Our layers have been enjoying the high life moving daily in the pastures, spreading the best fertilizer you could ever find, and happily eating bugs. They live the best life a chicken could live, wandering freely through lush, green grass. Having such free range, we tend to get some “rogue” chickens that make their way back to the house and barn.
These rogue chickens are pretty clever. They are quick and do not like to be bothered as they are spoiled from the “free-range” life. Catching them is nearly impossible and for the most part, we have given up. They are living and roaming around the house and roost in the barn at night. Along with the ducks and guineas, we are okay knowing they hang around and are working hard to rid our yard and surrounding areas of pests and ticks.
Cue Ethan...our "Chicken Whisperer." He walks outside and immediately walks up to a chicken. It squats down and he scoops it up and puts it in a dog crate. We use the dog crate for after their capture as Dave will then drive them over to the mobile coop. If Dave or I were to try and capture one of these chickens it would run away faster than we can say, "fried chicken." So when a chicken gets loose, we know who we can call, and it's not the "Ghostbusters."
Asteroid. Hammer. Fire and Smoke. What do all of those words have in common? They are popular PBR bulls and also names of the bulls on our farm. So our boys love the PBR or anything to do with the rodeo. They are even getting their little sister interested in it as well. “Asteroid” is David’s favorite PBR bull, whereas Ethan loves “Bushwacker”. I favor “Mississippi Hippie” myself! Each year we go to the rodeo that comes to our town and the kids go crazy over it.
So when David started talking about riding one of our animals, I emphatically said, “NO WAY!” I am determined that none of my children will become bull riders. I have seen the videos on YouTube and that does not make this mother excited at their interest in bull riding. I am quite sure this is just a phase and not something I ever have to worry about.
However, one day David came in all excited. The child was beaming like he won the lottery. He could barely talk he was so excited. “I RODE SHINY!” he said like it was Christmas. Well, I was floored at that revelation. Further discussion led to the whole story. His father, my dear husband, who knows that this would cause his darling wife to have a heart attack, put David on Shiny’s back.
Shiny is the oldest cow on our farm, also known as #18 to Dave and me before David named her. She was born when I was early in my pregnancy with David. I remember this because we had three calves all born within a couple of days and all three were rejected by their mother. This was when we were taking care of Dave’s grandfather’s farm, before we took over the herd, and researched and changed the genetics. These three calves were quite rambunctious and Dave struggled by himself to bottle feed them as they all wanted to be fed first and tried to steal each other’s milk. I was bundled up as it was the middle of winter and therefore had plenty of padding; however, their high-spirited nature led Dave to not allow me to help with the feedings. In hindsight, it was the best idea, but at that time I had just gotten off of six weeks of bedrest and was eager to help out on the farm again.
So being hand-raised and pampered by Dave and me, and well-loved by our little ones, Shiny is a lifer on the farm. She will one day die of old age instead of being butchered. Shiny has always come over to greet us when we enter the pasture and loves a good rub. She had always been a good mother, which is why she has had the opportunity to stay this long, and now the close connection with the kids has solidified her fate. So later upon seeing the picture Dave took of David sitting atop of Shiny, while shocking, did not worry me in the least as I believe she would guard our children from danger.
I am pretty certain this is the extent of David’s PBR career as Shiny just stood there when David was put on her back and there is no other cow on the farm Dave would put him on. And that’s okay for this mom!
Lists. I love them! I make to-do lists constantly and in the busiest of times I have planned my to-do list to the hour. Dave finds it amusing, but I like seeing if I am ahead of the game, or behind with getting things done when under time constraints. But those are only select times when I need to be extreme about getting things done. Generally, Dave and I have a full to-do list. I used to be able to go through life remembering what I needed to do and when I had appointments. Three children later…no more. I had to give in and get a planner.
The farm’s to-do list is never ending. Each year we look forward to getting more stuff done so the following year will be less busy. Well this year is finally that year…the year I threw away those rose-colored glasses and am accepting of the fact that a year that isn’t overwhelming busy probably will never happen. There’s always just something new that pops up. This year is no exception to being behind with the farm work. As you can see below, our plants in our unheated (since we didn’t get heating it checked off of our to-do list yet) are still so small, so far behind many other growers. We just couldn't get to planting them early enough. I take full blame for that because as you can see next to the plant picture is the picture of just another little job I added to Dave’s list…the addition to our home.
Five people and two bedrooms just wasn’t cutting it anymore. It doesn’t help our sons’ bedroom is so small it only fits 2 beds and 2 bookcases. Even their dresser had to be put in their closet. So it was time to expand and last year we had decided we waited far too long. So we broke ground last summer and this summer we are just weeks away from completing the first floor which will be my mom’s new home. The upstairs addition will be for us to expand, but that is still going to take some time.
So when you stop by the farm this spring and summer, pardon the construction, our to-do list was getting done, so to avoid panic, we decided to add to it.
Life on the farm isn't all hard work, sweat, mud, and manure! Who am I kidding? Yes, it is...and we LOVE it (except the mud part)! But out here on the farm, we still like to add a little fashion, especially for the cows. Let me give you a little back story.
When we took over the farm from Dave's grandfather we were given a herd of cattle where each animal looked different because of their Simmental genetics. Easy to tell apart and easy to remember where each baby came from. Then we expanded and changed the genetics so they would better fit our program... which is UNconventional farming. Now we have all black cows (except for a few descendants from the original herd that occasionally show a white patch), and they are all the same size and same frame.
Now we have a slight problem. How do we tell them apart? When we line up four black cows, all the same size, same shape, that lost their ear tag, Dave and I are out of luck figuring out who they are. So we call in our oldest, David. Amazingly to us, David knows EVERY single one of our herd by looking at them. He can even tell who they are when their heads are turned and their ear tags aren't showing. I have tested him on this, he aced the test. David will look at us like we are crazy for not being able to tell them all apart. He points out different elements of the cows that he sees in order to be able to identify them. I try to follow and see what he is saying with no luck. They still all look the same to me. I have lost count the number of times Dave has come in the house to get David to help him identify cows just in the last month.
Then David will tell me about their different dispositions. How #37 is the babysitter in the group and is usually rounding up the babies. However, when I try and identify them, they stand there chewing their cud and look at me with a dumb, blank stare on their face. However, this is not how cows are. I know this is just a ploy to throw me off. This is part of the cows scheming, they teach this to each other and pass on the "give a blank stare and chew your cud" routine to throw off the farmers. We have read, Click, Clack, Moo, Cows that Type, and we refuse to give our animals any access to modern technology. We fear what may happen.
So this past weekend we gave our cows some new earrings. Most have two new ear tags. They are stronger and since Dave carved the information into the tag, easier to read and identify them. They give us information as to which bull sired them, who is their mother, and their identifying number as well as our RVF symbol. David isn't always at the farm to tell us which cow is which. I don't think he will appreciate being called by his parents at 16 while on a date to help identify which black cow is which. Now there can be no trickery by the cows...the joke's no longer on us. We have triumphed in this case, that is until the cows come up with something else. Maybe that is why their are always huddled together...planning their next scheme perhaps?
A simple question. Not a simple answer. Many processors use premix spices, cures, and salts when the make sausages and smoked products. We have nothing against these mixes, but we have made the decision to leave all the unnecessary ingredients out of our products. What exactly are we leaving out, you may be thinking. Our bacons, hams, and sausages are all made from raw spices only. No mixtures in a pack. No additives or preservatives that you cannot pronounce or get a shorter name because the scientific name is 58 letters long. Our meats are as natural as it gets. We leave out the nitrites, nitrates, MSG, and other preservatives that most other producers add to their pork. We cold cure our meats, not smoke. This eliminates the need for bacteria fighting agents. After the cure process, we slice and freeze. The end result, a great tasting, healthy, lean product. Contact us to order! We have bacon, ham, and many sausages--hot, sweet, breakfast, kielbasa, chorizo, and a dixie blend--available.
So, we had this crazy idea we were going to make some significant changes in the way we run things around here. They were met with a mixture of opinions for all we talk to. Most were not on the positive side. Here is the scoop and the update.......
Well, tired of operating in the conventional manner we were accustomed to, we wanted to change things. We realized that we were breaking the bank every year on feed costs. Planting and harvesting corn silage and baling hay. Corn is costly. More so than cash, it takes its toll on our precious soils. The soils we depend on. Through the process of conventional tillage and growing of corn, we watched as our soil became less fertile and more dependent on pharmaceutical applications (fertilizer and spray). That was eight years ago.......since then here is what we have done, and it has worked wonders for our ground. We have quit applications of chemical sprays, fertilizers, and herbicides to our soils. COMPLETLEY! We have quit growing silage corn and GMO crops. COMPLETELY. We have quit brush hogging pastures. We have minimized tillage and reduced ground disturbances when seeding. We have allowed the ground to rest between grazings a minimum of 60 days, most often 90+. We have begun intense cattle/chicken rotations of multiple moves a day. The grasses get grazed, then left alone by back fencing allowing optimum regrowth, We have employed non-selective grazing techniques that require the cattle to eat all forage, not just the best forage. We have carefully chosen genetics that fit our program--small frames, large guts, easy keeping, and docile cows. We have stood by our convictions to make our grasses and soil better using our animals, not a chemical consultant. We have eliminated many things that our neighbors refuse to give up and tried many things that most think can't be done here. They, however, have paid huge dividends for us.
The results.......nothing short of excellent. We have seen this year as our most productive year to date (with the exception of our sweet corn--but that was a weed issue, not fertility and is fixed for next year already) on the farm. Our grasses and pastures were highly productive. We planted no silage corn, therefore reducing fuel, labor, and material costs. Also forcing us to think ahead and plan. The plan, stockpile grass--save it in the field for fall and winter use. And that we did. Through careful planning and rotations we have now just begun to touch our stockpile, and we have a lot. At current pace, we will be eating stockpile grasses until February (which is the month I plan to feed hay due to snow fall and icing). Our pastures are green and full. Regeneration has been the key to our success. Non-selective grazing (which is not a very popular method among most graziers or government agencies in our area) has given our land a new look. That look is one of fullness and lush pastures. Our pastures are no longer spotted with bunch grasses and empty spots. We have allowed the grasses to fill the entire field with green solar panels of grass. We are stocking about 50,000 pounds of animal in about 1/16 of an acre plots. Moving 3 times a day. That is high density at its peak. The rewards are obvious. We have not depended on a bale of hay as of yet this year. Other years we are 3 weeks or more into the silo. Our neighbors, they are feeding already. Our cows are grazing. The grass they are eating is equivalent to, but probably better than, any hay I could store in a barn. It is free in the field.
We will continue to update you on our progress. The GRAZE GOAL as of now is January 31, 2017. It is a lofty one. But quite reachable if the weather patterns continue as they have historically been going. We monitor our herd daily. They get our utmost attention. If things begin to look bad, the grass fail, or the cows need extra attention, we have a back up. We would never push our cows beyond their capacity to gain on pasture.
Click the youtube link to watch the girls in action.... and scroll down to see what we look like in action.
There are many times in which we have written stories where there were "oops" and things that just plain old didn't work. Each year we have them and I think farmers in general let people see farming through rose-colored glasses and do nothing but show nice pictures of their farm, discuss only happy and good things that happen, and do not let people see the real-life of farming. We are guilty of this at times, but scanning farming sites of farmers we know both near and far, we were amazed to see only positives and successes when it comes to showing their customers life on their farm. I am happy to say that we have always been truthful with our customers/followers and have let you see both the good and the bad when it comes to our business and farm.
So while it has been some time since we have updated our journal, I figured a good entry to post first would be about some oops and roadblocks we have encountered in the last 2 months.
-Our beans and peas were planted at an incorrect distance which means I have had to weed them 2 times now. Cultivating and roto-tilling cannot be done because of planting them at the wrong distance. I will be weeding the peas tomorrow. I am DETERMINED not to make this mistake next year after weeding in 90* heat!
-Our first time gilt did not build her nest in a good spot and got too hot in the 80* heat in June. The stress caused the loss of 2 piglets as a result. We put up a cover in order to help keep her cool and keep the family out of the sun. This will be the second loss of piglets on pasture for us in all of our years farrowing outside (this same thing happened last year with a first time mommy; she also lost 2). We have farrowed on pasture for five years now and have farrowed approximately 20 litters on pasture. So four total is not a bad failure rate at all when you think about it.
-We have a heifer that does not fit our mold of our herd (based on body structure) and last October we decided she was going to be our family butcher animal. Well, when the cold weather came two months later, cold enough to prepare for butchering, our oldest son pointed out that her "bag" was getting pretty big. For a heifer, that only means one thing, she is making milk, and she is going to have a baby and SOON! Oops! I guess those bulls that we took to market in July, that were "too young to breed" were in fact old enough, and bred five cows/heifers that were open months before we sold them. Those girls were open (not bred) because we were unsuccessful in breeding them artificially, and therefore were waiting until the following summer to breed them. Calving in winter is never a good idea and it was a tense month as we watched and waited for more calves. Thankfully, the times in which they calved were not too cold and all survived fine in the pasture.
-For the first year we have planted sweet corn in a way that most farmers say can't work, without chemical fertilizers and sprays. We did not put any fertilizer down anywhere on our farm (other than natural from our animals) and have not sprayed any of our farm with anything. Not many farmers can say that. We used cover cropping to keep weed production down. We are still learning as this is our first year using cover crops with our sweet corn. We even contacted Penn State. They told us they were doing the same thing and if we found something that worked to let them know. So if even Penn State hasn't gotten it figured out yet, then we are doing alright in my mind. While our crop hasn't completely failed, we are behind 2 weeks due to failing to get the right combination and our first two patches of corn didn't fair too well. Though I will probably be able to use it for freezer corn for our family. On a happy note, the pigs will love eating in this field!!!
-Our deer fence is up and running. It was a long, hard process and due to Dave's back, he was unable to do pretty much any of it and was mostly a supervisor/spectator. So much thanks goes to Dave's Uncle Jim and Dave's father for their hard work. While it has been a success for the most part and have kept out just about all of the deer, a few fence-savvy deer have figured out how to get over 8 foot high fence in one certain part of the pasture. The ground is lower there, though allowances have been made for it, but a couple of them still found a way. A couple of deer we can live with, the 50 or so that ate our whole field of crops last year we needed to deter from entering. And for the most part, we have.
So like everyone else in this world, we have our ups and downs in farming and do our best to show you the good and the bad side. We have lots of amusing stories, some sad stories, but thankfully mostly wonderful memories that we share and retell often. Failures aren't always bad and we experience them on the farm. For that is how we continue to grow, learn, and quite honestly, provide you with some of the best products you can find, as we are determined to sell you products with no sprays or chemical fertilizers.
So, we have been on a new journey in our crop systems. We are grazing our cattle using non-selective grazing methods. That is the cattle are on small paddocks and eat 80% or more of the grass before moving. This could be 4 to 5 moves a day. It is basically a clean your plate system. If left to an entire field, the cows pick the best grasses and leave the unfavorable. If this continues, only the unfavorable grasses go to seed and the best grasses slowly die out., replaced with weeds. This is also going to allow us to use less acreage in the summer and stockpile winter forage. Instead of using fossil fuels and iron to bale our hay and put it in the barn, we will leave it in the field, the cattle will harvest it when they need. They can go through two feet of snow for grass, so we have a lot of time to harvest if we look at the past winters. We will have hay as back up if needed, but i don't think we will be making hay next year!
The sweet corn will be produced from now on using cover cropping systems as the means for weed control and nutrient supplementation. We have decided that corporate agriculture will no longer be one of our partners. Monsanto,, Sygenta, Bayer, and all the other fertilizer and spray companies are not welcome here. While in the past we were very conventional, we have made the leap to provide healthier food. Healthier for us, our animals, our soils, and our customers. Instead of all the chemical inputs, we will be using the soil and crops to feed and weed the sweet corn. We plant our corn in one week intervals. We are also cultivating the weeds out and after one or two cultivations we will add in a cover crop. These crops are low growing smother crops that bring up nitrogen and nutrients from the soils to feed the corn. The smother part is our weeding system. These crops will create a mat that weeds will not grow through. It is a huge experiment. I contacted Penn State Ag department about a soil test i took, and while discussing mentioned my plans. The gentleman on the phone said that they (PSU AG) were doing the same trials as I was. We are experimenting with when to cover crop and which work best. Unlike other years with our corn, if the plan fails ( I don't think it will) I will have great pasture for my animals without sprays and chemicals. In other years we could not graze the corn for a long time because of the herbicide we used. That is a huge benefit to our operation.
While many think we are going the wrong way, I believe our changes are imperative to our well being as a family, farm, and producer. I do not believe that dumping more money into the pockets of the corporations will help us get ahead. I believe that we have harmed our soils using those chemicals, but we will now fix them. We have been using our livestock only to heal the pasture soils (our pastures have seen no chemicals in 8 years) and our yields have grown to twice what they were. Can you believe that without an ounce of chemical we are making more grass than before? The salesmen that visit us do not! Proper animal rotation and management has doubled our grasses on pastured fields.
We will keep you updated on the progress, but things are going well.
Some pictures of our progress......
So way back when, my parents had a tan station wagon. It had trouble making it up big hills without overheating and it was a really ugly color tan, but boy did we love sitting in the big open back. One of my most vivid memories of that station wagon was going to a drive-in movie theater, sitting in the back with a bag of popcorn and watching Gremlins. Now, I am not ashamed to admit that I was terrified of Spike and his clan, but that the bar scene with the Gremlins going crazy, swinging around on the fan, made us younger kids laugh.
Last year with our broilers, I had a flashback to that movie. At the time, it was a little too cold at night to release the layers and the broilers outside, which we had delivered within days of each other, yet they we getting a little older than we wanted in the coop. For some reason, those batches of chickens were a crazy group. They refused to stay in their pen and thankfully we could tell the difference between the birds based on their different feather color. But when I walked by the coop and saw them making a ruckus in the chicken coop, I had to grab the camera and take some pictures. They were EVERYWHERE, just like those Gremlins in that bar scene! Needless to say, there was a lot to clean-up after we moved them outside! Here are some pictures from then about 10 months ago.
This year, with not having as many chickens coming onto the farm, we will get to miss out on this "fun" this summer!
Paper Roller Video
As we talked about in an earlier post, we want to avoid being a farm that uses plastic when planting our seeds and crops. There is enough plastic in the world filling up our landfills and the amount of plastic needed for all of our crops result in a lot of waste. Compared to the amount of crops planted on most farms, we really only plant enough for our family and some extended family, though not enough to really sell anything on our corn stand. We tried some new ideas last planting season to hopefully allow us to change that. We used "paper mulch" to help keep weeds down around our plants and in between rows and found it to be a huge success. So this year we are excited to announce that you will be finding many different new vegetables on our cart this August.
In order to cut down costs, we asked for my father-in-law for some help to build a contraption to unroll it using a tractor and would also bury the sides so there would be less labor and time on our part. Like Thomas Edison, my father-in-law didn't fail many times, but found many ways in which it didn't work, or at least didn't work to his liking. We would hear him coming up the field (as it is next to my house) on the tractor, watch him in the field for about 5-10 minutes, then watch as he made his way back to his garage. This happened many times before we had an official "paper laying" ceremony, if you will, in which Dave recorded what his father successfully built, to save us more money than I want to actually think about! This year, we will be expanding our crops now that there will be less weeding and upkeep. With the addition of a many-acre deer fence, we will offer more vegetables on our cart this season. We have had other produce on our cart last year, however, as soon as we put those products on the cart, they are sold almost immediately. And again, thank you so much for your support of our farm and farming philosophies, by purchasing our products and visiting our farm.
*One question I have received many times from callers or those visiting our cart and buying our products..."Are all of these products from your farm or do you buy it from other farms and resell it?" The short answer is, if it is on our cart, it is from our farm and picked within the day (as our products never stay on there longer than that due to customer demand). We do not buy products from other farms and resell it on our cart or at our butcher shop. We want to ensure we know exactly what went into the growing/raising of that product and be able to tell you about that product, should you have any questions. There is nothing wrong with farmers that buy from others and resell it; it enables products to be available and sold to consumers that wouldn't have those products available otherwise. We actually sell our products to other farms and businesses and are happy that they are made available to those that cannot drive hours away to purchase our products. But we do not buy products grown or raised by others in order to sell here.
I hope you are looking forward to this growing season as much as we are. And remember, our products are being grown without chemical fertilizers and without ANY kind of pesticide/herbicide/insecticide sprays!