Joel Salatin workshop part 4 – Cattle, poultry and more

Polyface Farm has many enterprises going on all year round.  In spring and summer, most animals are out on pasture, in the winter, most are brought in or processed.  This post looks primarily at stocking density for cattle, the various poultry enterprises on the farm – eggs, pasture sanitization, broilers and turkeys, and a few words about Daniel Salatin’s rabbit enterprise.

Cattle: stocking density – this is rough, depends on grass quality, animals, climate, season, etc…
-300 head: 1 1/2 acres/day
-100 head: 1/2 acre/day
-2 head: 200 sq ft/day

-brix levels are highest in the evening, one reason Joel moves his cattle around 4pm. Also why people cut their hay in the late afternoon.

– farmers always talk about Average Daily Gain (ADG) as the the indicator of success, but it’s not actually what they get paid for – what they get paid for is Gain per Acre (GPA). If ADG is high, GPA will be low, and vice versa, so the trick is to find the balance.

-stockpiled forage – looks terrible, late summer grass. 100 head on 1/4 acre, they eat it and tromp it in, still builds soil.

-water systems:  Polyface uses full flow valves, 18″ cutout contains the hookup (frost free).  Polyface has a lot of ponds, building more.  the water system for all the grazing areas is from the ponds.

-ponds:  build them.  Joel is a big fan of ponds – when he’s ready to build a new one, he hires a guy with a digger to come and dig it out for him.  He doesn’t use these to catch groundwater, but rather rainwater.  He also doesn’t tap into the small river on the farm, feels river water is for everyone, he can’t justify putting a pipe in it.  By harvesting rainwater, he is able to beat droughts, and the local ecology benefits.  Since the water is used for animals, it goes back in the land anyway and makes its way to the groundwater.

-If you’re making a pond and it won’t seal, put pigs in and let them wallow.  They could probably seal a pond built in gravel (Joel Joke).

-12 feet is plenty deep for a pond.  Have the system set up so it takes water from 16″ below the surface (best water) – have the pipe come through the wall of the pond through a pond collar, and then up in the middle of the pond – hold the pipe vertical with a float of some sort.  Use flex tubing for the vertical pipe.  You will need a filter even though pulling water from below the suface.

Eggmobiles:  his first prototype was built on bicycle tires, 6 x 8 house, nest boxes over the wheels.  It held 20 hens originally, then went up to 50.  He had a hinged fence with 6 panels and 4 popholes on the house, so he set the fence up from each pophole till the area had been done, and then moved the eggmobile.  He originally did the eggmobile as a way to house a laying flock cheaply, but when he accidentally had them near the cattle and saw how they tore into cow patties, he had a eureka moment and the eggmobile idea took off.  Today he is taking advantage of economy of scale – has 2 eggmobiles hooked together (like a train).  800 birds in each.  He gets 200 dozen eggs/day from these two eggmobiles.

-with the early, little eggmobile, he didn’t feed the birds, just relied on them ranging.  With the higher density system he does feed them.

-eggmobiles are land extensive – need at least 50 acres to free range the birds, or else they’ll go to the neighbours or back to the barnyard.  They are perfect for pasture sanitization – the main advantage, the eggs are a side benefit.

-Polyface also has commercial scale pastured eggs, called the Feathernet – shelter is an A frame with scissor braces, 16 ft wide, on 3″ pipe skids, roof is 32 ft long, 20 ft wide.  1000 hens, 1/4 acre enclosed with electric net, moved every three days.  They keep guard geese with the flock to minimize predation by hawks or vultures.  Also livestock guard dog.

-In the winter, hens all come inside – hoop houses – bedding is 18″ of wood chip to start, gets added to over the winter season.  Inside some of them are 4 x 8 slatted tables with nest boxes, chicken feeders and waters.  Small pigs are on the ground, chickens are free but need the ability to get up onto the tables if need be (once they get bigger, pigs eat chickens).  Some houses have rabbits in cages up on racks in the hoop house, with chickens scratching around underneath.  The bedding is composted by the pigs and taken out to the fields when the hens are put back out on pasture in the spring.  The hoop houses are then used for veggies.

Rabbits – Daniel Salatin, Joel’s son, began with a pair when when he was 8 and has been line breeding from that pair ever since – he is now 30.  The rabbit enterprise brings in about $8000, sold mostly to restaurants.

-line breeding was a controversial topic of discussion during the workshop, but Joel pointed out that it accentuates both weakness and strength, and that Daniel culls accordingly.  In nature, animals are not picky about next of kin.  Daniel had 50% mortality rates for the first 5 years of his breeding programme – which worked out ok for him because he had a friendly banker (Joel), and was also very young.  That mortality rate might have been harder to take as an adult.

Turkeys:  brood 1 turkey poult with 5 chicks, so if you have 25 poults, put them in with 125 chicks.  Poults do everything they can to die until they’re a few weeks old, but the chicks will show them food and water which significantly improves their chance of survival.  Joel, like most of us, thought turkeys and chickens couldn’t be mixed because of blackhead, but his daughter in law’s family had always done it that way, so he gave it a try and it works. (as an aside, my hatchery catalogue recommends the same practice). At 7 weeks, put the turkey poults out on pasture.  If they go out before that, they can get through the squares on the netting and just ignore the shock.

-the Gobbledy Go house for turkeys is a portable shelter 32 x 12 ft, and holds 500 turkeys.

About half the audience had some experience with cattle, most had chickens, and a few had raised a couple of pigs, so the type of questions led to some interesting discussions.  The slide show that went with the whole livestock presentation was wonderful.  To get some glimpses yourself go to Youtube and search for Joel Salatin or Polyface farm – many videos are by people who went to field days and you can see many of the enterprises mentioned above.  As usual, the challenge for me is to be creative enough to scale some of this down – 800 hens in an eggmobile is not going to work on 14 acres for example.  But I met a lady who has 50 birds in 3 small eggmobiles – she can push them by herself around her property. She went to this model because of predator issues, and I can totally see that working here.  So one of the big benefits of the workshop was hearing how other people do things.  Which is one reason I like reading farm blogs – there are some great ideas out there!

Joel Salatin workshop part 3 – Grass

Joel Salatin, centre – break time

On Thursday the 21st, Joel spoke for 6 hours on Pastured Livestock.  To keep things to a reasonable length, I’ve broken that very intense day into a couple of posts.  Here’s what I jotted down on the subject of Grass and Grazing:

-grass is 95% water, 5% soil.  Earth is supposed to gain weight (a reference to building soil).

-grass grows on a sigmoid curve.  Joel refers to the bottom of the curve as the “diaper stage” – the grass is too watery for good nutrition, too fragile to withstand grazing impact.  The steep, upward curve of growth on the graph is called the “teenage stage”, grass in this stage is good for grazing, it regrows quickly, has lots of nutrition, is resilient.  When the curve levels off at the top of the graph, before it curve down again – that is called the “retirement home stage” of growth.  The grass is mature, growth has slowed down or stopped.

-Grass tastes best, is at it’s most nutritious at the sweet spot – the transition point on the curve between teenager and retirement home growth stages.

-the goal of intensive grazing management is to maintain the teenager growth stage, without violating the Law of the Second Bite.

-all the deep soils of the world were built under prairies because the metabolic cycle of grasss is faster than that of trees, though the growth curve is similar.

-grasslands build soil, but  do require soil disturbance – historically in the form of burning (either wildfires or human induced), and mob grazing – often influenced by predation.

-the University of Nebraska has a 2 acre prairie that they manage with fire, the grass is 12 ft tall.  The reference in Little House on the Praire (was it actually Plum Creek?) to Ma’s worry that the girls would get lost in the tall grass is a reference to this type of grass, not what we think of as tall grass today.

-It is a human mandate to use herbivores to prune grass properly, to stimulate more biomass production than would be stimulated in a static state.

-animals always eat dessert first, so continuous grazing means unpalatable species will eventually become dominant, and the others will disappear.

-Grazing management uses bio-mimicry, copying the predator/prey relationship.  Electric wire is the predator.

-The three M’s of grazing:  Mobbing, Mooving, and Mowing.  (personal note:  please see Redemption Farm’s excellent summary of the three M’s).

Mobbing:  cows only “work” (eat) for 8 hours, they spend the rest of the time ruminating (lounging, while they regurgitate and chew their cud).  Mobbing encourages them to eat everything evenly.  What they don’t eat, they will trample, which will still create biomass.  We want them to eat eagerly and efficiently, but not stressed, and to maximise their ruminating time.  It takes 2 months for cattle to learn to graze aggressively, if they’re not born to it.

Moving:  (Joel joke – mooving) – wild beasts (bison, buffalo, etc) move daily – predator pressure, fresh grass, to get away from flies attracted to their manure.  If they stayed, they would violate the Law of the Second Bite, and prairies would not build soil.  Use electric wire to mimic this movement.

Mowing:  cattle are great big fermentation tanks with four wheel drive.  Feeding them food that has been fermented already (sileage, haylage) makes their stomach environment too acidic, and therefore a breeding ground for things like e coli.  Their stomach is designed to do it’s own fermenting, from fresh grass.

-need to design a landscape that attains the the 3M’s.  On most farms, there will be unalterable features – access lane, house/buildings, ponds, etc. Use electric fence on both sides of the access road, allowing at least 16 ft for the lane, because of the cattles fear of the wire.  This will be a route to move the cattle up and down the land without going through pasture.  Use landscape features by surrounding them with permanent fence.  Between these features and the access road, you can create homogeneous paddocks with temporary electric wire.  Put gates in corners, even though for equipment you would prefer to put them about 10 feet away from the corner.  If you do that, calves will bunch up in the corners and panic and not go through the gate -so put gates in corners.

-there is starting to be a trend toward taking advantage of older forage (stockpiled grass) toward the end of the grazing season – this is grass approaching or in early retirement home stage.  It looks terrible – tall, yellowing, gone to seed, but can extend the grazing season without the cattle losing weight.  Every day you don’t have to feed hay is good.

That’s it for grass/grazing notes – I have more that I’ll post in a day or two related to stocking density, watering systems, etc.

For detailed info on what I recorded above, read one of Joel’s earliest books “Salad Bar Beef“.  Stockman Grass Farmer is a journal all about grazing practices.  Youtube has some great footage of Jim Gerrish (electric fence/paddock set up) and Greg Judy, another huge grazing guru in the farm world.  The original that the others all derive from is Andre Voisin’s “Grass Productivity” – it’s pretty scientific, ie don’t choose it for bedtime reading, but it’s information dense.  “Greener Pasture on Your Side of the Fence” by Bill Murphy is a much easier read, and might be easier to find through your local library.   This was the kind of stuff I went to learn, so you’re welcome to seek clarification on what I wrote, but I probably can’t answer questions requiring expertise or experience! If you have a favourite print or web source of grazing info, please share in the comments!

Tomorrow is pigaerators…aren’t you excited?

“Mr Salatin, may I ask you…”

I’m starting to get excited about my impending visit to Foxglove Farm to attend a workshop with Joel Salatin (you know – Omnivore’s Dilemma, Food Inc) , the featured topic being pastured livestock.  Foxglove Farm is owned by Michael Ableman also a well known author, speaker and farmer.

I got to attend a workshop with Joel Salatin once before when he came to Duncan BC three years ago.  It was a packed hall, and we enjoyed his presentation thoroughly.  When he opened the floor to questions in the afternoon though, I was disappointed as people got mired in the minutae of deep bedding (how much, how long, materials, floor area, etc) or how often sheep should be rotated when they graze in a forest.  We probably spent half of a two hour Q and A on deep bedding.  Seriously.  Is there even grass in a forest ?  Turns out not, making the question something else entirely.   I do respect his willingness to take any question and run with it though, and there is no such thing as a silly question right?

That said, I do want to make the most of my opportunity to ask him a question or two.  I’ve read all of his books, some more than a few times (Pastured Poultry Profits is falling apart).  Pastured livestock is an area we want to get into, probably with sheep, but perhaps with smaller cattle like Dexters or something.

He’s really big on mob grazing these days, but we’re talking 14 acres here and both of us working off farm.  So could my question be about stocking density?  He often says he doesn’t use straight lines for his fencing, but follows the keylines and contours.  Again, 14 acres – in a very straight line L shape.  No pond, no hill, no forest.  What would he do with that?  I’m starting to get why we talked about deep bedding and arboreal sheep for so long at the last workshop, I think I’m a little mired myself here.

So maybe I should keep it general and not be irritatingly specific to my own situation.  I could ask about how to adapt his grazing strategies for small acreages  as most people there will likely be from places like mine – the average farm on Vancouver Island is between 10-30 acres.   I’ve always wanted to know more detail about Theresa’s part in things, especially in the days before apprentices and significant income – following the maxim that behind every good man, there’s a better woman 🙂 – which might be of interest to others in the same boat.

Or I could keep my mouth closed and just listen. Always a good strategy.

What do you think?  What should I ask?  What would you ask given the chance?