 more to go! I have a sneaky suspicion that I'll have more straw than I need, but I'm not going to complain about that because I'm sure I'll find a use for it. It wasn't all perfect though ... I seem to be having some battery issues with the tractor. Meaning ... the battery died while the tractor was running ... which kind of was no fun! I'll have to look into it ...

All my time on the tractor and doing chores outside did give me plenty of time to think, and today I thought about trucks. Just in my 1.5 mile trips back and forth to get the straw I saw a lot of pick-up trucks sitting in driveways and along the road (deer season). I've decided that I live in some sort of epi-center of trucks. The farmers have them, high school kids have them, and even guys in town that use the truck bed of their truck twice a year have them! I ... I have no truck, but that doesn't mean I'm not trying to find one!

With all the trucks around here you'd think I would be able to get my hands on one that meets all my requirements, but alas I've had no luck. I have an app on my phone that alerts me anytime a 3/4 ton truck is posted on Craigslist in the area (the good ones are always a long ways away) and I check the classifieds for the area all the time. But, I'm just not able to find the right one. I guess I'll just have to be patient ... and wait ... for the right truck ;) But, patience isn't always one of my strong points.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Tractors With Cabs ...

Some tractors have climate controlled cabs (heat, a/c, radio, and all that good stuff). My tractor as the beautiful winter air for cab. But, I'm not complaining because I'm just plain glad to have a working tractor at all (even though my PTO is out ... AGAIN!). This morning I was making 1.5 mile trips to pick up some big round bales of straw that I bought. The temperature wasn't very bad and the trip there was actually pretty comfortable, but the return trip with the west wind blowing caused me to hunch up and retreat into my hood like a turtle. My toes were cold though because I wasn't smart enough to put on warm socks!

The good news is that I was able to bring over some more of the straw bales that I purchased for deep bedding (although the deep bedding areas aren't exactly ready yet) and there are now 29 more big round bales of hay on the farm. I'm expecting a few more loads of hay tomorrow and then I think (and hope) there will be enough hay for the winter. I have purchased a lot more hay than I did last year and with all the money I've spent I really really really hope I don't have to buy any more.

My hay purchases this year bring into extreme focus the high costs of starting a grass-fed beef herd. With about a two year turn-around from the time a calf is born until it is processed there is a lot of purchased feed that is needed for both the calf and the cow of course ... and the bull has to be factored in as well because he likes to eat in the winter I'm finding. In the future I would like to be able to make my own hay on farm, but that wasn't possible this year and even if I put up my own hay I have to factor in my labor and equipment prices. In hindsight I'm thinking buying the cattle right at the beginning of the farm wasn't the best plan of attack ...

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Another Wednesday ...

Today was another Wednesday ... which means another very busy day. Although, this morning when I was dropping off some parts at one of my favorite stops, the woman who works in the office asked me how I was doing. I responded, "Oh you know ... just another Tuesday". After I said that she informed me that it was actually Wednesday ... the busy day. I don't know if I walked out of the shop glad that it was another day further along in the week than I thought it was, or if I was a little depressed because I really had no clue what day it was. Honestly though, with the new job in town and chores in the dark all the days really seem to blend together.

On the farm things are not going exactly as pleased. I might have 11 Katahdin sheep available if you're interested (and that includes the ram). One thing You should know ... five wires of electric won't keep these rogue sheep in :( I think I'm going to have to order some electric netting from the farm store where I work. I was planning on getting some next spring anyways, but was really hoping to hold off until then. Does anyone have any experience with the electric netting? Any tips or thoughts? I'm almost 100% sure I'll be going with the Gallagher because of the store discount I receive, but I'm open to all thoughts!

I'm hoping everything will come together this week and on Saturday and Sunday I will receive 4 loads of hay totaling 44 large round bales. I was supposed to be getting them about three weeks ago, but it would just never work out. Hopefully this will be the weekend. It will be such a relief to have them here, because I can't tell You how often I think about the fact that I need them while I'm out driving around and seeing hay on other people's farms. I would love to be able to make a little of my own hay next year, but we will have to see how things shake out.

As you can see it is just a little disjointed around the farm right now. I don't expect that to change anytime soon though ;) So, I'll just keep pressing on! It was nice to drop-off a nice load of pork and beef though at the Iowa Food Coop on Monday. Even though I'm not able to make a drop-off at the normal time and talk to other producers and customers it is nice to see some fruit from my labor!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Blizzard Wins ...

I hate to say it, but the blizzard beat me this time and now the cold is trying to rub it in my face. This wasn't a super duper blizzard with an impact that lasts for days, but it was enough snow and wind and drifting to throughly beat me and catch me close to totally unprepared. And now, as if to add insult to injury, the cold is coming behind it with lows expected below zero overnight tonight before it warms up again as the week goes on.

If you have been following the resurgence of my blog lately you will recall that in my last post I was writing about the first official day of winter and how I still had time to get my winter pig area finished up. Well, I had the cold temperatures part correct, but I guess I failed to account for snow and more before the cold arrived. Honestly I haven't been keeping up on the weather much, and with a limited internet connection at the farm and no TV I wasn't really expecting that kind of storm ... everyone else probably was ;)

It does make me think though ... about those first settlers coming to Iowa to start out from scratch. The pioneers! How crazy is it to think of the lives the lived here and the weather that they had to deal with on a day to day business. I've been calling my farming style "Pioneer Farming" because of the way I'm trying to work this farm out of the blank slate that was this 40 acres when I bought it and because of my interest in heritage breeds. But, when it comes to the true pioneer adventure ... well, my adventure pales in comparison ... I mean I at least have a five day forecast ;)

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Winter Pig Area ...

Technically it is not winter until December, 21st. Which means I still have plenty of time to get my "winter" pig area done! The only problem of course is that technical winter and the realities of winter don't always meet up on the same day. The forecast that has lows at -2ºF this coming week means that winter is probably already here no matter what the calendar says. But, I'm sticking with the 21st and hoping to have everything squared away by then ... at least that is the plan for now.

There is good news though. The good news is that I think I finally have a plan for my winter pig area. In fact it is a plan for now and a plan for growth in the future. One thing that I have learned over the past two winters on the farm with pigs is that they aren't particularly interested in roaming around a lot in the winter. Basically they like to huddle up somewhere warm, eat, and drink. With that knowledge in hand I realized that the winter area did not need to be an extravagantly large area, but rather a nice place for them to stay warm and dry.

So, what I've come up with is a location on the north side of my shed. I have moved in my 8'x16' portable hut for the grower pigs and I'm starting to get the fence up on the outside (subscribe to my Twitter account if you want a glimpse into my farming life). I chose this location because it is a high point and will stay drain well in the freeze and thaw of a southern Iowa winter and because it fits in with a larger idea that I had today.

There is a part of me that would like to experiment with a yearly paddock rotation with some of the breeding stock instead of having them in the woods. Basically I'd like to include a crop rotation into the paddock rotation. It's something to try at least, and with that in mind I decided that this was a good area to build some smaller winter pig lots where I can eventually put an automatic waterer. I'll have two separate winter pens with the water in the fence line. Then in the summer I can open a gate to the larger pasture area and the pigs will have access to those same waterers I use in the winter.

That's my idea at least ... right now I'm just focusing on putting in fence posts and making a secure area for the pigs. Remember ... I only need to have it done by December, 21st in order to beat winter ;)

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Fighting (For?) the Farm ...

I came to a realization today as I was driving around in my little NAPA minivan delivering parts to fix the broken cars of the world. That realization was that sometimes I get frustrated and most often it is the farm that frustrates me. When I get back to the farm after 6:15 PM on most nights (and much later each Sunday, Wednesday, and some Tuesdays) I often feel overwhelmed by the chores that need to be done ... let alone the things that I would like or need to do in order to keep the farm running somewhat smoothly (things like fixing fence, adding water systems, finding a place for the pigs to live this winter). Please understand that I don't say this to complain because I realize my plate is no more full than the next person and I have so much more to be thankful for, but I do often wonder if I'm "Fighting the Farm" or "Fighting For the Farm" if you get what I mean.

There are many times when I look around the farm (lately it's pretty dark when that happens) and the thought pops into my mind, "I could sell the pigs, sell the cattle, sell the sheep, sell most of the equipment, and just keep a few chickens to laugh at (and a pig to kick ... name that movie). Then when I came home from town I could walk into the house and "relax". It all seems very easy actually ... just liquidate it all and chalk it up to one of my grand adventures and passing fancies. Then I would no longer have to be "Fighting the Farm". And I wonder, should I even be "Fighting the Farm"? Is it worth it? Is it the right course for me? Is it even worth doing?

On the other hand there are times when I realize that I am "Fighting For the Farm". Most of these times don't happen while I'm outside in my cold weather clothes and a headlamp fixing an electric fence that the sheep decided wasn't good enough and feeding the pigs in the dark. My "Fighting For the Farm" moments usually happen when I'm making a delivery to customers in Des Moines, taking a couple hogs to the processor, or thinking about the future of the farm.

The difficulty and the goal is to have more "Fighting For" moments than "Fighting" moments. I've decided this can happen in a couple of different ways. The most obvious way is to focus on what is possible and what I can accomplish ...

**I started writing this post a couple weeks ago and never finished it. As I was working on a post for today I came across this one and as I read over it I thought it would be a good idea to just post it as is ... I'm not sure that I really completed my thoughts on it or that I can draw them to a close right now, but it is a fairly accurate snapshot of my mind ... at least on that particular night. So ... I'll post it ... it's kind of like my full disclosure post ... to show that I get frustrated with the farm, and still press on ;)

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Frozen ...

Last night was one of the coldest on the farm this season. I'm not sure exactly how cold it was, but I know it was in the single digits ... And, I know it was cold because the hose was frozen tonight when I went to water the animals! I thought I had done a good enough job draining the hose last night, but I guess that I either had a pocket of water in the second hose (because the first in the chain of hoses was flowing fine) or I was a little too slow in draining it and it froze up around the end before I got that far. I guess it doesn't really matter why it froze ... because it was froze and I had to work around that issue!

Since the hose was frozen I had to go with the back-up plan which included a couple of 5 gallon buckets and a walking back and forth me! Even by brining the hose into the house it wouldn't thaw out in time and I needed to get water to the animals so buckets it was. The thing about using buckets is that roughly ten gallons at a time isn't enough for the cows. They can have that all gone by the time I get back so for the first 10 or 20 trips (I made a lot of trips) it was just getting enough there for them to drink. It is nice to see that they have a nice system worked out for getting water though. Basically it goes from biggest to smallest with the sheep all hanging out together until it is just the littlest calves at the water tank.

The good news on the frozen hose front is that it is supposed to warm up the next couple of days, so I'll get that all taken care of and be back in business! I just need to make sure I'm staying on top of things and getting it all drained out. In completely and totally unrelated news I think I am finally ready to make the jump into the world of trucks!

In the past I have written about wanting or thinking about getting a truck many times, and each time there is usually someone who is surprised that I've been farming without a truck for this long. Well, I'm not sure if I want to farm without one any longer and I'm ready to get rid of the Expedition and step into a truck ... a cheap truck ... an inexpensive truck ... a reasonably priced truck ... You know ... one closer to $3,000 than $5,000!

I do have a couple requirements though. It needs to be a 3/4 ton truck and it needs to be four wheel drive. Other than that I'm pretty open. Ideally it would be a long bed and an extended cab, but I don't think that is going to happen in my price range. So, what are your thoughts on a truck that will be for the farm and for my daily driver. If you could only have one (long bed or extended cab) what would you choose? I would love your input ... and if you have one for sale let me know ;)

Friday, December 03, 2010

The Best Case vs. The Reality

It's interesting ... last night when I was watering the cows they were just going nuts jostling each other and trying to get at the water. Tonight ... I called them over ... they looked at the water and then walked away! Oh well, I filled them up and it's not super cold so hopefully I just have to break a skim of ice in the morning and then they'll get their fill for the day. The pigs on the other hand are being a bit more difficult ... they like to tip over anything that isn't attached to the ground or a post and then they'll try to tip those things over too!

The comments in yesterdays post had me thinking today. They had me thinking about the best case scenario versus the reality of the farm. The suggestions in the comments are the best case scenario. It would be the absolute best to install an energy frost free waterer. In fact I have even been researching it and have picked out a Cobett waterer. In order to install that waterer I would need to trench in a line and tie it in to the main water line from the road. Of course to do that I would need to dig a deep hole for the waterer and a bigger hole where the connection to the main line would be. I would also need to have some gravel delivered or pick some up to put around the waterer ... and I'd need to get a plumber out here to help me because I have a lot to learn along those lines!

In order to do all that I would have to order the waterer (not a big deal because they are made relatively close by). Then I would need to get a trencher out here (also not a major deal because I can borrow one from the farm store where I work for no charge). After that I would need to dig the big holes (I could dig them by hand or go through the expense of renting or hiring an excavator). Finally it would all need to be hooked up, installed, and the gravel placed around the waterer.

The waterer would cost around $650 or so I'm thinking. I have no idea how much the gravel and 200 feet or so of water line would cost, but I know that it wouldn't be a deal breaker. Things do get tricky though once I start thinking about the cost of the excavator, but even that isn't insurmountable. Nope ... the real problem is time! My time is very limited and that's why I don't see the installation of the waterer a real possibility now even if it's what I want and it is the best solution.

I had also hoped to install an heated pig drink at the same time which would require some concrete, more trenching, more water line, and of course electricity out to the location (and the shed because it's along the way). On the flip side ... if I go with my temporary plan for the cattle, sheep, and pigs it would entail one galvanized tank with drinks for the pigs, one bigger tank for the cattle and sheep, and of course the heaters and extension cords. That will probably cost over $500 as well! And, after this winter it would still be my hope to do the more permanent option.

So, there is the dilemma ... the best case is obvious and even not a ton more in the expense department when you compare the two. But, the reality is that doing that job takes time and time is something that must be prioritized on my farm. The general chores need to come first and sometimes (especially with a couple of town jobs and short days) that doesn't leave time for the best case. I'm going to try to make the reality work out as best as possible though!

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Winter :: Livestock :: Water

Today wasn't so bad weather wise (it would have been great if I would have had the day off of the farm). The temps got up near 40ºF and there wasn't much wind to speak of. It appears that the 10 rogue sheep decided to enjoy the fine day as well ... I can tell by the nice white hair they leave behind on the wires as the make their way back and forth! Oh well, I'll have to figure out something with them ... but right now it is not one of my top priorities.

This evenings chores were pretty uneventful, although the cattle were a little pushy around the water tanks as I was filling them. The pigs were as well and it brought into clear focus that I need to figure out something for winter watering now that I have a greater number of livestock on the farm. I had grand dreams of installing an energy free water system for the cattle and the sheep as well as a permanent heated waterer for the pigs. But, it is December 2nd and I don't see that happening this year even though I want it very badly!

So, now I'm onto plan B ... or C ... or D ... or whatever I'm at! I have an idea for the pigs ... I could get a galvanized tank waterer with a hog drink on each side and put a heater (or two because the only two drink ones at work are 6 or 8 feet long) in it. Then I could put it on the dividing fence between my sows/boar and the growers. I would still have to stretch a hose out a long ways to fill it, but I wouldn't have to do that as often. The downsides of course are the expense of buying the tank and heaters and the electricity needed to run it! But, the upside is the time savings ... I'm seriously considering this option.

The cattle and sheep ... I guess that option is similar as well. Like I said, going this route wasn't my first option, but for the time available to get things set-up and considering the time savings throughout the winter I think it is my best option.

First Day of December

Today was Wednesday, which means it was one of my busier days of the week because I have both town jobs in full force on Wednesdays and I don't make it back to the farm until very late ... which means late night chores. I will say that there is a little something I enjoy about the crisp air of a dark December night even if it makes chores a little more interesting. Tonight included the basics of taking care of the animals and checking up on them. Since I'm not around very much during the daylight I do try to take the four-wheeler out each not and get a good idea of how everyone is faring. Tonight that meant waking the sheep up ;)

Speaking of the sheep, there was a question about what my thoughts are now that they have been on the farm for a while. While I wish I had a better answer I think I have to be honest and just say I'm not quite sure yet. They came onto the farm late in the growing season for my mostly warm season grasses so I didn't get to graze them very long and see how they would fit into the rotation. Also, there are about 10 of them that don't mind disregarding my interior (portable or semi-permanent) fences. They never really caused a problem getting out, but I can see where some electric netting may come in handy next year. On the plus side they are fun to watch and I love the flocking instincts of the Katahadins! I'm hoping their addition will also be a plus in marketing and adding diversity to the products.

As I mentioned on Twitter today (check out my Twitter feed) I was listening to the Nature's Harmony Farm podcast again today ... specifically the one about "The Death of a Farm" (I blogged about it awhile ago). This is the second or third time I've listened to this interview and I believe it is both discouraging and encouraging at the same time. It is always hard to hear about someone having to quit almost exactly what you're trying to start, but I think you can also learn and grow from those experiences as well. I'm hoping to grow and not be discouraged!

Don't forget ... You too can support Crooked Gap Farm no matter where you are in the country (or world) by ordering a Crooked Gap Farm t-shirt. There are two options available and I hear they make great Christmas gifts ;) Just drop me an e-mail if you would like to place an order.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Flurries ...

Today was the first hint of snow in on Crooked Gap Farm. In this case it was just flurries, but as I drove around delivery parts and then doing chores in the evening they were a constant reminder of what is coming. I will say though that I have voted for only a small amount of snow this winter! We have been pretty hard the past couple of years on the farm and I could go for a little less winter trouble .... It would be nice not to get trucks and tractors stuck ... It would be nice to ease up on the cold and wind ... It would be nice to not make huge piles of snow ... It would be nice, but I'm not holding my breath

On my lunch break today I headed to pick up 2 tons of pig feed. It's great that there is a feed store willing to grind and mix the ration that we want without any animal byproducts or antibiotics, but it sure is getting difficult to hand over the money. Todays bill was about $7.21 per bag! That is almost $2 a bag higher than in the early summer and it causes me to pause a bit every time I feed the pigs. Picking up the feed means hooking up the stock trailer and loading in the feed bag by bag ... then back at the farm I have to unload it. Tonight I just backed the trailer into the shed I'll unload it into the bulk feeder when I have more time.

In the evening (in the dark) I had the usual chores. I fed and watered the pigs. I watered and checked on the sheep and cattle, and then after I had the tractor plugged in for a couple hours I took a big round bale of hay in for them. I have to say that the hay is getting eaten up faster than I had hoped. Thankfully I have 44 more bales coming later this week and next. It will be a chore to unload, but it will be great to have!

As I drive around I have a lot of time to think and listen to podcasts. I'm making my way through all the Nature's Harmony Farm podcasts again and looking for other things that interest me (6 hours in minivan can wear on you). And, as I mentioned, I've been thinking. Today it was about trucks (probably because I had to pull the trailer to get feed). I'm getting closer and closer to the point where I think I want to ditch the SUV and get a truck. There are so many times when it would come on handy ... I can't even count them there are so many!

Until next time ...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Crooked Gap Farm Becomes Fashionable

As you may know (if you read the sparse postings on this blog lately) I'm looking at taking some big steps trying to expand both the size and marketing of the farm. So many of you were very supportive and threw out a lot of ideas on how to expand and raise a little capital going forward for the expansion, and I'm making my way through those e-mails now! One suggestion (and something I've wanted to do for awhile) was some Crooked Gap Farm t-shirts. This is a way for our customers (thank you all so much!!!) to show their Crooked Gap pride and for those of you who aren't close enough to be a customer it is an opportunity to support the farm ... and add a cool t-shirt to your wardrobe if I do say so myself ;)

Right now there will be two t-shirt options available. The first choice is the "Pioneer Farming" t-shirt. This shirt is "smoke" in color and has the phrase "Pioneer Farming" on the front with the pronunciation and a definition stating :: "See Crooked Gap Farm". "Pioneer Farming" is a fun little phrase that I started to use when describing the farm because of the way this farm was started from scratch ... plus it's a good conversation starter.

The second shirt available is the Crooked Gap Farm "Where a Pig is a Pig" shirt. This t-shirt comes in a color called "Caribbean Blue" and has the state of Iowa with the farm location along with the phrase "Where a Pig is a Pig". This fun shirt states the plain fact ... on this farm a pig is allowed to be a pig in the pasture, in the mud, and all around!

Both shirts will cost $20 each plus shipping and handling. I will be ordering them soon and keeping them "in stock" as it were, but I would love to have an idea of interest and a general amount of sizes I should order. If you would like to place an order just send me an
with the shirt(s) you would like and the sizes.

**FYI :: The dotted lines are not part of the shirt, just part of the design site ... And, you can click on the pictures for a larger image of the design.**

Thursday, October 14, 2010

NHF Podcast ... "Death of a Farm"

Thank you to all of you have taken time to comment and e-mail over the past couple weeks. I am taking time to filter everything through my mind, but want to say that I'm thankful for the encouragement and ideas. Hopefully I'll find the time to respond and share some of the things that are processing through my head soon! In the meantime though here is something interesting ...

Many of you may already know that Nature's Harmony Farm has stopped doing their blog, but have begun doing podcasts. I have been listening to them lately when there is time while I'm driving around and they have been pretty interesting. But, for me their latest podcast was very interesting ... especially in light of my latest post and thoughts about the farm. You can find it on iTunes or download it from this link.

In the latest podcast Tim and Liz interview Rebecca Thistlethwaite of TLC Ranch in California about her farm experiences and the end of the farm (after 6 years of life). In some ways it was almost depressing to listen to the interview and hear about the struggles and realities they faced as they tried to make the farm go and grow. On the other hand it is important to hear all the sides of the story ... especially when you're thinking about pushing forward. It will eat up a bit more than an hour of your time, but I think it is worth a listen.

I would love to hear your thoughts!

Monday, October 04, 2010

Help! :: Crooked Gap Farm

Dear Crooked Gap Farm Friend,

One of the major commitments of Crooked Gap Farm is to the customers and the people that have been an encouragement along the way. Because of that, we are looking for your advice and input. We are passionate about providing healthy and delicious meats by raising animals the way they were created to be made. This means that the cattle are grassfed and raised on pasture. It means that the pigs have their babies outdoors, and that they have a chance to root and be a pig. It means that the chickens can roam the pastures and clean-up after the cattle. I am very appreciative of our customers and friends who value these commitments and ideals!

Late this summer, however, we encountered a change that made the things that were starting to seem known about our farm unknown. My full time job of 6+ years at the church became a 20 hour a week job. In order to fill in some of the financial gap, I took on an additional 40 hours in the NAPA department at the farm store. This gave me 60 hours of town work plus the work on the farm.

Because of the changes in my job, not only are finances tighter than they were before, but I also have less time to take care of the livestock, maintain the farm, and cut firewood for the house. Plus, it is important to keep the family sane as well! Finding time to take care of everything has already become a challenge, and I know those challenges will continue as winter comes on and the days become shorter.

The first thought is that this is the time to back away from the farm and sell off the livestock. To maintain at the level we are at is not profitable enough considering the limited time that I have on the farm right now.

On the other hand, having my job at church cut to 20 hours gives me an opportunity to take a risk that might sound a bit crazy considering our situation ... to jump in to the farm completely and to grow and expand it. That expansion would mean buying in more animals over the winter and spring to have more available during the market season, including pork, beef, lamb, and poultry.

If that is going to happen though I’m going to have to think outside of the box. I’m going to have to be more creative and try and build some operating capital to fund the expansion and the extra feed and facility costs over the winter.

This all leads of course to my “big ask”. In one sense, I’m asking for your thoughts as customers on the direction of Crooked Gap Farm at this time. If the farm is going to continue, it is going to need the support of all of you who have supported it through its beginning stages. Would you like to see us stick around and grow? Would you like to purchase grassfed lamb and pastured chicken along with the pork and beef you may have already purchased from us? If that is the case, let me know.

And, another part of the “big ask” is would you help me think of ways to raise some of the capital needed to grow? Maybe you would be interested putting a down payment on a half hog, lamb, or chickens. Maybe you would like to reserve first crack at the limited amount of grassfed Dexter beef that will be available later this fall and next year. Maybe you have an outside of the box idea that could help the farm. Whatever it is, I would love to hear your thoughts!

One thing that you could do right now though is spread the word about Crooked Gap Farm if you have enjoyed our heritage breed meats. Please feel free to share this letter or our contact information with any friends or family that may be interested in our farm. We will have more pork and eggs available this fall and hopefully some ground beef if we can clear out some of our very limited freezer space (hint, hint). Our customers are the best advertisement we could have, and we would greatly appreciate your help.

So, there it is ... the current situation of Crooked Gap Farm in a very small nutshell. I want to thank you all for the support you have given over the past couple of years and all the encouragement that I have heard. This past summer was a summer of learning and growth on the farm. Even with all of the challenges I can look back and see progress, and that would not have been possible without you. If you would like to come out to the farm and see what is going on, please feel free to contact me and set up a visit. I would love to share our passion and vision with you in person!

Ethan Book

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Expanding What's Working

As I think about expanding on the farm and adding more livestock the most obvious enterprise for me to grow is the one that is working the best. Right now there is no doubt in my mind that my most successful venture has been the hogs. When the first thoughts of farming started flying through my mind I always envisioned grass-fed beef being the centerpiece of the farm. The realities of growing a herd of grass-fed beef and getting everything up and running have made me realize that maybe that my Dexters will have to take the back burner for the time being. The pigs (and the pork the provide) have been filling their traditional role as the "mortgage lifter" on the farm, and to tell you the truth I really enjoy raising them!

As I work through the process of adding more pigs to the farm I have decided that I want to attack it from two different angles. I would like to add more breeding stock (sows), but also add some feeder pigs so that I can have more finished product when the next farmer's market season roles around. Doing both of these things helps me build not only for the near future, but also for seasons down the road. Of course there is always the option to just buy feeder pigs and finish them, but I like the idea of having control of my livestock from farrow to finish and I think my customers appreciate that as well.

This past year I sort of committed myself to the Hereford breed. Right now I only have one Hereford sow, but my boar is a Hereford and he will share the benefits of the Hereford breed (good mothers, great taste, easy going, etc.) with the entire swine herd. I would like to add a couple of more Hereford sows, but I'm also interested in exploring other breeds and trying different crosses. That is where the above picture comes in to the equation ...

Those three are Tamworth gilts and I will be bringing at least one to the farm in the near future. The Tamworth is a lean bacon-type of hog that I have been wanting on the farm since I started, so to say that I'm excited about bringing a gilt to the farm is a bit of an understatement. I plan on experimenting with some Tamworth x Hereford crosses and also using AI to add a few more purebred Tamworths to the farm.

Plus ... don't they just look extra cool with those "stand-up" ears!?!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Expanding on Expansion

Yesterday I wrote about my desire to see the farm grow and expand in the near future. Right now I'm in super planning and thinking and figuring mode. I'm trying to plan what needs to happen on the farm in a physical sense as far as structures and fencing goes. I'm trying to think of ways to expand the farm and what I feel comfortable adding in a short while. And, I'm trying to figure and pencil out what this all looks like on paper financially as I build up and then what sort of sales can and need to happen if I do build up. On one had it is very exciting and I'm kind of just having fun with the idea of throwing myself in a little deeper. On the other hand though the task seems nearly impossible and completely daunting!

One of the ways that I'm trying to contradict that is to try and rekindle some of the early passion I had for the farm. It is not so much that the passion has dwindled recently, but rather it has been pushed to the back of my mind with my new and improved busy work schedule (at least 60 hours of town jobs per week). I'm still passionate about raising animals on grass and connecting with customers how are also passionate about the food the use to fuel their lives. But, that passion has been pushed to the back burner for a while now.

The field day that I hosted back in August (you can read about it here) was one of the first things that helped bring that passion back to the front of my mind. Having others here on the farm that are farming or are thinking about farming really got me excited, and telling them about my farm helped me remember some of the reasons that I started in the first place. It was encouraging to talk to others and hear what they thought of the progress the farm has made up to this point. It helped me focus on what has been accomplished rather than on what hasn't been done.

Reading and blogging (and tweeting) are things that I'm doing again to help me keep that focused passion for farming. About the same time that I stopped blogging is about the same time I stopped reading about farming. I don't know how much those two are related, but I do realize that it was probably about the same time that I began to feel a little overwhelmed by what wasn't done ... and sometimes overwhelming feelings paralyze me!

But, I'm reading again and I thought it would be a good idea to start out with the first farming book I read ... one of the ones that really made me think that a farm was a realistic possibility. So, I grabbed "You Can Farm" by Joel Salatin off the shelf the other night and started in. It is good to go over some of the ideas that I had one I was just starting to think and dream about a farm and also evaluate whether or not I've strayed from some of those original thoughts and ideas.

Of course all the passion, dreams, and excitement don't add up to a successful business. That is why I'm trying to look at things from every angle I can possible think of as I look at the ins and outs of expanding Crooked Gap Farm. Oh ... and I'm praying ;)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Expansion ...

When I first had the farming dream I began the best way that I knew how ... by reading! And I tried to read as much as I could ... books, magazines, online articles, research papers, and internet forums. I tried to gather as much information as I could and I started to plan and dream and dream and plan! As I look back on this farming adventure I realize that was an important step ... not only to help me gain a little bit of "book knowledge", but also to help give me the courage to jump in. Eventually though I just needed to jump in and start instead of talking about it and writing about it ... that is how I ended up on the farm. I just jumped in!

Now, I feel like I'm getting to the point where I need to jump again. I pleased with the progress that I've made and I like the direction the farm is going, but I'm beginning to feel that I'm at a place where I just need to jump again. Either jump back from the farm a little bit (do more homesteading rather than "for sale" farming) or jump a little deeper in and up the ante. I've spent much of the past year or two writing about and thinking about the "next thing" for the farm and now might be the time to take those steps ... to jump in like I did a few years ago.

With that in mind I'm looking at expanding the livestock operation on the farm by adding more pigs and hopefully hair sheep in the very near future. I would like to stick with the Hereford pigs for the most part so I'm looking along those lines, but with the sheep I'm going to have to really look and see what is available (Katahdin, St. Croix, etc.). More livestock will also mean that I will need to make more sales, so I'm beginning to plan for that as well.

Just as there was a lot of work to do when I jumped in there is a lot of work to do if I want to take the next step. I'm in the process of putting together my new work list and getting the farm ready for an infusion of more ... more everything! I'll take some time over the next few weeks (as time allows) to detail some of those steps that I'm working on. One thing is for sure though ... I'm not going to bring anything to the farm unless I'm ready to have it at the farm! That is one lesson that has come through loud and clear.

Okay, I'm sort of back to blogging again (on an "as possible" basis), but if you would like to keep up-to-date on the farm and my farming misadventures be sure to follow me on Twitter @crookedgapfarm. As for the blog ... make sure to subscribe on the right to receive the latest post in your e-mail inbox.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A New Worker ...

Last Friday I picked up a new worker for the farm ... she's a hard worker and goes most places that I ask her to go. And, on top of that she is my favorite color! I call her the 425 ... and she's a Polaris four-wheeler. She's a bit older, but is a huge help getting around and getting things done quickly (which means a lot with my new schedule).

So far I've only had her four a couple days, but I've used her to build fence, move the water wagon, feed hogs, move the chicken trailer, check for shorts on the fence, and even ride around for fun! I'm thinking this will be one of those things that I'll wonder how I ever lived without! Plus ... did I mention the 425 is blue!

Now, if You didn't know that I bought this four-wheeler then you should subscribe to me on Twitter at
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Friday, September 10, 2010

Big Day :: New Chainsaw

To say I've had bad luck in the chainsaw department is a bit of an understatement. So far I've had two auction special saws die on me and now fall/winter is coming. So today at work I bought a saw ... a Stihl MS260 with a 20 inch bar to be exact. As you can see from the video below it really does work! It just took a little to get it going for the first time.

Captain, who works on the Stihl side of the store, was nice enough to take the video for me. As I mentioned in the video, I think this saw will get me through the winter, and many more to come.
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Thursday, September 09, 2010

What Can I Say?

Things will always change. Sometimes they will change because you want them to and sometimes they will change even if you don't want them to. In the end the consistent reality is that things will change. Lately my life and the life of this farm have been changing and because of this my drive and passion for writing (and in some senses the farm itself) has waned a bit. Now though I'm beginning to feel that the writing aspect of the farm needs to and can begin to make a reappearance again. Since the beginning of my blogging experience the writing has a done a lot to help fuel my passion and creativity on the farm and that is something that I would like to recapture a little. So ... we will see what happens next.

A good place to start though is to catch up a little with the on farm activities and life changes ::
  • Throughout the summer Crooked Gap Farm was represented at the Living History Farms Farmer's Market. Although the market didn't quite have the numbers I would have hoped for it did provide a great place to learn about selling and working with customers at a farmer's market. I was able to meet a lot of great new customers and learn what does and doesn't work when you are running a frozen meat stand outside. I'm not sure what is in store for the farm next year when it comes to farmer's market, but I think it's safe to say that I will have some sort of presence at a market in Des Moines ... at least part time.
  • Rotationally grazing the Dexter cattle has been wonderful and having the chickens follow behind has been really cool to watch. I still have a lot to learn about rotational grazing and because of some of the life changes I'm not able to do it exactly as I'd like to, but the results so far have been great. The herd (small herd) is being moved at least once per day and I can already tell a slight improvement in the pasture as the grass grows back. The overabundance of rain though this summer did hurt things a little and make it difficult on the ground that I seeded in the spring, but all in all I'd call it a success.
  • I'm loving the pigs. When I started out a few years ago I pictured the Dexter cattle as the centerpiece of the farm, but now after living it out for a couple years I really love the idea of having the pigs be the focal point of Crooked Gap Farm. I like working with the pigs and am really excited about the possibilities that are out there for pasture/wood lot pork. Right now there are three sows and a boar and I think there is room for some slow growth as the demand grows (and it is growing faster than I can keep up with).
  • Changes are happening. Recently I began working only part-time (20 hours) at the church that I have been working at for the past six plus years. This was a huge change in my life and it required some big changes on the farm and more. The biggest thing is that I now have a 2nd "town" job working on the NAPA side of the local farm store in town. So now I'm working 20 hours at the church and roughly 40 hours a week at NAPA. I'm still fleshing out how all this can work with the farm as well, but I'm confident we can survive the changes.
Those are just some quick hits from the farm lately. Of course a lot more has happened in my absence from the blog and I'm sure more will come out as I continue to get back into the writing swing of things. But, there are also some farm ideas and thoughts that I'm looking forward to fleshing out in thought and words ... and hopefully if anyone is still out there reading ... in interaction with you!

Thanks for your patience if you wander across this post ;)

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Living History Farms Farmer's Market

Another big development since I last blogged as that we have begun the Wednesday night market at the Living History Farms in earnest. As a side bar ... if you are not aware of what the Living History Farms is then I encourage you to check out the link ... it is a really cool place! So far we have set up for the "Market Preview" on the opening and and three Wednesday evenings (two of which had great weather and one that had some serious storm action going on so we were inside). Here are some of my thoughts after just a few weeks ...
  • Probably the thing I love most about setting up at the market is the chance to interact with people. Not everybody I talk to purchases something (it seems like I chat with a few vegetarians each time), but it does give me the opportunity to share the farm and the reasons behind the way I farm. Plus I figure that each person I talk to gives me just that much more experience.
  • Setting up a display that catches peoples eye when all you are selling is frozen meat (that is hidden away in coolers) is a bit difficult. I think that we have a nice table with plenty of pictures and information, but we have a lot of people just wander by or others that stop but don't realize we have pork for sale! Hopefully some of that will be remedied by a new ten foot long vinyl sign that I'm having made. I am open for suggestions though!
  • Farmer's Markets have a lot more crafts than I would have guessed. Our market is small and in only it's second year, but there are a couple knit/sewing vendors and sometimes even three jewelry vendors. Plus, you have to remember there are only 17'ish vendors set up now. I'm not saying it's a bad thing, just something I didn't realize.
  • I think I'm coming to realize that garden produce is important. So far there hasn't been much available at the market and I think that keeps some people away ... even though I have great pork for sale each week! It will be interesting to see how things shake out as the garden harvest begins.
  • The Living History Farms is a very cool place featuring the agricultural history of Iowa in a hands on sort of way and with small-scale working farms. With that in mind I think this market has the potential to be equally as cool. Because they have staff on site they are able to offer pretty cool demonstrations and there has even been live music on two different Wednesdays. One thing to look forward to that I believe the blacksmith will be making an appearance this summer.
  • The biggest thing that I've come to learn so far is that I have a lot to learn! A lot to learn about marketing and setting up, but also just about the best way to go about things at the market. The best way to fill the coolers ... the best way to add up the purchases ... the best way to handle the transactions quickly ... and so much more. Plus, I've also learned it's nice if you don't forget stuff :: I'll work on that ;)

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Hello My Friends ...

This morning some one said to me, "May 7th!" With a look of confusion on my face I admitted that meant nothing to me, but then they were quick to point out that was the last time I made a blog post. (Oddly enough it was about me wanting a truck and wanting to sell my Expedition ... I still want a truck, but haven't sold the Expedition yet.) I wish that there were just tons and tons of things that I needed to catch people up on, but really things have been rather mundane ... and very busy all at the same time. I will try to take some time this week to share some of the changes that have been happening. The most exciting one though is probably the fact that I'm now making three moves per day with the cattle.

I'm not sure what to call it because it really isn't Mob Grazing because of the limiting factors of the pastures, but it is at least spreading out some nutrients and getting the cows on fresh grass often. The limiting factors that I'm talking about are the very thin and not super lush stand of grass that I have right now. After 14 years of no management and plenty of weeds and brush taking over the stand of warm season grasses is not very thick and it doesn't take off very quickly in the spring. Because of that I end up putting the cows in smallish areas, but they eat off the grass very quickly and then need to be moved. Also, as you can see in the picture above I started off feeding a little hay to keep them in a small area longer, but I just found it was too much hassle and didn't help the way I wanted it to. There isn't a large concentration of manure being put down ... but, it is a start!

I'm also beginning to get an idea of just how much grazing is possible on the farm and I'm liking what I'm seeing especially as the pastures begin to improve ... which has to happen at some point. Tomorrow I'll try to post a picture of what the ground looks like after the cows have been moved and then what it looks like a couple weeks later. Like I said, the warm season grasses don't take off, but there is some regrowth happening and I think over time the clovers will come back and more.

So far the down side has (besides the thin pastures) has been the watering. I have a large tank on a hay rack that I move around with them and a waterer that I drag to each paddock, but I don't like how it's working out so far. I do have some plans though and I'll share them as I think through them.

Hope this counts as a post :) And, I'll share a little more as the week goes on.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Selling and Buying ...

It's been busy lately around the farm, the church, and with the family. Because of that I've fallen off the blog map. But, while I was gone I was keeping up with the good discussion going on in my post about farm decisions and purchasing a truck. I've been wanting to jump in on the discussion, but just haven't had the chance until now, so I decided a whole new post would be a good idea since I think there has been a lot said ... and I've had a lot on my mind. If you want to catch up on the original post and the discussion thereafter just check out this link.

The general consensus is that I need a truck ... in fact some people are surprised to hear that I've been farming without a truck for the past few years. But, sometimes reality is that you can't have everything that would be nice to have and that you certainly can't have it at once. That has been the case with a truck, and I've been making do. Instead of a truck I've been using a variety of trailers ... borrowed from family and friends. Now I'm ready to make the plunge though ... if I can make everything work out.

But, there are some realities that I need to face if I'm going to get a truck. Right now I have a 2000 Ford Expedition with about 140,000 miles on it. I've had it for about 5 years and during that time have had some work done on it that should help it keep going for some time to come. This vehicle can pull the stock trailer with no problem and I've used it to haul as many as three large bales (round and square). On top of all of that everyone in the family can fit in it and it is paid for of course.

With that in mind I need to purchase a truck that will replace the Expedition and still work out for my needs. It will need to be an extended cab with a bench set up front and in back if possible. Since I'm selling the Expedition it's going to need to be 4x4 (it just makes sense). A long box would be a plus and I'll even admit that I wouldn't mind a topper (even though I hate the looks of them).

The issue (as always) is finances. I believe I mentioned that I wasn't going to buy a truck until I sold my Expedition. I think that just makes sense not to have two big vehicles sitting around and have money tied up on both of them (one of which I won't be using). I also have to look at other priorities on the farm and look at where to spend the limited resources I have. With that in mind I want to sell the Expedition and purchase a truck for pretty much the same amount ...

I realize that won't get me the biggest and baddest and that it means I may have to compromise in some areas, but this farm is only a working farm it it can not break me financially! If I went out and got a new truck ... okay that won't happen! Let's just say that if I went out and got a $12,000 truck I would have to eat into money that could be used for other things on the farm ... like buying hay, putting in more fence, getting temporary fencing supplies, adding sheep, installing water and electricity to the shed, and so much more. That truck might be nice and wonderful and be able to do a lot, but I might not be able to afford to do the things I could use it to do ;)

So ... sell the Expedition and then get the best truck that I can with the money I have in hand. It won't work out perfectly, but not much else has so why would I expect this to? That's just the way it works on the farm sometimes ;)

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!
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