Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Teacher For Once

It's not often that I get to write a post about teaching a farmer skill to someone else.  Most of the time I'm learning.  And screwing up.  And learning from my screw-ups.

But looky here.  I'm teaching my friend Andy how to kill, pluck (or skin, as in this photo--she wanted to keep the feathers) and gut a chicken. 

Processing chickens is a skill that is being lost as we slowly lose our grandparents.  It's also a skill that in suprising-high demand.  Who knew? 

I like passing on a bit of knowledge once in awhile.  It makes me feel like a real farmer for once. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Finally! A Small Farm Advantage

"Rain, rain go away. Come again another day."

It's been THE rainiest growing season I can ever recall. A wet spring made it difficult to plant the crops. A wet summer meant it was difficult to make hay. And a wet fall has the harvest at a complete standstill.

If you recall, I was a fall-weather-whiner last year as well, with rain delaying harvest, corn moisture levels extremely high, etc. etc. I should have saved my breath, because last year was a walk in the park compared to this year. With the weather forecasted to continue in this wet and cold pattern, I don't foresee getting the corn out of the field until December. Which means we might be fighting snowy field conditions.

I have to admit that being a farmer has made me a little cranky. (My family may argue I've always been cranky--don't listen to them.) But my crankiness really comes out when in company with a person that starts to wax rhapsodic about "farmers (said with a negative tone) who are making money! hand over fist! as they farm fencerow to fencerow! with no consideration of the environment! in pursuit of the almighty dollar!" People eat this line up, man. They are all over it. If you want your own popularity to soar sky-high, try that line out. I guarantee you'll have people murmuring in agreement, possibly a small applause, and definitely an increase in groupies. (Hey, everyone needs a few groupies.)

What these people don't realize is that our livelihoods are mostly out of our control. Grain prices soared last year to record levels. So did trucking fees, basis levels (what elevators charge for handling our grain), fertilizer and input costs, diesel prices, drying charges, etc. Don't blame a farmer for trying to squeeze a few hundred extra bushels out of his or her land, is what I'm trying to say here. The survival of their farm depends upon it.

This year is even tougher. Grain prices have come down a bit, but we were forced to pay for much of the aforementioned input fees during last year's highs. Add to that our wet year, and we're talking near disaster.

Wet grain means thousands, yes thousands, of dollars in drying charges. Wet grain also means that even if you're able to harvest your crops, the grain elevators won't take them because the moisture counts are too high. What does one do with thousands of bushels of grain and nowhere to go? Wet fields increase the likelihood of soil compaction at harvest, which causes a myriad of problems in future years. And wet weather means low quality hay and fewer cuttings (read lost income).

While we're on the subject of hay, I have to point out one distinct advantage Irish Grove has over other farms: we have livestock. Most people, including us, have given up on their 4th cutting of hay. The alfalfa and grass hay fields sit there, unharvested, taunting us with the lost opportunity and lost income. Except, wait! We have cows. And hay fields with fences.

Cattle prices are too low to make sense for most smaller farms, so cows are usually relegated to large feedlots that can take advantage of bulk pricing discounts, etc. etc. Ignoring the drawbacks that come with large feedlots, the results are that farm fences have been torn down. I don't blame anyone for this: fencing is extremely expensive to maintain, not to mention a royal pain in the arse--they easily become overgrown with weeds and brush. (Anyways, one may be able to fit a few more corn rows where that fence used to sit. Don't hate.)

But we graze our cows and fences have gone back up. So while we may not be able to take that 4th cutting of hay, we can run the cattle through the field and they will eat it green instead! After some heavy frosts, the plants don't have the same nutrient availability as they did during the summer months, but it's nutritionally equivalent to dry hay.

So, the cows harvest the hay on their own and save us time and money spent on harvesting a hay crop. They keep greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere (no tractor driving), fertilize the land by pooping and peeing, which in turns keeps greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere (no need to mine for and truck fertilizer in). Oh, and we won't have to feed them as much dry hay this winter, leaving more to sell to our neighbors. Brilliant!

Small farms like ours have few advantages over large farms, so it's nice to finally find one. Maybe it'll help a bit with my crankiness! If so, my family will be thanking the cows on a daily basis.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Found and Lost

We found the cows: four white Charolais steers bedded down in a waterway in the middle of a farmer's beanfield.

The same four white steers that farmer Tom's fieldhand has seen while mowing a waterway. The ones he had called Tom about, the ones Tom had called Stewart about, the ones that Stewart had called Mr. Palmer about, and yes, the ones that had caused the hired hand to be the butt of some good-natured jokes. Those cows.

Turns out the family at that pretty Campbell Road farmstead we had visited 5 hours earlier had known that there were white cattle sightings on their land, but had forgotten about it when they determined Tom's hired hand was a dope.

A lesson for us all: hired hands aren't dopes.

Well, news of finding the lost cattle traveled quickly and by this time we had a small posse of locals rounded up to help us....maybe 10 people or so. We decided to move the cattle back up that long farm lane and divert them into a 5 acre pasture. From there we could get them into a corral, load them up into our trailer, and have them outta there.

The first part of the plan went rather smoothly. It took only 45 minutes or so to get the cattle moving up the lane and into the pasture. Marcel quickly went home to get our trailer, which he backed into position at the end of their corral. We shifted our positions around and had a nice three-point-corral system laid out. Marcel and the other guys would herd the cattle into the corral and Laura would shut the first gate behind them. Then Mary (a neighbor) would push them into a second area of the corral and shut another gate. Monica (Stewart's wife) and I would keep them moving straight up and into the trailer, finishing the show of pure herding talent with a slam of the trailer door.

What a plan! We were so confident of success, even, that we ordered a few pizza's.

The cows, however, had a different plan. They weren't returning to the captive life without a fight and wouldn't go into the corral. After a long and painful hour, we had another stroke of bad luck. One steer broke away from the group and leapt right up and over the pasture fence as if he were an albino deer. *ahem* He ran back down that long lane and returned to the beautiful beanfield with the stream and cottonwood tree. NOoooo!!!

Well, we chased him for a bit but decided to call it a night. We collapsed upon Stewart and Monica's chairs, ate some pizza, drank some beer, and made friends with our neighbors on Campbell Road.

To be continued........

And I promise the next time will be the last. This suffering must end soon.