A must-read for those who wonder how, if natural farming is so wonderful, we came to have an industrial food production technopoly, Mr. Wendell Berry’s excellent and revealing essay Jefferson, Morrill and the Upper Crust details (but briefly) how  big industry used land grant universities and the extension service to outrun and displace the small farmers who were, when those services were first instituted with the citizen’s tax dollar, more than half the tax base they were formed to serve.  If you have trouble locating the essay, it can be found in the collection titled The Unsettling of America.  Good systems can be defeated when big BIG money, education and government ‘service’ unite to make it so.


rendering lard

Our fats of choice are butter and lard; this gilt hung in at about 325#, and we rendered almost two dozen quarts of lard, even with all the fat we left on the cuts.

Our average temperature over the last few weeks has been about ten degrees – that’s Fahrenheit, for our friends in Canada – and the impact of such low temperatures reaches into every aspect of our days and nights.  Life becomes a response to the weather, maybe like being on a tall ship in a big storm, where there is some overall plan but also constant adjustment to event.  This morning at five the thermometer said it was 31 degrees, and we are relaxing into the lull.  The chickens, after dropping way down for the cold spell, are picking up again – today thirty-four hens gave us seven eggs, about twenty percent lay.



Eight days ago we moved the fourteen dry cows and steers across the farm to the west pasture.  This puts them on spring water which (so far) has never frozen – thus, less work for us, not having to fill tanks and (religiously) drain hoses – but more importantly it puts the cows on the best quality forage we’ve got, excepting only the pastures reserved for the lactating cows.  At first we found the idea that you feed the best stuff first, and the lower grade toward the end of winter, kind of counter-intuitive – we had a vague idea that you would want to feed out the best forage when conditions – both of the weather and the cows – were worst.  Later we read heard, probably from one of the more experienced farmers in the Eastern Ohio Grazing Council, some good reasons for making a different choice.  We’ve worked out our own reasons, something like this:

  • Stockpiled forage is more nutritious than hay – forage tests confirm this — but it’s also exposed to the weather; thus, to wait to feed it is to let it deteriorate.
  • Feeding better forage first means that cattle come into the worst weather in better condition than if they had been getting the lower-quality grass.
  • Young calves with young digestive tracts need the best we can offer them; when they are older is soon enough for managing on coarser forage.

We can’t tell you what we’ll be saying in three years, but that’s how it seems to us right now.



eggs in winter

The last two or three years, as we use the chickens more and more to graze green manures, weed fallow beds, or stir sheet compost, winter has found us with birds in the gardens, either in tractors, which we cover with plastic sheeting when the weather gets really cold, or under low tunnels, cleaning up after we’ve harvested whatever was growing in there.  This has worked well so far, and not only for the garden services provided:  we find that chickens in moveable pens need less feed, even in winter, apparently finding things to eat in their daily allotment of garden soil; also, for some reason it is these birds, the ones under plastic, who lay the most eggs in winter.  No supplemental light, no heat (except the solar heat trapped under the plastic film), but more eggs.  Right now the three dozen birds moving over the gardens at the monastery are laying at something more than 25%.  Maybe that doesn’t impress anyone whose poultry have constant access to commercial corn-and-soy pellets or crumbles, but our birds eat a much cheaper home mix of fermented wheat, oats, barley, sunflower seeds and millet, supplemented with whatever protein supplement the farm has on hand, mostly milk in one form or another — and almost 30% lay at the winter solstice seems to us a pretty good score.

grazing in snow

Actually, snow isn’t an obstacle to intensive grazing; cattle will dig through several feet of snow to reach the grass underneath.  Snow can even be an asset, cutting down on the frequency with which we have to fill the stock water tanks, since grazing in snow goes a long way toward answering a ruminant’s need for water.    In northern Canada, as we learned a couple of weeks ago, some stockmen don’t bother to provide tank water in winter, finding it unnecessary for animals on stockpiled forage.  Don’t gasp and be dismayed for the animals before you consider that nature doesn’t provide frost-free spigots and stock tank de-icers either.  Of course, using body heat to melt snow takes energy which some farmers think should be spent in weight gain, but then around here running a de-icer costs about a dollar a day, and that’s energy, too.  But here in Ohio our snow cover isn’t so reliable, and we have to fill tanks daily (for the dry cows, numbering around fifteen to present date) or every other day (for the two lactating cows).  Hoses have to be drained conscientiously , or they’ll be plugged with ice and useless the next time we need them.  At least for the next few weeks — then we’ll be moving around to the grass on the west side of the farm, where the spring tanks run all winter.

img_0218Trying to get the most out of our standing grass means paying attention every day.  The dry cows are getting about fifty square paces (1,250 square feet) per animal per day, which is less than it sounds, and that amount has to be adjusted as we move across the pasture to areas of greater or less forage quality and quantity.  We want to get the most out of the pasture while making sure the animals are well-nourished, so with every move we note:  how hard the last paddock was grazed, how anxious the cows are to move onto the new paddock, how full their rumens are (is there a hollow under the left hip bone?), as well as the texture of their coats, the layer of fat along their spines, and ephemerals like the spring in their steps and the conviviality of their roiling and moiling.  So far that fifty square paces/cow/day seems about right.  With luck our grass should hold out into March, but a lot depends on the weather —