Tuesday, November 18, 2014

More Portable Windbreak Thoughts

I've more or less decided how I'm going to build my windbreaks (as always, subject to change) which I'll go ahead and share. I decided to follow the design from the Ranchers.net forum post which I wrote about in my previous post.

I went ahead and built some little models to scale out of some foam board and wire to make it a little easier to show what I'm talking about, and also so I could huff and puff and try to blow them over to test how stable the design actually is.  I don't know how accurate my "huffing and puffing trying to blow them over" test is or if it even applies to real world conditions, but it was harder to blow them over than I thought it would be, so I'm satisfied they'll work. 

It's easier to look at the photos than it would be to draw and explain my plans, but the relevant measurements are: 

-the windbreak (foam board, sheet metal, wood, etc.) part is 8'x24',

-the width of the base needs to be 1.5 times the height of the windbreak for stability, so the legs are about 12' long,

-the lines on the foam board represent the framing that the sheet metal is attached to,

-there is about a one-foot gap at the bottom for enough air flow (it has something to do with snow drifting),

 -the pipe at the top is so that a tractor with a bale spike can be used to pick up and move the windbreaks. 

-the legs are removable and are simply a 2 3/8 pipe slid into a 2 7/8 sleeve (the Ranchers.net forum post has a picture of the assembly).

Since the windbreak has removable legs and is about 8' tall, I should be able to easily disassemble and load them onto an equipment trailer so that they can be moved longer distances (which is one of my design criteria).  

Two windbreaks attached together and angled for more wind blocking action

Legs need to be 6-feet from the ends so the windbreaks can be angled

Three windbreaks attached together for even more stability and wind blocking
I haven't decided if the windbreaks should be built entirely out of 2 3/8 pipe or a combination of pipe and 3" (or 4") c-channel purlin material (like a steel framed barn).  Right now, I'm leaning towards the pipe and purlin combination to make it less top heavy and easier to attach the sheet metal.

The material used to make the windbreak itself also needs to be decided.  Some sources recommend something like 2x6 lumber spaced a couple of inches apart to make a porous windbreak which is supposed to have an advantage over a solid wall (try going to the Portable Windbreak Fences publication for more info). Wood seems like it would be heavy, more expensive, and less durable.  If I could salvage some treated boards from somewhere, it might be an option.

I've also read about using used billboard tarps (available on eBay for reasonable prices) on a windbreak,  which sounds like it would work reasonably well although I'm not sure how long a billboard tarp would last or what it would look like out in a pasture if the printed part of the billboard tarp was still visible.

Solid sheet-metal (the same as on a barn) is another option, which at the moment, is the type of material I think I'd probably use for building a windbreak.  Sheet-metal is relatively light weight, pretty durable, and is affordable.  Sheet metal should also make it easier to move them on a trailer if I ever decide to.  I'm undecided about whether I'd run the sheet-metal horizontally or vertically.  The framing would need to be built differently depending on how the sheet metal is installed, so I'll have to do some thinking on what would work better, would be easiest to build, etc..

So far, I think that explaining in detail how I'd build my version of a portable windbreak might possibly be the extra shove I need to build one or two this winter, so stay tuned for the possible, maybe, if-I-ever-get-around-to-it building process (I'm still not making any promises though).

Monday, November 17, 2014

Apparently Quail Like Sorghum-Sudangrass

Today was the day that I finally put the cattle on my field of sorghum-sudangrass.  If it hadn't been for the early cold snap we had last week, I would have put them on sooner, but since I've never liked the combination of cold, biting wind and building electric fences, and it isn't that big of a deal to wait a few days to start grazing it, I decided to wait a few days.  

Right after opening the gate, I walked the electric fences to double-check that the deer hadn't knocked them down and almost immediately jumped the biggest covey of quail (20-25 birds) that I've seen in a very long time.  I was thinking that quail might be attracted to this sort of winter cover, but it's nice to have my thinking confirmed by actually seeing that many on a cold, snowy day. 

If I added some sunflowers, buckwheat, or cowpeas to the sorghum-sudangrass, I wonder how many more quail I could raise?    A bird dog would be next to impossible to see in that tall grass, but it would be a heck of a hunt if I had a hundred acres of sorghum-sudangrass full of quail and a good bird dog.
Before the cattle have started grazing
Even more surprising was the number of rabbit tracks I saw in the mowed strip where the electric fence is.  One day of snow, extra cold temperatures, and the rabbits were running everywhere.  A beagle would have ran himself ragged and gone hoarse in that field. 
Rabbit tracks running all over the place
I planted this field of sorghum-sudangrass to feed my soil and a few cattle, but if it will also feed the quail, rabbits, hawks, coyotes, and hopefully some pheasants in the future then it's well  worth the $15/acre it cost to plant.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Thinking About Windbreaks

About a week ago, the temperature was in the 80's, then the most recent "Polar Vortex", "Polar Invasion", "Arctic Outbreak", or "whatever the heck they've decided to call it" reached Oklahoma, and the temperature dropped into the twenties and thirties.  That might be shirt-sleeve weather farther north, but with the wind also blowing 20-30 mph, it's seemed pretty cold to me (especially since the temperature dropped that much almost overnight). 

It's been so cold that the ponds have frozen a couple of days and I've already had to chop holes in the ice for the cows (I don't think I've ever had to do that this early in the year before). This morning it started snowing and they're forecasting a low of around 16 degrees tomorrow, which is awfully cold for mid-November in Oklahoma. 
When it's cold, the wind's blowing, and it's snowing, I'm driving to check the cattle instead of walking
All this cold this soon has gotten me to thinking once again about building some sort of windbreak for the cattle. 

About four or five years ago, when my calving season started in mid-February, a big storm hit right as the cows were starting to calve.  The temperature dropped to well below zero (24 degrees below zero), over a foot of snow fell, and the road to the farm drifted closed for a few days until the county brought in a bulldozer to move the snow.  I was lucky that time and didn't lose any calves, although I ended up with a couple that had frostbitten ears and tails. If the storm had hit a week later when more cows were  calving, I really would have been in trouble. 

After that storm, I moved the calving season to March trying to avoid the worst of winter weather and started thinking about building some sort of windbreak in that pasture.  I also built a loafing shed so I'd have somewhere to put any newborn calves if a storm hit during calving season. 

I soon found out that calving in March didn't mean that I'd avoid most of the ice and snow winter storms.  I also found out that a loafing shed doesn't really help as much as I thought it would with newborn calves, because unless I babysit each and every cow that might be ready to calve, it's impossible to move a calf to the loafing shed quick enough to make a difference in a storm that's bad enough that a calf might need to be in that loafing shed.  A loafing shed has a use on the farm, but it doesn't really help in blizzard unless I could somehow put all the cows into it before the storm hit.   

Most local pastures have enough trees and protected areas that windbreaks would be an unneeded luxury, but the pasture where I like to winter my cows doesn't have enough trees in the right places to provide enough shelter.  Planting more trees is probably the best long-term solution, but for the short-term, building some sort of windbreak might be useful.    

Even though I've thought about building a windbreak for a couple of years, I've never got around to actually building anything (mainly because I can't decide exactly what I want to build or if a windbreak would even work).  In the process of trying to decide what to build, as a test, I hung a tarp on one side of the working pens to make a 6'x24' windbreak last winter right before one snow storm which did block the wind, but I didn't see any cattle around it at all. I'm not sure if it just wasn't tall enough, it wasn't wide enough, it wasn't in the best location, or it was something else? 

Another time right before a snowstorm, I stacked about ten bales of hay in a line next to an already somewhat sheltered area.  This idea did work to block the wind, some of the cattle gathered around it, and some calves even bedded down out of the wind next to the bales like they were supposed to.  The only problem was that the cows ate just enough of the bales that when I tried to move them after the storm, I had a big mess of falling apart hay bales so I had to just leave them out for the cows to clean up.  After they'd eaten part of the hay and wasted a heck of a lot of it, I then found out that it was almost impossible to get all that baling twine cleaned up.   Except for when I'd need an emergency shelter, I don't think building a windbreak out of stacked hay or straw would really work for me.   

After all that , I've been thinking about building a honest-to-goodness windbreak like they use up in places like Canada.  I've seen a few interesting designs online for portable windbreaks that look like they might work that are about 10-12 feet tall and about 20-24 feet long built out of pipe and covered with either 2x6 lumber or sheet-metal.  Last year, I got as far as drawing up some rough plans and making out a materials list (which I can't find now) and estimated that it would cost around $400-500 for materials (for all new steel and lumber).   

For anyone interested, some of my ideas came for these two links:  a forum post on Rancher.net  and an agriculture publication from Saskatchewan about Portable Windbreak Fences.

I hoping that thinking out loud about windbreaks on this blog combined with this early snowstorm might help push me enough to start building a windbreak this winter in time for calving season instead of next summer when it's too late.  Wish me luck, and if I build one I'll share the building process in the future.  

If anyone had any ideas or suggestions to add, feel free to share them.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Grazing Sorghum-Sudangrass over the Winter

It's getting closer to the time when I can start to graze the field of sorghum-sudangrass I planted back on July 22.  

Quickly summarizing, by the first of October it had more or less reached maturity, was starting to put out seed heads, and the better parts of the field were about 8 feet tall.  We had a killing freeze (27 deg. F) on October 31, which should have killed it, and so it will be safe to graze about 7-10 days later.

With sorghum (and a number of other forages) there is a danger of prussic acid poisoning after a frost or a freeze. After a frost, when the plant isn't completely killed and it regrows, there is still a risk of prussic acid poisoning until the regrowth is around 24" tall.  If I had a field that had frost damage, I would play it safe and wait until a killing freeze before I let cattle back into that field.  After a freeze, when the plant is completely killed, it is supposed to be safe to graze after 7-10 days, but I usually try to wait at least 14 days to make sure everything is dead (I'm a belt and suspenders kind of guy and try to play it as safe as I can).

Nitrate poisoning from sorghum is an entirely different concern and some people seem to confuse nitrate and prussic acid poisoning so do your homework if you are thinking about grazing or baling any of the sorghum family.  Nitrate poisoning usually results from higher applications of nitrogen and/or drought conditions, so I'm not that worried about this field since I didn't apply any nitrogen and we had decent growing conditions this summer.

Prussic acid and nitrate poisoning isn't anything to be taken lightly, so if anyone is reading this and thinking about doing something similar, make double sure that you learn all there is to learn about the subject before you turn your cattle out into a field of grain sorghum, sorghum-sudangrass, or any other similar grass.

Whenever I put cattle out on grain sorghum stubble, I usually just let them have access to the entire field, but I'm going to divide this field of sorghum-sudangrass into at least four divisions for a number of reasons.  I'm interested in feeding cattle with this field of sorghum-sudangrass, but I'm also interested in improving the soil in this field.  Letting the cattle only have access to part of the field should help ration the forage out a little bit longer and should also stop the cattle from eating the higher quality parts in the first few days and leaving the worst for the rest of the winter.  Concentrating the cattle on only part of the field should also result in a more even distribution across the field of manure, urine, and any other cow goodness (saliva, milk, hair) they might also be contributing.

It's tough to eyeball a field and accurately determine exactly how big it is, and it's almost impossible to easily figure out where I need to put my electric fence to fence in a 5 acre area in a field of 8-foot tall sorghum-sudangrass by just looking at it.  So I used the website: http://www.acme.com/planimeter/ to try different fence placements on an aerial photo.

After trying about fifty different fence placements, I finally decided to divide it up into four sections (I might subdivide those sections even smaller depending on how the cattle actually graze and trample everything).   Before I can build an electric fence through a field with grass taller than my head, I'm going to need to mow some strips across the field.  I've read accounts of people just driving an ATV or a tractor across a field to knock down the grass before they build a fence, but I think I'd rather mow it now instead of coming back after I've built my fence across the field and trying to mow it when the grass decides it doesn't want to lay on the ground anymore.  
Diving into the field and hoping I'm sort of going in the right direction

Looking back at my mowed strip (don't worry, it's supposed to be curved)
I spent so much time laying out where I wanted to mow these strips that I thought it would be a simple matter to just point the tractor in the general direction that I wanted to go, pick out some sort of landmark, and mow a straight line across the field.  But, I found out that it's harder to mow a straight line through 8-foot tall grass than I thought it would be, so I decided to try and follow the curve of a terrace instead. Following a terrace is a lot easier than you would think, since I was on a slope, it was relatively easy to feel by the seat-of-my-pants if I was maintaining that slope as I drove across the field (I would have thought it would be easier to drive a straight line than follow the curve of a terrace).

After mowing those strips, it already "feels" like growing sorghum-sudangrass and grazing it over the winter is going to make a difference in the soil health in this field.

I've been thinking that if I had grazed it back in late-September when it was ready to cut for hay, then let it regrow until it winter-killed, I think it might have worked even better (twice the amount of livestock impact, possibly more total growth, etc.).   Another idea is that I should have added something like oats or turnips to the sorghum-sudangrass, (oats will grow if planted in late summer) so that I'd still have something growing after the freeze killed the sorghum-sudangrass.    

Now I need to build my electric fences and see how the cows eat sorghum-sudangrass "standing hay".

Thursday, November 6, 2014

"Bombproof" Feed Troughs

The farm I rent down the road has some interesting feed troughs that are really just some re-purposed military surplus bomb shipping containers.   

The government probably spent a pile of money to buy them, they likely traveled around the world a few times, were sold as surplus for pennies on the dollar, and now they're living out the rest of their lives as almost perfectly designed indestructible cattle feed troughs.

It might be me, but I kind of like stuff like that.  

Even though I don't really use feed troughs very often, if I ever found some for sale I'd like to buy some for myself.  If I was going into the cattle feed trough building and selling business, I'd think long and hard about using the same sort of design, although I don't know if they'd be as interesting without the back story that military surplus bomb shipping containers would have.
"Bombproof" Feed Trough
Upside-down "Bombproof" Feed Trough
Shipping & Storage Container, Bomb Dispenser: XM 468

Sunday, November 2, 2014

No-Kill Cropping and Pasture Cropping - Still Trying To Figure It Out, But Getting Close

Drilling Wheat and Crimson Clover into Existing Perennial Grass Pasture

I first saw an article about pasture cropping about six years ago and then started experimenting trying to see if I could figure out how to make it work for me and my farm.  It's hard to describe to someone that doesn't grow wheat, but it's pretty exciting to me to think that there's a possibility that I could convert my cropland to perennial grass pasture and still plant and harvest a wheat crop from those fields.

Over the years I've read and re-read everything I could find online on the subject, I've watched every online video I could find, and I've even listened to a handful of podcasts (but it's still been almost like pulling teeth to get to this point)  .  Because of all that content being shared it's been a little bit easier to figure out some of the details, so I thought I might share what I've learned.

I always tell people that I'm experimenting with "pasture cropping", but technically I'm actually closer to "no-kill cropping". But since no-kill sounds so close to no-till, people usually hear it as no-till instead of no-kill, so I started calling it pasture cropping even though it's really no-kill.  Calling something by another name is a hard habit to break, so when I say pasture cropping, I usually mean no-kill cropping (I hope that's confusing enough).

Pasture cropping is basically drilling cool season grain crops into warm season perennial grass stands to get the benefits of a grain harvest, grazing during the summer, and some regeneration or improvement of the pasture due to the two different sorts of crops complementing each other.   The basic idea is that the cool season grass benefits because their roots are able to follow the roots of the dormant warm season grass to moisture and fertility, and then the warm season perennial grasses are able to benefit from the decaying roots of the cool season annual grasses the next summer. 

Typically, a pasture cropped field is fertilized the same as a conventional field, while also possibly having some sort of herbicide applications to control weeds, etc.

No-kill cropping is a similar technique except there isn't any fertilizer or herbicide applied, the crop is just drilled into a dry pasture with as little soil disturbance as possible (hence the name No-Kill).  By drilling into dry soil with little disturbance, the planted seeds are able to wait for a rain to germinate and they are able to compete with any weeds since weeds usually need some sort of soil disturbance to germinate.  No-Kill is basically a low-input technique, with seed and fuel being the only inputs.  

Both pasture cropping and no-kill cropping also have the options of a grain harvest, grazing and grain, or grazing only. 

Anybody that's interested in pasture cropping or no-kill cropping would probably be better off going online to find more detailed information at websites like:  http://www.pasturecropping.com/

In my experimenting with no-kill/pasture cropping, I've had mixed results, but I've never had a real failure.   When I first started, I used a conventional double-disc drill (IH 5100) and drilled some leftover wheat seed into two areas that I'd baled for hay in the summer, one was a bermudagrass pasture and the other was a native prairie pasture.  I felt like a fool pulling that drill around those pastures, and I even had someone stop and ask what the heck I was doing. But, most of that wheat came up, those pastures were nice and green over the winter, and I ended up grazing the native grass pasture (the cows seemed to do great on the combination of dormant grasses and wheat pasture) and baling some bermuda/wheat hay (the cattle loved that hay).  

It's hard to prove it, but to my eye it looked like the no-kill cropping had slightly improved those pastures because they grew a little bit differently the next summer (or I could have just been seeing what I wanted to see).

After that first year, I started using a no-till drill which had coulters on the front and double-disc openers.  At first, I thought that the coulters would be too aggressive and might tear up the pasture more than I wanted, but I found that the perennial grasses create a dense enough sod that even with coulters, the drill only cuts a small slit that almost disappears with the next rain.

Over my years of experimenting, one year I was able to harvest a grain crop after grazing the pasture in late winter.  The yield was pretty low (10-12 bu./acre), but my input cost was only about $10-15/acre for seed and fuel. At the time, wheat was selling for about $7/bu, so I had about a 700% return on investment on that little 10 acre pasture.  Plus, I was able to bale about 25 bales of bermudagrass hay in the summer and I was able to graze it over the winter.  

I kept experimenting on that 10 acre hay meadow, drilling leftover wheat seed into it in the fall, and since we've been in drought for a few years, I've just grazed it out with the cattle over the winter.  Grazing it out doesn't seem like it would be a huge money maker, but after a little calculation, I found that if I spent about $10-15/acre to drill that wheat and grazed it, it would save me about one bale of hay (i.e. 1 acre of really thin wheat pasture replaced 1-1100 lb. of hay).  During those drought years, a bale of hay probably cost about $40-50/bale (I'm not sure, because I've never bought hay), so I'll gladly spend $15 to keep from spending $40.  Plus, I had all those wheat roots doing their whole organic matter building business underground as a bonus.

This year, I decided to try planting a mixture of wheat and crimson clover (85-90 lb. wheat and 7-8 lb. crimson clover per acre) in my no-kill cropping test area.  I'm hoping that I can get the crimson clover to go to seed and I can eventually have a volunteer stand of crimson clover growing in that pasture (hopefully it will also start to spread).  If I can get some sort of clover established, I'm thinking that my no-kill cropped wheat yields will start to increase.  

On November 1, I drilled this mixture into about 10 acres of a predominately bermudagrass pasture that had been baled once last summer, then grazed right before I drilled the wheat.  We had a killing freeze (27 degrees) on October 31, which should make the bermudagrass go into winter dormancy so that it won't compete with the wheat until next April or May, and a good rain is forecast for early next week, so there should be enough moisture to get a decent stand of wheat.

Stay tuned for more exciting updates on this no-kill cropping experiment. If we get a little rain this winter, I might even have some photos of a combine cutting wheat in a pasture.