Small Farmer's Journal

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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 PST

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

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.

Ask A Teamster Perfect Hitching Tension

Ask A Teamster: Perfect Hitching Tension

In my experience, determining how tight, or loose, to hook the traces when hitching a team can be a bit challenging for beginners. This is because a number of interdependent dynamics and variables between the pulling system and the holdback system must be considered, and because it’s ultimately a judgment call rather than a simple measurement or clear cut rule.

Camel Power in Georgia

Camel Power in Georgia

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Last spring we got the bright idea to plow some corn with one of the camels, so we went to the shed and drug out the “Planet Jr. one camel cultivating plow”. My 86 year old Grandfather said “Son, don’t worry about thinning that corn, those camels are going to do a fine job of it, for you!” We plowed corn and I have some video to prove it, and as soon as I quit running over the corn and learned how to “drive the plow” we didn’t lose any more corn!

Fjordworks Horse Powered Potatoes Part 2

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes Part Two

These types of team implements for digging potatoes were the first big innovation in horse powered potato harvesting in the mid-19th century. Prior to the horse drawn digger the limitation on how many potatoes a farmer could plant was how many the farm crew could dig by hand. The basic design of these early diggers works so well that new models of this type of digger are once again being manufactured by contemporary horse drawn equipment suppliers.

"Work Horse Handbook, 2nd Edition" by Lynn Miller

Draft Collars and How To Size Them

It is difficult to accurately measure a horse’s neck without fitting. In other words, there are so many variables involved in the shape and size of a horse’s neck that the only accurate and easy way to size the neck is to use several collars and put them on one at a time until fitting is found.

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.

Work Horse Handbook

Grooming Work Horses

The serviceability of the work horse may be increased or decreased according to the care which is bestowed upon him. If he is groomed in a perfunctory fashion his efficiency as an animal motor is lessened. On the other hand, if he is well groomed he is snappier and fresher in appearance and is constantly up on the bit.

The Best Kept Secret, Revisited

The Best Kept Secret, Revisited

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At the same time that U.S. commercial beekeeping is circling down in a death spiral, hobby beekeeping is booming and almost every beekeeping club in the country has at least twice as many members as it did twenty years ago. What this means is that if you are fortunate enough to live in a place with relatively clean and varied sources of pollen and nectar, the potential for a successful family-sized commercial apiary is better now than it has been for many decades.

Cattle Handling Part 2 Use Good Cow Sense When Handling Cattle

Cattle Handling Part 2: Use Good Cow Sense When Handling Cattle

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Cattle are very intelligent, and are just as “trainable” as horses. Like horses, they “reason” differently than humans. Understanding the way cattle think and why they react to you the way they do can enable you handle them in ways that will help rather than hinder your purposes. If you can “think like a cow” you can more readily predict what cattle will do in various situations and be able to handle them with fewer problems.

Livestock Guardians

Introducing Your Guard Dog To New Livestock And Other Dogs

When you introduce new animals to an established herd or flock, you should observe your dog’s reactions and behavior for a few days. Since he will be curious anyway, it is a good idea to introduce him to the new animals while he is leashed or to place the new animals in a nearby area.

How To Dry Up A Doe Goat

How To Dry Up A Doe Goat

You are probably thinking why would I want to dry up a doe? If the plan is to rebreed the doe, then she will need time to rebuild her stamina. Milk production takes energy. Kid production takes energy, too. If the plan is to have a fresh goat in March, then toward the end of October start to dry her up. The first thing to do is cut back on her grain. Grain fuels milk production.

The Equine Eye

The Equine Eye

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The horse’s head is large, with eyes set wide apart at the sides of his head; he seldom sees an object with both eyes at the same time and generally sees a different picture with each eye. In the wild, this double vision was a big advantage, making it difficult for a predator to sneak up on him. He can focus both eyes to the front to watch something, but it takes more effort. Only when making a concentrated effort to look straight ahead does the horse have depth perception as we know it.

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.

American Milking Devons and the Flack Family Farm

American Milking Devons and the Flack Family Farm

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On a sunny early September day I met Doug Flack at his biodynamic and organic farm, just South of Enosburg Falls. Doug is an American Milking Devon breeder with some of the best uddered and well behaved animals I have seen in the breed. The animals are beautifully integrated into his small and diversified farm. His system of management seems to bring out the best in the animals and his enthusiasm for Devon cattle is contagious.

My First Team of Workhorses

My First Team of Workhorses

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In A Greenhorn Tries Draft Horses, a greenhorn (myself) tried a single work horse named Lady for farm and woods work. It was probably natural that, having acquired some experience with one horse, I should want to see what it was like to use two. Perhaps it is more exciting to see a good team pull together, and there is the added challenge to the teamster of making certain that the horses pull smoothly rather than seesaw.

Sheep A Logical Choice

Sheep: A Logical Choice

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Sheep have numerous uses on a smallholding. They are excellent grazers and are ideal at revitalizing old pastures as well as an excellent follower of the cows in a rotational grazing system. Cropping the grass at 2-3 inches that the cows have left at 8 inches encourages new growth in the spring. Their manure is usually in pellet form and is spread throughout a pasture as they graze. A sheep shares a ton a year of fertilizer with the earth.

Chicken

The Best Chicken Pie Ever

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She has one more gift to give: Chicken Pie.

Determining the Age of Farm Animals by their Teeth

Determining the Age of Farm Animals by their Teeth

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Establishing the age of farm animals through the appearance of the teeth is no new thing. The old saying, “Do not look a gift horse in the mouth,” is attributed to Saint Jerome, of the fifth century, who used this expression in one of his commentaries. Certainly for generations the appearance, development, and subsequent wear of the teeth has been recognized as a dependable means of judging approximately the age of animals.

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