Thursday, October 23, 2014

Planting Wheat

I finished up planting one field of wheat on Wednesday, (about 75 acres in a day and a half), somehow managed to take a few halfway decent photos with my phone so I thought I'd post them and write a little bit about what I know about growing wheat.

Locally, winter wheat is grown for grazing only, dual purpose (grazing and grain), or grain only.

If someone is planning on grazing out their wheat they'll usually try to plant it a lot earlier (early to mid September) to get more forage in the fall, then they'll graze it until about April or May.  I've heard two different schools of thought on the planting rate, one is that the earlier you plant the lower the rate of seed you need (~60 lb. or 1 bushel per acre) since wheat will compensate by tillering more if it's planted earlier.  The other claim is that you need to plant an even higher rate of seed (2 to 3 bu./acre) because more seed means more plants which gives you more forage.  Most of the fertility (nitrogen and possibly phosphorus) is applied at planting in the fall to help produce more forage.

Wheat grown for grain can be planted much later in the year (up until December 1 if you want to get crop insurance) since to get a decent grain yield, wheat only needs to produce 3-4 tillers before going dormant in the winter.  For grain only, about a third of the nitrogen is applied at planting, then it will be topdressed in the spring with the rest of the nitrogen to hopefully produce more grain instead of more straw.  

Most of the wheat I'm planting is dual-purpose wheat for both grazing and grain.  Dual-purpose wheat is planted and managed somewhere in between grazing-only and grain-only.  I try to plant at least 90 lb./acre in mid-October with about half of my nitrogen applied to get some forage in the fall, then I'll topdress the other half of the nitrogen in mid-February (depending on how much moisture we've gotten, etc.).

But, the winters have been so dry or the rain came at the wrong time for the last 4-5 years that I haven't had any decent wheat pasture so I haven't really had any dual-purpose wheat for awhile.  It would be nice to be able to graze some wheat pasture, but the price of wheat was high enough in most of those years that for awhile I was thinking that growing wheat for the grain might make more sense.  Now, as the price for wheat has went down and cattle prices have went up even more, it might make more sense to graze more of that wheat (although wheat pasture is better suited to grazing stockers than grazing cows).

I switched to no-till about four years ago, so I was able to no-till my wheat into some relatively weed-free crabgrass stubble (much better than my tillage days when the dust would be blowing while I was trying to plant my wheat).  I really like drilling wheat into crabgrass stubble and the way it makes a nice layer of mulch after the coulters slice through it (it could pour down rain right now and I wouldn't have much erosion).

When people think about wheat fields, they probably imagine big flat fields of wheat (I assume), but all the fields I farm are far from flat and have terraces running around the contours.  It's hard to fully capture in a photo, but I've always liked the look of the patterns of the curves of the terraces running across the field.  The photos I'm posting show a little bit of that "look", but you might need to see it in person to understand what I'm talking about.

As a reference, at it's steepest part, this field drops about 45-50 feet in around 900 feet which you can almost see in some of the photos, and the horizon in all the photos is level, which might help you imagine the slope of the terraces.
Going south, drilling wheat along the back of the steepest terrace

Heading north, drilling wheat along the back of the same steep terrace

Going around the hill, following a terrace near the top of the hill, sorghum-sudangrass in the background

Finishing the field at the top of the hill, just in time for the rain

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Hauling Calves to the Stock Yards

Today was the day to haul some calves to the stockyards.  The weekly stocker and feeder sales are on Mondays, but I (and a whole lot of other people) like to haul them to the stockyards on Sunday so they can settle down a little, hopefully fill up overnight on some water and feed, etc.  I've heard different opinions about whether that way of thinking is right (some say to haul them on the morning of the sale because they aren't going to eat anything while they're waiting overnight anyway) but my gut tells me that it's better to haul them on the day before the sale, plus the traffic on a Monday morning in Oklahoma City would be a nightmare to deal with while pulling a stock trailer.

I wanted to haul two loads today, so I got up a little earlier and made sure to eat a big breakfast because even if everything went smoothly, I'd be looking at eating a late lunch.  If everything went sideways, it would be even later in the day before I could get something to eat, and a growling stomach doesn't help my mood at all when everything seems to be going wrong.

For a change, everything went just the way it should go, the calves all walked right into the pens without any trouble, I was able to sort the heifers from the steers about as fast as I've ever been able to do it, and the steers all loaded onto the trailer without a fight.  An hour later, I was unloading them at the Oklahoma National Stock Yards (the World's Largest Stocker and Feeder Cattle Market according the big sign when you drive in).   Two hours later, I was back at the stockyards unloading the heifers.

I might just be me, but I always feel a sense of relief after I've unloaded cattle at the stockyards.  I'm always a little apprehensive when I'm weaning them, then I'm even more apprehensive when I'm hauling a trailer-full of calves down the highway worrying about every little thing that could go wrong from a flat tire to a back gate coming open on the trailer to a calf going down in the trailer to a car accident. (I've never really had any problems, so I'm not sure why I'm that way).  But as soon as the last calf walks off the trailer, I stop worrying about everything.  

I just need to go home, maybe take an afternoon nap, and wait until tomorrow to see how the market was.  With the record cattle prices we've been seeing lately, I'm betting I'll see the highest prices I've ever gotten for any of my cattle and I also wouldn't be surprised if those record prices start to disappear next year.  For all I know, ten or twenty years from now, I might be talking about the unbelievable prices I got back in 2014.  It would be great if I'm wrong and the cattle market stays up for a while longer.

Steers waiting to be loaded
Heifers waiting to be loaded
Same steers as above

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Weaning Calves and Building an Electric Fence - the Rich Way

I weaned some calves today and when I wean calves I put them into the weaning pen (Hey! I wonder if that's why it's always been called the weaning pen?).  The weaning pen is just a 2 acre area next to the working pens that's fenced with woven-wire fence (so just-weaned calves have to really work at it to get out).

Supposedly, it's possible to fence-line wean calves by separating the cows and calves with something like a woven-wire or electric fence so that they can still see each each other, touch noses, etc. which lowers the stress levels of both cow and calf, but the calf can't nurse anymore.   In the past, I've been able to wean my calves doing just that, using the woven-wire fence around the weaning pen as the fence part in the fence-line weaning process.  But it can be a hit-or-miss process in some years, when the calves try to crawl through gates, or the cows decide to bawl at the calves which causes the calves to start bawling, etc.  So a few years ago, I just started building an electric fence about two-hundred feet away from the weaning pen to keep the cows a little bit farther away which seems to be a little bit less stressful on the cows, calves, and me.
Weaned calves in the weaning pen
Since my temporary electric fences are built a little bit differently than most of the typical electric fences I see being built online and in books, and at times I get some of my best ideas after seeing how other people do things, I thought it might give other people some ideas of their own if I showed how I build electric fences the Rich way.

It's not a complicated process to build an electric fence, so most of the info is in these photos (click on them to get a closer look).

When I build a temporary or semi-permanent fence I usually use simple rebar posts that I've modified to be step-in rebar posts.  For whatever reason (probably due to the type of clay soil around here) the ground can be hard to get something like a normal step-in post (either the plastic ones or the pigtail type) into the ground, so I've always used rebar posts (the 4-ft. kind with the plate).   Once those rebar posts are pounded into the ground, they can also be a bear to get back out of the ground whenever it comes time to take the fence down a few days, weeks, or months later.

A few years ago, I took some of those rebar posts, knocked off the plates that were still on some of the posts (they always seem to fall off or get left in the ground when you pull them), and welded a step made out of a 3" piece of rebar on each one of them.   
Modified step-in rebar post next to an original post, make sure the fence is turned off if you ever ask your posts to pose for a photo while they're leaning on the fence
After welding that little step onto the posts, now I can just grab a handful of posts and install them about as fast as I can walk.  Compared to carrying a hammer to pound in the posts, setting down all the posts you're carrying to pound that post, then picking up all the posts, etc., it's a breeze to just step-in all the posts as you walk along.  When it comes time to take down the fence, it's easy to grab that welded-on step and turn the post back and forth a few times to loosen it, then use the step as a handle to pull the post. 

After I put in my posts, I install the wire.  I've always used 14 ga. steel wire for temporary/semi-permanent electric fences like this instead of the typical polywire usually advocated by most people.  I've usually used steel wire because my thoughts are that the wind is always blowing here and polywire blowing back and forth in the wind might wear through the filaments in the polywire pretty quick (I'm not sure if that's true, but that's my theory).  I also sometimes run longer (up to 2000 ft.) electric fences across wheat fields, and a 14 ga. steel wire is easier to keep hot over a distance that long compared to polywire.  I also already had a bunch of 14 ga. steel wire before I had ever even heard of polywire, which is one of the main reasons I use wire instead of polywire.

I store all my wire on some cheap electric cord reels (they cost about $4 each?).  As long as I don't overload them with too much wire, they aren't overly heavy, I can tie one end to an insulator, then just start walking and the wire will roll off of the reel while still staying reasonably tight.      
Tied off insulator (ignore those weeds)

Cheap electric cord reel repurposed as an electric fence wire reel
I used to use steel t-posts with various insulators tied onto them as both my corner posts and gate posts, but now I pound in a t-post and slip a 4-foot chunk of 2" PVC over it to use as my corner posts and gate posts.  With that PVC, insulators aren't needed at all, so when I reach a corner I pull the wire tight, wrap it around the PVC a couple of times and start walking to the next post.  The PVC is loose on the t-post, so as I pull on the wire, the PVC will roll and put a little bit of tension on the wire. When I reach a gate post, I wrap it a couple of times around the PVC, wrap it around the wire itself so it keeps tight whenever I open the gate, pull it across the gate opening, and tie on my insulated gate handle (I hope that's halfway understandable). 
T-post with 2" PVC - corner post and/or gate post
Most of my permanent interior electric fences are built with some 4-foot t-posts that I've managed to salvage out of broken and bent t-posts that I simple cut off to 4-foot from various times I've rebuilt fences from around the farm.  Since I usually only need a single hot wire about 32" high, a 4-foot t-post is the perfect length.   Whenever I want to drop a temporary fence off of one of my permanent electric fences, I usually make a simple gate loop by wrapping some wire on either side of an insulator on one of these t-posts.

Gate opening

Permanent electric fence with a gate loop on the wire

Like I said, building electric fence isn't rocket surgery, but the easier and quicker it is to build electric fences, the better it is.   Any questions, suggestions, criticisms, or ideas about building electric fences?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

I'm Not Sure What to Make of This, It's a Puzzle and a Mystery

I usually don't start bowhunting until about the last week in October since by that time it's usually started to cool down a little, the leaves have started to drop, and the bucks start to move a lot more because the rut is getting close.

But a few days ago, since it has been cooler than usual, the trees are starting to change color, and some leaves have actually started to fall, I started to get the itch to climb up in one of my ladder stands and sit in the woods holding a bow while I both hunted for a deer and thought on a variety of subjects (as I tend to do).  It was nice and cool, but I didn't see anything (which is one reason I usually wait to get serious about hunting until a little bit later), but I like to start the season by working out all the cobwebs first anyway, so overall it was a good morning (I did get some hard thinking done if you were wondering).

Come on deer, come out where I can see you
While I was sitting there in that ladder stand, a stupid calf kept bawling over and over on the other side of the railroad tracks (railroad tracks run the length of the farm for those that didn't know).  Usually a calf won't bawl like that unless he has somehow got on the wrong side of a fence and can't figure out how to get back on the right side of the fence, he fell in a hole, or he's just being a pain and decides to bawl his head off for no reason.   

Ninety-nine percent of the time the bawling calf is just bawling to hear his brain rattle around inside his head, but on the off chance he might actually be on the wrong side of the fence this time, I walked over to the railroad tracks, crawled through the brush on both sides of the tracks, and found out that I was right about the stupid calf and he was just bawling to be bawling. 

While mumbling something under my breath about stupid calves, I crawled over the fence, back through that thick brush (I swear, I'm gonna start carrying a machete with me), up onto the tracks, looked down into the brush on the other side, and saw a flash of something blue.  I still find stuff hidden back in brush and trees once in awhile from the tornado (that's right, 15 years later and I still find tornado debris), but this looked different so I had to get a closer look. 
What the heck is that blue thing?

I think that's a backpacker's sleeping mat, what the heck is that doing out here?
When I got closer, I saw that it was a blue foam sleeping mat, like a backpacker would carry, rolled out on the ground like someone had been camping there, had packed up camp, and then just left it.  It had been laying like that for a while, but the leaves under it were still in leaf form (usually leaves will break down faster into leaf mold if covered for any period of time), it wasn't buried in the leaves (so it probably wasn't there last fall or winter when the leaves fell off the trees), and I didn't see any obvious campsite around it except for an old Pepsi can and a green Sprite bottle placed in the grass up towards the edge of the tracks (FWIW, the date on the cap of the Sprite bottle was Jun 2014). 
Old faded Pepsi can
Green Sprite bottle
To me, from the date on the Sprite bottle and the condition of the leaves around the blue mat, it look like someone brought both of them out there sometime last spring.

The thing that puzzles me is that the nearest roads are at least 3/4 of a mile down the tracks one way and over a mile (1.25 miles)the other way.  It's rough walking down either railroad tracks or the gravel alongside the tracks, so I don't see why anyone would intentionally walk them.  A few miles farther down the tracks (going either way), the tracks cross creeks over a railroad trestle which would make the walking even tougher.

As fast as the trains go by, anyone that was planning on jumping either off of or onto a passing train would have an almost impossible job ahead of them. 

I might be reading more into it than I should, but why would anyone leave a foam mat laid out like that in the brush?  Why would someone place a Sprite bottle alongside the tracks as a marker?

Was the person that left the foam mat laid out like that desperate, crazy, on an adventure, a hardened hobo, some stupid kid, or something entirely different?  All of the above or none of the above?  Any ideas or thoughts?

It's still puzzling and a total mystery to me, it could be something and it could be nothing.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Farm - The Cattle Part

Back in a previous post about the farm, I said I was going to write about the cattle part of the farm, but after trying a few times to write a coherent post, I found that it's harder to write about the cattle than I originally thought it would be.  So, instead of trying to explain every little detail (if anyone's interested in raising cattle, there are plenty of better places to go to for info), I'm just going to throw a few of my thoughts out there about the role of livestock on the farm (most of it might only interest people that have their own cattle, so you've been warned).

On paper, the cattle have always made at least half of the money made on the farm, although the "farming part" (growing wheat, etc) and the "ranching part" (raising cattle, hay, etc.) of the farm sort of work together as a system, so it's hard at times to isolate one from the other. 

Most of my hay comes from baling either crabgrass, sorghum-sudangrass, or a failed sorghum crop that I've grown during the summer in between wheat crops.  To my eye, baling hay seems to improve the cropland since it helps with controlling weeds (it can be hard to prove that).  The cropland also benefits from the cattle when I graze the fields as either sorghum stubble over winter, or crabgrass and sorghum-sudangrass in the summer.

Without the cattle, I'd lose the opportunity to either capitalize on those hay crops or salvage a failed crop.  Without the cropland, it would be harder to bale enough hay or would take more cash to buy the same amount of hay.

Since it's hard to put a number on the true value of all those different combinations, I tend to think that it's important to have both cattle and cropland on the farm (the combination is worth more than the sum of its parts).  As I start growing more cover crops, the synergy between the cattle and the crops should grow even more (instead of 2+2=5, it'll hopefully be 2+2=6).

Although I don't know if I'd advise anyone else start out that way, I started with some bred heifers (a relatively uniform group of ordinary commercial Black Angus heifers).  It was a real learning experience starting out with those bred heifers,  from learning how to manage their body condition so that they didn't have trouble calving to learning what to look for to make sure they weren't having trouble calving.

There are a number of locals that sell some decent registered Black Angus bulls, so it was relatively easy to find a good bull that first winter for a reasonable price.  At the time, I was of the opinion that buying bulls and raising my own replacement heifers was the best way to build a herd (I still think that way to a degree).  If I was starting out again, I think I'd try to buy more bred heifers in the early years instead of raising my own replacements.

Over the years, I've figured out that it's best for calving to start around the first of March so that I can end up with a weaned calf sometime in October that'll be ready to go out on wheat pasture sometime in November.   By calving starting in March, I usually avoid really cold weather, and the cow will be producing more milk in April and May when the calf can actually take advantage of the extra milk production.   

Before the droughts hit in 2011 and 2012, I was able to get my calving season shortened to under 45 days, but starting in 2011 the heat started climbing right before the breeding season.  It was over 100 for almost the rest of the summer which really affected the bulls' fertility, so that my calving season has been spread out over a much longer period ever since.  I may eventually have to move to a spring and fall calving season if I decide that I really want to shorten my calving seasons.

I've always tagged and banded calves right after calving.  I like to tag them as soon as possible so I can tell who's who, and which calf belongs to which cow.  Banding as soon as possible after calving has always seemed to be easier and less stressful on the calves, but I might have to start doing things differently next year.  

It used to be easy to catch a calf, hold it down, and then band it while the cow stood there calmly watching (easier with two people, but also possible to do it alone).  For some reason (I'm starting to think it's due to black vultures moving into the area), almost all the cows have gotten much more aggressive in recent years to the point where it's pretty stressful on the guy holding the calf down trying to count to two before putting on a band.   After getting knocked off of a calf last spring, I was so gun-shy for a few days that I was hoping for all heifer calves so I wouldn't get stomped into the ground trying to deal with any bull calves.   I haven't decided what I'm going to do next year yet.

For the last few years, all my calves are sold after weaning at the stockyards at about 500-600 lb..  In the past, I've weaned them, then put them on wheat pasture until early spring then sold them as feeders at around 750-800 lb.   Some years, I made a little money doing that and other years I broke even after putting all the work in over the winter.  

When the drought hit in 2011, I didn't have any choice about putting any calves on wheat pasture (I was short on hay and thinking about selling cows at the time), so they were all sold as soon as I could get them weaned.  That fall, I also had to sell a group of the prettiest replacement heifers I'd ever raised which was almost painful.   I got a good price on those calves, probably made as much money as if I'd put them on wheat pasture, and had to do a lot less work that winter.  

Since then, I sell all my calves at weaning and don't really use that much wheat pasture.  Of course, the boom in calf prices, dry winters, and higher wheat grain prices also played a role in making that decision.  But, with wheat prices coming down and cattle prices going even higher, it might make sense to start grazing more wheat pasture.  

Years ago, I had the idea that I could direct-market beef and make more money from my cattle herd.  For a few years, I was able to sell about 3 steers a year to about 8 different people (as halves and quarters) and usually managed to make an additional $1000-1200.  The last year I sold beef, I could have loaded those 1100 lb. steers up, sold them at the stockyards, and made about the same amount of money without dealing with the butcher, extra feeding, and all the stress of dealing with a bunch of customers.   So that was the last year I direct-marketed beef, for me it's easier to find some other way to make $1200, I can't imagine selling all my calves as finished beef to an even bigger group of people.

I could easily write much more about what I think about cattle, but at this point I'm probably stating the obvious to those that already own cattle and boring people that don't have any cattle. 

As always, I'm open to any questions or suggestions.  I can't guarantee that my answer or observation will be an entirely correct one, but I can guarantee that I'll give you my biased opinion.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

One More Sorghum-sudangrass Update

In the comments of my last post about harvesting grain sorghum (or milo) , Ed commented about seeing something he thought might be sorghum being grown in Iowa and I suggested that it might be forage sorghum being grown to make silage. 

I thought I might have already posted a photo of the sorghum-sudangrass I've been growing this summer that might be similar to forage sorghum, but I was mistaken, so I decided to take some updated photos of my sorghum-sudangrass.   At approximately 66 days after planting, the better parts of the field are putting out seed heads and starting to bloom (if it was grain sorghum, you would call it mid-bloom) and at this point has grown to about 8-9 feet tall.  A field of forage sorghum would look similar except it would probably have a thicker stalk, bigger leaves, and a bigger head.

I see this field every day, but until I looked back at the pictures I've taken of it since I've planted it, I didn't realize how fast it's grown.  For some reason, I wasn't sure there would be enough time for it to grow before fall since I didn't plant it until July 22, but I think I could have planted it a couple of weeks later and still would have been able to graze it this winter (the earlier you plant it, the more forage quantity you'll get, the later you plant it, the more forage quality you'll get).  Or, I could have let the crabgrass grow enough to bale some hay before planting the sorghum-sudangrass.  There seem to be a lot of different options and after this small experiment, I have a few more ideas and a little bit more confidence about how and what to plant next year as a cover crop.

It feels odd to be looking forward to winter so that I can see how it works to graze a field of "standing hay" instead of baling, hauling, and feeding baled hay.  I'm also sort of looking forward to mowing strips in this field so I can run my electric fences across it (there's something to be said about diving into some 8 foot tall grass with a little tractor).

Besides all that, I've also found out that a field of nine-foot tall sorghum-sudangrass sounds almost like a waterfall or a river when the wind is blowing (and the wind always blows here), which sounds kind of cool and almost makes it worth growing some as a cover crop. 

So stay tuned later this fall and winter for more exciting, edge-of-your-seat reports of mowing tall grass and the results of grazing cows instead of feeding hay to cows.