Part time to Full time Farming

Fooling around on the interwebs tonight, I came across a recent video of Joel Salatin that I hadn’t seen before, on a topic he’s really just begun to expound on in the last year or so.  Maybe that’s not quite accurate – much of the content of the video is well known to anyone who has read Salatin’s books or seen other video clips, or even heard him at a conference.  But putting some of the information together under this one topic heading made a difference in the way I looked at it.

Some points(there were many, these are just a few) that hit me during his talk:

  • all the expertise needed to run a farm cannot fit on one torso.  A farmer needs to be a mechanic, a salesman, a carpenter, a bookkeeper, etc, as well as being able to handle animals and grow crops.  Everyone has skills lacking out of the total package, and needs to surround themselves with people who can help in those areas.
  • bundle chores.  He pointed out that a farmer needs to make sure there is time in the work day for making progress.  If the whole day is eaten up doing chores, the farm will never get ahead.  So get efficient with chores, find ways to cut time spent on routine, mundane, repetitive jobs.  Don’t allow chores to take more than 4 hours of the day.
  • Time and Motion studies.  This is old Salatin stuff.  60 seconds to move a broiler pen.  30 seconds to gut a chicken.  He’s got plenty of examples.  He challenges all of us to know this stuff for ourselves.  How long does it take to put eggs away (I think this means once they’re collected, so basically to clean them, box them and store them)?  How long does it take to feed, water and move the broilers?  etc.  We need to know these things so we know how to improve.  This obviously ties in with bundling chores.
  • Scale.  He spent quite a bit of time talking about the egg mobiles, another well known example from Polyface.  He describes the evolution of the eggmobile from 40 chickens to 800 chickens and the amount of energy, effort, time, fuel, etc that it take to do both, and why scale can make a huge difference for the farmer.  This comes up again in the Q & A near the end, and the answer is worth listening for.
  • Margins.  There are a lot of middle men in farming.  Processing, marketing, distributing, etc.  That’s where a lot of the money goes in commodity farming.  The more of that part of the industry that a farmer can keep for himself, the better.  A small farmer needs to wear more hats.  I find this particular point a little at odds with the first thing he talked about – which was leveraging expertise around you, but that might be because both are probably my weak points.  He went on to elaborate that margins are also about value adding, finding ways to make every possible part of an enterprise contribute to the bottom line.  Even chicken necks and backs.

So with that little summary, I want to credit the Practical Farmers of Iowa, who put on the conference at which this speech was recorded, and who have some great resources for all kinds of farmers.  I first learned about them from Ethan Book of The Beginning Farmer, who is an enthusiastic member.

Here’s the video:

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Future Farmers

Joel Salatin & Michael Ableman

For some time now, I’ve had simmering in the back of my mind a comment Michael Ableman made when he was introducing Joel Salatin in the workshop I attended in June. I didn’t write down his exact words, but the gist of it was:

You always hear that if you want kids to grow up to be farmers, you have to raise them in town.

Michael’s adult son, who grew up on the farm, has gone on to do other things with his life, and his younger son is only 10, so it’s hard to say what he’ll do.  One of the things that Michael found most interesting when he heard about Joel Salatin and Polyface Farm is that Joel’s son Daniel grew up on the farm – and stayed there.  Daniel now runs the daily operations of the farm and is as passionate about holistic farming as his Dad.

Michael disguised it with a grin and a laugh, but I think there was a tinge of envy and wistfulness in this remark.

And it’s made me wonder ever since:  how true is the truism? My own children have no desire to farm.  They”ve lived here most of their lives.  They enjoy country life to an extent, they can see themselves having veggie patches in their backyards when they’re adults.  But not chickens or livestock.  No anxieties about crops getting rained on or parched dry.  No fence mending.  Definitely no mucking out.  They want to be able to go camping spontaneously, travel without worry.  No egg washing or late night chicken butchering.

And yet…an old schoolmate of mine is a third generation farmer, and his son is just back from Ag college, full of plans for local grain harvesting and raising turkeys on the side.  Fourth generation farmer at the age of 19.  Cool.  A classmate of my older daughter (17) lives on a 40 acre sheep farm with his family and owns part of the flock with a view to building his own farming enterprise.  Another classmate, in the poultry 4-H club for years, has begun a breeding business, raising quail and partridges, and is “raking it in” as his buddy told me at the feed store the other day.  The son (age 25) of a friend of mine is a third generation farmer, and is leasing 2 acres to grow organic raspberries and raising a half dozen hogs, while helping his mum with her berry farm.

So why these kids and not Michael Ableman’s son?  Why are my kids not interested, but yours are?  I know there are a number of factors at play, not least among them farming practices, finances, the high value placed on post secondary education, and of course parenting styles.  There’s also the whole nurture vs nature thing – some kids are just not wired to want to grow food, some kids are.

Am I disappointed my own children are not interested in farming?  Not with them.  Truthfully, we did a lot of things in terms of modelling and training and exposure that pretty much guaranteed that they would lean in a different direction.  A little disappointed in us as parents, perhaps, that we didn’t get on the same page about this kind of thing early enough.  That’s more about us than them.  And it’s OK, really.  They understand what goes into creating food, what it takes to grow good meat, and that’s important.  It will make them the kind of consumer that supports farmers.  And maybe they’re wired to for something else entirely anyway.  Besides, my brother grew up yearning for an urban life and now owns a John Deere, has twice the number of layers than me, and is president of the local Agricultural Society. Seeds can lie dormant for a long time and sprout when you least expect them to.  Whatever path my children end up taking, I hope that they find fulfillment and challenge and satisfaction in it.  And if, like my brother, they come back to the land later, well, that’s good too.

I think it really comes down to vocation.  Many of us, in my generation at least, were encouraged to quell any sense of vocation and instead pursue “practical” paths – most of us were pushed in the direction of post secondary education or trade school, our ticket to financial security.  Something our parents didn’t have available to them.  It’s natural to want a better life for your kids.  But I think it’s wrong to view vocation as unimportant.  I think it’s our job as parents to give kids permission to listen for their calling.  Of course we cannot but help shape their experiences by our own lifestyle choices, but within that, we must give them room to discover passions and interests, to explore what makes them eager to get out of bed every day, what makes them feel like they really accomplished something good.  We have to watch for those little sparks, those lights in their eyes, when they suddenly switch on.  It doesn’t take 10 different sports or clubs to find those glimpses of interest and passion.  No, it’s true, your child growing up in the woods may not discover his or her innate talent for surfing.  That’s not what I’m talking about.  I mean the thing they’re going to do out in the world that is their contribution, their part of the greater whole, how they make their way.

Even if we’re the best kind of parent raising kids on the best kind of farm, they might not be hearing anything that calls them to nurture the land specifically; instead they might be hearing something that tells them they love to build, or heal animals, cook good food, manage a forest, fix machinery, paint pictures, care for people.  Or not.  They might really feel a call to grow plants for food, raise animals, improve soil…you know, farm.

Broiler chickens on pasture

I thought I’d share a couple of pictures of the state of the pasture after the broilers have spent a day in one place.

There are 65 birds in this pasture pen.  We move it late afternoon every day.  In Pastured Poultry Profits by Joel Salatin, he moves them in the morning.  That’s great if you don’t work off farm, but for us, it’s always worked better in late afternoon – right after work on work days, right before I start supper prep on the days I’m at home.  It takes about 20 minutes from start to finish.  It takes Polyface something like an hour to do 60 pens, which means my system is a “little” inefficient, or I don’t move fast, or both.  That’s OK, 15-20 minutes works for me.  If it’s just the actual moving of the pen, then I probably am up to speed, I think it takes me about 2 minutes…it’s all the other stuff – changing the water, topping up feed, putting the lids back on, that take time.

Why do we do it this way?  First off, to get some poop on the ground! We want the fertility for the soil.  Chicken manure packs a wallop of nitrogen.  Second, the birds actually eat a surprising amount of grass, given the chance.  For the first few minutes after a move, all you can hear is the chirruping noise they make when they’re happy, and the ripping sound of grass being torn off by 65 beaks.  Since you are what you eat, and chickens are no exception, this is good news for those who eat our chicken:  these chickens are getting fresh air, sunshine, protection from predators and a fresh patch of grass and bugs every day.  It absolutely makes a difference to the meat.  A good difference!

Take a look at how much of this they’ve actually eaten, not just trampled or pooped on:

They’ve been on pasture almost 2 weeks, you can see where they’ve been.  This will be a big strip of green about 3 weeks from now, right through to next year:

These birds are almost full grown.  They go up to the processor in just over a week.  It ain’t over till it’s over, but right now, they’re looking pretty good.

Joel Salatin Workshop – final notes

Joel Salatin and Michael Ableman at Foxglove Farm

I thought of calling this Part 4, to match all the other Part 4 posts I did (grin) …but this is the last one, just to wrap up the tail end of Joel’s presentation, and what I gleaned from the Q and A session afterward.

-Gerald Fry writes about genetics.

Grass Fed Beef – with regard to taste/texture there are several factors that make up a pie chart:

-Brix (sugar), genetics, maturity (should be ¾ dam’s weight minimum), stress, handling/loading, Calpone/enzyme and hanging time, minerals fed, cooking.  Ratios vary, but should make up for each other.  There is said to be terroir in grass fed beef (like in wine).

Calpone – enzyme that needs slow cooling time after processing so it can soften connection tissues.  Processors are set for fast cooling, which toughens the meat.  Supplement with calcium (in feed) to overcome this.  Applies to rabbits and chickens too – rigor mortis.  Freeze 6 0r 7 hours after they’ve been dead .  OK to use chill tank, no ice till later.

Minerals – pigs and poultry get it in their balanced ration feed.  Cows get a box of mixed mineral, they can access at will.

The farm is portable.  You do not have to own land, or a tractor or a big barn to be successful at pasture farming.  You can do it with 2 cows or 200.  It is a scaleable model.

The single biggest topic during the Q and A at the end was around hay, sileage and hayleage.  Up here in the PNW, haymaking can be challenging as our damp weather, especially in the last couple of years, has been carrying right through the traditional time for first cuts (mid-May through June).  We had a couple of dairymen in the crowd, and a couple of guys raising beef, one originally from Alberta, where things are much drier for haymaking.  The basic question was not so much a question as a defence, I think:   we need to make haylage or sileage here because it’s difficult to make good hay – but easy enough to make good haylage.  The cows seem to prefer the haylage, the protein content is much higher, but if it’s bad to feed fermented hay to cows because they are walking fermentation tanks, what are we supposed to do?

Joel’s response:  put the cows on the hay field, and graze it instead of cutting it for hay so early.  That will delay the first cut to a period when the weather is better for haymaking.

Dairy guy:  I’ve put gloppy gooey haylage and dry hay side by side in front of my cows, and they pick the haylage first every time.  Doesn’t that say something?

Joel:  If I put a Snickers bar and a piece of broccoli in front of you, which one are you going to eat first?

I don’t think the dairy guys were completely convinced about the idea of grazing to delay the hay.  And when you’ve been doing it one way forever, it’s hard to wrap yourself around a new concept – there’s a lot at stake.  What if it doesn’t work and you have to buy in hay later – a huge cost?  What Joel is implying is hard to visualize from a conventional/traditional point of view – to keep on top of that grass growth in May with our ideal grass growing conditions (damp) – you need a much higher stocking density.  The problem then is that you need a lot more hay to winter them over with, but you don’t have it because you had them grazing the darn stuff.

Joel has obviously run into this one before.  And he acknowledges that his climate and growing conditions are quite different from ours, but he staunchly maintained that it’s a paradigm shift more than anything climate related.  He also allowed that it’s quite possible the grass would get ahead of the cows during the fastest growth curve, and might not be ideal hay, but made the point that it would be better than hay spoiled by mold or damp, and that you would still derive the benefit of delaying a significant amount of grass growth for hay by grazing.

I haven’t broached any of this with Hay Guy yet – but we here at Tyddyn-y-morwr are convinced that the intensive grazing model will benefit our land, our grass, and our income, and we will still be able to make the hay we need for the winter.  We will still need Hay Guy’s services, which is a good thing – he’s been cutting hay here for more than 30 years.  Though he has a very conventional mindset with regard to farming, he used to have a small dairy herd when he was younger, and I know we will rely on him a lot when we get started with four wheel drive fermentation barrels.

That’s the end of the Joel Salatin Workshop series of posts.  Take away messages?  Farming is portable.  It’s about healing the land.  Stacking enterprises is beneficial, economical and more productive overall – cows graze grass, chickens sanitize pasture for cows, and provide eggs, cow patties and chicken manure fertilize fields, grass grows better, cows grow better, more beef, etc.  Sound farming models are scaleable – 2 cows or 200 cows.  Don’t get locked into infrastucture or thinking that confines you.  Go out and grow some food.  And as Joel always finishes every talk:  May your children rise up to call you blessed.

p.s.  As I was getting ready to post this, I found out that Polyface experienced a twister on the weekend, destroying 30 broiler pens out on pasture, and an eggmobile.  As bad as the pictures on the Polyface Henhouse blog look, the only loss of life was some chickens; others in the area were less fortunate.

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!