Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Paying tuition

I just spent $145.00 for tuition and got an electric fence energizer thrown in for free.

The other day my bride was working around the pump house where our fence energizer is plugged in. She set a step stool on one of the (insulated) wires from the zapper without realizing it until she heard a “pop” sound.

The meter was flat lined at the fence, but the thing was putting current out the ground wire. I pronounced the zapper as kaput and replaced it with a lower powered spare we have. The fence tested OK, with less zap of course. I ordered a replacement charger.

The new charger came and I installed it today.

I hooked it up and tested it. The fence was dead and current was pumping out the ground wire. I fussed and swore and looked around for something out of place. I found it. The grounding wire was pulled loose from the grounding rod, hidden by the tall grass behind the pump house. As soon as I saw it I knew what had happened. My bride had set the step stool on the ground wire. The “pop” she heard was the wire pulling loose from the ground rod. It was still in contact (sort of) with the ground rod there in the tall grass where it was hard to see, just no longer well connected.

I had never heard of a charger sending current down a disconnected or poorly connected ground rod. Apparently when I put in the spare unit it was connected enough to give me a reading on the meter. Our stock is well trained to the electric fences and just never had any occasion to test it in the time it took for the new unit to arrive.

I now have a very nice spare zapper, and a new bit of knowledge; always check the ground, even when you are sure you know what the problem is.

Papa would often say “You paid the tuition, be sure you learned the lesson”.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Release the hounds!

One of the projects that have been going on longer than seems reasonable is making the fences around here dog tight. This is to keep dog in, not out. The dogs we have on the inside will keep other dogs on the outside.

Our dogs, Bo (Bocephus, like Hank Jr.) and Sarah are Great Pyrenees brand woofers that have been willing and eager to patrol their territory since they moved in here about a year ago.

The problem is that they believe that their territory includes quite a bit of ground that does not belong to us. This brings us back to dog tight fences. We don't have the whole place dog tight yet, but we did finish the front pasture, and area of about 10 acres.

The third photo here shows the small building I have fixed up for cleaning chickens. No broiler are growing now, the laying hens are elsewhere on the farm.

After the last fence fixing Saturday we set the beasties loose. They have been here many times before of course, but it was never safe to let them off a lead, they would just slipp under a gate and go explore.

We still have not left them out unsupervised, but the goal is to turn them out at night so they can guard the stock, and let them in the house or the yard to snooze during the day.

Sunday was spent finishing (or nearly so) brush hog work around the place. I know it's January, but this is the deep south. The thing that struck me was the birds. I don't have pictures because I was on the tractor but it was interesting.

First was the egrets. Any time I cut grass I get followed around by egrets. They hang around the tractor to eat the bugs that get stirred up, mostly grasshoppers. They move like s school of fish, all together in a group.

A half a dozen crows also showed up. We don't have crows in huge numbers like they do in some places. I approve of crows because they tend to harasss the hawks which we do have in large numbers. The hawks like to eat young chickens.

Next was a pair of kestrels that have been hanging out lately. One sat for a long while on a fence post just watching the show. Looking for a rat or a snake no doubt.

Then there are bluebirds. The old cedar tree in the fence line (2nd picture) contained a cloud of them, like about 20. I never knew that bluebirds hung out in big groups like that, but my bride has been encouraging them and now we have gangs of them.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Thoughts on National Animal Identification System - NAIS

I was watching a thing on TV a while back where an executive of one of the big agribusiness companies explained why the proposed NAIS is a wonderful idea. He was from Cargill if I recall correctly. This guy was going over the issue with a land grant University Ag department type. It was sort of like an infomercial. I don’t mean to pick on Cargill, there are several such companies and I presume they all have more or less the same point of view.

I learned a few things that I did not know previously. They pointed out that this whole scheme was in the works before mad cow disease and bird flu made the news and was not inspired by them. I had never heard of NAIS before mad cow got so much attention and without thinking about it assumed one was a response to the other.

They did of course mention terrorists and disease tracking but did not point out a single case where a real problem could have been prevented by such a system. Clearly this is a proposal to regulate commerce, not a health or law enforcement measure.

I can only paraphrase the conversation but I believe I got the basic idea. It went like this:

“It used to be that our food came from just a few miles away, now it can come from the other side of the country or even the other side of the planet. People want to know where there food comes from, how it was raised and what it was feed.”

These guys were talking were talking about beef of course. NAIS covers most other species as well but these guys didn’t discuss anything but beef.

I certainly agree that many people do want to know where their food comes from. Probably not most people, but still many people.

They mentioned that some large customers were offering a premium price to sellers who could source verify there product. McDonalds was the example they used. The problem was that they could not get all they wanted from producers who could source verify.

This is as far as this topic went. There was no speculation as to what the effect of offering a larger premium would have on supply.

The unspoken assumption that these guys were making is I think the same one made by the USDA and State government types, which is there is only one-way beef is produced.

Lots of small and not so small cow calf operators, scattered all over the country sell calves to big feed lots in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. They supply the big meat packers, who in turn supply the big grocery store chains.

This is indeed how most beef is raised, but not anything like all of it. Here is (at least some) of where they are leaving out.

At the edges of most any city or suburb are lots of small holders. They have a few acres, typically between 10 and 50. Most of these small holders don’t make a living by farming but they do keep some stock. They do this for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it gives them a BIG break on their property taxes. I know because I’m one of these small holders.

Finishing a calf does not require a PHD in agronomics. Just give it come grain along with the pasture forage and watch it get fat and slick. Some people prefer to finish them on grass. This is doable most of the year if the genetics are right. This cost more than Cargill spends per head of course, but not needing to truck the beast to Oklahoma and support the folks at the feedlot, packing plant and supermarket means the seller can make a profit by selling for less per pound than the supermarket charges. Most folks can’t store a whole beef of course but they can easily store a half or a split half. Home Depot and such places sell a lot of freezers, they don’t cost that much.

There is no need to spend a lot of time looking for customers. The last time I had more beef than buyers I just mentioned it to the old guy who owns the local feed store. He put a note on this bulletin board and it was quickly spoken for.

The consumer, this person who wants to know more about where their food comes from typically lives within a few miles. They often want to come by the place and look it over. The calf she wants to buy a portion of was born here. There’s its mama. Its daddy is the big bull across the road. His name is “Turbo” and if you feed him a loaf of bread he’ll let you scratch his head.

The butcher shop is close by. Locally there are three or four good ones. They are not USDA facilities they are state inspected. Most of the time they process deer for hunters and 4H animals from the county fair, but as long as deer season is over and the fair is not going on they are happy to butcher a steer any way you want. I have a trailer I can use to transport animals, but it is easy to hire it done. The customer picks it up at the butcher.

I don’t know how much of this goes on, but I do know that around here at least thousands of people do it. I would suggest that the big Ag companies and the USDA also have no idea how much of this goes on. No one measures this, and probably no one should, it is the free market at work and the business only of those involved. The consumer who cares about where their food comes from can find out, get a superior product, and spend less for it. The butcher and the feed store guy each make a few dollars, as does the small holder.

Cargill can’t compete with this, if for no other reason than they don’t even seem to be aware that it is going on. What the NAIS seems bound to do, intentionally or not, is to limit consumer choice and erode the competitive advantage of the small holder in favor of very large corporations and even larger government entities.

For this reason I believe it is a bad idea.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Farming and the apocalypse

I’ve notice that many people seem to associate farming with some possible apocalyptic future. I don’t mean agribusiness, I mean small-scale “homesteader” type farming.

No one has ever suggested to me that doing this sort of thing will cause civilization to come to a bad end, but rather that personally raising lots of animals and vegetables is somehow part of preparing for some sort of “Mad Max beyond the thunder dome” post nuclear future.

I raise several batches of broiler chickens each year. I butcher them here on the farm and insist that people that want to buy them come to the farm and pick them up. I do it this way because I think I can raise a better bird that the Tyson’s people, but I know I can’t compete with them in materials handling and packaging, so I don’t try.

I generally clean birds in the morning and have folks come in the afternoon to get them, having arranged that well in advance. They bring coolers and we pull them right out of the chill tank.

New customers almost always make some sort of “Come the revolution, you’ll be all set” sort of comment. I don’t do this to prepare for the end of the industrial age of course, I do it because I enjoy it and to make money.

Cowboys are not a dieing breed, they’re just real hard to see from the highway.”
Baxter Black

I also know (and know of) traditional family farmers shifting from “cash grain” operations to some sort of low input cost, direct or niche marketing operation.

This can sometimes be a rather desperate attempt to preserve several generations of tradition by changing nearly everything about the family farm. Attempting to avoid a catastrophe that is no less real for being aimed at one clan rather than a whole culture.

It’s not the changes that usually cause the strain but the putting them off for so long.

Also I enjoy reading and dealing with the “Christian Agrarian” folks. I have nothing but respect for these folks, they make the best of neighbors and making a handshake deal with them gives you something more solid that most corporate mergers.

If I were a more serious fellow, I’d be one of them. Maybe I will be when (and if) I grow up, but I don’t think my “lapsed Catholic hobby farmer” is quite the same thing.

The point I’m trying to make is that for me this sort of independent rural “kill it and grill it” lifestyle is not something to be done when or in case the output of MRE's from the modern world is interrupted. I do it because I can. Because I prefer it.

Lever gun

Santa brought me a Winchester lever action carbine in 357 magnum for Christmas.
I just ordered a peep sight for it and intend to find a home for it somewhere in my pickup truck.

This is the one: Brownells

After getting some advice from PawPaw's House: Reader Mail, I finally got off the mark and placed the order.

My big rifle (Remington 742 in 30.06) has a low power scope on it. This is my favorite setup usually. Set up far forward per Jeff Cooper. I have a .22 plinker set up the same way, lots of fun.

I also have a little Marlin Papoose with conventional iron sites. It’s a good little gun but I can’t set any marksmanship records with it. I don’t shoot this one as often as the others.

I’ve only used a peep sight lever gun one time, a while back a fellow at the range let me try his. Fun.

My rationalization for this new toy is an on again off again war I have going with the local raccoons and one “wily coyote” that I (any my neighbors on both sides) have been trying to assassinate for the last two years. The coyote has gone completely nocturnal, and just when we decide he’s moved in with Osama, he shows back up.

The raccoons just love to snack on chickens when they are young. They prefer the heads. The goal seems to be to cause as much carnage and make as big a mess as possible.

Anyway, this little carbine is just 33 inches long over all. The beasties seldom get close enough for a pistol and won’t hang out long enough for me to go the house and get something bigger. When I’m working around the place the pickup is usually somewhere close.

I’m glad to have these varmints around; if it weren’t for them I’d need to make up some other excuse to play with these toys :-).

Sunday, January 22, 2006


I was out on the tractor yesterday cutting a paddock that I had not gotten around to since the stock was last there in November some time.

The sward has shrunk down considerably just standing there. I did the cutting a full gear faster than I would have been able to in November. This is North Florida. We have had frost about three times this year, but no hard freezes yet.

The grass pretty much quit growing in mid October. The weeds are another story. Last year I cut the dormant grass sward and pulled a drag harrow over the ground to break up the cow and horse piles. When the grass did start growing in the spring it came up so lush and green that several neighbors ask me if I had put down fertilizer. I think I’ll drag it again this year as much as time allows.

By the way, we have several ornamental citrus trees on the place that have put out an incredible amount of fruit. Cows think oranges and tangerines are delicious. I never would have guessed but a friend clewed me in.

Most of the sheep like them too, but they had not been given any before. This means that while they are still trying to figure out what to do with it, one of the cows comes by and eats it up. Oh well, we have lots of oranges.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Handling facilities for sheep

There was a time when we worked about 3000 head with gates and T posts slapped together in whatever way seemed to make the most sense at the time, that and three healthy 20 year olds, two good horses and one extremely good dog.

Well, that was the far bank of a wide river of time. Here and now, one crippled fifty year old with occasional help from his bride needs to handle a small flock for the usual reasons. Worming, shearing, hoof trimming, vaccinations, and general doctoring.

The main idea that was used to handle a large number of sheep with minimal facilities was to crowd them together so they couldn’t move, then grab one and physically hold it so it could be worked on.

At first there were no facilities on the place, so we did just about the same thing, crowded them into a small pen and physically grabbed them. This works way better when 20 year olds do the grabbing, rather thank fifty year olds.

Then we set up a simple funnel shaped pen out of hog panels. A makeshift head gate was at the small end. This was not much better than nothing. Even a good head gate is less helpful with sheep than it is with cattle.

The next level of upgrade is what we have now. It is far from perfect but it is much better. Here is a diagram:

Rather than being designed this facility sort of “growed there”. It was mostly constructed from materials that were on hand.

Keep in mind that I am a strong paraplegic, wheelchair and all. Being able to do most of the work on a solid surface is important.
I get the beasties into the crowding tub through the small gate with a bribe of some shelled corn. Then I use the big gate to crowd them together.

The gate between the single file chute and the work pen is open. When one animal goes into the work chute the gate is closed, either by a helper (yes, dear), or I can use a Shepard’s crook to do it from outside the work pen. There is usually a small amount of corn in a bucket is the work pen to occupy the sheep while I get back in.

The sheep chooses which corner to hide in and I grab it. If I need to do much with it, the first thing I do is put a rope halter on it. I generally just hold it against my chest (give it a hug) and check it’s eyes and worm it. I keep tools and equipment in a bucket hanging on the wall where I can reach it from anywhere in the pen but the animals can’t knock it over.

I can put it’s head in the head gate if I need to. I do that to shear them for example.

To trim the front hoofs, I lift it up enough to set the front half of the beast in my lap. This makes the front hoofs easy to trim. I have yet to devise a way to trim the rear hoof that does not involve getting kicked senseless much of the time.