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Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT

Prairie Grass A Jewel Among Kernels

Prairie Grass: A Jewel Among Kernels

by Rex Gogerty of Hubbard, IA

A once-endangered species, my private prairie, may hold the key to a new agricultural era.

Corn is no longer king in Iowa. It’s still our high-value crop; but even more traditional plants are now attracting attention among Corn Belt farmers. The new interest in old crops has been generated largely by the economy and the environment. A burdensome corn surplus, coupled with growing concern over groundwater pollution, has focused farmers’ attention on legumes and grass.

Alfalfa and oats, for example, have come back to the farm after being crowded out by corn-soybean Florida cropping rotations. This year 70 million acres nationwide are seeded to grass and legumes for periods of up to 10 years. Farmer compliance with these programs has given wildlife and soil conservation a much-needed boost. The forage revolution also has revived the use of many native prairie grasses. Switchgrass and bluestem are now plugging mid-summer pasture gaps for many profit-conscious beef producers. They are finding warm-season grasses provide lush pasture when brome and bluegrass wither under the July sun.

This comeback for grass farming has been like a prophecy fulfilled. Years ago, my brother advised against plowing the patch of prairie on the back forty of our Hubbard, Iowa farm. “Some day,” he predicted, “that prairie will be as valuable as the rest of the 40 acres. We know how to grow corn; but that prairie was seeded by the last glacier.” The prairie patch seemed to take up the best corn ground during the high-roller crop years. Left untilled by generations of my family, the troublesome treasure has now become a jewel among a cluster of conventional crops on the farm.

The 4-acre field tucked away in the corner of the farm is a retreat and recreation area for the Gogertys as well as local prairie buffs of all ages. School groups find the mat of grama grass and coneflowers a surprising switch from the well-clipped turfs of parks and playgrounds. For them, it’s dramatic, intriguing and a bit scary. Indiangrass that is head-high on a seven year old has a rustle of history that makes it easy to paint word pictures of life on the land a century ago. Children have a good imagination anyway, and a few reminders of buffalo grazing from here to Montana and Texas generates images kids can’t get on television.

The prairie also is a popular stop for college students and other young people who are beginning to grasp the value of natural food production. Like a growing number of soil scientists, they are finding the self-enriching grassland is a showcase for low-input agriculture. Neighboring farmers now regard the virgin prairie as more than a marginal hay field. One reason is their concern about ground-water pollution from widespread use of agricultural chemicals. As one neighbor put it when he sank a probe into the pliable four feet of topsoil, “They’re just not making soil like that anymore; maybe we’d better take another look at how we’re handling the land.”

Prairie soil owes some of its productivity to abundant organic matter, a network of plant roots, and an army of earthworms. The soil is naturally aerated, fertile, and devoid of man-made pollutants. For farmers who are following a groundswell of natural agriculture, virgin prairie provides a technology touchstone, a chance to see the unblemished and unsurpassed food source.

Scientists say these prairie soils reveal microbial mysteries and suggest guidelines for non-chemical agriculture. Agronomists have discovered the sod mat serves as an excellent filter and dust catcher. The vigorous growth eliminates erosion and builds up organic matter. A 4-inch deep sod mat, for instance, may contain more than a ton of nitrogen per acre. Plant breeders are finding a surprising amount of disease and insect resistance as well as palatability and nutrition in some native grass species.

By far the biggest return from the prairie patch has been to the Gogerty family. Nephew Jack, who grows corn and soybeans up to the edge of the prairie plot, has become its informal overseer. He burns the heavy residue cover in early spring to discourage tree sprouts, and also to measure the rejuvenating effect of prairie fires that swept through the same fields when my great grandfather homesteaded here in the 1850s. Some scientists contend fire cleansed the mat and returned nitrogen and phosphorus in the form of ashes.

Jack also evaluates and identifies flowers and grasses as well as wildlife in the agricultural oasis. Last year he noted the constant presence of a doe and her twin fawn during the entire season. The mini-preserve also harbors a variety of smaller animals ranging from muskrats in two old buffalo wallows to increasing populations of pheasants, partridges, and other upland game birds. Rabbits, gophers, field mice, and other small species abound, while meadow lark and killdeer find a weatherproof nest in the luxuriant prairie mat. Finches and blackbirds find an equally sturdy shelter in willowy sunflowers.

The prairie is not only a refuge for wildlife and a laboratory for research, but a backyard retreat for my family. July and August are prime time for walking through the pristine world that is just a few steps from pampered rows of corn and soybeans. In comparison, the prairie appears unkempt, with a tangle of bluestem and Black-eyed Susans. But to a child, it is a head-high source of wonder and beauty. The switchgrass has a coarse texture, while thickspike gayfeather and prairie clover petals have a smell and feel unlike any found in gardens or parks.

Kids are less interested in the prairie’s botany than in its beauty and atmosphere. It requires some coaching, but a child soon learns the uniqueness of pitcher sage or prairie phlox. Almost every time one of my grandchildren and I walk to the prairie, we find a new flower or plant among the 200 or more species that thrive here. They range from the dramatic blazing star to the delicate dropseed. Discovering a new butterfly or songbird adds excitement to our hike, and catching sight of a fawn or young jackrabbit tops off any trip.

The prairie also is an ideal setting to recount stories of sod houses and prairie fires that were told to me by my grandfather. Prairie chickens and whooping cranes were here then. But many times the prairie needs no narration. In the still of a July evening, a child — or grownup with an active imagination — can hear the creak of Conestoga wagons or see the outline of grazing buffalo. A meager collection of arrowheads assures us that Indians once camped here and enjoyed the beauty and fragrance of purple cone flower.

There’s always a sense of nostalgia, of course. The prairie that once extended from horizon to horizon has been replaced by orderly fields and farmsteads. A productive environment that required 10,000 years to make has been turned under except for a few preserves. The good news is the revival of prairie culture. Bluestem switchgrass and other native species are being used to establish millions of acres of grazing land. Prairie enthusiasts can buy up to 200 different grass and flower species to seed their own native prairie.

A growing number of farmers and researchers are using the prairie as a pattern for farming with fewer chemicals. And most important of all, we are learning the value of this crop that once covered one-third of the country. And as for the Gogerty prairie patch… It will remain the exotic crop among newcomers such as corn, soybeans, and oats. I’m convinced the prairie laboratory is just beginning to reveal many invaluable secrets to lead us to natural and self-sustaining farming practices.

Prairie Grass A Jewel Among Kernels

Spotlight On: Livestock

Raising Chickens on the Schekel Farm

Raising Chickens on the Scheckel Farm

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We kept our eye on this rooster. He was high entertainment for 3 boys and 3 younger sisters on that farm. We didn’t give him a name, just called him “Rooster,” and Rooster ruled. Other roosters moved out of his way. Hens cowered when Rooster appeared. My dog Browser wouldn’t go near Rooster. Rooster was invincible. Or so he thought.

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

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For centuries, the skills of training steers for work and the craft of building yokes and related equipment was passed down from generation to generation. It was common for a young boy or girl to be responsible for the care and training of a team from calves to the age of working capability. Many farms trained a team each year, either for sale or for future replacement in their own draft program.

Horseshoeing Part 6C

Horseshoeing Part 6C

The expression “corns” is applied to nearly all bruises of the pododerm of the posterior half of the foot, with the exception of the frog, which are apparent to the eye as yellowish, reddish, or bluish-red discolorations of the horn of the sole and white line. The surface of the pododerm (fleshy leaves and villi) is chiefly involved, and almost without exception there is rupture of small blood-vessels and an outpouring of blood between the pododerm and the horn.

How Big Should a Draft Horse Be

How Big Should A Draft Horse Be?

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As evidenced by our letters and the frequent comments of contributors to this magazine, the question of size in draft horses is a hot issue. I suppose we’d all like to think that it’s a contemporary subject, one which did not trouble people back when horses were the norm. The BREEDER’S GAZETTE gathered the opinions of the most respected Draft horsemen of the 1910’s on the subject of how big a draft horse should be and we’ve reprinted them here. As you can see the subject has provided controversy for a long time and I’m sure it will continue.

The Broodmare in Fall

The Broodmare in Fall

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Mares are not the major emphasis in the fall since they have performed their task of foaling, lactating and being re-bred. After foals are weaned, most breeders tend to focus on weanlings and yearlings that are being prepared for shows, sales and/or performance in the case of long yearlings. Fall management of broodmares is far more critical than some breeders realize and can directly impact foaling and re-breeding successes next year.

A Gathering of Comtois in France

A Gathering of Comtois in France

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I was soon planning for a stop in the town of Pontelier, the main hub in one corner of the country I had never been to and was bent on exploring: the Franche-Compte. As luck would have it, this region has its very own breed of draft horse, the Comtois. It was to an “exhibition” of this horse that I was heading, although thanks to my lousy French, I was not sure exactly what kind of “exhibition” I was heading to.

Multiple Hitching with One Set of Lines

Multiple Hitching with One Set of Lines

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A great deal of interest has been shown the last several years in using multiple hitches in horse farming, especially in spring fieldwork. The question often asked is how to keep it simple and easy in driving and assembling the hitch as far as lines are concerned. We demonstrated our method at the Horse Progress Days at Mt. Hope, Ohio in 2003 and have been asked numerous times how we drove four, six and eight-horse hitches using only two lines.

The Milk and Human Kindness Stanchion Floor

The Milk and Human Kindness: Making Friends with Your Wild Heifer

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So let’s just say this is your first experience with cows, you’ve gone to your local dairy farm, purchased a beautiful bred heifer who is very skittish, has never had a rope on her, or been handled or led, and you’re making arrangements to bring her home. It ought to be dawning on you at this point that you need to safely and securely convey this heifer to your farm and then you need to keep her confined until she begins to calm down enough that she knows she’s home, and she knows where she gets fed.

Plowing with the Single Horse

Plowing with the Single Horse

All other aspects being equal, the primary difference in plowing, comfortably, with a single horse is that the animal walks on unplowed ground immediately adjacent to the previous furrow, rather than in the furrow. This will cause the point of draft at the shoulder to be somewhat higher and will dictate hitching longer and/or higher than with the animal walking down 5 to 8 inches lower in the furrow.

On The Anatomy of Thrift Fat & Slat

On the Anatomy of Thrift Part 3: Fat & Salt

On the Anatomy of Thrift is an instructional series Farmrun created with Farmstead Meatsmith. Their principal intention is instruction in the matters of traditional pork processing. In a broader and more honest context, OAT is a deeply philosophical manifesto on the subject of eating animals. Fat & Salt is the third and final video in the series. It is the conceptual conclusion to the illustrated, narrated story that weaves throughout the entire series, and deals instructionally in the matters of preserving pork.

Finnsheep Sheep for all Economic Seasons

Finnsheep: Sheep for all Economic Seasons

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Another consideration for the Trimburs was health and ease of care. Heidi says, “Finnsheep, as a breed, won this one without contest! They are smaller, super-friendly, have no horns to worry about and no tails to dock. They are hardy, thrive on good nutrition and grow a gorgeous fleece. I love to walk out in the pastures with them. They all come running over to say hello and some of our rams love to jump on our golf cart and “go for a ride” – it is hilarious!

On-Farm Meat Processing

The demand for fresh, local meat products – with no taint of industrial process – is absolutely staggering.

Harnessing the Future

Harnessing the Future

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En route to a remote pasture where the Belgian draft horses, Prince and Tom, are grazing, we survey the vast green landscape, a fine mist hovering in distant low lying areas. We are enveloped in a profusion of sweet, earthy balance. Interns and other workers start their chores; one pauses to check his smart phone. Scattered about are many animal-powered rustic implements. This rich and agriculturally diverse, peaceful place is steeped in contrasts: modern and ancient.

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes

This is the account of how one farm put more horse power into the planting, cultivation, and harvesting of its potato crop. Ever since we began farming on our own in 1994 one of our principle aims has been the conversion of our farm operation to live horse power wherever feasible. This has meant replacing mechanized tools such as tractors and rototillers and figuring out how to reduce human labor as we expanded upon the labor capacity of our work horses.

New York Horsefarmer Ed Button and his Belgians

New York Horsefarmer: Ed Button and his Belgians

In New York State one does not explore the world of draft horses long before the name of Ed Button is invariably and most respectfully mentioned. Ed’s name can be heard in the conversations of nearly everyone concerned with heavy horses from the most experienced teamsters to the most novice horse hobbyists. His career with Belgians includes a vast catalog of activities: showing, pulling, training, farming, breeding, and driving, which Ed says, “I’ve been doing since I was old enough to hold the lines.”

Horseshoeing Part 5A

Horseshoeing Part 5A

All shoes whose ground-surface is provided with contrivances to prevent slipping upon snow and ice are called winter shoes. These various contrivances are produced by several processes called “methods of sharpening.” All methods may be gathered into two groups, – namely, practical sharp-shoeing and impractical. Only the first will be considered.

Big Logs at Tarn Hows

Big Logs at Tarn Hows

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Simon and his elder sons Simon, Keith, and Ian, with their Belgian Ardennes horses, work good timber in bad places. The felling and extraction operation at the Lake District beauty spot of Tarn Hows was done in often appalling weather, and in the full glare of publicity. It must rank as one of the most spectacular pieces of horse logging, or indeed of commercial horse work done in these islands in recent years.

Mini Horse Haying

Mini Horse Haying

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The first mini I bought was a three year old gelding named Casper. He taught me a lot about what a 38 inch mini could do just by driving me around the neighborhood. He didn’t cover the miles fast, but he did get me there! It wasn’t long before several more 38 inch tall minis found their way home. I presently have four minis that are relatively quiet, responsive to the bit, and can work without a lot of drama.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT