Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Burning the Asparagus Bed; One of the Unofficial Starts to the Gardening Year

It's kind of hard to get a good photo of a fire going through an asparagus bed, but trust me that's what it is
I've been meaning to burn off the asparagus bed for a couple of weeks or so, but it's been snowing, drizzling rain, or the winds been blowing too much almost every day but it finally warmed up today so it's time to start a fire and burn all those old asparagus ferns off of the bed.   

There's not much to say about burning an asparagus bed besides I lit a match, a small fire started burning, and then with a big WHOOSH it was all burned.  That's basically all there is to growing asparagus, burn it off in the spring to kill all the over-wintering asparagus beetles, pick the spears when they start growing, throw a little compost and mulch on the bed after the ferns start growing, rinse and repeat every year, and that's all you need to do to have garden-fresh asparagus each spring .

Twenty years ago, I never would have guessed that I'd ever be looking forward to that first asparagus spear of the year.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Thinking About Stockers on Wheat Pasture

Part of my original plans when I started raising cattle as a cow-calf operation was that I would have the option to graze my calves after weaning on wheat pasture through the stocker phase to make some extra money from my calf crop (it's also called backgrounding in some parts of the world).  

Usually, the calf is weaned in early fall and put on wheat pasture until late-February so that the grain yields aren't affected.  If everything goes exactly right, a good stand of winter wheat will give you 2-2.5 lb. of gain per day so that after 120 days of grazing you'll end up with around a 750-850 lb. feeder steer.  Having a good stand of wheat suitable available for grazing doesn't come without a little management, some extra fertility (nitrogen and phosphorus), and a little luck with the weather though.  

In addition to having a decent field of wheat pasture, there's also the problem of dealing with the "roll-back" in cattle prices, which is basically that as the weight of the steer gets higher the price per pound goes down.  

Growing wheat pasture is something that's relatively easy to do, it just takes a little time and extra money, but figuring out if it would pay to keep my  calves after weaning and sell them as feeders after grazing that wheat pasture is more tricky (especially if the cattle market turns down over a winter).   

Five years ago, I ran some of my steers with some replacement heifers on wheat pasture and after roughly figuring my expenses, I ended up making a grand total of an extra $20/head on the steers which wasn't much money compared to the amount of extra work and worry.  Ever since that winter I've been meaning to sit down and do some serious figuring to determine if it even worth it for me to try grazing stockers again but I've never gotten around to it because for the last four years, I've sold all of my calves at weaning (except for a handful that I've kept for beef) due to drought, higher calf prices, and higher grain prices.  

This year I weaned some calves and sold them on October 20, at the stockyards the steers were sorted into two groups that averaged 550 lb. and 650 lb., the smaller ones sold for around $1350/head and the larger ones sold for $1550/head.   I've been checking the market report for the stockyards for the last few weeks and 750-850lb. feeders have been averaging about $1600/head.  That tells me that I wouldn't want to keep any of those larger steers to put on wheat pasture, I could make about $250/head before expenses on the smaller steers, and I might be better off trying to get my weaning weights higher (although in other years those 650 lb. calves have sold for almost the same price per head as those smaller calves).

Making an extra $250/head after only 120 days of grazing wheat pasture sounds like it would be relatively easy, but there are some extra expenses.  The typical fertility recommendation for wheat pasture is an extra 40 lb. of N per 100 lb. of weight gain, which would mean that if those steers gained 250 lb. I'd have to apply an additional 100 lb. N per head on the wheat pasture.  Nitrogen costs approximately $0.60/lb (it varies a little), which means it would cost $60 for the extra Nitrogen.  If I added extra Phosphorus, it would be somewhere around $30/acre or $60/head (at a 2 acres per steer stocking rate).   So the extra fertilizer needed for the higher quality grazing needed for higher rates of weight gain would end up costing between $60 and $120 per head.

Whenever cattle are on lush wheat pasture it's still necessary to feed hay to help balance out their rumen, prevent bloat, etc.  At a minimum, I'd estimate that a stocker steer on wheat pasture would need at least one 1200 lb. bale of hay over the winter.   I bale my own hay, but always calculate that a bale of hay costs me about $30 (to account for fuel, fertilizer, replacement cost of haying equipment, etc).  In a bad winter, it might take more hay, which would increase my hay expenses to about $60/head. 

Cattle also need minerals, salt and other miscellaneous, which I'd estimate costing about $10/head.  And, I always like to include an extra 10% in any estimate I do to account for anything unexpected.

Summing up so far, it would cost about $60-120 for extra fertilizer,  $30-60 for hay, $10 for minerals, etc. and an extra 10% on top of everything.  So, my expenses would range between $110 and $210 per head, which means that I would make an additional $40 to $140 per head. 

I've read some articles on raising stockers that make some sort of complicated claim that making an additional $140 on a $1400 steer in 120 days means that you are making an annual return on investment of 30% (because you made a 10% profit in only 4 months), but to me that doesn't seem like enough profit to make it worth all the risks.  Only making $40/head is definitely not worth the trouble.

Of course, all these numbers could change tomorrow, next fall, or next year and it might make more sense to try raising stockers.  If calf prices go way down, there might be more money to be made with stockers, or if another drought hits it might make more sense to sell some cows and put some weight on my calves.  There's no way to really know until the future gets here.

If I had a crystal ball, I'd know most of the answers to when I should sell my cattle, but until I find one, I'll have to keep scratching my head trying to figure out what will make me a little bit more money with the least amount of risk.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Building Pipe Fence - The Simple Little Tool That Makes It Possible

If I'd been blogging about seven years ago, I might have had a blog post about how I built the pipe fence along the road in front of the barn, but I wasn't blogging so I didn't blog about it.  But while I was getting rid of my old head gate and replacing it with a new squeeze chute, I ended up doing a little modification to the chute in my working pens, so I thought I'd show how I did it since it's basically the same as building a pipe fence. 

Pipe fences are pretty common locally and are usually built out of what's typically just called "oil field pipe" which is usually 2-3/8 inch pipe that's either used or new (new pipe is a heck of a lot easier to work with).  The posts are usually about 8 feet apart, the top rail is around 4-5 foot from the ground, and cable, sucker rod, or tubing is used for the rails.  Like everything, some fences are almost works of art, and some fences look like whoever built them was mad at the world at the time so they just slapped a bunch of pipe together and started welding.

Back when I was thinking about building my working pens and the fence along the road in front of the barn, I had all sorts of ideas about how I was going to cut those saddle notches on the top of the posts for the top rail to set in, but could never really figure out the best way to go about it.  Then, when I was looking at a little haybine that I was thinking about buying, I noticed that the seller had some really nice looking pipe fences around his house, and uncharacteristically for me, I simply asked him, "How the heck did you cut those saddle notches for your fence?" It turned out that he was a welder and also owned a trailer building business, and he told me that most welding supply places sold these spring-loaded templates that made it easy to layout the saddle cut so it could be cut with a torch.  (Man alive, it takes me forever to get to the point of my story sometimes doesn't it?).

Everything I'd seen before had involved a bunch of nonsense like using a chop saw to cut a couple of angle cuts followed by a straight cut on the post, or holding the top rail on top of the post and scribing the saddle notch. I had a pretty good idea that a tool like this existed, but I might have never found it on my own without asking someone about how they built their pipe fence.

After that long-winded introduction, here's what the tool looks like, I tried to look online for one so I could add a link but didn't come up with anything similar (which might be why I never found one until I started asking people about pipe fences), but I bought mine at the same place that I bought my steel pipe.  I'm pretty sure that most places selling the pipe would also sell a similar tool or could point to the right place to find one for anyone that's interested in trying their hand at building a pipe fence.
That red thing is the tool we're talking about (ignore the mess)
My photos are a little misleading since I'm missing one of the uncut pipe, but this template is spring-loaded and it snaps around the pipe so can you mark the cut with a soapstone.  Then, you take the tool off and use a torch to make your cut (don't use the template as a guide for your torch while you're cutting).   Depending on how good you are with a torch, you should be ready to weld the top rail after a quick pass with a grinder to clean up the cut a little.

After cutting the saddle notch
Ready to weld together
It's not flashy or glamorous, but little tools like this $25 template and learning the techniques to use them played a big part in my being able to make a living at farming.  Of course, I also think that welding should be one of the first things that anyone thinking about going into agriculture should learn so I might be a little bit bias towards tools like this.

UPDATE:  For anyone that happens to stumble across this post and is interested in buying a pipe cutting guide to build their own pipe fence, I finally found the tool I used online at:

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Old (or Classic) Tractor

Years ago, I helped my father and uncle with rebuilding and painting a handful of older tractors and about two years ago I agreed to do a "quick" paint job on an 1956 IH 300 Utility that had belonged to the father of one of Dad's friends.  That "quick" paint job ended up being a little bit more than a "quick" paint job with some mechanical work, a lot of body work, and a slightly more detailed paint job. 

After I finished painting it, it was loaded up and hauled to Texas, then it was hauled back to Oklahoma, and after it started having some trouble with the steering, it was hauled back to the farm so we could work on it once again.

I'd really hate to do something like restore tractors for a living, because I'm never entirely sure how something like a paint job or mechanical work on something that's 50-60 years old will hold up, but I was surprised at how good the paint job still looked.  I was worried that another "quick" job was going to turn into a long drawn out job but instead it was a relatively simple matter to fix the steering problem (a rare event a lot of the time). 

Since I didn't take any photos of the tractor back when I first painted it, I decided to take a few photos because I doubt if I'll see this tractor again and I also wanted a few photos of the the home-built front bumper in case I ever want to build something similar for another tractor.  Plus, old tractors are kind of cool to look at sometimes and I thought there might be a chance that someone else might be interested.

When I was painting this tractor, it took a while to figure out the possible color scheme that this tractor was originally painted to, so I thought it might be helpful to someone else if they were trying to figure out how to paint their tractor if I posted the photos (although there are about a dozen different paint schemes, so maybe it won't help someone else out that much after all).
IH 300 Utility LP engine, (ignore that plastic bag covering the seat)

Home-built front bumper

There should be an IH emblem on the hood

Ignore all the stuff parked behind the tractor

Keep ignoring all that stuff behind it

International Harvester's Fast-Hitch system  
From what I understand, this particular tractor was originally used on a small farm to cut and bale hay (small square bales), mowing (better known as brush hogging), and with a little three-point carry-all it was used in winter to haul and feed hay.

It has somewhere around 40hp and could pull about a three bottom plow, so it might have been a decent-sized all-around tractor for a small farm in the mid-50's.  I'd hate to farm a couple of hundred acres with it, but it would be interesting to play with it by plowing a few acres once in a while.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Seed Balls; Rich's Quick and Dirty, Not Quite Right Way of Trying To Make Some

I read The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka a few years ago and one of the techniques he wrote about was making seed balls to plant crops.  

Seed balls are basically little balls of compost and seeds covered with a layer of clay.  The compost is supposed to supply the needed fertility to get the seeds germinated, the clay holds the ball together until there is enough moisture to germinate the seeds, tillage isn't needed due to the covering of compost and clay, and the seeds are less likely to be eaten by birds or rodents compared to just broadcasting seeds.

Once they're made you can line them all up in a neat row in a garden, or you can just throw them with abandon all over a field.  You can put just one type of seed in them or you can put dozens of seeds in one, it'll work either way. 

There's a bunch of information online about the exact and proper way to make perfect seed balls and all kinds of finicky things you're supposed to do to make it work (you have to have a certain percentage of compost, you need a special type of clay, it has to dry for these amount of days), but I find that more and more I'm not really a finicky-doing-stuff-sorta-guy anymore.  

After planting my test plot of oats and turnips the other day, I had a little bit of seed left over in the drill so after I vacuumed it out, so I decided to try my hand at making some seed balls.  

Like I said before, I want make some quick and dirty seed balls without a lot of fuss, so I took the oat and turnip seed mixture I cleaned out of the drill, added some more turnip seed to the mix, threw in about the same amount of dry composted cow manure I had laying in the stock trailer from the last time I hauled some cattle, and mixed it all together.  

After I had it mixed together pretty good, I started spraying a little water at a time and mixing until it all started sort of "clumping" together, then I decided to throw a little clay into the mix to help the "clumps" clump even more (it'll make sense to anyone that decides to try their hand at making some seed clumps too).   

At this point, it would have been a simple matter for someone to start rolling this mixture into little balls to make a proper seed ball that would get the approval of most of your permaculture buddies (if you happen to have any).  I don't know why some of the seed ball making information online makes it seem like such a big deal to make seed balls similar to this.

But I decided to just make seed clumps instead of seed balls, and used a shovel (just rock it slowly to drop clumps as you go) to skillfully spread my seed clumps over about a 300 square foot area of my garden/cover crop test plot area. In a few weeks I'll see if it's worth it to make some proper seed balls in the future since if seed clumps will work then seed balls might work even better.
Some oat and turnip seed

Cow manure and seed mixture
Skillfully spreading the clumps with a shovel
I spread my seed lumps along the left side, so keep an eye out for some turnips
If these experimental seed clumps sort of work, I might try making some clover seed balls to throw all over my pastures, or maybe use it to plant some small deer and turkey food plots, or plant a no-till Fukuoka style garden,  or make some apple-seed seed balls to plant some trees around the farm.  

It might even be possible to just mix some cover crop seed or garden seed into a wheelbarrow full of moist compost and then plant a no-till garden by just spreading the compost.

Of course, before any of those other ideas are tried, I'd like to see if any oats or turnips actually come up in the garden. So, stay tuned for seed clump progress reports.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Planting Oats and Turnips

I've planted oats numerous times in the garden as a cover crop and it always seemed like they were pretty easy to grow.  In the garden, I could just buy a bag of cheap feed oats, broadcast them willy-nilly all over the garden, run the tiller over them real quick, and they'd grow like nobody's business. 

Based on that experience in the garden, three years ago I planted about 35 acres of oats into some grain sorghum stubble in late-February.  I was planning on baling a bunch of hay, or if I really lucked out, I was going to harvest part of the field for either grain or as seed.  I did almost everything right, bought some actual seed oats, had good soil moisture, didn't have any weed issues in the field, and used the drill to plant them.  From what I'd read, oats didn't need a lot of added fertility to get a good grain yield, where supposed to be relatively disease resistant, and made halfway decent hay.

That field of oats was a complete failure, they only grew about a foot tall, and most of it had a rust problem. I still don't know what exactly went wrong, but it was unusually hot and dry that spring (it was the beginning of the 2012 drought ) which might have been a major factor.  It was so short that I didn't even try baling any of it and just turned the cattle out on it to get a little bit of grazing.  

I haven't had a chance to try growing oats again since that failure, but decided to plant a small part of the field that I planted to sorghum-sudangrass last summer and grazed this winter, so I can figure out how to grow oats since they would fit in well with my long term plans for the farm with growing cover crops, grazing cattle and stockers, finding crop rotations to go along with no-till, and planting wildlife food plots for the deer and turkeys.     

After that long winded explanation, I have about 80-90 days before I'll plant this field to grain sorghum, so I have a window to try planting some oats as a cover crop or hay crop.  Until I'm sure I can reliably grow oats (or anything else that I haven't grown before) I've decided that I'm going to start smaller, so I planted a little over three acres with about 60 lb. of oats and 1 lb. of turnips per acre.

It's pretty difficult to get edge-of-your-seat photos of some guy no-tilling some oats into some sorghum-sudangrass stubble, but I managed to get two photos that sort of show what a no-tilled field of oats and turnips looks like before anything has started growing. It is a little interesting how weed-free and mellow the soil is after cattle have grazed this field of sorghum-sudangrass this winter. 

Hopefully, in a month or so I can give everyone that comes out to the farm a bushel basket full of turnips to take home with them, and the earthworms will be chowing down on the turnips that are still left in the field.  If everything goes right, I might have to hunt through some knee-deep oats to find some turnips for whoever shows up wanting some.  I'm not a real big fan of turnips, so take as many as you want. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Lucking Out with a Wildfire

You'd think that the words "lucky" and "wildfire" would rarely be included in the same sentence, but last week we lucked out with a wildfire along the railroad tracks running through the farm.
Some cedar trees after they exploded into flames
It was lucky that the fire started on the one day when it was cooler and the wind was barely blowing since it was gusting over 30 mph and in the high-70's on the days before and after the day the fire happened.   It was lucky that someone was there that happened to see the fire when it first started, a train went by, about five minutes later they saw the smoke, then the fire department was called, and by the time I got to the fire it was almost completely put out.   

The fire also happened to start in one of the handful of spots along this side of the tracks where a brush-pumper could easily drive up to edge of the fire. If the fire had started a couple of hundred yards up or down the tracks, it would have been pretty hard to get close enough to the fire to fight it, and it could have gotten out of control in a hurry instead of just burning the grass about a hundred yards down one side of the tracks before the brush seemed to slow it down.  
If the fire had started on the other side of the tracks it probably would have been a completely different story, since there isn't any brush along the tracks here and there's a lot of grass.  From the photo it looks like the grass goes on and on for miles and miles even though it's only about a quarter-mile to the horizon, but it would have burned almost as fast than you can run if the fire had hit it.  It was extraordinarily good luck that the fire didn't get into that pasture.
Cool picture of the neighbor's pasture that didn't burn in the wildfire  

Looking at this photo, it still amazes me that what the camera seems to capture doesn't always match what I see in my head.  And, I also sometimes wonder which picture of the world is the "true" picture. 

Besides all that deep thinking, there's a lot to be learned from a fire like this if you ignore the very real possibility of burning down everything in sight. I'm wondering how the grass will grow back and what types of grass will grow back, and it surprised me that the brush helped contain that fire.  Maybe a little brush here and there in a pasture isn't such a bad thing and it serves a purpose if it helps with wildfires. 

I just hope I didn't use up all my good luck with this wildfire. 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

A Big Pile of Wood Chips or Some of the Goofy Things I Find Myself Doing

Normal people that have a need for some wood mulch would drive to their nearest home improvement store,  load up their cart with some plastic bags full of wood mulch, then they'd wait in line to check out, would probably be forced to chit-chat with the cashier about lawn-care or something before they handed over some money, and then they'd head for home.   There's nothing wrong with doing things that way, but more and more I find myself doing things outside the norm and I've also developed a severe allergy to spending money if I don't need to. 

Locally, there's been a lot of drilling activity in recent years (although it looks like that boom is pretty close to ending) and these new wells use electric motors for pumping the oil instead of the natural gas powered pump jacks that used to be used in the past.  Because of that, there's also been a mini-boom in the 'upgrading-the-electrical-grid-infrastructure' business with new electrical lines being extended to oil well sites and old electrical lines being upgraded.

Whenever they run a new line to a well-site, they clear the right of way of most of the trees, then they usually grind them all up and haul them away.  I could find a lot of uses for all those wood chips, but I've never had the chance to get my hands on any.  But when I was driving by the new wells they drilled close to the farm the other day (I can't help it, I gotta keep track of how the drilling is going, how far along they are with fracking it, and whether they're done putting in the new electrical lines to the well-site), I finally hit the jackpot and found out that instead of hauling all those ground-up trees away, there were piles of wood chips alongside the road just begging for someone like me to come along and take them home. 

A big pile of firewood, free for the taking (at least the stuff in the ditch is)

Piles of wood chips up and down the road
For those that don't know, there is a method to picking up something like this from the side of a road.  After determining that whatever I'm thinking about picking up is actually fair-game for picking up, I'll use either the 'shock and awe' method in which I roar up in the pickup in a cloud of dust, slam on the brakes, jump out before coming to a complete stop, pick up whatever I'm picking up as fast as I can, then jump back in the truck and roar off before anyone that I know can see what I'm doing, or I'll use the 'I'm on official business' method where I park in the middle of the road, slowly amble over to pick up my prize, wave to everyone that happens to drive by, take my time putting it in the truck, and then slowly drive away.
"Hurry up and fill that up so we can get outta here before anyone sees us!!"
I wasn't really interested in any of the firewood since it's mostly cottonwood and cedar (although I might get some later to make some bio-char), instead I wanted the wood chips and since there is about a dump truck's worth of wood chips along that road, I'm going to need to use the 'I'm on official business' method because it would just be too tiring to roar up in the truck, jump out, shovel chips like a madman, then roar off in a cloud of dust and gravel over and over until I had built a huge pile of wood chips back on the farm.  With the amount I'm going to try to pick up, slow and steady is the best way to pick up these wood chips from the side of the road. 
The first of many loads
In a few months, I should have every water trough surrounded with a thick layer of wood chips (it works great to keep the mud down and composting wood is supposed to help with the foot health of cattle), all the places I put my mineral feeders should have a thick layer of wood chips (mud and foot health again), bio-char can supposedly be made with wood chips so I'm itching to try that, I have some mud holes in some roads I'd like to try to fix with wood chips, and wood chips work great in the chicken house.  Plus, I'll hopefully have a big pile of wood chips built up as a reserve for any and all future needs.

The question of the day is, are you a 'shock and awe', an 'I'm on official business', or a none of the above sort of picking-stuff-up-off-the-side-of-the road kind of guy?

Monday, February 2, 2015

Grazing Winter-Killed Sorghum-Sudangrass, What I'll Do Differently Next Time

Looking west, the Sun is out, and a cold front is rolling in

Looking south, the Sun is behind the clouds, everything's trampled on the ground, and there's no bare soil
I've more or less finished grazing the field of winter-killed sorghum-sudangrass and there are a few things that I think I'd do differently next time.  

I originally planned to plant sorghum-sudangrass in this field right after harvesting the wheat so that I could cut it for hay, but for various reasons didn't actually get it planted until July 22, so I decided to treat it as a cover crop that I would let grow to maturity so I could then graze it after it had been winter-killed.

I ended up dividing this field up into four paddocks and kept track of how many days of grazing and how many cattle I had on each part of the field, and after a quick calculation it turns out that I was able to get the equivalent of about 35 bales of hay (1300 lb. round bales) from this 23 acre field.   

If I was in the hay business or was only interested in producing the maximum amount of grazing possible, that would be a pretty disappointing amount of hay or grazing.   But in the long run, I'd like to increase the organic matter levels in my cropland, so right now it's going to be a tradeoff between maximum forage production for the cattle and also leaving enough crop residue laying on the surface to feed all the soil critters ('soil critters' is a highly technical term that is used to collectively describe all the various bacteria, microbes, and itty-bitty bugs that are present in a healthy soil).

If I'd given them a smaller area to graze at a time and had forced the cattle to really clean everything up before I moved them I probably would have gotten more forage off of this field.  But, I would have also ended up with more bare soil and less trampled organic material laying on the ground.  Ideally, I'd like to be able to produce more hay or forage while also leaving even more organic material laying on the surface as possible which might be a little more difficult. 

Planting sorghum-sudangrass, letting it winter-kill, then grazing it instead of feeding hay is relatively simple, and actually works, but I think the basic idea can be improved to give me both  more grazing or hay and more soil-building potential. 

The next time I plant sorghum-sudangrass in a situation like this I think I'd be better off if I planted it immediately after wheat harvest in mid-June instead of waiting until mid-July, and I'd also fertilize it with a moderate amount of nitrogen (~30 lb./acre).  After about 45-60 days of growth, depending on how much hay I had stored, I'd either bale it for hay or I'd graze it, I might fertilize it again, and then I'd let it grow until it either winter-killed so that I could graze it over winter or until it had grown tall enough to graze it once again in late summer before planting something like wheat in early fall (something like a simple mixture of wheat, clover, and turnips might be even better).  

With that sort of management, I should be able to easily get at least 45 bales of hay, plus a similar amount of grazing either in late summer or over the winter after it has winter-killed.  Grazing the sorghum-sudangrass a couple of times over the summer instead of baling hay would probably be the best option for soil building, plus having something like wheat pasture to graze in the winter would be a better overall system for wintering cattle than grazing winter-killed sorghum-sudangrass. 

I do have a pretty good idea that if I'd planted wheat in September after grazing the sorghum-sudangrass that I'd have a decent amount of wheat pasture right now, and I'd also have the option to either graze it until May before planting something like grain sorghum or I could take the cows off of it in a few weeks and harvest it for grain.  After grazing this field of winter-killed sorghum-sudangrass, my options are more limited to planting something like grain sorghum this spring.   

Of course after writing all that, there's always something to be said about keeping things as simple and low-input as possible, and drilling that sorghum-sudangrass into some wheat stubble, then grazing it after it winter-killed was a pretty simple and low-input way to feed cattle.

Will Rich plant a complicated mixture of exotic cover crops next summer? Will Rich keep things as simple as possible?  Stay tuned for more edge-of-the-seat tales of adventure about planting cover crops this summer and find out.