Tuesday, December 28, 2010

In defence of omnivory

A key concept reoccurring in my environmental studies degree at KU was the 10% rule.  For every step in a food chain (such as from grain to mice to hawks) only 10% of the energy required to grow the prey is passed to the predator.  In other words, the top predators in a food chain are the least efficient at using the energy that comes ultimately from the sun.  A logical extension of this concept is that feeding people on plants is more efficient than feeding plants to animals and eating the animals.  Think of the additional people that could be fed on existing world food supplies by cutting animals out of the plan.

Bluestem Farm organic pasture
Bluestem Farm conventional crop land leased to neighbors
I struggled with this as an young omnivore until I realized people foods (mainly grain) do not need to be fed to livestock.  If animals can make use of food sources that are unusable to humans (grass, weeds, bugs, etc.) then they can provide people with a high quality diet without subtracting from calories available elsewhere. That's why our goal at Bluestem Farm is to grow all our livestock on grass.  We're not there yet.  Some animals are an easy fit; cows, sheep, and goats are all ruminants that thrive on grass.  Others require an omnivorous diet; chickens and pigs have simple stomachs and need more protein in their diets than grass can provide.  One possible solution is to feed grass-fed cow or goat milk to chickens and pigs. 

The moral justification of eating meat can be summed up for me by these two views of our farm in winter.  The first is the habitat created by grass-fed beef production.  This land supports bugs, birds, snakes, rodents, deer, coyotes, and a host of soil-dwelling microbes.  The second is the habitat created by soybean monoculture.  It is devoid of life in winter, offering neither food nor shelter to wildlife.

The best little chicken house, and why we abandonded it (Part 2)

New chicken pen in barn
I know I left you all hanging with the last story about the pretty little chicken house in the yard.  So perfect in many ways, it encouraged the flock to focus their messy free-ranging in our yard.  When I suggested to Scott that maybe the chickens could be confined to the cattle pens and pastures, he jumped at the idea and built our new, larger flock a home of their own in the ag barn.  With a little extra chicken-proofing of our field fence, I'll be able to plant berry plants in the yard without a fence! 

Chicken roosts
The new pen has many of the features of the old coop with additional floor space for our 25 pullets (young hens) and one cockerel (young rooster).  The elevated roosts have removable poo-collection boards that help keep the litter clean longer.  When it's time to change the litter (straw and chopped leaves) I mix the manure back in and put it outside to weather down for a perfect compost.

Feeders and waterers go under the boards to discourage chickens from roosting on them.  In the summer I plan to build a chicken nipple waterer.  For now my fountain waterer is in winter mode with a heating pad under it on low to keep it just above freezing. 

Chickens exploring outside
Chickens will soon have a window and an outside door of their own, but in the mean time they have access to the interior of the barn and like to rummage for dropped grain in the cow stalls.  They are slowly braving the outdoors.

These chickens will play a critical role in controlling cattle parasites- a key element in organic production.  No worries about making chickens sick; species that do not share parasites can safely run together or in a leader-follower system (more on that later).

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

AI cattle breeding

Hanging out at Bluestem Farm
I don't have enough cows to own a bull.  When each cow comes into heat, I call my AI technician neighbor who comes over with his toolkit and a long glove and gets the job done.  As you can imagine this doesn't always work as well as a bull, but it lets me choose from a variety of high quality genetics available on line.  You can buy bull semen by the "straw" for about $25 and up, and have it delivered to your door frozen in liquid nitrogen.  We bred all our cows, Molly, Mary, Martha, and Agnes, in August for May/June calves.  Our score from that pass was 2 of 4.  The two white park cows, Mary and Martha, both took on the first try.  Molly, the Jersey, tested open (not bred) back in October so my neighbor serviced her again.  Just today the vet checked Agnes, the Angus, to find that she is also open.  I had intended to keep Agnes as a breeding cow, but she has a few strikes against her.

1. She is not a British White Park, my focus breed.
2. She is the only one of my cows that doesn't like me to approach her in the field.
3. She is the least predictable (she kicks when she feel threatened).
4. She broke my milk stanchion trying to get away from the vet.
5. The other cows don't like her. 
6. Our freezer is getting low on beef
7. She will be the perfect age for grass-finishing in the spring.

Let's say it's not looking good for Agnes.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Happy solstice morning

View to the southeast, Bluestem Farm
 According to Uncle Bill's calculations we should have 9 hours and 26 minutes of daylight today at the latitude of our farm.  Each day will get longer until, in a few months, Scott will again be able to detach from the wood stove.  

Our young flock of laying hens (pullets) need increasing day lengths to mature and start laying.  Rather than wait on the sun, I've been fooling them with a little extra light.  I hope to start seeing eggs in January and then I can wean them back to natural light.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas gardening

New strawberry plants in the lasagna garden
I ordered 50 strawberry plants to get in the ground this fall, thinking that they could get a little jump on their spring growth.  They arrived today, December 20th.  Last year at this time we were covered with a thick layer of ice, but strangely today it was warm enough to plant.  For all the garden planning and wishing that I do every winter, it was a pleasure to do something this time of year.  I'll let you know if the little guys survive until spring.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A good day to tie one on

 Or in this case a case a couple hundred (fence ties, that is.)  Forty degree days in December are a blessing not to be wasted.  I'd been wanting this west paddock finished before spring and with a willing Scott, we got it done today.  Below is Scott's handy field-fence un-roller.  This is just one of the many inventions, small and large, that help make him a FARM GENIUS.  
Scott and the fence un-roller
Building the west paddock
I now have a corral on the south side of the barn, and three paddocks 2-3 acres each.  The rest of the pasture is open.  This isn't enough for a true rotational grazing set up, but it does start to give me some control over my stocking rates.  I need to keep the cows close to home during calving and breeding seasons.  Last year, I repeatedly abused my one paddock by overgrazing it.

If it doesn't grow back well enough in the spring, it may need to be reseeded- not the way to run a sustainable operation!  Now with three paddocks I can rest each of them to maintain good grass growth and diversity.  The other 20 acres of pasture will be an open salad bar until I can get some cross-fencing there too. 

Katherine climbing a locust tree in the west paddock
Katherine helped build fence by playing contentedly in our new 3 acre playpen while we worked.  What more could a kid want than trees to climb, dirt to dig, and by the end of the day- snowflakes to catch.

Cattle 101

Mary, White Park, checking out my bucket
Don't carry a bucket into the pasture unless you mean to FEED.  Luckily our cows are gentle, but when we first bought the place, our neighbor ran less-socialized cattle here.  As we naively strolled around picking invasive thistle heads into our buckets we couldn't figure our why we were being followed by the increasingly agitated herd.  It took a few times of ditching over the fence to figure out why they kept trying to stampede us.  DUH, cows are trained to follow a feed bucket and here we were taunting them with our mixed messages!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Modern Homesteading

Photo credit
Most people engaging in a back-to-the-land lifestyle and trying to raise the majority of their own food call this process modern homesteading, but I'm afraid our 3-car garage disqualifies us from using the term for Bluestem Farm.  Still, if we had it to do over, we would have put less money in our house and more in fencing.  I think with a frugal lifestyle and a diversified portfolio (cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, veggies, fruit, bedding plants, Christmas trees, etc.) it is possible to make a living off of 80 acres even with our steep property taxes.  I'm sure our neighbors would find that laughable, but that hasn't stopped me yet.  Right now my farming endeavors don't even pay for themselves, but do provide us with high-quality organic meat, eggs, milk, and produce.  Though the land can support far more than we are doing with it now, my know-how can't.  By growing our farm slowly, I hope to minimize my serious mistakes.  Maybe in 10 years we'll make back our investments and start seeing that positive balance sheet.  In the mean time, I'm starting to see why all that organic food at the Merc costs so much!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Have you hugged your pig today?

Karen and #36, Hampshire barrow
Me neither.  Our pigs are in the freezer now.  Some day I'll raise fall pigs to take advantage of all the orchard and garden waste that we generate that time of year.  As it is our freezers stay equally full year round as we eat pork, chicken, beef and refill the spaces with stale baked goods, apple peelings, and experimental meals gone awry.  Over the spring and summer the pigs feast on these goodies cooked to boiling along with any milk that gets stepped in by ornery Molly, the milk cow.  My Mom's favorite pig story is from last June when I served my pigs several flats of strawberry tops, a byproduct of jam production, and a batch of cream that refused to turn into butter.

Three Hamp shoats at Bluestem Farm
 I buy feeder pigs as close to home as I can, but in the Spring the competition can be fierce with all the 4-Hers planning to enter the hog shows in August.  I'm happy to take pigs without show-quality markings as long as they are vigorous.  Usually I take several gilts (young girl pigs) because they are less favored for 4-H and tend to yield leaner meat.  The barrows (young ex-boy pigs) that are left to buy tend to be runty, but they are plenty big for most of our customers.  I'm not a fan of the ear notching, but I haven't yet found a farrower (sow/pig farmer) that doesn't do it. 

Karen and three excavators
Vegetation doesn't stand a chance with these guys.  We doubled the size of their pen from what you see here, but they tilled it under in less than a week.  Most people keep pigs on concrete for this reason, or at least put rings in their noses to keep them from rooting.  I prefer to let them do their pig thing.  They tackle the job with such gusto, it would be a shame to take it away from them.  My hope is to find a useful application for all this free tillage, such as preparing ground for grain crops, but that will take more infrastructure than I had last year.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The best little chicken house, and why we abandoned it (part 1)

Chicken house at Bluestem Farm
Here at 38.8º N latitude (let’s say 40º) the noon sun angle is:

27.5º    on the Winter Solstice
50º       on the Equinoxes
73.5º    on the Summer Solstice

The overhang on this south-facing chicken house allows winter sun into the windows, while shading out the summer sun.  Plexiglas panes snap tightly over the hardware cloth window screening for the coldest days of the year or are angled open for ventilation.  With this treatment the daytime temperatures stay pleasant (50s on sunny, cold days) and rarely dip much below freezing on even the coldest nights. 

With three elevated nest boxes, roost bars with dropping pans to keep the floor bedding clean, and little bins for oyster shell and grit, WHY did we abandon it?

Let me say, the fault does not lie with the house design- if I were to build a stand alone chicken house again, this would be the one- but with my underestimation of the excavation talents of chickens.  

Foraging Buff Orpington
What's the fun of having chickens if they can't free-range for their own entertainment and ours?  What they save on the feed bill, though, was eating into my mulch bill, as they rearranged every scrap of biomass in our large yard.  The orchard trees were surely safe from soil-born insects, but their roots were exposed to the drying summer sun and winter winds.  I finally gave up planting anything decorative, as my two-footed friends would dig up or devour any new additions, scattering mulch and over the driveway.  Flower pots on the porch were emptied down to squatting-chicken-eye-level, and the dogs kept a nose out for eggs deposited there.  My veggie garden needed a four-foot fence.

Foraging Buff Orpington
For four years our house guests were greeted with a poo-strewn path to the front door, but surprisingly none of this bothered me too much.  It was Scott that finally snapped when he'd find a whole flock of chickens and the two ducks hanging out in the garage along with all the accompanying floor blobs.  A few slimy slips getting into the car and Scott was ready for a change. 

Why not let the chickens range with the cattle where they can help rid the paddocks of flies and pests for the comfort and health of the herd?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Our first calf

Bluestem Abe, British White Park, with mother and friend
Most of our neighbors make 2 a.m. rounds in the snow and ice to check for "Spring" calves in January and February.  We had our first baby on the ground at the end of April, 2010.  Here Mary was looking a little worn out, but Molly, our herd matriarch kept close by to attend to the new mom.  Molly's calf was born three weeks later.

In a grass-fed operation, the experts say to time calving with the local deer fawning season; that's June around here.  The idea is to keep calves with their mothers through the cold of winter and wean them onto fresh grass in the spring for the least stress and best growth on the calves.  The cows then get three months of high-protein forage to finish growing their next calf before starting the process over again.

Bluestem Abe and Mary
If left on their own, the cows would probably kick their old calves off of the utter a month or more before the next one arrives, but the extra recovery time helps cows regain their condition for better long-term health.  The key to any organic system is to keep the herd healthy in the first place.

And really, don't they look happy together?

Adding a species

Karen, Katherine, Koda, and duck
Khaki Campbell ducks can average 360 eggs per year, much better than even the most productive chickens.  Why, then, do I get two fresh eggs every morning from my ONE duck and one drake?  Scott's pretty sure I have two ducks, and that would make perfect sense, except I have frequently observed them engaging in the duck/drake dance.  (Their daily delivery of fresh bathing water is usually cause for celebration.)  That and both eggs are always laid in a single nest, lead me to think that I do indeed have one special duck.  Now, I did employ the fine art of day-old-waterfowl sexing when I bought these guys, but I had only read about it in a book and I wouldn't stake my reputation on the results.  No photos of this process, either.  They might not pass the sensors of this blog.

Homemade milk stanchion

Molly, ready to milk
Here is Molly modeling our milk stanchion.  The 2x6 swings shut to keep her head in, while allowing her to eat a little grain and alfalfa.  She's happy to walk right in, but when she's done- watch out.  She has quite an impressive range of motion in this thing which keeps me grabbing the milk bucket to keep away from moving, pooey feet.  So far I haven't found milking to be the relaxing experience it could be, but maybe with time I will pull it off with grace. 

Karen, ready to milk

I haven't yet come close to emptying Molly's expansive utter, but her heifer calf, Nellie, and her adopted steer calf, Jake, are happy to take over whenever I tire.  Share milking, as it's called when the cow keeps her calves and also provides for the family, has been a great success for us.  Not only do I only need to milk once a day, but I can comfortably vacation away from Molly, leaving the calves on duty.  When I want to resume milking, I lure Molly into the barn with treats after her calves have had dinner, milk her in the morning, and turn her out for the hungry herd to finish the job.  The only drawback?  The calves get the richer, hind milk, while we were stuck with mostly skim.  My few batches of pastured dairy butter? ... amazing.

Us and Them

Store-bought- and Bluestem Farm winter eggs
Even in the heart of winter when chicken foraging is at a minimum, our eggs  (right) beat the pants off of store eggs (left).  We gave the rest of these away when our girls finished their molt and started laying again. 

7 times more beta carotene
3 times more vitamin E
2 times more omega 3
2/3 more vitamin A

1/3 less cholesterol
1/4 less saturated fat

(stats from Mother Earth News)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

It all starts here

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)
Four years of annual spring burning reawakened the native grass seeds under our brome/fescue pasture for a beautiful, thick stand of big bluestem (our farm's namesake), little bluestem, indiangrass, and panicgrass.  The wildflowers and herbs that should have accompanied a native prairie, though, were only abundant in the areas I had also mowed.  Plant diversity, it seemed, needed more management than fire alone.  After a conversation with KU professor and author, Kelly Kindscher, I realized that prairies had evolved to be clipped, mowed, grazed.

After giving our pasture a four-year rest, we were ready to bring back the grazers...

Agnes, the Angus, Karen, and Zeke the cat

...Enter Agnes (the Angus) the first of our herd of seven bovine.  (Only 2 of which are "cows" or females that have borne a calf.)  With the use of management-intinsive grazing, called MiG in the graziers' lingo, these ladies and their babies will produce healthy, grass-fed beef while increasing the plant and animal diversity on our farm.

Life on the farm

Bluestem Farm in summer
Here at Bluestem Farm we keep learning new skills to meet our goals of sustainability, land stewardship, humane husbandry, and food independence.  We read books and mine the minds of our farm neighbors for the knowledge that preceded Big Ag.  To this we add a dose of internet research and a load of try and see.  Not bad for a couple of town kids making a go of country living.  You're welcome to come along and experience the joys and mishaps of our life on the farm!