LittleField Notes: Fall 2011
by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
Everyone seems to agree about the weather these days: the new normal is that there is no normal.
Despite last issue’s cantankerous ruminations about the ruinous effects of the damp weather on our hay crop, the barn is full of top quality forage after all, though it took three more weeks than it should in a so-called “normal” year.
The oats are threshed. The deer took to bedding down in the oat field this year and ruined close to 25% of an otherwise excellent crop. An important aspect of homegrown oats is the abundant straw that the crop produces. We blow the straw from the separator wind stacker directly into the barn loft, ready for use as bedding in the stalls below. I intend to grow more small grains in the future and am working up a new rotation which will involve bringing more old pasture-land into cultivation.
The hay tripods mentioned last issue that we experimented with didn’t work out so well. Friend Sykes (Humus and the Farmer) used some 2,000 of these on his British farm in the 1930’s, so the method certainly merits further experimentation, especially in those times when it seems we just can’t go more than two or three days without rain. Farmers in very wet climates around the globe have used similar drying techniques for centuries. Austrians and others have hung hay on wires to cure, while others have made small stacks around a single pole with air access from below.
We built our tripods from alder poles wired together. The wet hay was piled carefully on cross members, forkful on forkful until a moisture-shedding, eye-catching stack was completed. The cross members are wired at such a height that the lowest hay does not actually touch the ground. In this way air is free to circulate up through the center of the stack allowing the hay to slowly cure over time. By some accounts, because of the slow, moist cure, a form of microbial alchemy occurs by which the hay changes in beneficial ways that conventionally cured hay will not – like making sauerkraut out of grass, yet clearly distinct from silage because the process is aerobic rather than anaerobic.
In the end our four tripods did not cure the hay as hoped. We put the mown grass into stacks too soon and stacked the hay too thickly. I think at least one day of dry weather in the field and one pass with the tedder will be necessary. The density of the hay in the stack is also of vital importance. Ours was stacked too thickly to allow for good airflow. Aside from a few quality pockets, most of the hay in this first attempt at tri-podding was yellowed at best; molded and heated at worst.
Back to Basics
I have received some nice comments from folks about my earlier columns wherein I related the detailed workings of our barn set up and livestock management system. It got me to thinking about other kinds of very specific information people want and need. It seems to be true that the majority of young farmers just starting out in this current small farm revival do not come from a rural background at all. They clearly have a passion for farming and many feel an almost primal desire to learn the ancient practice of gaining sustenance from the soil. Despite their obvious enthusiasms, budding farmers springing from an urban background very often lack some of the most basic skills needed to get successfully through a typical season on the farm.
There is a certain set of skills and knowledge that tend to fall through the cracks of your average farm how-to book. Books of a more specialized nature are also abundant but often seem to take a fairly simple subject and make it seem daunting in scope and detail. What follows are a few tidbits of knowledge that I have found useful over the years – the little things that will inevitably need to be learned at some point in the farmer education process. Many of you will feel that the points made here go without saying; hopefully you will bear with me for the sake of our young friends just getting started.
I have learned a great deal from my Dad, David, who is one of the handiest guys I know; some from old-timers on ranches where I worked as a young man; some from books; and I continue to learn from my own sore knuckles and stubborn determination.
Hard Work and Long Hours – Let’s start with this one. I don’t think books ever really make it clear just how much absolute physical and mental endurance a season of farming requires. The romance can get pretty thin on a chilly March afternoon while trying to install a 300 foot row-cover over baby salad greens in a 30 mile an hour wind. But the work will reward you. That’s why you do it. Don’t let it scare you, but don’t tell yourself it will be easy either. There is no cubicle with soft chair and high-speed internet access in the potato patch.
Day Off – Just as important as working hard is taking a day off. A farm will never see every job crossed off its to-do list. You must have the discipline to take a break regardless of how much work needs done. Once you get back to it you will no doubt have fresh energy and renewed enthusiasm for the work at hand.
Righty Tighty, Lefty Loosy – No, seriously, I once encountered a grown man who had an interest in agriculture and was attempting to change the oil in his car. He didn’t know which way to turn the wrench. Remember these important exceptions: connections to propane tanks are going to be reverse threaded; when you need to grease the hubs on your wagon or buggy the right wheel will be conventionally threaded while the left will be reverse threaded.
Oil and Grease – Machines need to be well lubricated. The time spent oiling and greasing will save you time spent fixing breakdowns and resting your horses. I buy WD-40 by the gallon- literally. I use it regularly on chains and moving parts where I need a light lubricant so as not to attract too much dirt and grime and on stubborn bolts and nuts that need help. As for grease, look for zerks on some machines and grease cups on others. The grease cup is filled with grease and screwed back on forcing the grease where it is needed. Well-lubricated machines run quieter, have fewer breakdowns and have lighter draft for which your draft animals will be grateful.
Milk Cow (or Goat) – Don’t let anyone tell you that if you want a house cow you have to milk twice a day, exactly 12 hours apart for 365 days in a row. I keep my calf on the cow for the whole lactation. If I need milk I separate the cow and calf in the evening and milk in the morning. If I need to be gone for a few days the calf will do the milking for me. In the latter stages of a lactation cycle after weaning, I have at times gone to once a day milking with good success.
Positive Ground – We use a 1950 Farmall Super M tractor for powering the McCormick stationary threshing machine. I recently learned that the Super M’s electrical system has a positive ground. This is a new piece of information for me – very handy to know when trouble-shooting or trying to jump a dead battery.
Heat is Your Friend – Inevitably you will find yourself working on some old machine that you dug out of a fencerow and you will need to remove some rusted bolts, loosen a stuck connection, or move a gear that hasn’t moved since the Roosevelt administration. Heat, a hammer and WD-40 will save the day. An oxy-acetylene torch is an essential tool on the farm, although before I finally got mine I used a little inexpensive propane torch and a weed burner with mixed success. Heat expands metal and breaks the bonds created by rust. The use of a little heat, a squirt of WD-40 and some light hammer taps – with each step repeated as necessary – will eventually budge even the most stubborn of seized bolts. Be careful not to use more heat than needed. Also a word of caution about heating cast iron: most cast parts on old machinery are not easily replaced and must be treated with extra care as they are prone to cracking and once cracked are nearly impossible to weld.
Pliers/Leatherman – When I was a young whippersnapper learning to work horses I had the good fortune to work with a man named Frank Rodifer. Frank took me under his wing selflessly, and with a twinkle in his eye taught me everything he knew. He had a leather holster on his belt in which he kept a pair of pliers. He emphatically believed that having a pair of pliers about you was just as important as having a knife in your pocket. How true. I now carry a Leatherman – a wonderful tool with pliers and knife as well as some other handy items. Pliers are essential for everything from pulling cotter pins to removing bound up hay caught in gears of a hayloaders or manure spreaders. You don’t want to have to run all the back to the shop for a tool when you could just as easily have it on your belt. Nowadays there are countless multi-tools on the market. I like a basic one that doesn’t try to do too much. Inevitably with some projects you will simply reach a point where you need to actually go get the tool box, but for all the little moments during a typical farm day when you need to get something done often the pliers on your belt will save the day.
Compost – Do not get nervous by overly scientific and detailed descriptions of the particulars of making good compost. Yes, it is a scientific endeavor, and the more meticulous you are the better. However, what you really need to know is that compost needs just four simple things to thrive – air, water, nitrogen (green stuff, manure), and carbon (brown stuff – straw, leaves etc). Air is added by turning, moisture by rain or hose, and carbon and nitrogen are supplied by your organic additions. All will be well if you remember that piece of bumper sticker wisdom, “Compost Happens.”
Failure and Patience – Books generally seem to imply that if you follow their carefully laid out program for success all of your wildest farming dreams will come true. They are right. You likely will be successful, but mixed with success will undoubtedly come a healthy dose of failure. Spirit crushing humility will be thrust upon you time and again. This I can promise: sick animals, insect infestations, inexplicable germination failures, marketing rebuffs, and countless weather related challenges. You must develop an ascetic and abiding sense of patience. Otherwise you will turn into a miserable, blubbering farmer watering your fields with your own tears of frustration. You are engaged in a delicate dance with Creation where you are not the leader. The sooner you learn this the happier, and in the end, more successful, your farming will be.