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Archive for February, 2013

the smallholding part 2

In a smallholding, monoculture is on the scale of square yards.  It may mean that once the Mexican bean beetles find your bush beans they will infest that entire planting; on the other hand if the gardener is a judicious practitioner of succession planting it is unlikely to mean the complete failure of that crop, and it virtually never means bankruptcy.

Two people may build a cow shed, chicken house, garden shed, or quarter mile of fence without undue time and effort.

When four cows are kept in one pasture or one lounging barn the manure accumulations are manageable without heavy equipment.  When population density exceeds a certain level the land itself is overburdened by wastes.

Managed rotational grazing improves pasture, increases its productivity, adds topsoil, etc.

Jobs that can be accomplished with hand tools often require heavy machinery when we increase the scale beyond that of the smallholding.  Five pounds of potatoes can be conveniently peeled with a paring knife; five hundred pounds make us think we need a machine.  Fifty square feet of garden can be turned with a garden fork; for five hundred this seems heavy labor; with five thousand we need a rototiller.  Fifty thousand square feet – that is, a garden one hundred feet by five hundred feet – make us think we need a tractor and plow.  To justify the expense we increase our plot tenfold and market the excess.  The expense in time and money for marketing makes more sense if we multiply the size of our garden by ten again, in which case we need to upsize our equipment once more.  Paying for the bigger equipment requires us to take out a loan, repayment of which requires another upscale in size to increase our profits, and so we go on, ad infinitum.  The small holder is better off if his activities remain on the scale of the hand tool.

In addition, the time commitment to a large scale enterprise can mean that it is necessary to eliminate other activities, including those synchronous activities that make the smallholding ecologically and economically viable; or to similarly expand them to match the scale of the larger undertaking.  Maybe this is desirable – maybe the switch from smallholder, managing animals and plants, to big businessman, managing money and equipment, is one the farmer will not regret; we, however, are exploring what is possible on the small scale, the family scale.

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There is a scale at which all the operations of a farm go synchronously.

A single person who is used to the work can milk two cows, including walking to the barn, walking up again, straining the milk, and washing the buckets, in an hour – an hour and a half when the cows are freshening.

Two cows produce an amount of manure which can be managed with a pitchfork and wheelbarrow in about fifteen minutes a day; and this is only necessary during those times of the year when conditions confine the cows to the barn.

Two milk cows under rotational grazing can make efficient use of the grass from five poor acres of soil for at least eight months of the year, using it to provide anywhere from three to twelve gallons of milk a day.  We are doing this.  With twenty more acres of mediocre grass you can pasture two steers and make your animals’ winter hay, although for most people it would be more practical to buy winter hay than to make it, unless you have plenty of man-power, in which case four people can cut, rake, and barn two cuttings from ten acres with less than ten full days’ labor.

Rather than feeding steers over the winter, it is both economical and reasonable in the case of a scarcity of farm help to buy inexpensive baby bulls from a dairy operation in the spring, start them for ten weeks on skim milk, pasture them with the cows until the weather turns reliably cold, then butcher them as with the bacon pigs.  Animals butchered in this way are considerably smaller than the two-year-olds more usually raised for beef, but this can be an advantage to the farmer with a small family, a small freezer, or both.  It also has the decided advantage that one has invested only the cost of the baby bull – we usually pay a premium for ours and get them for twenty bucks apiece – with perhaps a few cents in disbudding paste and elastrator bands.  No money or labor has been invested in winter feed for such animals.  It is also much easier to butcher a two- to three-hundred pound animal than an eight-hundred pound one.

A sow and a boar can derive all their protein needs from two gallons of milk a day (easily met by the excess from a single cow), meeting their requirements for carbohydrates, fiber, and minerals with kitchen scraps, hay of reasonably good quality, and waste vegetables, with little or no supplement in the form of purchased grains or feeds.  In the spring, summer and fall four weanlings may be fattened on pasture, dairy excess from two cows, whey from the cheese making, weeds, garden trash and excess vegs, and kitchen scraps, with a minimum of off-farm produced grain.  We are not yet experienced enough in this area to say absolutely that no grain will be required, but there are people out there raising swine on pasture and whey, where the whey is available in unlimited quantities.

A family may very easily raise all the vegetables it can use for an entire year on less than half an acre of land, usually much less.  For our family we aim to produce at least one half ton of potatoes – potatoes are a staple in our family and we usually eat them twice a day,– two hundred pounds of onions, four hundred pounds of tomatoes, seventy or eighty quarts of green beans for canning, and several hundred pounds of winter squash, garlic, cabbage, fruits and berries, in addition to all the fresh seasonal vegetables we can eat.  On top of this we keep winter vegetables under simple plastic tunnels, so spinach, lettuce, and carrots are available to us fresh all winter long.  No special tools are absolutely necessary for this level of production, but because we have one, we do use a rototiller to turn the soil between crops.

The family garden, managed on such a scale as to produce all or most of the family’s vegetable needs for the year, may be planted off-season to produce a quantity of forage, in the form of beets, turnips, swedes, kale, cabbage, and beans, that may provide much of the dietary needs of a breeding pair of swine.  Last year almost half of our twenty-thousand square foot garden at the monastery was sown in August to table beets, sugar beets, turnips and Kentucky Wonders; in November five young pigs were turned onto that garden and fed there until Christmas with only skim milk and a small amount of corn as supplement.  Of course, a breeding pair on maintenance rations consume feed at a much slower rate and would make more economical use of what the garden could provide.  Obviously it makes more sense to fatten pigs for the freezer during the summer and fall, butchering when the weather turns consistently cold so that the carcasses may be hung overnight to firm up for cutting.

A dozen free-range chickens may provide six eggs a day on three pounds of corn, or on half that and an allowance of skim milk and kitchen scraps or pig swill.  Careful poultry management should improve this level of production.  Chickens are not the most economical of farm animals – for us, meat chickens are by far and away our most expensive animals, and layers come in second.  Our research into Nineteenth-century farming practices may help us find the key to keeping a productive farm flock without purchased grains.

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Friday, February 1:

After two days of unseasonably warm weather – unseasonal, but not unusual for this area as we often get a few warm days in January and February – we are back to daytime temperatures in the teens and nights in the single digits.  For us who are Texas transplants, that is cold enough.  New clean snow has replaced what washed away in Wednesday’s rain, with more expected.  Whoever ends up moving the steers tomorrow will need to wear their insulated overalls and two pairs of gloves.

The steers are not half-way through the stockpiled forage up at the monastery.  They look handsome, shaggy and still well-fleshed even though we expect to see some loss of condition in late winter.  When the ground is covered with snow they paw down to the standing grass, brown but still palatable, and graze; the torn up snow makes it easy to tell where they have been eating and where the grass is still high.  The pawed over pasture is well-manured at the same time; we should see the effect of this increase in fertility when the grass greens up in late March or early April.

The two new heifers bought last week are acclimating in the small pasture behind the white barn where we can keep an eye on their transition from their old herd.  They are getting second-cutting square bales, and a handful of sweet feed a day like they were getting at the farm where we bought them, but when they go up to the monastery the grain will be stopped, except as a treat when we check their water or move fence.  They are gentle, calm animals, both half-Jersey, one by a Friesian bull, one by an Ayreshire.  The girls have named them Daisy and Delphi; after the untimely demise of our first-calf heifer Dande, I’d prefer names that were less alliterative.

The pigs are measuring in the neighborhood of fifty inches each way, or rather more; soon it will be expedient to graduate them to the freezer.  About time; we have been out of bacon since before Christmas.  Our timing was off this year; normally we fatten pigs in the fall, and by now they would be occupying the place of honor at every Sunday breakfast.  Last summer, though, our sources for piglets were piglet-less in July when we wanted them, and even when we managed to get a few weanlings in late September they were young and small.  They did very well on all the fodder we planted for them in the monastery garden – beets, turnips and beans, and the corn fodder – but what should have been fattening rations were instead growing rations.  What is wanted in the fall are full-framed animals to convert garden vegs into flesh, not young pigs with a relatively high protein requirement.  This year we hope to have piglets by late summer so as to have them ready for the freezer as soon as the weather is settled cold so we can butcher.

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