Saturday, July 26, 2014

Baling Prairie Hay

There's a 12 acre field of native-grass on the farm that has probably been a hay meadow for over 100 years.  I'm not sure why it's called a "meadow", except that it's always been called a "hay meadow" for as long as I can remember.  It always amazes me that it usually produces a decent amount of hay without any significant inputs, it hasn't really been fertilized in all these years, it hasn't been planted to any sort of "improved grass", it hasn't had any sort of weed control, and it hasn't been grazed.  Besides being cut and baled every year for hay, it's more or less the same as it was before the Land Run.

Native warm season grasses (little bluestem, switchgrass, indian grass, big bluestem) are usually under appreciated, but I think they are some of my best grasses and pastures because they are reliable producers, are tolerant of low input management, and they seem to be relatively drought resistant.

A couple of years ago, I built a fence along the road so that I would have the option of just grazing it instead of only having the option of baling it for hay.  I wasn't planning on baling it this year, but my crabgrass doesn't seem to be growing like I think it should be growing, so since most of my pastures seem to have enough grass, I decided to go ahead and bale it as a hedge against a poor crabgrass hay crop.  I've been meaning to graze this field instead of baling it ever since I put the fence up, but you'd be surprised how difficult it is to NOT bale a hay meadow (would it still be a hay meadow if I don't bale it?).  Next year, I'm going to try my hardest to actually graze it instead of baling it.

Baling hay is a relatively simple process of cutting it, letting it dry, raking it into windrows, and then baling it.  Since I'm still working on my picture-taking skills, I took a few pictures of the process so everyone could get a sense of what it looks like around this part of the farm.
Cutting hay
Raking hay into windrows

Raked and ready to bale
Back when I built this fence, there was a rock ledge right where I wanted to put the gate, so I had to build these gate posts out of rolled up cattle panels filled with rocks.  You can see these types of structures scattered around the countryside, but you would be surprised at how many people seem to be interested in these "posts".

Friday, July 25, 2014

Cover Crop Cocktail - That Stuff Really Seems To Grow

It's exciting times around the farm because I planted some grass (along with some other stuff) and now I'm watching it grow.

I planted this small test plot of a cover crop cocktail back on June 4, we had almost ideal growing conditions with plenty of rain right after planting and temperatures just under 100, and by June 27 when I posted an update on how it was growing it had grown to about 24 inches tall and my "cocktail" seemed to be mainly sorghum-sudangrass with some blackeyed peas.  I've grown sorghum-sudangrass before and knew that it grew relatively quick, so I expected that I would get that amount of growth in that amount of time.

Today, about 50 days after planting, the sorghum-sudangrass is somewhere around 6-7 feet tall, the blackeyed peas are almost 3 feet tall and look healthy, I can finally easily see a few corn plants here and there, the okra seems to having some trouble growing and is pretty short, the sunflowers and soybeans seem to be a complete failure (probably a seed problem), and I also have some weeds and crabgrass.  Overall, I wouldn't have guessed that I could get that much growth in that short a period of time, or that just 5 lb. of sorghum-sudangrass per acre would be that thick.

Without some soil tests, it's hard to know if the fertility is significantly higher in this test plot compared to any of the cropland, but I'd guess that it's not that far off (although I've spread biochar in this test plot, and some compost years ago).  I'd be surprised if I didn't get similar results if I planted this cover crop cocktail on my cropland.

If I hadn't taken these pictures, I don't think I would be as impressed with the amount of growth, both pictures were taken from the same spot, the first picture was taken on June 27, and the second picture was taken on July 25.  
BEFORE - June 27 - 24" tall
50 days after planting - July 25 - 6-7' tall
My marked stake out in the middle of the plot was way too short and was over grown pretty quick, so I took another picture from the side with a pitchfork as my measurement of scale.  Ignore all the squash growing by the pitchfork, that isn't part of the cover crop, but it has gotten me wondering if I'm seeing better squash growth there due to the cover crop and/or shading.

Diving into the jungle to take a picture, the corn has finally been recognizable in the mixture, although I'll be surprised if it makes an ear.  I can see blackeyed peas climbing up the sorghum-sudangrass, there are a few sickly looking sunflowers and okra, some crabgrass, and some weeds.

I can't see any wheat, canola, or crimson clover growing, although I wouldn't expect to see them yet anyway.  I'm hoping that as fall gets closer and the warm season plants start to mature and winter kill that the cool season plants will start growing like most of what I've read about these cocktails claims will happen.  Stay tuned for another exciting edge-of-your-seat update sometime this fall on that subject.

At this point, from what I'm seeing I believe that planting something like this on a larger scale would definitely work to both feed my cattle and improve my cropland at the same time.  I also have a few new ideas about how I would change this mixture on a larger scale.  

Reading about something is one thing, actually doing something is an entirely different animal.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Planting Sorghum-sudangrass (or Haygrazer) for Winter Grazing

In the past, I've grown sorghum-sudangrass as a double-crop planting after wheat to both cut it for hay and also get a little bit of grazing (that's why it's called haygrazer). Usually I'll bale it about 60-80 days after planting, let it regrow to about 24-30 inches tall so it can be grazed, I'll put cattle in the field until they've grazed it down, and then I'll plant wheat again in the fall.

I'm starting to see some improvement in my cropland from this sort of rotation because sorghum-sudangrass has a massive root system, it shades out a lot of weeds, and has an allopathic effect on other weeds, but I'm still taking a lot of organic material off of the field in the form of hay.  If I could leave all that organic material on the field instead of baling hay, I think I'd see even more improvement.  Only using the tractor to drill the sorghum-sudangrass instead of planting, cutting, baling, hauling, and finally feeding hay would be also be a bonus.

This year, after baling hay like a madman last summer and carefully rationing it out to the cows, I finally have enough hay stored that I don't have to bale as much hay this summer to make it though winter, so I'm going to experiment by planting a small field (~25 acres) to sorghum-sudangrass with the plan of grazing it over the winter instead of being baling it as hay. From what I've read, depending on the fertility and growing conditions, it's possible to winter (Dec-Feb) a 1000 lb. dry cow on a half-acre of frosted sorghum (I'd be satisfied with somewhere around an acre or so per cow).

My cover-crop cocktail test plot experiment would be utilized in basically the same way as this field of sorghum-sudangrass, I'd plant the cover crop cocktail after wheat harvest, graze it over the winter, then plant something like grain sorghum or soybeans the following spring.  If I was less conservative, I'd go ahead and drill a mixture of haygrazer, cow peas, sunflowers, etc. this year, but I'd much rather try a field of only sorghum-sudangrass to see how it works out first.  If all goes well, next year will be the year of the cover-crop cocktail (of course, that's also what I said last year), and it might also be the year of baling and feeding less hay.

I was originally going to plant this field to sorghum-sudangrass right after wheat harvest so I could possibly cut it for hay, then graze the regrowth over the winter, but the weather didn't cooperate with that plan. It was hot and dry for most of July, so I held off on planting anything until it finally rained a little over 3 inches last week.  Now, I should have almost ideal soil moisture to get a halfway decent stand and waiting to plant until later in July might work even better for my plan of grazing this field over the winter.  

Since I'm planning on grazing it after it's winter-killed this fall, if it's planted later than usual (mid-July) it hopefully won't get overly mature which would make a lower quality forage for the cattle (protein levels drop if it is fully mature).  If I can get a little bit of rain at the right time in between now and November, this sorghum-sudangrass should be close to the optimum growth stage (boot stage or so) to make some decent quality winter-killed forage (at least that's the theory).
No-tilling some haygrazer
After all that explanation, today was the day I actually fired up the tractor and planted some sorghum-sudangrass.  

In the past, I've usually planted about 15 lb./acre of sorghum-sudangrass, but I upped the rate to around 20 lb./acre this time to make sure I ended up with a thick stand of grass because I was planting a little later in the year than normal.  I also decided to plant 20 lb./acre because I somehow bought more seed than I needed and I'd rather go ahead and put that extra seed in the ground instead of trying to store it for a year.

Today was also the day the temperature went above 100 degrees, and the A/C hardly works in the tractor, so I'm lucky I didn't melt while I was running the tractor (you know it's hot in the tractor cab when it feels nice and cool when you climb out and it's actually 100 degrees). 

I really need to fix that A/C.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Fix One Thing, Break Something Else

The other day I finished welding all the broken and twisted parts of the rake back together, decided against painting the soon-to-be-rusted parts, and then wrestled and cussed the actual rake part back into place with the help of a couple of people (they'll have to stay anonymous because they don't know I'm talking about them).

For a brief moment in time, I thought that I was caught up on repairing most of the broken stuff around here so I patted myself on the back for a job well done, hooked up my little John Deere to the rake to move it out of the way, moved it about twenty feet and heard a weird POP. 

When I pushed in the clutch petal it didn't feel right (no resistance at all) and I couldn't get it into gear with the engine running. After unplugging the neutral start switch and jumping across it so I could start it in gear (good way to run over yourself if you forget to reconnect it), I managed to get it into the barn by starting it in gear to move it and killing the engine when I needed to stop.

After a little bit of wrenching, jacking, blocking, head-scratching, spilling oil all over the floor, and miraculously no knuckle-busting, we had it apart.

It looks like its going to need a new clutch and pressure plate and it'll be almost as good as new.  I'm still trying to figure out how a worn-out clutch could make it impossible to shift into gear but still let it move if it was started in gear.

I need to get it fixed quick so I can get on to the important business of breaking the next thing (it seems like that's how things work around here most of the time).

Monday, July 14, 2014

How's the Grain Sorghum Doing?

The grain sorghum is doing OK, not great, but not terrible, probably best described as a little below average.  It was dry when I planted it back on May 2, it was still relatively dry for a few more weeks, it rained 9-10 inches during June, and it stopped raining and got hot in July.  I have weed problems in spots, and some late emergence and/or thin spots, but right now it has started to head out and is at the half-bloom stage (that basically means that half the field has headed out and the heads are blooming).  

A sorghum head doesn't really flower, it emerges and then sort of sheds a bunch of pollen from top to bottom which fertilizes each potential seed.  

Even though it doesn't flower in the typical flower sense, today I noticed that there were honeybees on the heads gathering what looked like orange pollen. If I hadn't seen it myself, I never would have thought that honeybees would gather pollen from grain sorghum.   Apparently the local honeybees are camera shy because they made a bee-line for home as soon as I pointed the camera at them so you're going to have to take my word for it.
Five seconds ago there was honey bee gathering sorghum pollen in this picture
Honeybees in the grain sorghum got me to wondering about what the honey would taste like, if more honeybees might actually help give me a better yield at harvest, and if it might be worthwhile to establish some sort of wild bee hives (if that's even possible).   

An awful picture of an average stand of grain sorghum
Besides all that, I tried unsuccessfully to take a decent picture of part of the sorghum field.  Somehow the color is all off (it really is greener than that), but it still gives you a decent idea of what a field looks like at this point.  Some of the heads are still emerging (if you look real close you'll see them), and the grain hasn't filled out yet in the heads that are blooming. In a month or so, there will be even more heads, and they should all be much bigger and full of grain.

Friday, July 11, 2014

A Bunch of Heat, Gobs of Oil, and a Lot of Hammering

It took two days of off-and-on heating, beating, and oiling but I finally got the stuck parts apart so that I can start trying to weld all of the broken parts of my hay rake back together.

On the first day, I used an oxy-acetylene torch to heat the heck out of it trying to expand the pipe enough to bust the rust and gunk loose.  I'd get it nice and hot, beat on it with a small sledgehammer trying to knock the rust out, then used a punch to try to drive it off, sprayed it down good with PB Blaster, then I beat on it a little more.  After doing that about four times, I'd only moved the outer pipe about 1/16".  My arms were about to fall off, so I propped it up and sprayed as much oil as I could into that little gap and quit for the day.  

The next day, I started trying to move the immovable once again; going through the whole process of heating, beating, and oiling this permanently stuck piece of broken junk a couple more times.   And, it still refused to move.

Just as I was seriously thinking about getting out a grinder with a cutoff wheel and slicing the pipe from stem to stern to get it off (and hoping I could find a piece of pipe that was the right size pipe to replace it), I hit it hard one more time with the hammer and HOLY COW, IT FINALLY MOVED!!  I'd managed to move it 1/8" which was much better than yesterday's 1/16", which meant that it was only going to take me about 100 days to get this apart instead of the 200 days I'd originally estimated.

Repositioning my punch to get a better bite, I managed to move it about 1/4" more with the next handful of hits.  Maybe the immovable wasn't immovable at all.  I finally had these pieces of pipe on the ropes, and I had to keep hitting them before they got a second wind and started fighting back again.

A quarter inch quickly turned into a half inch, a half inch became an inch-and-a-half, and before I knew it the pipe fell off so fast it almost smashed my toe. 

After all that, a broken and twisted frame, a bunch of torn metal, and a whole lot of hammering and heat, the only thing that I could find that made these two pieces of pipe get stuck together was some old dried up grease, some dirt, and a little rust.  A quick pass with a grinder, a dunk in the parts cleaner, and the pipes fit together so loosely that they practically rattled.

There's some sort of philosophical lesson to be learned here, like "when you are ready to give up on something, just hit it with a hammer a couple more times".

Now, I can start welding everything back together, and I need to decide if I want to repaint the parts that has had all the paint burned off by the torch and welding (painting it almost seems like putting lipstick on a pig at this point).

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Trying to Bale Hay and Breaking Stuff

Before you can bale hay you usually need to rake it into windrows, which is what I planned to do today.  As soon as I started to fold one side of the rake down I got a nasty reminder about how much force hydraulics can have when it mangled everything it was attached to by trying to move something that didn't want to move. 

I believe my exact remarks were something like, "Oh, fiddle and fudge, you son-of-a-biscuit-eater!" (Of course, I'd be willing to bet it was actually closer to a full-blown cuss-fest).

I've used this rake for 6 years or so, have only had a few problems with it, and now I'm going to have to beat the hell out of it with a sledgehammer to straighten everything out followed by welding the hell out of it to make it one piece instead of three pieces.
You should have seen how twisted it was before I beat on it with a sledgehammer

Come on, MOVE you piece of junk!
There's no point in welding it all back together if the parts that are supposed to move still don't move after it's fixed(that part with the pipe wrench on it is supposed to move), so after spending a little time with a couple of 8' pieces of pipe as cheaters on the pipe wrench and the mangled bit of the rake and still not getting any movement (how the heck did it get locked up so tight?!), I gave up for the day and decided to rake the hay with the one side of the rake that was still on the rake.

At least, I didn't have to rake and bale that hay next to a road where everybody could see me raking with half of a rake like a nitwit, but there was a slim chance of rain tonight, so I didn't really have much choice.  

You would think that using half of a rake would mean that it would take twice as long to rake and bale some hay, but it seemed like it took three to four times as long to finally get it all baled. 

Now, I just need to do some more sledgehammering, loosening some unloosenable stuff, and a bunch of welding.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Peach Cobblers and Cutting Hay

Back in the middle of April, an unusual cold front came through and the temperature dropped to somewhere around 28-29 degrees.  At the time, I was sure that low of a temperature meant that there wouldn't be any peaches this year, but I was surprised that one of the eight peach trees I have was loaded with peaches (a couple other trees do have a few peaches).  In between eating myself sick on those peaches, I've been wondering why this tree had so many peaches that survived the freeze and the others didn't. 

So far I'm still trying to figure out what the reason for so many peaches on this tree might be.  Some sort of micro-climate around this tree?  More fertility available to this tree?  This tree bloomed earlier or later than the others?  A combination of all of the above?

Whatever the reason, at least I get to have a few peach cobblers this year.
Enough tasty peaches to satisfy my peach cravings for the year

I started cutting some hay a couple of days ago since it's supposed to be in the high-90's and without rain for a week or so.  When I cut hay, I use my favorite type of mower, a disc mower that can cut a 16' swath at a time (one of the few pieces of equipment I've never regretted buying). When it revs up it almost sounds like a jet engine and I can fly through a field cutting about as fast as I care to drive. 

This year, I started off by cutting some volunteer crabgrass in a wheat field.  Whenever I see those fields covered in a nice stand of grass it always makes me start thinking about converting those fields to grass and buying more cattle to graze them instead of trying to plant something like wheat or sorghum.  Then a few days later, the cattle do something that irritates me, I start thinking about getting rid of them and growing more cash crops.  But, in the end, I still tend to lean more towards raising cattle.

Now that's what I call a mower

Green, growing grass always makes me feel good
Whenever I see green grass blowing in the wind on these fields in the summer, I always wish I could have seen this country back when it was still prairie, before it was all cut up into a mix of fields and pastures, and crisscrossed with roads and fences.