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Winter Farming Tips: Thats Snow Way to Farm

A photo of Brandon MitchellEleven inches.  That's how much snow I was under this last week.  It's definitely a change for southern Tennessee.  Just thinking about it makes me want to stay inside all day, but when there's work to be done, what can you do?  Well here are a couple of tips to make your frostbitten toes feel a little better:

1. Don't calve in winter.  About three days after the snow fell, I checked on the cows and found a cow with a new heifer calf.  I purchased the cow bred last year.  She calves just before Christmas so I expected another new arrival about now.  The rest of my cows calve between March and May, when it's much warmer.  Since she calved in winter, and there aren’t any growing grasses, I have to purchase alfalfa pellets to supplement her increased nutritional needs.

2.  Metal water troughs freeze faster than rubber or thick plastic.  Thin plastic troughs break too easily.  Your best case scenario is to keep a dark colored trough (or stock tank) out of the wind, but where the sun hits it.  The sunlight comes in from the southern part of the sky this time of year (as opposed to nearly directly overhead in summer), so blocking the wind on all but the south side of the tank is best.

3.  If possible, fill water bowls and stock tanks with just enough water for a 12-hour period (daylight).  It doesn't matter how much water your dogs or sheep or chickens have if the excess is covered in two inches of ice.  Whenever possible, ice skimmers or water warmers (or anything else that keeps the ice thawed) is best.

4. I have three words for you: Deep, dry, bedding.  If you keep bedding deep and out of the wind and rain, most pets and livestock do quite well.  If possible, try to avoid solitary animals.  Animals buddy up to keep warm.  Just don't go overboard and board up every little nook and cranny of your barn.  The moisture from the animal’s breath, urine, and feces needs to escape to keep everything dry.

5.  Use electricity wisely.  More than one barn has burned to the ground by a well-meaning farmer who plugged in a heat lamp.  Remember to keep cords away from animals, and use safety cages so if the light falls, a hot bulb won't be sitting on dry straw.  Personally, I only use heat in extreme cases.  Keeping livestock out of the wind and in the dry eliminates the need for extra heat most of the time.

Rotational Grazing for the Working Man... and Woman

A photo of Brandon MitchellIf I could give a farmer any piece of advice to help him or her with their livestock enterprise, it would be to rotationally graze.  Rotational grazing has so many benefits, including decreasing parasite loads, increasing legumes, increasing plant tonnage, decreasing weeds, and increasing animal growth rates.  The down sides are few and far between, but there are multitudes of ways to graze rotationally, and some of them are better for you than others.

If you work a 40+ hour a week job (like I do), you don't have as much time on the farm as a full-time farmer does (obviously). I've read articles where some dairy farmers strip graze fields and move cows (and the front and back fence) twice a day.  That's taking grazing efficiency to the max, but as more and more labor and time is required to move cattle, the trade off that better grazing gives you starts dropping off until it's a losing battle for everyone who spends their week in a Dilbert cubicle.

For those of us with interests outside the farm, but still want to reap the rewards that rotational grazing gives, once-a-week paddock shifts are the ticket.  Split your large field into at least three quadrants (four is really better).  If you can't keep shade/shelter and water in each paddock, make sure livestock always have access back to a main section of the farm where barns and water troughs are held.  By splitting your field into thirds, you get two weeks of rest for every week your livestock graze the paddock.  By splitting into fourths, you only graze once per month and you have three times as much recovery time as grazing time.  Most grasses need a minimum of three weeks rest time to grow back to their pre-eaten stage, so four paddocks win out over three in my opinion.  If you decide later on that you want to increase the number of paddocks you're running cattle or other livestock on, you can split each existing paddock, creating eight out of four with little effort. 

Now most of you may be thinking grazing's over for the year, and it is for most of us, but now is the time to think about putting in the extra fence.  The ground is softer than in summer and the grass is shorter (making it easier to walk).  Even if you're far enough north that it's frozen, you can still do this before grasses take off in spring.  You may even find that you can keep your cows on each paddock longer than one week.  Since cows tromp far more vegetation than they eat, you're keeping hoof traffic off of all the other growing grasses.  They'll grow faster and better and you may have even more hay in the spring, and more grasses to stockpile in fall.  Stockpiled forages are just grasses that have been left in the field (instead of cut, raked, and baled like hay) through frost.  This time next year, you may be grazing grass instead of feeding hay.

Farm Labor: Reducing and Reorganizing Your Workload

A photo of Brandon MitchellWhen I was in college, one of my Ag Economics classes required a farm simulation. Paired up with a friend of mine, we were given our book with all types of farming opportunities, the costs, profit margins, and everything else that goes into it.Sounds easy enough. Pick a farming practice that's both profitable and one we like and put everything into that basket. The problem is each team had certain limitations: money, land regulations, and of course labor.

While most full-time farmers think it's hard to manage time, it's even harder for someone who works full-time in town, dealing with supervisors, sitting in my Dilbert cubicle (as my teacher, the late Dr. Greer used to say), carrying kids to babysitters, band practice, sports, fixing supper (that's dinner for the more sophisticated), and still have the energy to do farm work. One way I've streamlined my labor is to do a little bit of everything.

No. I’m not crazy, but before you start looking up the number to the local looney bin, I did not say, do a lot of everything. The biggest problem most of us have is dealing with a big harvest. Even a five acre farm gets to be too big when you have a bumper crop of tomatoes coming in at the same time. You have to harvest them, can/freeze/dry them, and then package them for storage. It's easier if you have tomatoes that come in at different times, but there's still no variety in your work, and you'll get sick just looking at a tomato after a while.

By doing a little bit of everything, you eliminate both problems. Now don't get me wrong, when I say everything, I don't have llamas, peacocks, quail, zucchini, broccoli, and every thing else that found it's way onto the ark, but I have a few strawberry plants that come in before the blueberries off of six plants, which come in before my sweet corn. Later I get watermelons, followed by pumpkins, followed by some fall veggies.

I do the same for the livestock. I don't like calving in winter, so I push that back to April and May. If I'm out watching the cows, might as well have the goats kidding during the same time frame. There's really no more labor, and I'm only bound to my pastures for a shortened length of time.

You see, what I’m really trying to say is I only want to work so much per day. I only have so much time anyway, and I have other things to do. If farming is no longer fun, I can think of other things to do. The best way to keep it fun is to prepare ahead. Look at all the things you like to do and find out when it is most labor intensive. Then plan everything to work with each other, not against.

On my own farm, my year may look like this:

  • January-March: Relax. It's too cold outside. On warm days, try to get some fencing done. Maybe build another moveable livestock pen. Start seedlings inside, or maybe in a hot house I could build. Keep hay out for the livestock. Order baby chicks. Plant cold tolerant vegetables at end of March.
  • April: Cows and goats start calving and kidding. The sun is shining. Start planting the garden. Baby chicks arrive.
  • May: Keep planting in garden to spread out harvest time. All livestock born by end of month. Start harvesting strawberries and put chickens outside in moveable pens. Purchase hay for winter.
  • June: Finish planting garden. Start harvesting blueberries and finish harvesting strawberries (except ever bearing strawberries). Sweet corn, tomatoes, and peppers should be coming in soon.
  • July: Keep harvesting garden. May need to irrigate some. If meat chickens were ordered in spring, now is a good time to clean out a spot in the freezer. Can tomatoes. Make pickles. Harvest watermelons. Try to stay inside whenever possible.
  • August: Man is it hot. Stay inside. Drink lemonade. Check on livestock. Keep irrigating if necessary. If laying hens were ordered, eggs should be arriving. Goat kids should all be weaned by next month.
  • September: Vegetables start producing again. Plant fall garden. Harvest pumpkins. Eggs should be larger and more.
  • October: Calves should be at or near weaning age. Carry a goat (or goats) to meat processor along with calf born last spring. Pick all tomatoes before frost. Can or make fried green tomatoes out of them.
  • November: Start feeding hay (May have started sooner). Harvest fall vegetable garden. Move chickens inside barn, coop, or hoophouse. Consider new projects needed for the upcoming year.
  • December: Relax. See friends. Feed hay. Ease into next year's projects. Read a book.

Now this isn't exactly what I'll be doing during the upcoming year, but it's pretty close. Notice how each month differs (at least slightly) from the preceding and succeeding months. Also, you'll notice I do more work with longer days, and I do less work when it's extremely hot or cold.

Beware of Dog: When Chickens and Dogs Collide

A photo of Brandon MitchellLast time I wrote about my moveable chicken pen.   It works great, and the chickens are happy, but with so many grasshoppers just waiting to be eaten, it was hard for me to say no to free food.  Long story short is I let some of the chickens out to wander around picking up bugs.  I own quite a few dogs (partly because I'm a stray magnet), but since they were all in pens, I didn't think much about it.  Fast forward a few days and I come home to find dead chickens all over the yard.  What had happened?  A beagle that had never shown any interest of escaping her pen did just that and decided she wanted a snack, say around eight half-grown birds.

So that brings me to my warning.  Dogs are probably the number one cost on most small farms.  It costs money to feed them, house them, and don't even get me started about vet bills.  Sadly it's been my lot in life to love animals, and I can't say no to a dog, even with all of these expenses.  What's so ironic is that most dogs around a farm are supposed to be used to help, not hurt.  Pyrenees and other sheppards are used to protect the herd.  Australian Sheppards and Collies herd the livestock from one place to another.  Pointers, hounds, and terriers hunt for food, and even Labradors retrieve it when it's been shot. 

I'm here to tell you, all dogs, even livestock guardian dogs are prone to eating chickens.  Everything goes fine for months, so you let your guard down a little, and in just a few minutes time, your flock has been reduced to a pair of jittery, terrified looking pullets.  Now I'm not saying all dogs do this.  I own a Pyrenees that loves chickens, for dinner that is.  My in-laws, on the other hand, have an unrelated Pyrenees that has no interest in chickens, and even lets them pick up the leftovers once he's done with his dog food.  The strange thing is, even with my Pyrenees' affinity for fast food (Yes... That was an attempt at humor.), he fiercely protects my goats from any stray dogs, coyotes, and sometimes even from the neighbors cows (which is strange because there are calves in the field with him.  Maybe he thinks they are jumbo goats.).  Yet, as I said, he feels no loyalty in protecting a chicken.  That is unless another dog is trying to take his meal away from him.

So how do you know if you're dog is a chicken killer?  It's hard to say for sure.  I've tried walking dogs next to my chicken pen, and some known chicken killer's act as though there isn't anything there.  Suffice to say you'll know that you have a chicken killer when it's too late.  But for those of us that don't want to shoot their dog, how do we break them of this?  I honestly don't have any surefire ways.  One method that's been used for generations is to tie the dead chicken around the neck of the dog.  The smell of the decaying bird is supposed to make them sick of chickens.  For the most part it works (I've heard), although I know more than one farmer that's said it doesn't.

I suppose the point to all my rambling is this.  Think twice before getting a dog.  They are wonderful little creatures, but consider what you may be dealing with when they're grown, not just what they're like when they're puppies.  Now, don't get me wrong.  I'm not saying don't get a dog, but realize the possible problems associated with dogs on a farm.  On the flipside, scientific evidence has proven what most "pet people" have known for centuries.  Dogs make your life better in so many ways.  Nursing homes come alive when a well-trained canine enters.  Dogs have been known to save humans, detect seizures, find drugs and blood trails, and they are in fact man's best friend.  You know how I know?  Lock your spouse and your dog in the trunk of a car.  An hour later let them out and see which one is happy to see you. 

Bantams and Small Moveable Pens Equals Yard Birds

BrandonThe first farm animals I ever had growing up were chickens. A coop stood at the edge of our backyard and we kept Buff Orpingtons, Black Sex Links, BB Red Old English Game, Golden Sebrights, and a multitude of other breeds, but no matter what breed they were, bantams were always my favorite.

Fast forward to adulthood, and though I’ve had my share of chickens since my youth, I hadn’t raised bantams for quite some time. Until recently, I was raising standard dual-purpose chickens in two different spots on the farm. One was a stationary coop, while the others were free-ranged birds. Both techniques had their share of problems. The free-range birds were dying faster than I could replace them (although the roosters seemed to survive fairly well … my lot in life I suppose), and the chicken coop stayed wet and nasty year-round. Even letting the cooped chickens out for an afternoon proved deadly from time to time, mostly from roaming dogs.

Although the solution to my dilemma was fairly simple, a pastured poultry pen would solve both of those problems, but since I had goats and a cow or two in the back pasture, I would have to keep them separate so the livestock wouldn’t destroy the pen from rubbing, knocking, or jumping on it. With only a small number of pullets (about ten bantams), it wouldn’t be feasible to block off a section of pasture long enough for the hens to eat their share of bugs and grass and then let it grow back for the rest of the critters.

The solution hit me while I was mowing the yard as I seem to do daily (at least it seems like that). Why not just stick the pen in the yard? I don’t use any synthetic fertilizers or pesticides so poisons weren’t a problem, and I have lots of Dutch clover that I encourage since I have a beehive.

So I set out to make a pen that was easily designed, a fast build, and left little scrap wood behind. Based on the number of bantams I had purchased, I decided on an 8 x 4 x 2 pen constructed of 2-by-4s and 1-inch mesh wire.

Moveable Pen

Four 2-by-4s 14 feet long each yield an 8-foot board for length, a 4-foot board for width, and a 2-foot board for height. Piecing those together, a rectangular pen was born in a very short time. A 12-foot 2-by-4 cut into three equal sections made a brace for the bottom and two for the top. If I were doing it over, I would have left the bottom brace out since it just adds one more thing to catch a chicken’s foot when I move the pen, but it does add strength and some chickens perch on it when their home moves.

The picture, while slightly incomplete, shows the frame of the pen. I prefer to leave the finishing touches to you. A slightly more imaginative person could do wonders with the pen design, but as it stands, I just covered the sides and top with wire (leaving one end of the top open for a removable wooden top), and placed a feeder, waterer, and homemade shelter for rainy weather inside.

The simple pen design, constructed in an afternoon, has almost eliminated the mowing in my side yard, and, if I got lazy, the chickens would do a good enough job without my help. They peck and scratch and eat the multitude of grasshoppers, leafhoppers, and crickets that find their way into the pen. The chickens particularly like feeding time, since as I walk toward the pen, leafhoppers, in an effort to get away from me, actually leap into the pen. I take time to do this on all sides of the pen and the hens anxiously await the arrival of dinner.

Moveable pens are definitely the way to go, and more are in my future. I’ve considered adding a 4 x 4 pen to the top of my current pen and placing rabbits inside. I wonder if that’s what they mean when they say farms should be vertically integrated …

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