Friday, November 26, 2010

Three More Cows

One thing I am feeling thankful for is our three new cows. The third is actually a very young heifer calf, but female just the same. The women outnumber the men again, which is a good thing seeing as we aim to operate a dairy farm one day.

Both Datura and Lillyvale came with their horns, which is a first for us. Their horns have been banded and we've been told that they will just fall off one of these days. Nevertheless, they are horned now and it is something to be aware of. For instance, the feeder we gave them had spaces big enough for a cow's head without horns, but these two were having a frustrating time trying to eat from it, so we had to open it up a bit. Another thing we have to consider is that they are both daughters of Ebon, the bull we have on loan. He came heaving down the hill the night they were dropped off, bellowing to meet them. Having no idea whether either of the new cows were in heat, we chose to postpone their meeting. We opted to keep them in two groups, the older cows with the bull beyond the top of the hill and the younger cows in the barn on the flats with a small paddock to roam in. This was a great idea, but an electric wire was grounding out somewhere, and when we made it back the house I looked out to see all of the cows running around together on the crest of the hill. The struggle ensued. It was like unravelling a tangled mess of yarn. We found out that Lillyvale, the yearling cow, was in heat and Ebon was hot on her tail. Garth used his genius and their herd mentality against them and within 24 hours we had finally returned things to how we wanted them. As far as we know, she wasn't bred during this fiasco, but Ebon has bred all of our other cows without drawing much attention to himself, so I guess we will just wait to see that she cycles again. Kerry cows have such a limited gene pool to begin with that it would be a shame to accidentally start line breeding them now. It would also be unjust to impregnate a growing cow before she is optimally ready to carry a calf. Bulls don't think this way though, so for now we are keeping them separate.

This is the first heifer calf we have had on our farm. She is adorably sweet, as you can see, and she needs a Celtic name. Any ideas?


Friday, November 19, 2010

Metabolism and Resilience

I’ve ruminated a lot over the last few months on how to build a farm and business that is resilient in the face of the economic changes I see coming over the next few decades. There are many factors that will come into play, and I don’t know which, politics, financial upheaval, or oil supply shocks will precipitate the crisis I foresee. Right now I think a deflationary crash is the most likely in the short to intermediate term, but I also thought the same thing a year ago, and it has not come to pass.

The metabolism of our economic system is cancerous. It mandates that the system grow in order to achieve full employment. Growth means some variable rate of increase in size or activity. A growth rate of 7% per year means the thing measured roughly doubles in ten short years. It has been a long time since the United States achieved a growth rate anywhere near 7%, but it also has been a long time since its economic activity dropped into contraction for more than a few months at a time. Our recent parry with deflation and contraction has in my opinion been staved off temporarily by massive government borrowing. I do not believe that the “pulling forward of demand” such massive borrowing creates is a path to create real wealth or a productive base for real needs to be met. It does, however, keep the wheels of the economy turning at roughly the same rate they have been though, so the more dramatic and wrenching changes are postponed for another day.

In agriculture a metabolism of incessant growth mandates speed and greater and greater production from the same amount of land base. It also imposes a 24-7 industrial mindset on what is fundamentally a biological system, not a mechanical one. Farming following the seasons is easier on all the lives lived therein, but the industrial mindset does not allow for the luxury of down time or breaks. Winter is an obstacle to overcome rather than a much needed time for recuperation and rest. An illustrative example can be found in the cow. Cows fed a mixture of corn silage, grain, a bit of hay, and some fat/protein supplements can, given the right genes in the animal, produce far more milk per acre of land than a grazing cow that harvests most of her feed herself. By providing large volumes of high energy feeds powerful red, orange, green and blue machines enable us to breed cows that produce over 100 pounds of milk per day during their lactations. To achieve that kind of production the feed has to be just right every day, or the cow will crash and not produce much of anything. Modern Holsteins relies heavily on the Deere to provide for her high metabolism. Depending on how the metrics are calibrated this giant amount of milk can be called “greater efficiency” since more food is grown on the same land base and in a given number of labor-hours. The labor input to milk a cow is not dramatically different whether she provides 120 pounds of milk or “only 35” per day. Looking at it through a different lens though, and those “efficiencies” appear less enticing as the costs are accounted for. The equipment needed to grow, harvest, thresh, grind, mix and serve large amounts of grain and/or silage necessitates large capital investments, and a constant stream of exogenous calories from hydrocarbons to run the machines. I now believe whole-heartedly those statistics that are bandied around that claim most food on American’s grocery shelves has 10 calories of hydrocarbon energy invested in every one calorie of food energy.

Since our example thus far has been the cow, let us continue in that vein. The modern Holstein is large, often tipping the scales a bit under 2000 pounds. The most selectively bred, highest pedigree, can produce over 100 pounds of milk a day in a ten month lactation. Holsteins like this have high basal metabolisms and will “milk off their backs” i.e. use their body’s store of fats (generally easily seen on their backs, hips and ribs), to maintain production as long as possible in the face of inadequate feed. They will literally dump their bodies’ reserves into their milk if the feed quality goes down because that is what they have been bred to do. It is little wonder then that farmers worry about the quality and composition of their feed. But it is circular though whether this tremendous amount of milk and a very high cow metabolism requires all the depreciating iron out in the field, or whether all those colorful machines force the cow to up the ante in order to pass on her genes. I like Micheal Pollen’s way of looking at domesticated plants and animals not as hapless things that we humans have shaped with our superior intellects but as collaborators in this game of life. Cows have decided to take us up on the bargain of providing milk, meat, leather, and draught power in exchange for protection from predators and some food insurance during hard times. Holstiens have an exceptional ability to produce mind-boggling volumes of milk, and this trait made them the most numerous and successful of their kind on several continents. It is as if the cow says to the human, “I will make ungodly amounts of milk as fast as I can in exchange for perfect food every day and a roof over my head.” I think of this as the “confinement bargain”.

In nature animals tend to lactate seasonally give birth in the spring as forages flush with proteinaceous new green growth. Cows can be managed in time to nature’s rhythm, to calve in the spring and then milk through spring summer and fall. In the wild, mammals put on weight in the fall as preparation for hard times to come. Many “heritage” breeds still exhibit this trait since it was not long ago that farmers valued animals that could provide for some of their own winter needs by grazing extra hard during the green months. Dairy animals tend not to do so since they have been selected to pour any surplus metabolic output into their milk rather than onto their ribs and backs.

I want to partner with cattle and strike a deal in which I provide spots to take the edge offof cold weather, protection from predators, feed during the winter in the form of hay, and paddocks of quality grass during the spring, summer, fall, and part of winter. In return I expect milk, and meat. Perhaps someday I will also desire draught and leather, though they are not currently on the table. In my mind this is the “grazing bargain”.

On the face of it the deals described above don’t sound all that different, but delving into the details demonstrates a host of differences. Grazing gives exercise, wears hooves down as they grow, allows the cows fresh air and lets them deposit their manure in a good place for it all by themselves. Confined cows stand or lie all day with no room to stretch their legs, their hooves grow too fast for such behavior and must be trimmed regularly, “fresh” air must be provided by giant fans, and the massive volumes of manure they produce must be mechanically stored and then returned to the fields with heavy machinery. Or at least that is the hope, in less regulated times/places some or all of it goes into waterways. In order to hold up my end of things for a grazing deal I need to invest in land, lanes to paddocks, some fence materials, water stations, and hay. For a confinement deal - land, many thousands of square feet of concrete, manure lagoons and spreaders, grain bins, silos, corn choppers, and so on. Both of these types of infrastructure depreciate over time, but the confinement model does so from a higher starting point and at a faster clip.

We recently put in a water line in one of our fields. By providing water to small areas of the large pasture we will be able to stockpile forage in situ and then have the cows harvest it themselves. That plastic isn’t going to go anywhere for a long, long time though the hydrants may need replacement parts in 15 or 20 years. Once a concrete silo rots out (the acids produced during ensiling eat the concrete away over time) there is nothing that can be done except to use it as hard fill of some sort. Our waterline uses gravity to deliver its goods. Silos demand hydrocarbons to fill and electricity to unload.

What then is efficient? Is it to produce the maximum amount of milk in a given year with a given number of labor inputs? Or is it to produce as much milk as possible with as little fossil help as is feasible? I believe both are forms of “efficiency” but would never willingly enter into the confinement model. Pushing the metabolic and biological limit of animals, our own time and physical energy, and the availability of natural resources is going to face ever higher costs and perhaps outright failure when fuel shortages appear. Finding cows that will make as much milk as possible given biological and seasonal limitations is a much more exciting prospect. I want to work with cows that produce seven to ten times their body weight in milk over a nine month lactation. Going into winter I want them to keep some reserves on their flanks for cold weather. I want them to calve every year and readily breed again. A cow that does these things will produce much less milk per acre per year, but she will be far more resilient in the face of losses of mechanical and fuel inputs.

The trick then is to fit a little biological system working with nature into the larger industrial, mechanical, metastatic economy at large. Ignoring the limitations imposed by capital is as sure a road to ruin as ignoring those of nature, and in many cases it is a more direct route. I don’t know how every piece of the metabolic puzzle is going to come together for us, yet I trust that there is a way to make at least the little part of the world within our ken productive, beautiful, exuberant, healthy, and resilient. And here are two recent photos of our cows (and bull) since we like them a lot.

Notice how rounded her flanks are here. That layer of fat will help her go through the winter without as much help from us.


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Hidden Riches

This is a house on our property. It was previously the farm hand's house, but as you can see, it is no longer habitable. A couple of weeks ago I saw two hens stepping out through the door. I walked over there and peeped my head in. I saw the familiar disaster that is the interior. I didn't see any eggs, and I turned around. I tried to jamb the door shut but it was impossible.

A few days ago, Edmund heard a hen squawking about having just laid an egg inside this house. He entered and, being more adventurous than I, went into the next room. There in the corner was an abundance of eggs.

37 if you're counting.

As you may have gathered, I hard boiled the eggs and made a most unappetizing egg salad, smashing the whole eggs, shells included. Edmund brought this to the chickens this morning and said that the chickens thought they had died and gone to heaven. They usually just get the shells. This was their Thanksgiving. I hope they don't associate their abhorrent behavior with the enjoyment of a massive feast. The door to the little house is firmly closed now so it would take a power greater than chicken to commence any secret laying again. We have been getting twice as many eggs recently, and now we don't have to wonder why.


Monday, November 8, 2010

A two week grab bag

There hasn't been a morning above freezing in a few weeks now. This has led to a seasonal shift in my pursuits. When not painting, I had been gardening, but with these hard frosts every morning my gardening has been reduced to periodically checking in on our new cold frame.

I trash picked these windows the other day and Garth threw this together. It is not that we expected to garner a great deal of our calories via this contraption, but rather that we were called to build it by the innate romance of cold frames. Here it is coaxing what solar energy is to be had into these sprouts that may be a small salad for the three us us come January.

Without dirt under my nails I have thrown myself headlong into knitting. This is a cardigan with a diagonal button band and cowl neck. Below you will see my unselfish pursuits: a baby jacket with matching booties and the beginning of a hat for Garth.

Edmund and Garth have had a machine rented for the last 10 days. They are digging this trench to lay a frost free waterline for the cows. One of them digs from dawn until lunch and the other won't come in until after dark. I keep the meals coming, and they put them away. Cold days take it out of you, as evidenced by the fact that with time change, both of them were in bed by 7:45 last night.

You'll notice the cows are on the greenest portion of pasture we have available. We have been supplementing with hay bales because the freezing temperatures have taken so much from the forage. Edmund put a hay bale out for them this morning when he let them into a new paddock but they ignored it and went for the grass. So it must not be so bad if it still has more allure than the dry stuff. I am already looking forward to the first flush of green pasture in spring, and I am sure I am not alone in that.

- Alanna