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Organic or not?

February 17, 2010

It seems lately the term organic is getting a bad name.  Organic means different things to different people.  Some staunchly defend it, others poo poo it.  I’m falling somewhere in the middle.  Our farm was certified organic in the 90’s by Oregon Tilth.  We are no longer certified, but could be if we needed that distinction.  If you are truly organic, getting and keeping a certification is not hard at all.  If you want to cheat it is difficult.  I think the national standards are too lax, and are geared towards large corporations who want to cash in on organics.  My personal rule of thumb is if you’re organic, you don’t do dual marketing.  Don’t tell me a big egg ranch that has several different lines of eggs, has their heart in the right place.  It’s common to see free-range, cage-free, organic, natural, brown and white eggs all marketed from the same large farm.  Don’t tell me that if they run out of organic feed in one layer flock they won’t use conventional feed, or if they get more orders for organic eggs that they wouldn’t just add a few of the brown eggs from a different flock.  They won’t take the loss – to them it’s just sales.  The consumer can’t tell the difference.

Do I buy organic, yes, if it is local.  I will buy organic nectarines in the summer from Oregon or Washington, but I won’t buy organic nectarines right now from Chile.  There are just too many links in the chain of custody for me.  I won’t buy local conventional nectarines.  It’s not worth it.

I’m digressing here, I was going to talk about hay on our farm and why organic isn’t maybe the end-all in certain cases.  Maybe having livestock is the answer.  Managing the livestock on our farm and their output (manure) makes all the difference.  A living, breathing farm, with livestock.  A biological farm, that waxes and wanes with the season.

brown and green

Can you see a difference in the hay bales on this truck?  Which one do you think could be easily certified as organic?  And more importantly why is some green and some not.

The tan hay is from a neighbors farm who has no livestock.  The green hay is the bale and a half that was in the baler and is from one of our hay fields.  (Some hay from the previous field is always left in the baler, until haying season ends.)   The tan hay could be certified organic because nothing was applied to the ground.  No crop farming has taken place on the tan hay farm for many years.  But hay has been made there for quite a while.  I’m pretty sure the ground is clean.  Our hay could probably only be certified as transitional because we buy straw from a farmer who is not certified organic and we use that straw for our composting.

grass hay flake 2009 crop

grass hay 2009

Our hay ground is just paddocks that have gotten ahead of the cows during the grazing season and are dropped out of the grazing rotation.  Our pastures contain many different types of grasses and forbs and so does the resulting hay.   By grazing at least once during the grazing season, we can make high quality hay later in the summer than most people do and still get good hay.  Trying to make hay here in May and June is a pain.  We are getting a second “cutting” that is the mark of hay farmers far and wide.  We are just letting the cows harvest the first cutting while it is raining.  That puts us in a good a weather window for harvesting too.  The date isn’t so much important as the quality of the hay.  And the best quality “hay” is actually grass that gets grazed by a cow when it is still grass.  If I make more hay, I have less grass to graze.  It would be the same as you canning or freezing all your vegetables for winter and not eating them fresh when they were at their peak.  See?  The more days in the year my cattle can graze and harvest their own food, the longer it is before I have to start feeding them hay.   It costs money to make hay.

mowing 2009

One or two types of the early grass has set seed heads, but that is OK, as you can see from the hay flakes above, the hay is predominately green.

high impact grazing - summer

High density, short duration grazing helps replenish the soil.  It looks bad to the uninitiated eye but look at the difference below.

effects of high impact grazing

Same paddocks, already showing growth  mid-winter.  Meanwhile the mechanically cut, and not fertilized strip to the right is not as vigorous and hardy.  And no, you don’t have to have a hundred animals to mob graze, despite what you’ve read.  Sure the more the better and quicker results, but the key is high density, short duration.  Not high density, long duration.  Meaning leaving a two hundred chickens in one spot for one day (broilers) or three days (layers) is OK and will rejuvenate the soil.  Leaving two hundred chickens in one place, say 1/2 acre or so, for 3 weeks, bad idea.  Sure it will give them room to roam and range, but after about 3 days it is stale.  You can imagine a salad bar with the same bowl of salad mix put out day after day until the bowl in empty… not to mention what impact that is having on your soil and pasture plants.  Hopefully, you get the idea.  I know moving animals is a lot of work, but if it grows good feed for them, that you don’t have to buy, isn’t that a good thing?  And as much as I like hay season, it is hard work, building fence and calling animals is a little more enjoyable.

ambient temperature - feeding shed

The other part of our fertilizer program is the feeding shed for the cows with deep bedding.  The outside temperature is 38°F.

deep bedding pack temp - feeding shed

It’s already heating – not full compost temperature because the cows weight packs it pretty tight, but coming along nicely.

Like our food, livestock food too has become a mass-produced product of the marketing machine.  We are looked down on as backwards because when we upgraded our baler and bought a new one, we bought another baler that makes small squares.  Round bales or large squares are getting to be normal, but only because the equipment salesman did a good job.  A disc mower will cut that grass even with the dew on it, but a disc mower takes a lot of horsepower, so you need a bigger tractor, then you need air conditioning, then you need a round baler, then you need bale forks, then you need a round bale feeder, and then you can’t hire those few teenagers that might just haul those square bales for you because the bales are too big.  I know it is more efficient, but gee making that equipment payment is hard when the guy down the road can’t buy hay from you to easily either because he only has a car or dinky pickup and a couple goats and a steer.  Pretty soon the small holder has to buy the round bale feeder too, and he puts out his round bale and then he doesn’t have to feed his stock every day or even look at them.  And he doesn’t know that the disc mower that enabled the farmer to cut the damp grass when the Brix wasn’t high in the plant made the hay a poorer quality.  See how just a few changes make a difference in animal husbandry.  There are only a few people in my immediate area that have cattle still and make their own hay.  But the hay sellers that make most of the hay that is sold in my town, do not have livestock.  They are only concerned with the mechanics of hay making.  It is a job plain and simple.  But it could be so much more.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. February 17, 2010 8:53 am

    It’s like when I needed a new hand mixer when my Sunbeam died. I decided to replace it with an old-fashioned egg beater that you operate by hand. It was actually a little more expensive at fifteen bucks, than my Sunbeam was years ago at ten, but think of all the electricity I’m not going to be paying for using it.

    I’ve read elsewhere that those round balers are really expensive, and then you have to have a tractor big enough to pick them up, as well. Not for everyone.

    • February 17, 2010 1:15 pm

      Paula, I know what you mean – I love the colors of those Kitchenaid mixers and I dream of getting one of each to match my Fiestaware. But reality sets in and I realize just how much I like my spoons and other hand tools.

      Groan, any farm equipment is expensive. Too many hills around here anyway – a guy down the road though has one, and he bales his hay in rounds, hauls them in and spends all winter forking them into his smaller baler to make small bales that he can sell. So in effect he has baled that hay twice. He is also the biggest local grumbler about farming not paying… .

  2. Linda permalink
    February 17, 2010 9:36 am

    We dairy & I have a problem w/organic milk. Being in the ‘business” we hear of things-like the organic plant that had to dump 5 loads of milk due to antibiotics. NO milk is bottled that has antibiotics (ours has no hormones either) but organic should NEVER have any! I’d put the flavor & safety of our coops milk against any organic.

    I think organic produce has it’s place and I do often buy but prefer to buy any produce locally where the grower can tell me what’s been used on it. I do not buy from foreign soils; agree, too many links-too different programs.

    • February 17, 2010 1:17 pm

      Linda, I hear you on that one, I have been to organic dairies that are awful. And conventional dairies that are beautiful. It depends on the management and mindset of the humans in charge. Same with fruit and veggies.

  3. February 17, 2010 11:04 am

    I like you more all the time. I’m sure you know how unusual it is to be “somewhere in the middle” nowadays here on the echo-net.

    I had mudballs thrown at me on Gene Logsdon’s blog when I said I thought it was a good thing the USDA was promoting hoophouse construction via EQIP. The True Believer idea being – I guess – that organics is an underground thing that only gray-haired hippies can understand and .gov will surely destroy a good thing. Organics as a counter-culture way of life instead of something all ag can aspire to as the mainstream instead of a niche market of Back to the Landers selling arugula to college profs.

    Don’t get me wrong, Gene is one of my heros but the Guru mentality and the with-us-or-against-us theme on everything – everything – is really becoming tiresome.

  4. February 17, 2010 12:58 pm

    From what I understand, Chile has become a quite respected economy and producer in the world. I agree about other sources, but you might give Chile a second chance.

    The Small Farmers Journal claimed a few years ago that you can shove a 30″ wrecking bar (the “J” hook type pry bar) in near the edge of a round bale, to tie to a chain, to tie to a tractor or . . . horse or mule or oxen in harness. Then drag the bale where you want it. You won’t take off down the road – the net or strings will all break – but you can move it around the yard. You can tip it up on it’s side, to feed more evenly. Take one of the wrecking bars, insert near the top of the bale on the to-be-up side, tie a chain from the bar, run across the top of the bale, to a pulling point, and pull – tips the bale right up.

    I experimented once. Used a scythe a friend gave me, cut some of the old pasture grass (with Big Bluestem) in the yard. Came back a day later, turned it with an actual field fork I picked up at the flea market, into a windrow. Turned it gently two more days. Hauled almost two cubic yards into the barn; I finished feeding it out last week. The smell was awesome, the first week in February. I could enjoy just a bit more loose hay, just a bit more field to harvest.

    • February 17, 2010 1:28 pm

      Brad, too many years working in the food & soil testing lab cured me! I would rather support my local orchard and can a little surplus than I would have fresh fruit on demand every week of the year. I think the grocery store takes a little excitement out of our food anyway. Waiting for that first nectarine always gets me a little jazzed! If I ate them all the time, I think it would be old hat.

      Yeah, for good old Lynn – although I doubt he is really using a round baler on his farm. I’ll stick with the squares, much easier to handle even for an old matron like me 😉 Ahhh – the smell of good hay, the cows have been perturbed lately, because when we open a bale we have been taken by the plantain and dandelion, it is perfect for munching. If word leaks out that I am eating hay, and allowing my child to witness such behavior, my neighbors will think I am crazy! Oh never mind, they already do. Sigh.

  5. February 17, 2010 10:37 pm

    The green in the hay bleaches out with exposure to sunlight. Having the bale in the baler, protected from sunlight, would result in a greener bale. You can see the same difference when you break open a bale and see the green inside, with the faded exterior.

    I see the same bleaching in my stacks of hay bales — the bales inside, surrounded by other bales, are green. The ones on the outside are bleached.

    Have you ever had your bales tested for nutritional value via a university extension? It’d be interesting to compare a bale of yours vs your neighbors — but since it’s different grass species, and yours shows quite a bit of clover, I’d expect them to test differently.

  6. February 17, 2010 11:31 pm

    Bruce, so you’re thinking a week in the baler would make that much difference in the color? And that compost fed hay is no different than hay on poor ground? Funny – the test is the stock, they don’t eat the poor hay, they do not waste the good. I’ll take a picture tomorrow – and you can still see the difference in the hay, let alone that it has all been stacked in an open sided barn and has lost color since summer.

    Your statements illustrate what I am saying is wrong with hay sellers. By not doing anything but harvesting hay the ground gets depleted and the grass species go backward in succession to what will survive in poorer soil conditions. The clovers and forbs in our grass stands show higher fertility. If you take away, you must put something back, or you’re continually mining the fertility out of your soil.

    I would not waste any money testing the neighbors hay, it is just carbon at this point.

    • March 3, 2010 9:53 am

      Actually, I helped my neighbor feed some very aged alfalfa bales (small squares), that had gotten water damaged in the shed, crumbly, very weathered in the outside several inches. The cows loved it, preferring the weathered hay to fresher alfalfa.

      A horse I raised was particular. I was buying 3-string square bales – slightly larger, about 110 pounds, average – of coastal Bermuda. One day Kat wouldn’t eat her hay. On looking, this bright, wonderfully fresh looking hay had a few pulpy leaved weeds – that were covered with fungus. Nothing big, but she would not eat that bale. The next bale from the same trip to the store was great. I tried a local farm. That batch of bales didn’t look as “pretty” to me – and she scarfed it up.

      I agree that hay grown on poor ground won’t be as good nutritionally, planting seasons and varieties being equal. But I am not sure I would rely on animals’ eagerness as being a reliable indicator of “better” for them. That sure wasn’t a driver for me at the table, growing up.

      • March 3, 2010 2:39 pm

        Brad K., have you made much hay yourself? I mean actually the growing of the feed and then actually feeding it out? My point on this particular post was that while I know that brown hay has no food value whatsoever, (we cut that field for a friend who needs to keep the grass from being a fire hazard) it could be certified organic if the paperwork was done. The land barely supports any growth at all. Our fields that are grazed, hayed, and then fertilized with composted manure applied cannot be certified because we buy non organic straw for bedding. So in this case it organic means nothing. What I have learned in a lifetime with cows, and what other more eloquent writers (Voisin, Albrecht, Walters, Salatin and probably even L. Miller) have noticed is that livestock will seek out the most nutritious food if left to their own devices. Even though it does not appear nutritious to us. Two years ago, we had baled hay in the field get rained on repeatedly. It was black after 3 weeks in the field. We had initially teepeed the bales, and ended up removing the twine, raking the flakes back into windrows and when it finally was dry enough to bale, we baled it just to get it out of the field. We were going to use it as bedding, since it was black/gray with no resemblance to anything edible as far as livestock was concerned. What actually happened was that the hay from the poor field ended up getting left in favor of the rained on compost fed hay.

        As for a humans making good food choices, I think there is no comparison to cows. Maybe horses who choose to overeat and founder but not cows, unless they are so skewed by a grain diet anyway. I’m sticking to my guns on this one.

  7. Rich permalink
    February 18, 2010 4:25 am

    I’m curious about what you usually use for bedding? I been wondering if a ‘better’ compost can be created by using diverse bedding materials.

    Specifically, I’ve been reading lately about compost and soil fertility and have noticed a few references to using wood materials in compost.

    Decaying wood is supposed to encourage the growth of phosphorus fixing fungi (if that is the correct term) so that when it is spread on a pasture it results in more phosphorus being created in the soil than what is present in the compost.

  8. February 18, 2010 6:25 am

    Rich, we use a combination of straw and horse stable cleanings that is 95% sawdust. When the shed is cleaned it is stacked for a year and then spread on the fields that were cut for hay. The horse stable doesn’t keep their cleanings and haul it to farms that will utilize it.

    If we wanted to bother with hogs we could do the Salatin corn layering component, and they would do the aging for us. We did that for two years, it works great, but the timing and handling of the hogs and storing the whole corn etc, just didn’t fit in with our chore list at the time. People who have hogs and don’t add this component to their business should take a closer look – it works great. But I suppose that smacks of confinement and there is a whole contingent of farmers who are bent on free ranging their stock. The Nordell’s model would work better for us.

    Another thing that is boosting the resulting compost is the use of feed grade soft rock phosphate in the minerals for the cattle.

  9. February 18, 2010 5:12 pm

    I’m currently reading Joel Salatin’s “Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal”, so it’s great to see the same viewpoint on your blog (and with pretty pictures. 🙂 ) Thanks for posting!

  10. February 18, 2010 8:25 pm

    You may be right; I don’t know what your neighbors land is like, and as you’ve said, you don’t compare your hay to his except in an anecdotal way. Different grass and different food value.

    I’m on river bottom muck, which is 30% organic to being with, and I use hogs to turn and compost several thousand yards of wood chips a year ala salatin. I use that to rehab clay areas on my farm, and to amend thin soils on top of the clay. I agree with you completely that compost, applied to your fields, makes them better.

    • February 18, 2010 9:11 pm

      Bruce, your soil sounds amazing, there is some near here at the river delta. Beautiful, but government owned. They kicked off the rancher that grazed it and now it is a dog park. The gummint spends lots of money battling the blackberries and reed canary grass. They used to take in money from the rancher… . Now the taxpayers foot the bill.

  11. February 27, 2010 11:44 am

    Man, I just love your blog. I learn soo much from you!
    I eat up every single post but rarely comment. So, here’s a comment to let you know that I’m always reading, & enjoying. 🙂

    • February 27, 2010 11:55 am

      Aubrey, thanks so much – I’m guilty of that too. I read lots of blogs but never say much…thanks again for commenting!

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