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Goals Change, the Old Orthorexic Mare Ain’t What She Used to Be

February 19, 2016
while I was seeding...

while I was seeding…

Darn kids, give them a camera and of course they like to take photos of you when you’re not aware.  I’m fair game I suppose, and since I don’t really look at the back of my head much, if at all, I was a little surprised to see I still had a fair bit of dark hair.  I would like to think that I am a little wiser after all these years of gardening and larder stuffing.  Each year I’m a little more satisfied with our food supply.  Not worrying as much about food and how I store it as I used to be, and learning that being obsessed with clean food has a name, Orthorexia. You can read about it here.  I’m probably in denial, but seeing these cool, vintage photos that I absolutely love, start to circulate on the interwebs really opened my eyes to how much my goals have changed in the last 15 years or so.

Eastern Oregon cellar, 1939, photo taken by Dorothea Lange, for the FSA

Oregon cellar, 1939, photo taken by Dorothea Lange, for the FSA


1910 fruit room

1910 is the date I have seen posted with this…

I love these old photos, but being someone who grew up with a fruit room exactly like these, I can see that the items while representative of the prowess of the makers, were staged for the photos, Gram’s Instagrams if you will.  Food Styling for pantry nerds.  Apples and cut rhubarb and potatoes exposed to the light?  Onions, squash and possibly celery down in the corner?  All those things would be present at a farm home, but most likely kept in different areas for the longest possible storage.  Gramma knew dark was the name of the game for potato storage, a thing I failed to pick up on when my old burlap bags gave up the ghost, I used modern white plastic burlap bags like I use for my dahlia bulbs, and guess what?  I ruined my potatoes, they turned green in the root cellar from the whiteness of the bags.  Lesson learned, pay attention to detail.

February 2016

February 2016

This is our fruit room, or actually one side of it, and I have actually seen it stuffed to the gills before with home canned goods from the garden and orchard.  I’ve even stuffed it a few times myself. Those old root cellar photos used to be my goal, now I can see them as historical photos showing what was happening then, not what I need to do now.

February 2016

February 2016

These days, the shelves hold more empty jars than full.  We have changed the way we eat and garden.  I still can a few things, but not near what I used to do.  We just have lost all desire for canned fruit, except chunky applesauce.  Ditto for most canned vegetables, but I still really like canned tomatoes in all their forms.  I grew up with the idea you planted your garden and then you canned or froze everything you could harvest in long marathon canning sessions to put that sunlight in a jar for the dark days. Necessity, and much better than going to the store for sure.  But these days, some things have changed or at least they have for us.

I think where the orthorexia comes in, is in the form of over-correction.  Depending on who you talk to they will tell you that you must eat the way they do.  Raw, vegan, vegetarian, paleo, omnivore, gluten-free, fermented, fresh, etc.  I get the proselytizing about probiotics, but you have to realize we eat a lot of raw food and dirt each day already, we drink untreated spring water, and I get the avoidance of factory farming of animals.  So we’ve preferred to take a moderate approach, and keep some of the old and the new ways of larder stocking.  As much as I would like to erase plastic from my life, it’s nigh impossible to completely erase plastic in some form in the food storage arena.

I think if you go back through my blog you will find posts about making 10 gallons of sauerkraut at a time.  That is how I learned to do it.  Grow it, shred it, salt it, pack it, and you’re done.  Sometimes unlearning one thing means you learn something new, or change what you’re doing a bit.  Sauerkraut is a live food, what you put in the crock in November surely tastes much different than what you pull out in April… .  The single most important thing about all these styles of eating and preserving?  You and most of the household must like the product, no matter how good you believe it is for you or your family, if they don’t like it, it’s a wasted effort.  None of us like lacto-fermented cucumbers, no matter how much brow beating we endure, we just don’t like them.  So we move on.  And we make and eat vinegar pickles, and we enjoy them, down to the very last piece in the jar.  That is what makes all the work worth it.

January King OP cabbage

January King OP cabbage

So now I try each year to make some kraut out of fall cabbages, but smaller amounts, and just relax and enjoy smothered cabbage as a vegetable side dish. Succession planting of different types of cabbage that mature at different time allows us some freedom from the old way of putting up.

People change the way they eat because they grow weary of eating the same thing.  By expanding my gardening season I can expand my pantry too.  I know too some of you are thinking yeah, easy for you to say, you live in zone 8, so I say read some Eliot Coleman, he lives in Maine, same parallel as here but a much colder gardening zone. “Well, then ignore what I have to say and go with what works for you.” -Eliot Coleman  His four season gardening techniques are not to be sneezed at no matter what zone you garden in.  I would venture it’s more the idea of gardening year round that turns off lots of folks, more than their climate limitations. Many make a greenhouse work for them in cold climates, with added row cover they fashion a greenhouse within a greenhouse ala Coleman and his four season farm.

Now in February maybe I am tired of cooking and eating smothered cabbage, and if I planned my winter garden and planted it in late summer or early fall, and the weather cooperated, I can make fresh kraut now with fresh cabbage, carrots and stored garlic, instead of dreading the 10 gallon slog through the October kraut.

Gardeners are gamblers for sure.  I know the supermarket is a sure bet, but seeds are cheap and I have learned for sure that if I don’t plant something, it is guaranteed I won’t be harvesting anything.  So I plant.  Sometimes the stars are aligned and we have great abundance, some times the fare is meager due to pests and weather, but it is there, and still a good alternative if you have just a little bit of space to devote to winter gardening.

I can’t say growing your own food will be guaranteed to be cheaper, many times it’s not.  The labor and space required for growing, and drying down dried beans or corn for cornmeal may seem silly when you can just go to the store and purchase these items.  And maybe a little orthorexia is in order, after all we should fear some things, but we shouldn’t paint ourselves into a corner either.

corn 3

I hope the yearning for a full pantry like those depicted in the vintage photos never goes away, but rather the full pantry just takes on a different look.


Pinching Lincoln Too Hard

February 11, 2016
Fall planted Tatsoi

Fall planted Tatsoi

I suppose if you’re reading my blog we can assume that frugality is a way of life for you already.  Pinching pennies, or being frugal comes in many forms.  It might be something so simple as eating the delicious stalks of bolting brassicas.  I’m not much of a fan of the mustard family when they bolt in mid-summer, but now?  Eating these tender leaves in the shoulder seasons far outweighs a trip to the grocery store for fresh greens.

Winterbor kale

Winterbor kale

Leaving these kale plants to sprout new growth only makes sense, I could have pulled the plants and fed them to the chickens, but squeaking out more meals for us makes is more in keeping with frugality.  The chickens can have them when we are done.  Even if I started kale yesterday (which I didn’t) it would almost two months before I could begin robbing new leaves.  These plants were seeded last July and planted in August, they can stand me harvesting them hard.

In terms of using heat mats, the practice is certainly not free, but I can use the space to my advantage.  Slow growing plants like herbs, flowers, and some veggies like celery root can be started in these small cells.  My flats are all the same size to fit the mat of course (unlike hot dogs and hot dog buns).  On the right you see a 200 cell insert, on the left is a 48 cell flat, making use of 6 packs, because that is what we have from plant sales, and we reuse them a lot.  Plants with like germination times are grouped together.  It’s not wise to put bok choy which will sprout in about four days with celeriac which may take twenty-one days to germinate.  Follow me?  Bok choy will be in the ground before the celeriac has a set of true leaves.  In simpler terms, the celeriac and herb flat may sit on that heat mat for three weeks, and the bok choy being cold tolerant can move to the side off the heat and make way for a succession seeding of something else.  So yes the heat mat and flats do cost some money to purchase and to use, but I can use them efficiently or inefficiently.

February 10, 2016

February 10, 2016

Besides rotating the plants across the heat mat and off to a semi-warm place in the greenhouse, I can simply turn it off the heat during the day, on a mildly sunny afternoon the temperature is quite high inside.

Plant tags can be made of wood or plastic, and we have chosen plastic.  Both have the pros and cons.  We reuse these tags so many times, I am sure they paid for themselves a long time ago.  Mostly we use them for the greenhouse and for plant sales, we don’t need them in the garden.  There are some recycling concerns, but…who doesn’t have plastic somewhere in this modern life.  I would like to meet that person.  The jokes we can make out of these names too, are not to be sneezed at.  Laughter is the best medicine, and sometimes a little levity on a long seeding day is much appreciated.  Only a plant nerd would laugh at a Cobra onion tag reused and placed wrong side out in a kale flat.  See?  Easily amused.

Sometimes frugality can come in the form of just putting away a tool. Drip irrigation is a wonderful thing, but it’s not uncommon to see miles of this stuff lying around near gardens and on farms.  I know mine was until yesterday, just taunting me to get on the tractor and mow it by mistake.  While inexpensive really to set up, it still is a cash outlay for the farm or homestead.  The savings come with lowered labor, ease of use and smaller allocation of water compared to other methods of irrigation. To keep those savings in your pocket though, you need to put the stuff away in the off-season.  Yesterday, using my home-made drip winder, we made bales of drip tape that can be easily stored until it is time use them.  For even more labor savings, we divided the number of lines by two, with the thinking that we will not start irrigating the entire garden at the same time.  These bales are labeled for each garden so we know where to use them when the time comes.

Winter killed Sorghum-Sudan

Winter killed Sorghum-Sudan

Other savings may be realized with a living mulch.  Seeds are relatively inexpensive and easy to sow.  Comparing this greenhouse cover crop that successfully winter killed to buying weed-free straw and spreading it, I think we saw a significant savings here in labor and expense.  Not to mention ease of application.  Fifty pound small squares of straw require some muscle and fuel to haul, store and then spread.


I talked at length (too much I fear) about wasting hay in that flurry of blog posts last month.  With livestock you can spend an awful lot time doing unnecessary chores or wasting money, sometimes both.  Most of my hay wasting comments come from seeing round bales stuck out in a feeder in the rain (or even worse round bales stored out in the rain) for a few cows.  Sure that is as convenient as all heck.  The cows eat what they want, crap on the rest and there you go.  You dump off the hay, go back in a week and move to the next bale.  At best it’s called bale grazing…at worst it called a gigantic pugged up mess in a field.  Apologies to those of you who live in frigid areas where your ground remains frozen all winter.  Storing hay outside here in the Pacific Northwest is a waste, and some folks can absorb that loss.  I can’t.  A note too, if you are buying hay and the seller stores his hay outside, his calculated loss is figured into the price when he sells his hay.

I think many times folks get the meaning of automatic and automated mixed up.  I been taken to task before in emails for feeding my pigs with a self-feeder and having them on a nipple water system rather than pouring buckets of water for the swine.  Same with the chickens.  Many fear a return to feedlots and automation, or that their meat customers will think less of them if they aren’t slogging through the mud, snow, sleet whatever to nurture the livestock.  That is all well and good if you’re the nurturing type, but keep in mind that an animal that has to go wanting for water or food, will not gain as well or be as happy as you think they are when the are clamoring at the fence when you show up on your schedule.  Of course, they are glad to see you, they want water and food.  And unlike us, the pigs and hens won’t overeat to the point of obesity, so worries about the feed bill are unwarranted.

We don’t keep pigs during the winter, just hens and cows, but I make sure that I look at the hen’s water bucket that delivers water to their gravity waterer.  Same with the pigs in the summer, they have a nipple plumbed to a 55 gallon barrel of water.  It might last 3 days, it might last a week, I look every. single. day.  Are the birds flighty?  Are the pigs squeaking at me?  Stuff goes wrong.  Just because we have set up easy automatic watering systems we can attend to with a hose doesn’t mean something won’t get plugged or broken.  And I have to say, systems like these scaled down from the big guys ensure clean water.  Who can argue with that.  And who wants to carry buckets of water in this day and age when you don’t need to?  Wouldn’t it be considered frugal to save our bodies?  Save on injuries, instead of being stubborn and holding to some strange, rigid ideal of work that work must be painful or it’s not meaningful?

I think if we think of ourselves as a resource (mind and body) to be protected, be frugal with ourselves in regards to labor, tasks, and our pocketbook we can all feel successful in whatever we choose to do.

Entering the Hunger Gap

February 10, 2016

I’ll use the term garden loosely, since my gardening right now is concentrated in the greenhouse. We’re right in the hunger gap season when fresh stores from last year are just about running out or bolting, and we’re a ways from harvesting anything new.  Imbolc is the time halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and halfway is an apt description.

Joi Choi

Joi Choi

Some plants are taking the extra light of the longer days as an excuse to bolt or send up their seed stalk. While others are content for a bit.

Tat Soi bolting

Tat Soi bolting

I’m taking this cue as time to start some seeds.  Not much as I can’t really plant much yet anyway.  But some slow growers like celeriac, onions, shallots, flowers and herbs.  I also seeded a flat or two of cool weather greens to take the place of what we still have that is harvestable from late fall plantings.  My heat mat real estate is limited, so once these flats have germinated I can move them and start more flats.


Finding the rhythm of seeding again feels good. Come on Spring.

Is Deep Bedding for You?

January 29, 2016

Well, that depends.  I can only write about what works and doesn’t work for us.  Possibly a better way to look at it is the why?

Why deep bed in the first place?  The reason we decided to implement deep bedding was twofold.  We needed to jump start fertility in our pastures because we really wanted to get out of bringing in inferior hay that our cattle would not eat.  That in turn meant we would have to make our own hay here instead of relying on other people’s land base.  We also needed to give our pastures a rest from the cows.  Remember I grew up with the cows being out all year round, and we hauled feed to them every day of hay feeding season.  So simple, hardly any equipment was required, but it was months of hauling hay and finding a clean spot in the pastures.  Rain, snow, sleet, ice, we stuck with that for years, and we still do feed out like that for the beginning of winter.  Deep bedding? Huh?  Cows in a barn?  What’s that?  A paradigm shift for this stick in the mud?  Cough, cough.  That was a tough one.


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We stuck our toes in first in this barn with the fixed feeder.  I have to say deep bedding is pretty amazing how it builds up, and builds up, and builds up.  Pretty soon the cows were on their knees eating hay and we were starting to get nervous about the old growth fir siding and the inevitable manure buildup touching it.  The proof that this idea wasn’t going to work in this barn really hit home when it was time to clean out the barn.  It was very difficult to clean out with equipment, the siding or the feeder was always in jeopardy.  That meant a lot of hand work.  Okay strike that idea.  Deep bedding good.  Location and barn design bad.

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Armed with our pros and cons list we set out to rethink the deep bedding idea. What we needed was a simple shed that we were able to drive through from end to end for cleaning, like most modern dairy barns.  The most logical plan was to attach a shed to our hay barn where we store all our hay and bedding. With high eaves on the barn we could easily attach a shed that would be tall enough to accommodate the bedding buildup without the cows rubbing their backs on the rafters come spring.  Pole type construction simplified the design also, allowing us to utilize poles from our own timber to cut expenses.

By building the shed onto the hay barn we were going to be saving ourselves a lot of labor handling the hay.  But there is no free lunch, if you deep bed your livestock you are committed to moving that material at some point.  Basically you are trading one task for another.  That’s not a particularly earth shattering idea but you have to set priorities for your particular circumstances.  We wanted to eliminate the second bite syndrome by keeping the cows off of the pasture, it was more important that we take on some extra labor to feed and bed in the barn rather than let the cows have at the pasture.  Fertilizer and rest are the two most important things that your pasture needs.  How you provide those two and at the right times is dependent on many factors.


Some deep thoughts about deep bedding:

♥  Do your pastures need a rest during the rainy season?  That would depend on if you have stockpiled forage or not to provide a cushion to protect the pasture from being eaten into the ground even though you are providing hay.  Grazers are gonna graze.

♥  Do you have a barn area that would be suitable.  Maybe an existing shed that is attached to a barn already.  It could be just a decorating problem of moving the furniture so to speak.  Could the implements outside in the shed trade places with the livestock inside?  Just because a building was built specifically for one use doesn’t mean you can’t think outside the barn and switch things up. Things to watch out for are low sheds, even if the cows fit in with deep bedding, will your tractor?  Or are you committing yourself to hand work.  Compacted cow manure is awful to clean out of a barn, and the less carbonaceous the bedding material the harder it is to pick out.  Hay = hard compacted linoleum-like bedding, shavings = less compacted bedding but still difficult to clean out by hand.

♥  On our farm we have divided the deep bedding systems up by what the type of animal needs or can tolerate.  I don’t deep bed my dairy cow or her calf because a dairy cow’s udder is just too low and invites problems.  I also can manually clean up after a couple of head of cattle on a daily basis, any more than that is too much work.  But it’s not just a mathematical problem, we deep bed our flock of 20+ laying hens and do all that clean out by hand.

♥  Do you have the equipment to clean out the deep bedding?  We didn’t have to buy anything special, you may already have a 4WD tractor with a loader (teeth are handy for digging, a smooth bucket will not work) and a manure spreader.  Or you can rent equipment and write that off on your taxes. This is also a good place for bartering, maybe a half a hog for the use of a neighbors skidsteer for a week.  Keep your options open.

♥  Stack your functions.  Once we built the feeding shed we used it throughout the year for other projects.  We have housed pigs in there on the deep bedding in hopes they would turn the bedding into compost.  A note:  it takes a lot of pigs to do the job, if you’re in the pork business, and have forty extra feeder pigs at the right time go for it.  We found it easier to clean out the barn and raise less pigs in another setting.  We raised pullets in the off-season in that shed too.  That was not a free lunch either, pigs squirt out holes much smaller than a cow, and chickens need protecting from everything, so different fencing and overhead netting had to be added to make those projects work.

♥  Do you have an inexpensive source of carbon for bedding material?  A place to store it?  For the bedding to do its job of capturing the fertility your livestock puts out, the bedding must be dry.

♥  Besides the clean out phase of deep bedding, does your barn plan accommodate your type of hay?  Obviously if you are feeding round bales you would need to be more diligent with heavy equipment to add bales and elevate feeders as the bedding builds up.  You also would need a wider shed to feed rounds also to allow for every animal to be able to eat comfortably.


Every farm and its needs and inhabitants are different.  Hopefully if you’re thinking of deep bedding I have given you some food for thought and maybe given you some ideas why or why not to implement some type of deep bedding on your own farm.








Doling Out the Hay

January 26, 2016


So now you have your hay, how do you dole that out?  For us hay is a pretty precious resource.  We’ve got sweat equity and a ton of worry in our hay supply, and if you have to buy hay you have invested a lot of your hard-earned money.  So keeping waste to a minimum is important I think.  I cannot even begin to convey how much it bugs me when I see wasted hay.  A quick tour around the interwebs will give you an eyeful of wasted hay.  And what’s the worst in my mind is the cavalier attitude about wasting hay.  I have heard numbers bandied about at high as a 50% expectation of useful hay.  Wow!  I. Could. Not. Afford. That.  Our cows don’t waste any hay.  I’m not kidding.  Zero waste.  How can be?


A lot of that has to do with quality I believe.  We make quality hay, and I know how hard that is to do.  Besides having good standing hay to begin with you have to deal with the weather, or equipment breakdowns.  With poor quality hay you probably can expect 50% of the hay to be discarded by the animals.  So we work hard to avoid that.  We used to get hay off other “farms” in exchange for the baling of the hay.  Many times our cows would not eat it.  One year, much to our surprise our cows chose hay from here that had been rained on for over a month, over hay from one of those depleted farms I mentioned in the previous post.  We had baled that rained on hay just to get the mess out of the field, and planned to use it for bedding. We didn’t offer it to them we just bedded the feeding shed with the rained on hay and filled the feeder with the “good” hay.  Hours later when we went back to the barn, the cows had eaten a good portion of the bedding hay, and had tossed the other hay out of the feeder.  You should have seen the stink eye we got when we flipped that hay back in the feeder for dinner.  Happy Cows did not live in Oregon that day.  So I have to concede that possibly all that wasted hay I am seeing is due to quality or lack thereof.  I don’t know about your area, but here you can pay the same amount for crappy hay and good hay.  The test of good hay is if your stock will eat it, and clean it up. We still talk about the cows choosing what we considered junk hay over hay that had never seen a drop of rain.


So, lets assume you bought or put up quality hay.  The way you feed the hay out too can make a huge difference in how much hay is wasted.  We feed in a number of ways during the winter.  If the cows are outside and we have not brought them in for the deep bedding period, we deliver the hay to them via pickup and drop the hay off each side of the pickup bed.  When feeding like this you want to drop off small amounts of hay and space it at least a cow length plus, so the cows don’t poop or pee on the hay behind them spoiling it for eating.  We use small square bales so about a half a bale in each spot is about right.  If you feed like this you want to feed in a different spot each day.  You will be avoiding feeding on manured areas and placing a more suitable amount of disturbance where you want it.  If you’re trying to boost your fertility feeding like this in the poor spots of the pasture will help. Livestock do not like to eat hay their feet have touched because they know they have walked in their own manure.  That’s why fence line feeding where you put all the bales together and in the same spot each day will waste a lot of hay, essentially wasting the waste, because there is no way to reclaim that extra manure, urine and soiled hay.  It might be convenient to just shove the bale over the fence and not fire up that big tractor or pickup and drive out in the field but, really you should.

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Still assuming that we all have quality hay, feeder design may have something to do with hay wastage.  These feeder panels pictured above are fixed to a log, you know to hold it firmly in place… . Well, that’s the problem, depending on cow size, if you mount the feeder too high, calves will have a hard time reaching the hay, and if you mount it too low like above, the cows will be uncomfortable because the top bar of the feeder is pressing on their neck the whole time they are eating.  This will cause them to reach in and pull out a mouthful of hay and stand there eating it comfortably.  But if you have ever pulled apart hay bales of any type you know some always falls out of your hand.  So there goes the hay, on the ground and most likely it will get wasted because it gets stepped on.  The reason the stock doesn’t eat soiled hay?  Because they have a natural repugnance to cow manure, just like in the pasture the repugnance zone that never gets grazed is because of the manure.  So no, they are not being fussy, or cute and turning up their nose at perfectly good hay, they are protecting themselves from parasites.  Cows are anal that way, and I suspect so is every other grazer if they have a choice.  If there ever is an appropriate place to anthropomorphise folks, this is it.  Put yourself in their place in regards to eating and feeding.

♥  Is it comfortable to eat there?

♥  Is it clean?  No manure of any type, not trodden on before feeding, by chickens, goats, etc., etc.

♥  Is it dry and not rained on or ruined?

♥  Do they feel safe there eating?  Will the boss cow ram them from behind while they’re eating?

We got a little smarter with this feeder design, mostly because we wanted to do deep bedding and you must have a movable feeder gate to accomplish this.  We looked at a lot of designs including Polyface’s, and came up with this installation for our barn.  The first thing to crap out on these panels were the solid sheet metal bottoms that keep the hay on the correct side of the panel.  The cows bashed them to smithereens in about seven years, and they were on the wrong side of the panel to really work well.  So this summer Hangdog replaced them with plywood.  Easy to replace and not quite so dangerous to the bovine bashers should they (plywood panels, not the cows) come loose.

When we were researching feeders for inside winter feeding, the one design we kept seeing was mangers slanted in towards the cow side of the barn, which always resulted in pulled out hay, which quickly becomes sodden, dirty hay.  I suppose in a dream world where you can waste hay till the cows come home, that would be fine.  Hay Schmay who cares?  Unfortunately I don’t live or haul hay in that dream world, I don’t really like wasting hay as you can tell by now.  So to that end we rigged up the feeder so the cows stuck their heads in on our side, and if they scoot the hay out of the manger, it is on our side of the barn so we can fork it back within their reach.  Not unlike a nice feed alley that you see in larger barns.

So those are the basics, keeping the hay clean, keeping the hay fresh and really looking at the feeder or method you use to feed out the hay and most importantly, watching the cows to see if it is working for them, you may be able to adjust or change-up your feeding area a little bit and stop some of that slippage, and maybe spend a little less on hay.

I can’t really finish this post without saying a thing or three about round bales.  I am for one glad we never progressed that far.  I know it probably sounds like heresy to go against the round bale crowd, but for smallholders?  Really you need some equipment to handle those bales, and forgive my ignorance, I have no idea how much feed that is, and for a cow or two it just doesn’t make sense, unless you don’t mind the waste.  There are so many designs of round bale feeders, I have a feeling finding the one that really works without wasting most of the hay is like finding a needle in a haystack.  I get it though, I know some folks have no choice, that’s what is available and you do have to make do.  I also understand the hay guy’s dilemma too, he doesn’t want to handle all those little bales, and the big bales make perfect sense in that regard.  Get big or get out really left its mark.

I’m on a roll I think…next:  So you think you want to try deep bedding?


Looking for Mr. Goodbale

January 25, 2016

Hay.  Can you think of a subject on a farm or farmstead that evokes more images and opinions than hay?  Even people who don’t own livestock have an opinion on hay.  I know my life pretty much evolves around hay.  Growing it, making it, putting it up, feeding it out, or in other words worrying about hay all year round.

We are fortunate to be able to make our own hay on our land, and I have to honestly say I think that is as important as growing your own food.  You are what you eat eats…or something like that.  I also understand not everyone can make their own hay, so I thought maybe a few tips and thoughts on hay from our perspective might be helpful.

Yeah, I remember that day. 96F and you're in the middle of the barn. The outside of the stack is important. The middle? Not so much.

Yeah, I remember that day. 96F and you’re in the middle of the barn. The outside of the stack is important. The middle? Not so much.

Finding good hay can be troublesome.  It never ceases to amaze that many times you hear folks exclaiming about diversity on many fronts.  But hay?  No siree, usually the quest is for monoculture.  Alfalfa or Orchard grass are the two coveted hay monocultures here in the Pacific Northwest, I can’t say for other parts of the country.  What our cows like best is a diverse pasture to graze on, and they like hay made from those diverse pastures equally well.

Here is one of those diverse pastures being cut for hay.

Here is that hay right now.  Chock full of nutrients by the way of weeds herbs and grasses in different stages of growth. Have you ever heard the term herbal ley? Hay isn’t just grass, or it shouldn’t be.  The more types of plants in your pasture the better the pasture and the hay made from that pasture will be.  Joel Salatin calls his pastures salad bars and that’s what you should strive for too.  A common idea floating around is that you can just take a piece of land and turn it into a good pasture by buying the “correct” seed, planting and then you’re done.  Expectations like that will set you up for a hard fall.  Certainly if, (insert big IF here) you tended that pasture like your tomato plants you might get a decent crop for a year or two, but the land, or rather your soil’s makeup and how you treat it, and how it’s been treated in the past will dictate what happens there.  I would place a bet that if the plants you seek (in my case legumes and dandelions) to see amongst your grasses would be there if the growing conditions are right.  After the initial seeding and propping up, the same old pasture will reemerge and the new seeds will have retreated because the climate they need is not there. Our best pasture/hayfield has not been planted in my lifetime.  I’m old.  Going on six decades.  It bears repeating, our best pasture/hayfield has not been planted in my lifetime.

My husband and I mistakenly worked up a pasture to reseed it to…pasture.  At the time, it seemed like the right thing to do, we wanted better pasture and hay.  All the advice given to us was: plow, disc, prepare a fine seedbed (like a garden) and plant a pasture mix and things would be all hunky dory.  Well, we learned a lot.  Mostly that we would never do that again.  Taking old sod and turning it into basically dust takes a lot of time and it’s very frustrating, especially if you’re wanting to turn it into sod again.  Duh.  You buy the seed, you don’t want to waste it and everyone is telling you that you must plant seed.  People like Gabe Brown and his cover crop cocktails hadn’t come along yet, so we plodded along.  That pasture today is pretty good, but it wasn’t bad when we started tearing it up either.  If only we knew then what we know now.

At about that same time, we were starting to see a shift in the hay fields that we custom hayed for folks.  It had been about 20 years since most the working farms in our area had gave way to hobby farm subdivisions.  The absence of livestock was telling.  I am here to tell you that hay in the vaguest sense is tall grass that has been cut, cured, and then baled after it is dried. Good hay is much different.  It’s not just color, because you can make the best “hay” out of poverty grasses and forbs and it will remain greenish when dried.  You have to keep in mind that hay is a step down from fresh grass if you were to look at it from the cow’s perspective.  Not unlike the freezer stash of frozen broccoli from your fall garden that pales in comparison to fresh summer broccoli right from the garden.  So, long story short, poverty grasses make even worse hay than the pastureland they grow on.  We’ve made hay for folks on fields that were so weak that you could hardly rake enough grass into a windrow for baling it was so thin.  You’d get lost trying to find enough cut grass to rake up.  That’s thin.  The sad part?  They all thought they had good hay to sell because it was baled into a bale form and it used to be a hayfield.  And it was organic because organic means to most people that you don’t do anything and you have an organic product.  That thinking couldn’t be further from the truth.

How can you tell if your grassland is good enough for nutritious hay?

♥  How long since livestock have been on the property?  Livestock for the most part even mismanaged will at least be replacing some of what they take in the form of manure and urine.

♥  What plants grow there?  Get a good book and identify what you have.  Weeds of the West is a great book for identifying grasses and weeds on the west coast.  Short of a buying a book, take a look and see what’s there.  Oxeye daisy, Queen Anne’s Lace, Sweet Vernal Grass?  You’ve got a lot of work to do.  Those plants are the last dying gasp before trees set in and real succession takes over.  In other words, poor soil in need of lots of attention unless you just want to tip toe through the tulips with flowers in your hair.  Each area will have their own set of weeds.  These are the ones that we see in old mined out hay fields around here.  When someone calls us and asks us to buy their hayfield we go look.  And most of the time we decline.  The sad thing is that the more they bale that hay and sell it from their land the more they are depleting their own place.  Spraying herbicides isn’t the answer either, if the fertility was there to support a higher plane of nutritious plants they would be there.  But it’s hard to sell the idea of the farmer’s footsteps being the best fertilizer.  Humans have to “do” and “fix” something or they don’t feel right.

We have our bad spots too in the different pastures, due to how the land has been used, how much sun the pasture receives, or if it’s on a slope or steep hill where possibly the soil had been eroded in years past when crops were planted.  With all that in mind I pull the best hay for Jane the milk cow.  The beef cows get some of the best, and all the rest.  She needs more nutrition to make her milk and keep her weight at an acceptable level.  She is genetically programmed to sacrifice body condition in order to make the milk, so I cannot short her or lower her production by feeding her less in volume or nutrition or she will lose weight because she is still going produce milk.

Usually the Jane Sort happens in the summer when we haul the hay, but if I come across a particular bale or stash of bales in the stack that are extra good, I set them aside for her. I tell you all this because I want you to understand that good pastures and good hay fields are more a function of time spent managing at different stages of the year than they are how much you spent on seed and tractor fuel.

It’s probably cliché to say good hay or pasture is journey.  It seems that the quest for good pasture is never-ending, but satisfying along the way.

Next post:  (okay don’t laugh I will write it soon) Now that you’ve got your hay, how do you keep from wasting it?






Repurposing Project Turns into a Christmas Present

December 26, 2015

In the heat of summer when I finally broke down and put in some drip irrigation, I had in my mind that I wanted a drip tape winder so our drip tape didn’t end up just stuck somewhere out-of-the-way and even worse, left in place and not to be thought of until the next growing season.

Like this.

Drip irrigation components aren’t really that expensive, but being able to put them away in a neat manner will increase their life which will represent a savings over time.

I’m not too handy when it comes to building or fabricating, so this drip tape winder was destined to be a honey-do project.  Making it a Christmas present sweetened the pot, I could deal with the drip tape in a mess alongside the garden for a few months and it gave my husband a few months to gather materials and get the apparatus made during the slow time of the year.

It didn’t hurt that a our friend and colleague Josh Volk has made plans available in Growing for Market and on his website here.

Drip tape winder

Drip tape winder

On most farms there is usually a stash of good stuff that may be repurposed into something new.  In our case, outdated road signs from my husband’s workplace, some scraps of PVC pipe, and a wheelbarrow frame fit the bill for the new drip tape winder.

A sturdy frame for the winder was welded from purchased angle iron.

The winder itself is made from purchased plumbing parts that are readily available.

With the drip winder mounted to the wheelbarrow frame I can easily move the winder to each garden and greenhouse for rolling up the drip tape for winter storage.  With several pieces of PVC pipe I will also be able to make separate spools for each garden and greenhouse due to their different lengths, saving me time in the spring when it’s time to reinstall irrigation.

Now I just need to get up the gumption to use my Christmas present and wind up that drip tape!