Archive for March, 2019

We recently encountered the opinion of someone named Mary Cuff, in a periodical called Modern Age, dismissing the family smallholding in these words:  “Only the most privileged people can afford to quit their jobs and their urban and suburban lifestyles to become gentleman farmers living off the land.”  We do not know how many people ‘living off the land’ Ms. Cuff is acquainted with, but relative to opinions like this one, we would like to share some numbers:

A chicken is supposed to eat one-quarter pound of feed per day.  I’m not sure whose chicken that would be, or what would be its breed, age, size, and position in life, but we’ll take it as a general rule that a laying hen eats something in the neighborhood of 4 oz. of something every day.  Ours do.  Generously, that means we need a few pounds short of 100 lb. of feed per bird per year — not a small amount.

Our own birds eat fermented or sprouted wheat, in addition to grass, bugs, and a bit of meat or milk for protein.   The grass, bugs, meat and milk are all free products of our land, things we have in abundance and need to feed to something. The wheat we buy, at $5/bu. (roughly 60 lb.).  That’s just over $.08/lb., so we may spend as much as $8/bird/year on feed.

Now, our birds lay at a rate of something like 50%, averaged over the year, or about 180 eggs/bird/year.  180 eggs is 15 dozen eggs — from a bird we pay about $8/year to feed.

That’s 15dozen pastured, cage-free, soy-free, corn-free, GMO-free eggs for just over $.50 per dozen.

The cost of buying the chick and raising it to laying age — about $7 — can be discounted, because when the hen gets too old to lay we’re going to make chicken pie, and feed the bones to the hogs.

Glory be to God for chickens and privileges.

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This from a question about calculating protein in a homemade ration:

Standard laying mash is around 16 – 18% protein; that’s what they make for commercial producers and backyard chicken keepers aiming at a very high rate of lay.

This is at least in part because modern hens have been selected for maximum performance in the short run, not longevity or duration of lay.  It takes a lot of dietary protein to make an egg.  Today, the commercial goal is to get at least 300 – 330 eggs per hen in her first year of lay, then sell her to Campbells; in the typical backyard flock, same genetics, you might keep her around for a second year if you don’t mind much reduced performance.  After that, the soup pot.

In contrast, eighty years ago a hen was considered a good layer if she gave 200 eggs per year, and she was expected to lay for several years.

If what you want is an accelerated rate of lay, you’ll need to supply a lot of protein. But if you’re going to pasture or free-range — which is what it sounds like you intend to do — then you’re probably electing to go for a more natural rate of lay, which leaves more latitude in the matter of how much protein supplement you provide.

Now, if you were really setting out to determine precisely how much protein you needed to reach 18% of the birds’ diet, you’d have your work cut out for you. First, you won’t know what the birds are picking up as they forage, so you can’t know its food value. Secondly, the percent protein of those bulk foods (like corn, wheat, oats) with which you make up the majority of their ration can vary a great deal from batch to batch, depending on a lot of variables, so you’d actually have to test each batch of grain you purchased or grew to determine its composition. Only if you know all of the variables can you calculate with accuracy the amount of milk or other protein you need to raise your total ration to the 16 – 18% rate.

img_9916Fortunately, it’s not really that hard to get a satisfactory ration without all of the numbers.

You say you would like to switch to ‘grass and natural feed’ for your flock. Let’s assume that means you’re going to free-range or pasture the birds, while providing some kind of grain ration. Corn and most of the cereal grains average well below the minimum recommended percentage protein, but they’re good for some protein and for plenty of carbs. With dry grain rations, it’s generally considered that a hen of average size needs about one-quarter pound of feed per day, and somewhere around that’s not a bad place to start.  18% of 4 oz. is 0.72 oz. protein, and they’ll get more than half of that from their grain and whatever they pick up foraging, so if you offer a high-protein supplement like curds or waste meat, which are about 25% protein, an ounce of one of these per day gets your birds’ ration up in the high-protein range.  For visual reference, that’s a lump about the size of a hulled walnut, or rather smaller, per bird.

IMG_0118All that said, in the summer a free-range bird with plenty of pasture (not bare soil) to range about in is going to pick up a lot of bugs and worms, and might do very well without protein added to her grain allotment.  And since she’s free-range, she may also hide all her lovely eggs where you can’t find them.

The practice of farming has more in common with dancing than with science:  if you want it to be beautiful and enjoyable, you pay attention to your partner and respond to changes in the rhythm.


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We’re pretty happy with how our cows thrive on stockpiled forage, and these pictures show why.  Thick coats, well-padded hip bones, calm, contented demeanor — these are happy cows.  Note that these animals have spent the entire winter out in the pasture, with no supplementation except minerals, eating standing forage saved since last July/August, the only exception being a few days when there was so much ice on the snow that we fed square bales in the pasture.

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People often email us with specific questions; sometimes the answers might be helpful to other folks, too.  This gentleman has seen our video series with Living Web Farms, and asked about the multi-wire reel we exhibited at that event.
Hi, Carl!  We’re glad the video is useful.
The multi-wire reel (that one actually has three wires) is a DIY dodge authored by Tony McQuail, an Ontario farmer and author, who uses it to pasture his draft horses.  It’s a plain plastic extension cord reel, like what you would buy at the home improvement store.  He loads it with three strands of turbo-wire (heavy-duty braided twine), and ties the three strands off to a single step-in post that stays with the reel.  We only put a maximum of about two hundred feet of twine (each strand) on a single reel, because, as you guessed, if you get them tangled you’re going to have a mess.
We use it the same way he does, as a cross-fence across a fenced pasture; that is, from one side to the other of a pasture with a permanent electric perimeter fence.  On one side of the pasture we set the single tied-in step-in post, attaching it to the perimeter fence with a short contact wire (about 18 inches of insulated wire with aligator clips on each end).  Then, carrying the reel, and with the three strands of twine separated by our fingers so they’ll run out without tangling, we step out the fence, setting additional posts every ten steps or so, until we reach the opposite side of the pasture/opposite fence, and set a last post.  Then to keep the tension even on the three strands of polytwine, we pull another three feet or so of twine off the reel and tie it in a hank around one of the perimeter fence wires.  Those plastic reels are light enough that they hang pretty easily from a fence post; or, if the weather is dry, I think Tony just puts it on the ground.
I wish I could draw it; I know verbal instruction can be confusing!
Picture it this way:  say you cut three strands of braid, all the same length, and tie them in to an extension cord reel.  Then wind them all onto the reel — they won’t load at exactly the same rate, so by the time you reach the ends they’ll be a little uneven, but not too much — and then tie off the ends at graduated heights on a step-in-post.  This is the basic apparatus.  Shove a contact wire in your pocket, and half-a-dozen extra posts under your arm, and you’re ready to start.
Say you’ve got a pasture with decent perimeter fences that will contain whatever species you’re planning to graze — if sheep, say your perimeter is five strands of high-tensile, or maybe some hog wire — and all you need is a way to break that pasture up into smaller pieces, you can cut out one end with a three-wire reel and graze that on day one.  The next day, take a second three-wire reel and cut out another section next to the first, pull back the first cross-fence at one end and let the animals through, move their water up, and let them graze this second section.  Day three, take down the first (original) cross-fence and jump it over the second one and let them through again, and so on down the line.
I dont’ know where you are, but we’ll be doing a full-day workshop on farming, with about half the day devoted to fence, the second weekend in April, here at our home farm, if you are interested.   We’ll also be doing a half-day grazing workshop in Asheville at the Mother Earth News Fair at the end of April, and a full-day workshop in Front Royal, VA, in October.  It’s a lot easier to demonstrate fence than to make it clear in words!

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raising calves


(This is a copy of our reply to a question about how we rear calves.  The post that was being referenced was published six years back.)

Thanks for the question, Nick! Wow, we haven’t looked back at this for a good while, and now it’s six years old. Time to put out a new post on calf-rearing. I’m not sure whether you want information on feeding, or on weaning (from milk altogether), so I’ll put down both.

We haven’t fed grain to any ruminant in several years. Even our lactating dairy cows are all grass, all the time — they winter on stockpiled forage. Our bottle calf protocol (which goes for weaned-rom-mama-but-not-from-milk calves, too, bc. mostly they come off their mamas before we’re ready for them to be weaned from milk, so they go from mama to the bucket) is as follows: newborns stay on mama for eight to twelve weeks, then they go to the bucket, about six quarts per day. Newborns that are bought in get a couple of feedings of saved colostrum, then go to two two-quart feedings of straight cow’s milk per day, but we add an egg, beaten in, into each feeding, as a preventive of scours. After a couple of weeks they are up to six quarts per day. All calves stay on milk for at least fourteen weeks; if there’s a lot of skim milk or whey around, they might get that for a bit longer. They always have access to water and good forage or hay. We take them down to a single feeding per day for about a week before we wean them altogether. When they come off milk, they are on grass alone.

If it’s July when they come off the bucket and the grass is mostly tought and lignous, they are going to be set way back, so don’t do it if you can help it; wean in April or May, if you can, or else when the fall grass starts to come in again.

If they are running with older animals in a rotational/management intensive situation, wonderful, but because competition is intensified in the smaller paddocks, it makes a big difference — on our farm, anyway — that we fence with a single strand of polytwine and just two or three joules on the charger. This means the little guys can slip out under the fence and graze in front of the rest of the group. They get the best forage available, but because they are only a little way in front of the herd, they aren’t doing any harm to the grazing sequence, since the mature animals will graze that spot the next day.

Understand, these are baby dairy bulls that are being raised for a life of grass. You do understand that by weaning from milk at three months we take away the natural advantage of mama’s later weaning (and bigger servings) without compensating for the calories with grain (a food that disrupts the proper development of their rumens). They are going to grow much more slowly than a Hereford calf on grain, silage, haylage, baleage, and whatever else, and somewhat more slowly than a calf that stays on mama for six months. It’s a trade-off, but it works for what we want, which is Jersey beef (delicious) that is all grass with no bought-in supplements.

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Intensive Grazing Workshop for Homesteaders


Spring really is coming to eastern Ohio. We’ve pulled our taps and put away the sap pans — grass and spring rains can’t be too far away! Come to our April workshop to get hands-on experience with intensive rotational grazing at one of the most challenging times of the year – spring greenup. We’ll be moving fence, setting up practice paddocks, and planning the grazing year. Or catch one of our half-day grazing workshops at the Mother Earth News Fairs in Asheville, NC, or Frederick, MD.

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sharing mineralsCheck out our spring workshops on the ‘classes‘ page (under ‘about’ in the sidebar menu, not the menu at the top of this page).  Grazing, animal husbandry, water, fertility — come spend time with us and develop ideas for your own independent farmstead!

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