Sunday, 29 April 2012

Lynx's Notebook on a Farm, April 24th, 2012

First impressions are important on an organic farm, especially one that you would like to have a lot of people coming to. If you want your farm to be people friendly, encouraging to visitors, customers, and potential customers, or just those who simply wish to see what an organic farm looks like, you have to make the farm look nice. You can't have it looking like a dump.

Having several outbuildings are okay. Even having them look old is okay. However, having them [looking] broken down and falling apart is not. It just looks bad and makes the organic farming community look bad. If you have broken down vehicles or tractors, park them together so they're not all over the place. The same goes for working vehicles currently not in use.

When doing anything, it would be a good idea to always keep an empty feed bag with you in your vehicle so that if you're doing anything that will give little (or big) bits of waste, such as string, wire, nails, pieces of wood, etc. they are picked up right away. Such things quickly blow away from their original drop-spot, get buried (to later puncture tires), get carried off, and/or eaten. It isn't worth it to just leave it there to be picked up later. Big tractor tires are filled with toxic fluid and are about $400 to repair if they get punctured.

On the subject of fencing, the farm here uses electric fencing, and mainly fibreglass poles that have these wire holders (I think they're called fibreglass insulators, but could be wrong). He also uses some plastic poles with metal or rebar sticking out the bottom (the part that is driven into the ground). You can also used metal rebar as poles.

The fibreglass is nice. I assume they're relatively cheap. Apparently some of the ones in use here are the original ones bought 20 years ago. If the insulators aren't on them, they bundle well, making carrying them easy. However, you must use gloves to handle them or you're get tons of tiny glass slivers in your hands. If your gloves aren't very good you can get them anyways. If the wire holders are on them it is difficult to carry many. In winter they can be pounded into the ground using a piece of pipe and hammer, which is difficult to do with the plastic ones, as for one the metal in them is cheap and bends relatively easy, and it's difficult to hammer down plastic. It is difficult however to get the poles out in winter and spring because they tend to freeze into the ground, and it's difficult to get a grip on them. They also splinter off/break. If you really want to get the pole out, you can break it out, but that leaves a bit left in the ground which can later puncture tires or possibly injure livestock who step on them or happen to ingest them. I assume it would be even more difficult to get said pieces out later, if you could even find them. Since the insulators are slid on, they're are fully adjustable, which is quite advantageous. They are also non-conductive, however they are not biodegradable. The farm here seems to think that the pros outweigh the cons of fibreglass poles. They have been using them for the past 15 years. I, however, am not so convinced. Perhaps for winter use, they are better, but not year-round, in my opinion.

I prefer the plastic poles because they stack easily, making it vary easy to bundle and carry them. They have holders built into them for the electric wire at several different heights. They are non-conductive. At the bottom of each post is a pieces of metal or rebar, which is the part that is driven into the ground. They can only go a fixed depth into the ground, so if you have had very deep snow you would not be able to hit earth (not necessarily a bad thing, if the snow is hard). If the metal does not go all the way into the ground, they are prone to tipping and bending over. This can make them unsuitable in thin, very dense, or hard soil. They're also more likely to bend out of shape or warp. The metal part itself appears very prone to bending. You cannot pound them into the ground. Driving over the fence can be more difficult as well, as the wire must be held down or moved to a different height; a difficult proposition when dealing with electric fencing. Also, plastic is generally not environmentally friendly, but then again neither is fibreglass, I believe. However, the plastic is far safer on your hands to handle, and if you accidentally touch it with another part of your body, it is not immediately hazardous like the fibreglass is.

Some farmers use metal rebar, which has the advantages of being cheap, plentiful, and easy to use. It has all the great properties of fibreglass, with few of the negatives. It can use the insulators, be fully adjustable, it's pound-able, easily carried, won't split like fibreglass, and won't give slivers. However, it is heavier. In summer, they would likely get quite hot, and in winter freezing. They're probably easier to remove though since they're far easier to grip than fibreglass. Their one big flaw is that they're conductive. If the wire comes off of the insulator and touches the rebar pole, or if you need to wrap the wire around the post, it will ground it and anything past that point in the circuit will have no power. Overall, although there are great benefits to them, I do not think that the potential problems of grounded wire would be worth it.

One type of post that was not mentioned by the farmer here was wooden posts. I do not know if they would work well or not. They're less skin hazardous than fibreglass (wood slivers can actually be pulled out), non-conductive, can be fully adjustable. Depending on the species of wood, it could probably be pounded into the ground in winter. A biodegradable, sustainable product. The possible disadvantages are cost, strength, flexibility (would they break easily?), possibility of breaking a lot or shattering from frozen water, possible fire hazard, rotting, moulding, and insects. How many uses or years would such a pole be expected to get? Depending on these factors, wood could be a viable possibility. Most preservatives for wood are toxic for the environment, and naturally resistant woods such as cedar are expensive and a declining resource.

Overall, I can see why this farm would choose to use mainly fibreglass, but I would prefer something different if possible.

Some of the gates here are make-shift gates made by using two posts and wire fencing. The fencing is attached to one side of the fence, there's a wooden post in the middle of the "gate" for rigidness, and another at the end. The gate is closed by wrapping a piece of wood around the end post and sticking it on the other side of the fence. When you open the gate, it falls on the ground.
I understand why a person would make such a gate instead of buying a proper gate: they're far cheaper. However, it is far more difficult to close it, as the middle post does not want to stay upright when attempting to close the gate, and you have to pull quite hard on the far post to get the stick around it and keep it closed. I think it is also not as sturdy or safe as a proper gate. If you're making the gate yourself, it really would not be that much more expense and time to put something across the top, bottom, and diagonally to stabilize it, and to put hinges on. Easier and faster to open and close the gate, and safer.
It's too much of a shortcut and savings, in my opinion. Would may be alright for a very temporary gate, but that "temporary" can quickly become "permanent" as changing it is continually put off for so-called "more important" things.

For electric fencing, apparently it is best to have a good steel wire to transport the charge out to where you'll be making the movable fencing with the string-like wire, which makes sense. The farmer here uses a permanent fence to do that - a fence that is used with the bison. All his electricity for his fencing comes from the same source.

The thing about electric fencing, is if an part of a circuit is touching the ground, it will be grounded, and any part of the circuit past that spot will not have a charge. So if one part of the circuit is grounded, depending on where that part is, it could potentially take out almost the entire circuit. If you have 4 pastures enclosed using the same circuit of fencing, and in the first 10 feet the wire gets grounded, the whole circuit is without power. If in the last 10 feet, then all but that 10 feet will have power, so it wouldn't really be a problem then. So, the potential (and very real) problems of having many pastures on the same series of circuit is a high concern. I don't see why one would only use one circuit instead of two or more. It might be cheaper with only one, but the negatives are pretty high. Something somewhere gets grounded, and all your animals could get loose. Wouldn't it be better to have multiple circuits? I know some people use batteries instead.

Bison. Bison are beautiful. Their meat is utterly delicious. It is different and exotic tasting. It is also pricier, which means a potential higher profit. They don't seem to need a lot of care, just green pastures or hay-bales, and water, salt, and minerals. They seem to birth easily, and the mothers are highly protective, with a good mothering instinct. However, they're slaughtered at two and a half to three years of age, while cattle are slaughtered a bit younger, at two years of age, I believe. That's an extra six months to a year of feeding: expenses. They're also wild animals - they're not tame. You cannot walk among them as you would with cattle. The farm here hires a professional shooter to kill them, because you must kill them when they're calm. If they're full of fear when they die, it can wreck the flavour of the meat. They're spooky and easily startled. In order to do anything with them such as ear-tagging or moving, you have to catch them, which can be difficult. To tag them, this farm uses a series of fencing, gates, and chutes to move them around and then restrain them. Perhaps you would need to do the same with cattle to ear-tag them, but I think it would be a lot easier with the cattle.

They breed in August, calve in May. Gestation period is nine months. Calves are separated from their mothers at about one year of age, before the mothers calve again, I guess. Mothers will very much want to be back with their calves, and can jump over six feet plus fences (dangerous). They thrive on grass, and are good at surviving winters. They probably have a natural resistance to parasites.

I am uncertain as to whether I would want to breed and farm them. They are definitely exotics. They require much stronger fencing, permanent fencing, which translates to higher expenses. I think far more money could be made with cattle, with fewer and lower expenses. It would also be harder to control the breeding and make sure that there is an adequate gene pool. From where else can you get breeding bulls? It's not like there are an abundance of bison farmers to exchange bulls with. that means your bulls are more likely to be coming from within the herd, which limits genetic diversity.

I haven't had much to do with the cattle yet. They're just getting hay, water, minerals and salt right now. I'm hoping it gets more involved later on. Several cows are due to calve in the next few weeks, which is exciting. I really want to learn more about them. Everything about them. Currently, I have learned almost nothing. They are okay to walk around in the field with them. They're not aggressive, and not spooky. They'll walk away from you, but they're not really afraid. I like them.

Pigs. It seems as though this farm's main focus is pigs, although I could be wrong. Springtime is different from summer, especially early spring. The nights still drop below freezing and snow was still on the ground about a week and a half ago. I need to research what pigs eat in the wild, as well as find out what kind of mix these pigs are fed. I know it's a mixture of grains and some other things. Is this what pigs should be eating? Shouldn't they be getting some form of meat or protein? Are pigs herbivores or omnivores? Are grains an ideal type of food? What is an ideal type of food? Here, they usually lose one pig a month, or 12 pigs a year, usually to illness or parasites. Can one feed them differently in order to not even get parasites? Or specifically to not get overwhelmed with them? According to Joel Salatin, illness of any sort is often the symptom of some sort of malnutrition - nutritional deficiency or stale living quarters. This farm has used in the short past, and is ordering some more diatomaceous earth. He feeds it to the pigs, it kills most or all of the parasites. To my way of thinking, although the diatomaceous earth is far natural than parasite medication such as de-wormers or antibacterials, it does the same thing: it treats the symptom (parasites), without treating the problems (why are they getting the parasites?).

Also, what exactly does the diatomaceous earth do? Can it have an adverse effect on the pigs innards? It makes little tears in the parasites and they dehydrate or bleed out. That's how they're killed. Could it not do the same thing to the intestines? Make little tears and cause problems?

Although I do not know, and I do intend to find out for sure, it seems like the pigs are being fed a mixure of grains, unlimited hay, and whatever they want and can get from rooting in the pasture. Is this enough? Does this provide optimal nutrition? According to the one website:
Feral pigs are opportunistic omnivores that eat whatever plants or animals happen their way. They especially relish acorns as well as hickory and beech nuts in the autumn. At other times of the year they eat forbs, grasses, leaves, berries and other fruits, roots and tubers, corn and other agricultural crops, insects, crayfish, frogs, salamanders, snakes, mice, eggs of ground-nesting birds, young rabbits, fawns and young livestock, such as lambs, calves, kids. They can also kill larger livestock that are weak from illness or injury. When fresh meat is not available, feral pigs will also readily scavenge carrion.

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