Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Cattle next door

My next-door neighbor keeps some cattle. He has ten mama cows and a bull. He practices no management whatsoever. The bull is in with the cows year around.

This is not meant as a criticism, it’s none of my business how he manages his stock and this is the system he has chosen. John (the neighbor) is a real nice guy.

Last summer John allowed me to turn my two heifers in with his herd to get them bred. I just installed a gate in our common fence and led them over.

His bull is a good one, and this saves me the trouble of having a bull of my own or making other arrangements like AI.

It saves John the trouble of having another bull on the other side of the fence. The two bulls would walk the fence, dig holes in the sand, and try to break through the fence and fight with each other.
This was the situation for years when the previous owner of my place had his own bull.

Part of our property boundary is the lane that gives us access to our barn and outbuildings, as well as mamas house. Since I go down the lane every day I get to witness the calf races and other games they play when they are still young and cute.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Chicken Crates

The weather was sloppy here for most of the weekend so I put off my plan to get the garden plots ready to plant and shifted to puttering around in my little workshop to entertain myself.

I had come across an article on home made chicken crates a long while back on the APPPA web site. I thought they looked cool, but I had two problems with them.

1) I don’t have any lath strips and don’t know where to get any. The lumberyard doesn’t carry them and have no source for scrap.

2) These are too big for me to carry. They are fine for most folks, but I wanted something I could carry in my lap. I need my hands to push the wheelchair.

I had some old snow fence that I reclaimed from the chicken pen in my garden, so that was my source for lath strips. I modified the plan so that instead of building them 2’ x 3’ I built them 2’ x 18”.

Anyone who has seen the sort of carpentry work I do will immediately recognize this as my work; note the extensive use of the 87 degree angle :-).

Friday, February 24, 2006

Spring Garden

A little while back I moved my laying hens out of my garden spot. I had a very small garden spot last year that mostly died of neglect.

Here’s the plan for this spring. Instead of fooling with vegetables for the kitchen I’m going to experiment with growing feed for the sheep. I bought some corn seed, an open pollinated variety called “Reid’s Yellow Dent”. I also bought some Cow Pea seeds.

Cow Peas, AKA “Southern Peas”, are sometimes raised for livestock feed in this area. In the past they were a staple. I choose them because they don’t need a lot of store bought chemical inputs, the better the soil the better they grow I’m told, but they tolerate just about everything, so they will likely deliver a tolerable yield no matter what the weather does.

I’ve been told this by more than one local over the age of 75. I like to listen to the old folks, they know stuff I’d never be able to guess, and there willing to share what they know.

Former chicken yard, future garden spot

Just as an experiment I intend to double crop the corn and peas, that is, put cornrows about 30 inches apart then put the peas right down the middle of the rows.

This is all going to be on a very small scale of course. If it shows promise I can plant more next year.

One of the reasons I am interested in these crops is that I think I can get the sheep to harvest them for me. The plan is to just let them dry in the field at the end of the growing season.

Next fall when it’s time to flush the ewes before turning the rams in I can rig some electric fencing to give them access to a small strip at a time. My guess is that they will clean it right up.

It will be time to plant here in the next few weeks.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Pear Tree

All of the sudden I noticed leaves on the pear tree.

Now I don’t inspect the pear tree on a regular basis, and here in the deep south lots of trees don’t even loose all there leaves at any one time.

Even so, the pear tree in the back yard is bare during the winter. It gets its leaves back at the first sign of spring, before most other trees.

Same Tree about 10 days earlier

So to all my friends way up there in those tiny little nosebleed latitudes, there is hope! Spring has to come through me to get to you. It’s coming!

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Nature is strange

We had a freeze last week, the first real freeze of the year. I define a freeze as temperatures low enough to cause ice in the dog’s water bowl. We have had three or four frosts before this but this was the first freeze.

The pastures here are mostly Bahaia and Bermuda grass, both warm season grasses. These don’t grow so well in the shade, so under the trees the growth is more cool season stuff, weeds really.

This place has been a cattle farm for years and years. All through the hot Florida summers, the cattle would lounge under the trees. They ate anything good into extinction and overloaded the soil there with nutrients.

The freeze last week just barley qualified as a freeze. I broke the ice in the dogs dish with one finger, it was less than an eighth of an inch thick. The weather had been warm before the cold front came through and we had some rain. Things had started to green up slightly.

All this has been background leading up to this picture.

That is not a shadow under the tree. It is the only green spot in the pasture. It seems that the tree cover held in just enough warmth to protect this patch from freezing. This picture shows it closer up.

Sorry that these pictures are not the best, I took the picture with the little camera in my mobile phone instead of the good (or at least better) camera.

Can you say "microclimate"?

Friday, February 17, 2006

Economies of scale and the environment of risk

I’ve been fooling around with laying hens longer than any other stock on the farm, but never had very many at any one time. At the moment I’m down to seven hens. From time to time I’ve sold some eggs, but for the most part I just give them to friends and neighbors, or mama gives them to people from her church.

With almost no extra work I could be raising many times that number of birds. I’m considering ordering a straight run batch of 25 brown egg birds. Maybe White Rocks. I’d keep the best roster and eat the other cockerels.

We already have more eggs than we can eat. Sometimes it is even difficult to give them all away.

Establishing a customer base for small-scale egg production is possible of course. I know a few people that have done it locally, but there is more to it than producing eggs. It is necessary to find some way to attract and deal with customers without getting noticed by “officialdom”.

Now please don’t get the wrong idea, I have a very good relationship with the USDA as well as with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The best thing about this relationship is that neither of these organizations knows that I exist. Seeing as how this insures that I get everything I want from these folks, I’m reluctant to change things.

I’ve never seen an “Eggs for Sale” sign at the end of a farm driveway around here. I know farms where you can indeed buy eggs, but there is no sign. People who sell pot are more open about what they do.

Florida is typical of any State in the union. If you were foolish enough to go to the capital to find out what was needed to comply with the relevant rules and regulations you would soon discover that the whole alphabet soup of organizations and departments have at hand and endless stream of instructions on how you are to live you life from moment to moment. The rules say that the same activity is at once mandatory and forbidden. If you toss great sacks full of money to the right lawyers, the way can be cleared so you can do more of less as you please.

I was looking at a web site just now where it is possible to look up Florida laws. It seems that Chapter 583 of the 2005 Florida Statues may have something to do with this subject. It is titled “CLASSIFICATION AND SALE OF EGGS AND POULTRY” and is, if I may say so, a truly impressive document. A little over half of it is taken up with definitions that remove any and all possible ambiguity from every term I’ve ever heard that relates to poultry and egg production. The rest of the document uses these same terms in a way that somehow has no meaning what so ever.

It is tempting to become angry or at least frustrated with this state of affairs. Tempting but useless. I’m coming around to the realization that this sort of thing is just part of the environment of risk that is small-scale agriculture.

Here on the farm, the sun, rain, and wind make everything possible. Some of the time the weather is sweet and soft as a kiss. Most of the time the weather provides and environment that encourages the growth of plants and animals alike.

Every now and then Mother Nature gets in a mood and just goes about breaking things up. During hurricane Jeanne we watched the wind pick up the hoop house and toss it over two fence lines. It was full of broilers at the time.

Likewise the political environment is conducive to growth most of the time. My neighbors respect my right to use my property as I see fit. There are no marauding armies or hordes of refugees moving like clouds of locusts across the land. No tyrant is collecting the peasants together to form collective farms.

Some day I may have problems with one of the bureaucracies that seem to come out of nowhere for no discernable reason. All I can do is my best. Life is full of risk. As it is there is no particular reason for anyone to notice me, other than those who want to be involved in what I do here, either as customers or as co-conspirators.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Mama in the cooler

This area is chicken country. This is true now but was more the case thirty years ago.

Our land is part of what was once the Alderman farm. The Alderman place was big, hundreds of acres. The original family house still stands, empty, about 100 feet east of my property line on John Mason’s land next door.

The Alderman place was broken up and sold off in the early 1970’s.

On what is now my land there were three big chicken houses, 5000 birds in each, full of laying hens. The family I bought the place from, by the name of Belk, actually worked these houses for the first few years they owned the place.

There was a building they called “the cooler” where they collected the eggs. Part of this building was a big cooler where they stored the eggs.

Across the road a big warehouse like building was used to grade and candle the eggs from the chickens here and in several other locations on the old Alderman place. Eggs were shipped from there to grocery stores all over the area. The building is still there; it has been converted into a church.

There is another “cooler” building across the road from me.

The Belks got out of the chicken business years ago and the chicken houses were torn down. The “cooler” was a more substantial building and was used for storage for some years.

As it happened, Mrs. Belks brother became ill and was moved into a nursing home. The Belks were unhappy with the care he was getting so they fixed up the “cooler” into a proper house and moved him in there. He lived here for a few years before he died.

So our place has two houses on it, the main house where my bride and myself, along with a great variety of dogs, cats, and whatever else she thinks is too cute to sleep outside, and the house that was once “the cooler”.

Now I need to give some background, I’ll get back to all this, I promise.

Some years before we moved here, we lived in Orlando Florida, yeah the place with the mouse.

My sister and one of my brothers also lived there. I have five brothers and a sister, but this was the largest concentration of siblings that existed in any one place. My mother was living in Lakeland Florida, about 60 miles west on the way to Tampa. We had no other family in Lakeland and only one brother in Tampa. We (my siblings and I) decided to gang up on mom and get her to move to Orlando where we could keep an eye on her.

We all assumed she would move in with or near my sister, which is where the grand kids are. My bride and I owned a little house near downtown that had a small guest cottage in the back yard. Mom surprised us all when she announced she wanted to live in our guest cottage.

Mom did indeed live in the cottage. She settled in, and soon had gangs of blue haired ladies she palled around with. She was chair of every committee that her church had and just generally a well integrated member of the community.

When we decided to move to the country, we assured her that she wouldn’t need to move. We planned to just rent out the house and let her stay where she was. The conventional wisdom in the family was that she wouldn’t want to go anywhere.

Much to my surprise, she wanted to come along. This wasn’t a problem but it was a surprise. Just in case you think we were trying to ditch mama, we were not. One thing for sure about my family, no one keeps their thoughts to themselves. I don’t think anyone has ever had an opinion that wasn’t communal property.

So we all moved up here and started to get settled in to our new digs.

There is an old woman who lives up the road from us, who we knew of but had not met. Her name is Mrs. Mead. One day not long after we moved in we saw a “Yard Sale” sign at Mrs. Mead’s place. My bride and I stopped in.

Mrs. Mead is 93 years old and has more energy than most twenty year olds. We introduced ourselves and she said she was glad to meet us. Then she says, “I’m told you got your Mama back there in the cooler, I’d like to meet her too”.

When I told mama this she thought it was the funniest thing she had ever heard. To this day she calls herself “The old lady in the cooler”.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Photo tour of the farm

Sunday was clear, cold, and windy. I took these pictures at various times while working around the place. Just different views from around the place in no particular order.

This is from the southeast corner of the farm looking northwest.

These are from roughly the center of the farm, still looking northwest.

Looking due east towards the barn and Mom's house.

West and southwest from the middle of the place. Some of my rotational grazing fence can be seen here.

It's the reason I don't need a bass boat.

Chickens in the pasture

This weekends project was moving chickens.

The laying hens have been plowing up my garden since last summer. I had a tiny garden patch that I was neglecting. I thought that if the chickens were nearby I would have to go feed them and collect the eggs, and perhaps I'd pull the occasional weed just from shame.

I had been dragging the small chicken pen from place to place in the pasture until then and it seemed like it would be easier to leave them in one place for a while.

I built an enclosure that was about 12' x 20' and regularly tossed in everything from table scraps, junk hay and a big pile of sheep manure and wood chips that I'd cleaned out of the barn.

Click for a larger view.

The arrangementment is my take on the "Dollar Hen" system.

Hat tip: Robert Plamondon.

The hoop house I already had but was not using for anything else at the moment. It has no floor and is just for roosting and shelter.

The small pen is just nest boxes, the top opens making collecting eggs easy. Feed and water are both outside. The fence is the electric netting from premier.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Figuring out how to do it

Here’s the deal, I’m a farmer and I can’t walk.

Do you know how someone who can’t walk can take care of all the chores and projects on a small farm?

Do you know how anyone, no matter their physical situation, can take care of all the chores and projects on a small farm?

First they come to the realization that it is pretty much impossible, and then they do the best they can.

How does a farmer, any farmer, turn a stand of grass into a barn full of hay? Turn a bull calf into a steer? Not by physical prowess or force of personality, I promise you.

Are you tall? Fat? Mechanically gifted or all thumbs? Can you think like a cow? Do you know what that ram is likely to do next? Yah, me either. We all have issues.

We use tools. A tractor is a tool. So is a barn. A squeeze chute for cattle is a tool. Some of these things are more or less standardized while some are completely home grown. Most are customized at least to some extent. There is a lot of science in this, but more art than science.

I’ve heard it said that it takes five years to learn to farm any given piece of ground. I wouldn’t know because I haven’t been here five years yet. This assumes that you know a lot about farming in general already, the five years is just to learn the ground.

I’m a software engineer aside from being a farmer. I can’t imagine needing five years to learn a software application, a computer language, and operating system. I’d be on food stamps. My father was a University Professor. He had a PHD. He claimed he did that because he wasn’t smart enough to be a farmer. He was joking when he said that, but only kind of, he knew the truth of it. His father was a farmer.

Is this a post about dealing with physical limitations? the complexity of farming? a how to guide for farming from a wheelchair? Yes, yes, and of course not.

If you do an internet search on farming with a disability you will find a bunch of articles on how some farmer somewhere modified some tool or piece of equipment to overcome a physical limitation. University or USDA types mostly write these articles. They go into all sorts of detail about the particulars of the adaptation. It looks to me like lots of government grant money went into this work. I can tell you exactly how many people can make use of the adaptation just as they describe it. Exactly one, the farmer that did it in the first place.

The other thing you get back from a search like that is any number of examples of how a poorly conceived adaptive device can convert a disabled farmer into a dead one. Of course one does not have to be disabled to get killed trying to farm. More than any thing else, good judgment is necessary in this line of work. Good judgment comes from experience. Experience, to often, comes from poor judgment. I’ve noticed that pretty much any time I mess up in my farming endeavors, something dies. It is best if that something is not human. It may be that forgetting ones physical limitations and failure to think a process all the way through to its conclusion is the cause of most farm accidents.

Farming is a profession firmly based in reality. It is all about life and death. I expect soldiers and cops know how this is.

So the title of this post is “Figuring out how to do it”. I’ll share what I think I know. None of this has anything to do with disability.

Every rural area I’ve ever been around has someone who is the go to guy for metal fabrication. This guy is your friend. Around here it’s Johnnie Lee at Lee’s Custom automotive in Lake Butler. It’s not just Johnnie, it’s a family business, but Johnnie’s the man. He is much like anyone who is very good at what they do; he is an enthusiast. For him an unusual project is fun.

If you need for example, hand controls for your tractor, and go to the regular implement dealer, you will just get the bums rush. If they are honest they will tell you why. If you hurt yourself using some adaptive device they make for you they are afraid you will sue them. They have a point. The tort system in general and the A.D.A. in particular have converted disabled people from potential customers into potential lawsuits.

There is a good chance that they don’t have anyone there who could help you anyway. This is a completely custom job. Tractors are all different as are all would be tractor drivers. One size does not fit all.

All good farmers need and use custom tools. It has nothing to do with disabilities. There is a whole system of rural artisans that service this need. I need these guys more than most farmers do, and a lot more than they need me.

A farm is the great cosmic gizmo. It is a living thing that is in a state of continuous change and adjustment. Small changes are best. Make a change and observe the results. Repeat as necessary.

Here is an example. I have about 20 sheep. This time of year it's good to give them some supplemental feed. I have hay, which is only just fair quality grass hay and they can also graze the pastures for whatever they can find among the dormant grasses. That gives them all the forage they need, but I decided a little more would be best. I'm feeding soy meal as a supplement.

The first method was the most obvious. I put a wooden feed trough in the center of a part of the barn the sheep had access to. Because the animals could get to every side of the trough they could all eat at once. Two problems with this approach, the greedy little buggars mob me when I come in with the feed, and I end up spending quite a bit of time cleaning the manure out of the tread on my wheelchair tires. Otherwise my bride won't let me back in the house.
A way to feed without actually getting in with the critters started to seem like a good idea. So I moved the trough against the wall where I could fill it through the boards.

OK, new problem. Now they can't all eat at once. The more aggressive sheep eat too much, the less aggressive sheep don't get enough.

The first attempt at fixing this was to mix 30 lbs of salt with each 100 lbs of soy meal. The salt keeps the sheep from eating until the feed runs out. The aggressive sheep eat first, but they wander off before its all gone and give the other sheep a chance to eat.

Well, that's better, but it is now difficult to tell how much the sheep are being fed over all. It is possible to calculate how much a sheep should be fed at different times of the year, but it is not possible to control it this way.

This is the current state of affairs, enough trough space for them to all eat at once, where I can feed without getting in with the sheep.