I think if I were ever to write a book, it would be about teaching people to discern deliberately about farmsteading, or how to live a more deliberate life. When we realize that three generations ago, many people were involved in some way with growing their food, or at least preserving it, it’s easy to see how we have lost our way. On our journey to specialization and simplification we have lost many nuances of living close to the land. It’s a no-brainer for me to understand why Jane can’t be on deep bedding, but my beef cows can, to the casual observer though, Jane and my beef cows are cattle, and need the same things. That’s true in the vaguest sense, but that is like saying a Prius and a 3/4 ton farm pickup are vehicles and can be used for the same thing. Following me? I don’t say this to sound condescending, we all know what we know, I know a lot about farmsteading, and home economics, other stuff not so much. But I have seen that many times people assume that farmers are dumb, and that you can just start out with a piece of land and farm and grow your own food, it’s easy right? What’s to know? We all still have to put in our 10,000 hours making mistakes along the way.
What does any of this have to do with a well-stocked pantry or larder? A lot. Our larder is just an offshoot of how we live and farm, and our location. The larder will also be a reflection of how you cook and eat. We prefer moderation. I don’t want to can everything, or dehydrate everything, ferment everything, freeze everything or eat everything raw. So we do some of all things, canning, drying, fermenting, freezing, storing and fresh. Many dishes from our kitchen are a combination of all these “preservation” methods.
(I should probably go out on a limb here and say we are not concerned with being “off-grid” except with our food supplies. I have friends who say they are off-grid because their freezers are kept at a friend’s house and they pay a portion on the electric bill, I also have another friend who claims to be energy conscious by only keeping a small freezer for their preserved garden goods and purchased meats, but when pushed they cop to eating rotisserie chicken and many meals away from their home. I guess I believe that it takes a certain amount of energy to prop up a human, if you buy food at the store, that food is still being kept fresh, frozen or stored on a shelf that is maintained by the grid. So yes, you may have a small electric or gas bill, but a portion of your food is still using the grid, you just are paying for it each time you go to the store or restaurant.)
So how does one pull that off meals that come from all your different stores? You get creative, and you learn what and how to store food in many different ways. It helps that we live in a great climate for year round harvesting, that is if you like root crops and members of the cole family. Pictured above is the bok choy in the first photo, above it are the first starts (hanging on their mouse-proof shelf) of the parade of successions that will be planted soon. This is the hardest part of the year, the days are getting longer and last fall’s plantings of brassicas are starting to bolt, and the days are still short enough that new plants are growing slowly. Hurry up and wait. I don’t want to damage the new young plants by harvesting leaves, since they need all the leaf surface they can muster to grow larger, and we have to practically gorge (darn) on the bok choy, kale and cabbage before they get bitter.
Yesterday’s greens harvest became this morning’s breakfast, along with some fried eggs. But to prepare this breakfast, I had to be mindful last July and start those kale seeds, then again in August I had to start the bok choy. Then you say a little prayer to yourself or whoever will listen, and you do your darnedest to watch over those winter garden plants as if your next meal depended on it.
You also make a backup plan. This is where canning and freezing come in. Some foods just taste better canned than frozen. Dark cherries canned, while not fresh, taste much better than their frozen counterparts, probably due to the fact that you leave the aromatic pit in and after some time in the jar, that almond flavor seeps into the cherries and juice and is a great wintertime treat. Canned carrots? Yeah, not my favorite to eat since we can harvest them weekly from the garden all winter long and not bother with canning them.
But as a convenience food (convenience as in cooked, not necessarily heat and eat) coupled with frozen cooked chicken, I have the beginnings of chicken curry potpie, which we love. I for one am not convinced that cooked food is dead food. Explain to me the difference in this jar of carrots, that were dug fresh, prepped and processed for 25 minutes in a pressure canner from carrots that were prepped and cooked in a stew for hours on the stove? A friend recently told me about trying a low oxylate diet that was helping with some of her food issues, so I looked into it, and was surprised to see that boiled carrots were lower in oxylates than raw? Which I think proves there are so many things we don’t know about the foods we eat, and what effect they have on our bodies. Taking a moderation approach to how we preserve or not is well worth looking at, me thinks.
I am fortunate that I live in an old farmhouse that was built in the era of home food storage. These days of central heating and cooling along with the supermarket and refrigerated space have taken the food storage component out of house design. Couple that inconvenient truth with the fact that most people don’t know what type of food stores well or how to store it, a well stocked larder can be somewhat of a conundrum.
What we store and where:
Unheated bedroom – Winter squash, dry beans in glass jars, dry corn in mesh bags, seeds in plastic storage boxes or totes.
Ferments are in a category themselves, room temperature, basement refrigerator? Personal preference takes over on that.
The easiest storage method in our climate for many things is the garden. Unless we get a doozy of a winter, most years we can leave carrots, beets, kale, cabbage, celeriac, parsnips, leeks, rutabagas and turnips in the ground and harvest as needed. While I know that can’t be duplicated everywhere, it’s worth pointing out for folks that are new to gardening or to the Pacific Northwest in general. But, if you don’t feel comfortable leaving root crops to chance, you can always root cellar, or put up in some way.
Long term food storage is not a bad idea, each system has it’s weak points, our weakest point is our freezers. I guess in the long run being prepared is what comes into play. I could can our meat in the case of a power loss, I have enough canning lids, jars, and propane to do that on a Camp Chef. Meat is one of those things that you just don’t go out and harvest fresh like a salad. On the vegetable side we are continually trying to close the gap in our succession planting. Insurance comes in the way of some frozen vegetables in case we can’t harvest fresh, and retraining our supermarket/restaurant thinking away from the green salad every day days to more roasted root salads, or braised greens. For us, it’s a continuing journey that is constantly changing bit by bit each year.
It’s no secret that a big part of our “pantry” utilizes freezers. Of course cute photos of sweet porkers, chicks and calfies make for better blog viewing. Freezer pictures are a little boring, actually.
But this is the reality on the farm, the meat and other food items end up here. Growing up we had a small freezer, and kept the bulk of our meat, and frozen produce at the locker. Six miles away. Inconvenient as heck, except that my mom did the books for the store that served as the country store, butcher and locker, so you would assume that she would grab something from the locker while she was there on Saturdays doing the accounting. What happened though is that no one ever wanted to go to the cold locker and get all the unidentifiable stuff stored there. My mom worked full-time in town, so to stop at the locker on the way home in your town clothes was not a favorite thing either. Subsequently, I
think know a lot of what went in that locker got thrown away each year when butchering and harvesting time came. As we all know, its hard to stop that preserving train once its left the station. I swear my brother and I got more laughs out of trying to figure out what those unrecognizable globs of stuff were, since we were tasked to go to the locker and “make room”. At least the meat was properly wrapped and marked so it was clear what year it was from. Needless to say our dogs ate well… . (I think my mom invented meatless Monday, we just didn’t think it was cool, because really, when you raise beef cows… . Just sayin’) The locker wasn’t free either, I can’t remember what the monthly rental was, but we had three, and they were terribly hard to deal with, it was colder than you know what in there, and it was like an archaeological dig in an ice field to find what you might be looking for.
As for having all our eggs in one basket, I worry way less about our freezers in the event of some disaster. Mostly because that little country store changed hands several times, and I still kept that locker rental going. Then the new owners decided to remodel and offered to keep our meat in their extra freezer there during the construction. One day we got a phone call, it seemed that all was copacetic until someone asked the store owner if they had a dead body in the basement. The dead body was our meat and theirs, someone had inadvertently unplugged the freezer during the remodel, and no one noticed. We decided to invest in a couple of freezers right then. So no, I don’t worry much. Stuff happens, my desire to eat canned meat is pretty low, compared to having it frozen and ready to be prepared as we choose.
Which brings me to some of the details of how and why we freeze some things and not others. To simplify the description of my preserving style, I would have to say my goal is to stock ingredients, whole foods, not prepared foods, including soups. I don’t keep freezer inventory, nor do I menu plan. It’s all in my head, and if something happens to me someday, it will be someone else doing the food keeping, they can keep records if they choose. Because we raise our own, we know there is an end to the supply, if we run out of something, we run out, we don’t just buy more to fill in the gap. Keeping a plan and inventory are just more chores that don’t change the fact of what is in the freezer. It frees my mind up in all actuality because I don’t need to “stick to the plan.” To make it easier on others around me, I keep the food somewhat sorted and labeled if the item is not obvious. Frozen broccoli needs no explanation, just the year, something like romesco sauce or pesto does need a label in addition to the year. Today I’ll concentrate on our freezer contents and follow-up on the next post with other items we can, store, or dehydrate.
What we freeze:
Beef, pork, chicken, soup bones, colostrum, butter, cheese, tallow, lard, bone broth, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, nectarines, melon, broccoli, cauliflower, romanesco, corn, mushrooms, snap peas, shell peas, corn, peppers, pesto, and romesco.
Without further ado here are boring pics of several of the freezers, taken with my phone so I didn’t get all the shelves in the photos. We have five freezers, I took photos of three. Of the other two, one is full of whole chickens, the other flotsam and jetsam for pet food, not much to see in those. Keep in mind these are freezers for a three person family that eats three meals every day from the farm. We probably eat out five times a year total.
This freezer is our most used one and is in our basement. Berries, butter, bacon are in here. We don’t eat bacon every day but I want to know where my bacon is all the time, since we stick to our rule of only eating bacon from the pig we harvest. I could eat bacon every day, but we like to think we’re being responsible nose to tail eaters by sticking to our guns on that. Do I get wistful when I see bacon on everything and in every flippin’ recipe? Yes, but that’s living pretty high on the hog even though bacon is on the bottom of the pig. I didn’t take a photo of the door, it contains bone broth, spices, flour, and colostrum frozen in various containers. I try to keep a spot open on one of the shelves to store things I might bring in from the other freezers that are in the shop. When I go shopping, it is to the shop.
I’d like to think I am organized, and have all my freezers empty before any harvesting starts, but ha ha, that never happens, except in the chicken freezer. This freezer has beef roasts and steaks on the top shelf (not shown), ground beef on the next two shelves, pork on the bottom shelf, and misc mostly bones for stock and some overflow frozen broccoli. I try to stick with my rule of meat below veggies and fruit, but to tell you the truth the only blood that gives me the willies is chicken blood, I would not care for that on my veggies or fruit, but beef and pork blood not so much. Still it’s a good idea to store meat below your vegetables and fruit.
This is the door to the same freezer, unrendered lard and tallow (Bee I feel ya, this is just a small portion of fat I need to render), soup bones and some ’14 cauliflower. I do freeze a goodly amount of broccoli and cauliflower, with the hopes we probably won’t need it as long as we keep our successions going. It’s easy to grow, blanch and freeze, so when the next crop comes in this usually goes to the hens. The dates really help with that, something I learned from those scarring locker experiences when I was a kid. I make stock each week, and find it easier to just store the bones and make stock as needed. But this is also a place where you could free up some freezer space by making your stock in one or two big batches, reducing and freezing or canning. We store chickens whole too, and break them down as we eat them. This again is a place to free up freezer space, by breaking down your chickens instead of storing the whole carcass. The way you approach your meals and meal prep really determines the manner in which you freeze your food.
This freezer has the oldest beef that we need to use first, mostly steaks, roasts, and organ meats and a few straggler ground beef packages. In the canning jar boxes are wide mouth half pints full of pesto, romesco, shell peas, & chopped garlic scapes. Bags of sliced nectarines, whole strawberries, and chopped peppers are in here also. I don’t bother with pre-freezing anything on a tray anymore before committing the item to the freezer bag, everything still comes out of the bag just fine in the amount needed. Part of that may stem too from skipping the washing step since we are harvesting our fruits here and bring them right in and put them in the freezer. There is nothing to wash off.
This the door to the same freezer, corn off the cob, sauteéd chanterelles, and some wild blackberries. Nothing too exciting, but very useful nonetheless. By using freezer jars, I have these items in pre-measured amounts that come in handy for cooking. One thing I do that might not work for folks that purchase their meat, is that I thaw out ground beef and pork and make breakfast sausage and then refreeze the sausage. I say it might not work because one time we were out of pork so I purchased some very expensive pork at the “best” natural food store meat counter and had the pork ground to order. It got that off-smell within three days, and was a little slimy. Which leads me to believe that even though this was organic pork it still was handled along with many other animals and contaminants in a large plant. Which also goes to show you that it’s not just what the animal was fed it is how the meat is handled after the animal is dead. I would eat a neighbors conventionally fed, small abattoir butchered meat before I would buy organic pork at the store. Lesson learned. Back to the as-needed sausage making thing, when I refreeze the sausage I freeze it in containers that hold about 5 days worth of breakfasts so we make sure we use it up in a timely manner just in case. I do the same with our chickens. I break down the carcass for three meals, a meal of oven fried wings, thighs and drumsticks, each breast is a meal, one for fajitas, one for stir-fry, and the backbone, wing tips and neck go into the stock pot and usually because I am sloppy on purpose with the knife I can pick one to two more cups of meat off the carcass when the stock is done, and that is reserved for chicken pot pie. Out of that chicken, usually the breasts go back into the freezer to be refrozen and used later in the week. Again, I don’t know if I should go out on a limb and recommend this method just because it works for me, but I’m throwing it out there in case you don’t want to spend a day breaking down 25 chickens. Mileage may vary.
Stay tuned for the next episode, I am off to take photos of what we’re eating in the hunger gap in the way of fresh food.
That pretty much sums up this farmers life. Growing, harvesting, preparing, eating and storing food. A not so delicate dance of decrepitude, as food starts to decay immediately upon harvest and many times in the case of winter gardening, overnight after a hard freeze. Sigh. Where to begin? It is a chicken and egg thing. Humans have engaged in stopping the spoilage of food since they started eating. These days we have it a little easier with refrigeration. I have no desire to be off-grid, so you won’t find any tips on how to get rid of your freezer or things like that. The grid we want to be off of is the supermarket food grid. I for one believe that you’re not saving any power by not storing more food in a home freezer and instead buying food at the store. No, we don’t grow everything we eat, but quite a bit of what we eat we do grow. Preserving takes many forms, freezing, a bit of canning, dehydrating, and fermenting all play a role in addition to eating fresh for many months, and growing specific crops that store well with added preservation tasks.
Our personal food system has evolved quite a bit as I alluded to in my last post. I grew up planting garden in May as soon as we could work the soil, then direct seeding everything just about, except tomatoes and pepper plants bought at the store. Then you would wait, you might get your first lettuce salad mid-July and the first ripe tomato in late August in our location. Meanwhile you concerned yourself with the march of fruits coming on, and those were preserved into canned fruit, jams, jellies, juice etc. I knew no one who dehydrated anything except Italian prunes when I was a kid. If you had a dairy cow, you would be churning the bounty of grassfed cream to beat the band and freezing your butter.
But, I think the biggest change in our preserving/eating habits has come about because we built a greenhouse for season extension. I know it may seem silly to some to build a structure to garden in, when maybe a cold frame or some wire hoops and row cover would work, but we just don’t have the heat units here to ripen several summer crops that we really like, so for us a greenhouse made the most sense, it’s pretty disappointing to babysit tomato plants all season and then as soon as the fall rains come, bam! Late blight.
Because it is serious garden real estate, we cram as many successions and different types of crops in the greenhouse as possible. Tomatoes take all summer to mature, and they provide shade and a microclimate in the greenhouse for cool weather crops too. In the photo above you see the tomatoes on the left and on the right a row of brassicas shaded from the hot afternoon sun and near the sidewall where a cool breeze blows. It may seem counter-intuitive to say the brassicas inside get a little more shade with the tomatoes and lower light due to the greenhouse poly. Make no mistake, it’s hot in there, but outside in the garden those brassicas might be in a real hot spot.
Another benefit of the greenhouse that didn’t dawn on us until reality slapped us on the face was that a greenhouse (as long as the doors are shut) is an excellent deer proof gardening space for some particularly sumptuous crops that eluded us for many years due to deer pressure. The sweetest to come to mind, is strawberries. Oh the joy, to have strawberries every week of the summer, instead of walking to the garden with colander in hand only to find that overnight the deer have eaten every last ripe strawberry! The next part of that saga is that deer
like love strawberry plants too as a chaser to their previous night’s strawberry drunk. It smarts a little to have to stop at the berry stand to buy overpriced non-organic strawberries, when you already spent $$ and countless hours of labor tending your crop.
In all honesty I had wanted a greenhouse for years. I had no idea how I would use it other than “to grow things.”
Now it’s our everything garden space from late winter through to late fall. We start our seeds in there, we start our first regular garden crops in there, and we use it as a hardening off space to transition tender transplants for their life in the outside gardens. Who knew?
Next a peek in the freezers to see what we can see.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.