The Pink Banana

Pink Banana squash grow well at our place, and they are a very tasty and useful squash. They grow to a large size, which makes them convenient to collect and store, being a meal’s worth in each squash, and they have hard rinds that keep well all winter long. In fact, we are eating Pink Banana squash we harvested last year this summer, so we better eat them all up.

pink bannana

The pink color makes them easy to see, too. They are sweet, hearty, and nutritious like butternut squash, which is an important old standby for us, too. For some reason Pink Banana squash are not commonly found in grocery stores, and I don’t really know why. They have as much commercial potential as Butternut and more than Acorn in my opinion, which are found in stores. Perhaps it is their large size which intimidates some cooks. Though they are really quite easy to cook. Just split them in half and bake them at 400 degrees until soft, season as you wish, though Pink Banana does better with sweet seasonings while Sibley squash (the little one in the background) does better with savory.

 

 

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Sorghum and Sudangrass

Sudangrass is a C4 metabolism, warm-season, annual grass that makes high quality hay or silage. It is exceedingly productive, easily producing twice or three times as much dry matter per acre per year compared to cool-season C3 grasses and legumes. Sudangrass stems are thinner than the sorghum-sudangrass hybrids, which are slightly more productive and sterile. I used a hybrid (Sweet-Six BMR w/ dry stalk gene) because it was all that was available from my local seedsman, but it fortunately had the “dry stalk gene” which gives it a hollow stem that promotes drying. Most modern sorghums and sudangrasses have the BMR (brown mid-rib) gene which improves palatability.

I am generally not in favor of the high-yield approach to things, especially since sorghum and sudangrass, like their cousin Maize (field corn), almost demand soluble nitrogen fertilizer to reach their potential, but they can find a place in a rotation with the garden if one is careful to provide them the nitrogen they need. Furthermore, they have low water requirements (much lower than corn apparently) and relatively low calcium content, making them drought resistant and a good choice for dry-cow feed.

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First cutting taken after just 45 days. Three to four more cuttings are expected. It is very moist and “dries hard” according to farmers around me. I found it took another two days and requires tedding, but dried down well enough. Smells sweet and the cows love it.

Earlier I wrote about rotations and how I have sort have fallen into a modification of the historical rotation pattern employed is this area of Indiana. This rotation went corn > cow peas (crop legume) > winter wheat > hay (usually timothy-red clover or sweetclover) for two or three years. I modified this by replacing the corn with a garden and omitting the crop legume. My experiments with a sorghum-sudangrass due to the failure of my oat crop led me to think that I should incorporate the sudangrass instead of corn in this historical rotation and abandon oats entirely. It would also move the rotation out another year, to four, which will be better for reducing disease organism build-up. Because sudangrass and hybrids are so nitrogen-hungry, I think it advisable to add hairy vetch to the winter-wheat preceding the sudangrass or to directly manure the field before broadcasting the sudangrass.

Another problem I’ve had is that following wheat with red clover usually works well, but not always. If the wheat really takes off in the spring, it will shade out the baby clover plants, and you will not get a good stand of red clover. This is the reason why I abandoned rye in favor of wheat. Rye grows more aggressively and taller than wheat, and my experiments showed wheat was demonstrably better at “nursing” red clover. But rye does YIELD better. And there are special varieties of rye available (they are expensive) which make a superior hay to wheat (GrazeKing 90). By following the winter grain (wheat or rye) with sudangrass, which is planted late in the year (mid-May or later), instead of red clover the springtime rush is made much more relaxed. I don’t have to collect wheat hay very carefully to avoid destroying red clover plants, and I have a solid two to four weeks to work instead of usually just a few days, and this affords an opportunity when it is still relatively cool to fork manure out of the barn and into the field.

The weather in mid-May is warmer and better for drying out the wheat or rye hay, too. The Vetch, if added to the grain, is very nitrogenous, and breaks down rapidly providing the necessary nitrogen for the sorghum-sudangrass that summer, and likewise manure-bedding pack. The strong rains of May are good not only at germinating the broadcast seeds, but also pounding the residues down into the soil so they don’t get taken up by raking the Sudangrass hay in July. The extensive and massive root system of the sorghum-sudangrass provides abundant durable carbon residue for the soil in the years going forward and makes very efficient use of deposited nutrients making them more durable for the long term. Since it is an annual (and hybrids sterile), there are no worries of it popping up the following year, and since it grows so well, casts a dense shade, and is cut so frequently no weed seems to be able to withstand a year of sorghum-sudangrass, not even foxtail grass, sour dock, Canada thistle, or carpetweed. There are even Roundup Ready varieties should one want to go that route.

So, my rotation is now like this, and it provides not only garden vegetables, but a significant amount of specialized hay good for dry cow feeding, which can be very difficult to source.

Spring planted Garden in rotary-plowed Red clover sod >

fall broadcast rye or wheat >

collection of rye or wheat hay, manuring of the field, roto-till, broadcast Sudangrass or Sorghum-Sudangrass hybrid  >

collection of hay one or two times, mowing in fall to provide ground cover >

frost seeded red Clover + sweetclover into stubble in February or or March for two years of green manuring and mulch generation, then back to garden. Manure is applied a full three years before vegetables and compost-making is obviated.

Broadcasting is always followed by culti-packing or rolling in my system. Unlike corn, sudangrass and sorghum-sudangrass do not need to be drilled. They have extreme seedling vigor and can be surface broadcast and rolled and will make a good stand. Considering how well they grow, even compared to king corn, and have lower fertilizer and water requirements, I am surprised they are not more widely grown. They make a food more appropriate to ruminant animals than corn grain or silage and can be made into hay as well as silage (silage is the only option with corn because it doesn’t dry out fast enough to make hay). Hay is easier and cheaper to store, with the same feed value as silage, and promotes good digestion instead of diarrhea (corn silage is notorious for its laxative properties). Sorghum-sudangrass and sudangrass can be broadcast, too, and don’t require the sophisticated and expensive equipment to both plant and harvest corn. An old tractor with a broadcaster, a heavy disc, a big culti-packer, and good hay-making equipment could do it, and most farmers have this stuff (except maybe the culti-packer) anyway for their cool-season hayfields. No harvester, sprayers, silage wagons, silos, blowers, or choppers necessary.

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“Russian-Style” Manual Hay Baler

Small scale haymaking can be very frustrating. It seems that one can either make tiny quantities of hay with hand tools like a scythe and manual hay rake and carry it in on carts or wheelbarrows, or, at considerable expense outfit yourself with an arsenal of “farm-scale” agricultural equipment, which will take up much space, and may be overkill for your needs.

I only have a few hay-eating animals: two dairy cows and a heifer at present, but I like to be as self-sufficient as practical and seldom find bought hay up “Jersey standards.” When I make my own hay, I control not only the quality but also the kind of hay in order to provide proper nutrition (which varies in dairy cattle depending upon lactation status). Besides, forage grows faster in spring than the animals can possibly keep up with. Mowing at least once is necessary to prevent a mess of weeds, so I figure I might as well make hay out of it. After two years I’ve found that springtime “overgrowth” can provide all the hay that is necessary to get through a typical winter in Southern Indiana. I make single cutting from most of the pasture paddocks every spring and haven’t had to buy hay for two years.

The least efficient part of my hay making process is gathering and stacking. They way I do it is to drive my family vehicle, a 12-passenger Ford van, towing a large utility trailer and to pile hay on top of the trailer, then back the trailer up to the place where I want to stack the hay in the barn. The problem here is that it’s a lot of back and forth since the hay is loose, uncompressed, and tends to slide off hastily made piles on a trailer. This takes time and causes unnecessary soil compaction. Loose hay is also slow to move to animals inside a barn, because only small forkfuls can be carried, and if there is any wind or it has to be carried outside, much hay can simply blow away. Hay balers help this situation. If the baler is portable enough to be carried down a windrow of hay, the hay can be compressed in the field, so fewer trips back and forth will be needed. Also, stacking rectangular bales of hay on a flat utility trailer is easy and efficient. Another advantage is that a much more hay can be stored in a given amount of space. For many people this may be the most important reason to bale.

 

Not wanting to invest thousands of dollars in a hay baler which would take up a lot of space and need a good-sized tractor to power and pull it (which I don’t own), I tried to find other ways to bale hay. I came across plans for manual balers used to make pine straw bales. I began to build one of these and stopped about half-way through after I realized they are incredibly slow and not good for baling hay. They require the hay to be top-loaded into a narrow rectangle, which is difficult and back breaking, and they are incredibly slow as the lever arm needs to be used to compress the hay many times. Then I found videos on YouTube of folks stuffing hay in boxes and stepping on it. I knew there had to be a better way than this, though I do think that method works better than pine straw balers. That is when I came across a curious video of some Russian men making hay with this very curious but decrepit looking manual hay baler. The design is a vast improvement over the pine-straw types for a few reasons. It has large wheels and is portable, so it can move down the windrow and allow easy baling in the field and rapid collection of the hay on a trailer or wagon. It also loads horizontally from the back, which is easy on your back, and is the logical position for the baler to be relative to a windrow of hay. Finally, the very great compound leverage generated by the design makes a single compression stroke all that is necessary. It is also easy to thread, since the hay needle is driven at about waist height horizontally. It is even easier if baler wire is used instead of twine, since a needle and tying isn’t necessary. Two practiced people can generate an impressive number of hay bales using this device. Granted, it is not nearly as fast as a powered hay baler with a hay collector, since all the hay needs to be picked up with a fork and stuffed into the back, but that is a whole different ballgame. This thing takes up hardly any floor space if stored on its end, and was put together for less than $150. Being made of wood, it will not rust or need painting. Maybe just a coat of linseed oil.

baler3

General view of the lever mechanism

I built this “Russian-style” manual hay baler for around $50 of 1” rough-sawn Ash boards, two 2×10″ pine boards, and a scrap piece of oak 2×4.” I strongly suggest that one use a hardwood like Ash or Poplar to make this since softwoods won’t provide the necessary durability. Using very hard woods like Hickory or Oak may result in it being unnecessarily heavy and these woods don’t typically take screws without pre-drilling. I’ve found Ash, which is plentiful and cheap where I live due to the Emerald Ash borer, works very well. I get it from a local lumbermill. The boards are not good for furniture because of various imperfections, but they are fine for this purpose. Use good quality self-tapping wood/construction screws. Do not even think of using nails. It is not necessary to use deck screws since treated wood should not be used in this project. I used 2”, 2.5” and 3” screws. This is because my 1” boards were around 13/16ths or after they came out of my portable planer. 6″ and 3″ widths were mostly used, with two 9.5″ width boards on the sides. If you use thicker or thinner (don’t recommend) lumber then you will need to adjust screw size.

baler10

It is important to keep the interior of the compression box a consistent dimension (mine is 14×18” inside the box). This means that the 6’ boards on the top and bottom and 3” boards on the sides will need at least one good, straight edge. There are two ways to achieve this. One is to screw the board to a straight board and run it through a table-saw, the other is to use a straight edge clamped to the board and a circular saw. I did the latter. The rest of the lumber can be rather sloppy so long as the smooth side faces the hay. Friction is the enemy.

The boards on the bottom are 6.5’ and are about 5’ on top. The ram compresses the bale from about 56” to about 32”, resulting in a 32” long bale that is about 14” x 18” on end, or a typical small two-string sized bale. The lever points are both 24” between pivots and the lever is 7’ long. You can adjust all these to suit your needs, but you should “try” it first with cheap 2×4” lumber if it you since you may find it unsuitable for various reasons. I am 6’ tall and made the lever as high as I could reach. If you are shorter you should consider adjusting downwards or using smaller wheels. I put greased bronze bearings in the pivot points and used ½” bolts. This added some expense but I think it is worth it.

I used two 20” plastic no-flat cart wheels/tires with ¾ bearings. These wheels are sturdy and light and allow the cart to move easily. Pay close attention to the way the ram and door are constructed. They are where the hay wire/twine is threaded and if they are not the right size you will experience binding. More than a 1/4” on a side will cause unacceptable binding. The “skirts” on the ram are very important to have sized correctly because they keep the ram aligned and if they are under-sized will result in aggravating and faulty ram action. If they are oversized, you won’t be able to get the ram in there or it will jam up as soon as some bit or hay or dust gets in there. You want to make sure to have slots in the bottom for dust and hay to fall through for this reason.

The hinges and draw-type locks I bought at Menards. They cost $4 each and work well, but other ways may be better. Since these draw locks tighten as they close, it makes it so you don’t have to push the door as you close it, which is nice.

When loading it works better if you take smaller forkfuls and really push them in.  A piece of wood, like a scrap of 2×4, will keep the ram from backing out too far. Once it is stuffed as much as it can be with hand pressure, close the door, and then pull down on the ram. I adjusted my ram so that when the lever “cams over” the center pivot it just locks into place. This will compress the hay to about 3/5ths of its original size. If you make you box longer, you can make it compress to ½ size or less. Once the hay is compressed you thread the wire or twine (use a long piece of twisted wire as a hay needle) top and bottom and tie it off. The best knot I have found is to tie a loop on one end, and then pull the other end through and then tie it off. It is much easier and faster to use wire. No need for a needle, and you simply twist the ends together like a twist tie instead of having to tie a knot, but you will need to bring a wire cutter.

Once the bale is tied then open the door and pull it out the back. This is where having nice smooth boards will pay off, as the amount of friction can be surprising, particularly if you choose to make your compression greater than 3/5ths or the hay you are making is sticky. Grass hay tends to be slippery. Legumes tend to be sticky. Hay made out of oats or wheat can be very slippery and these are easy to bale, as is straw, but sorghum-sudangrass hay can be very sticky if it is a little on the wet side. I find that most hays work well enough, but I do not like baling pure legume hay (like alfalfa or red-cover). I find that grass-legume mix hay works much better, and the animals like it better, too.

Now the windrows will be converted into lines of bales, which can be easily picked up and stacked on a trailer or wagon or in a barn or shed. It is probably not worthwhile to bale all hay this way, especially if you can stack hay near the feeding area and fork from the pile to the manger, but for hay stored remotely or for hayfields which are distant from the storage area, this can make sense for the small-scale homesteading haymaker.

 

 

 

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Handgun Hunting with 357 Maximum

When I initially considered handgun hunting, I dismissed it as something for either an expert looking for a challenge or just plain silly. Handguns lack the range and accuracy of rifles, they are more challenging to steady, and big revolvers (which were the only kind I ever considered) are quite expensive, recoil fiercely, and are pretty much useless for anything besides hunting.

I was not wrong about any of this. It was true and still is. It is what I DIDN’T consider which made me re-evaluate my judgements. And most of this came about from experience with deer hunting in the East, where range and accuracy concerns are really quite minimal. One of the greatest challenges in deer hunting comes AFTER the killing shot is made. Most hunters focus almost solely upon preparations and strategies leading up to the killing shot. Really, once a killing shot has been made, the matter has only begun.

contender-hunt

Of top concern after a shot is made is locating the deer. Unless what I considered greatly overpowered cartridges are used, deer do not just drop down dead in their tracks usually. This is something that novice and video-game hunters believe because they see it on screens. This is just not reality. Unless a direct shot to the central nervous system is made, and this is not recommended, deer die from BLOOD LOSS, which takes a while. Massive blood loss leads eventually to very low blood pressure and de-oxygenation of central nervous system, or brain death. When deer “go down” after being shot it is from concussive or shocking forces. They are very much still alive, thought they may not be able to move (because legs/shoulders/spines were broken). I have shot deer with 12 gauge slugs broadside trough shoulders, and they will look straight at you as you approach. They live until their lungs fill with blood downing them (this happens often when bullets do not pass through) or until they bleed out. To minimize the suffering and improve meat quality is advisable to exsanguinate. The easiest, quietest, and most humane way is to cut their jugular with a sharp knife if they are not moving. A very strong buck with antlers flailing about is not something one should approach, but if they are weak, you can hold them down by the antlers and cut their jugular. They die in seconds once the blood flows from their jugular. You can tell from their eyes if they are open how quickly the life passes out of them. A little old knife kills them much better than much more powerful firearms.

Given these truths about death, the actual power of the cartridge becomes rather unimportant. It really needs only sufficient power to cause enough blood loss to leave a trail of blood heavy enough to follow. You do not gain any advantage from causing more destruction to the animal, and you do not reduce their suffering appreciably. You do them a favor by shooting them cleanly in the heart or lungs. This is what will arrest their movements the quickest, cause the most bleeding, and is the most reliable shot you can take since the impact is perpendicular the the line of the shot, and is a fairly large area. Yet folks will go on agonizing over “killing power” of cartridges and bullets and ammo and whatnot. After you’ve shot some with many different kinds of ammo, you will have a very jaded view of such discussions, recognizing them for what they really are, marketing myths that have been implanted in the minds of the inexperienced by ammo/firearm manufacturers, which bankroll every hunting/gun publication and sometimes gun writers and professional hunters.

I’ve shot deer with and seen deer shot with just about everything now, and it all seems to work within reason. 357 Magnum should be viewed as the minimum out of a revolver (semi-automatic pistols in 9mm, 45 ACP, etc. lack accuracy and power) and should only be used within short ranges, with 75 yards being the most that should be considered. Given that perhaps 60% of opportunities will be had in this range, one can think of a 357 Magnum revolver being the 60% gun. And these are as common as can be. Now compare this to a typical “hunting” rifle like a 30-’06 bolt action. Such a rifle will be able to cleanly take deer out to 300 yards if the hunter’s skill level and judgement is adequate. This means that perhaps 95% of opportunities will be manageable. Think of it like a 95% gun. Then compare this to something like a 30-30 lever action. This will cover perhaps 90% of the opportunities if 150 yards is taken as a maximum effective range. Now with the rifles you have a firearm that must be aimed with both hands, and is somewhat difficult to carry, usually with one hand on it at all times, even when a sling is employed. So that increase in 30-35% opportunities translates roughly to greater difficulty in movement, especially in tight blinds and tree stands. It also means that after a kill you don’t have two hands to work around brush, climb a ladder, or drag the animal. It also means that you can’t really put the firearm down. It is not safe to do so, and the thing soon becomes a pain to keep out of harms’ way until you get back to your vehicle. Now the handgun is starting to have some apparent advantages.

Now consider a handgun like T/C Contender, equipped with a red-dot sight, and using ammo tailored to the situation (which is easy and affordable with inter-changeable barrel Contenders). With $3 shooting sticks made from hardwood dowels and a cheap nylon shoulder holster you approach rifle-like opportunity characteristics with handgun convenience.

I recently purchased a 357 Maximum Contender barrel and worked up some loads using Lil’Gun powder and a variety of bullets. I observed very impressive performance, both in the velocity department, and in the accuracy one. 357 Max was a early 80s wildcat, developed by Elgin Gates to be the last word in slammin’ steel on the Silhouette range, and was called 357 Supermag. He originally intended it for revolvers. It is basically a 357 Magnum case lengthened an additional 3/10ths of an inch for more bullet weight and powder charge. In the Ruger Blackhawks and Dan Wesson revolvers it was originally chambered, flame cutting of the top strap and rapid throat erosion was observed, particularly with light bullets (under 158 grains) in the Rugers. Because the Dan Wesson revolvers have adjustable cylinder gaps, much of the problem could be eliminated, but Ruger was so alarmed that they quickly discontinued production, which sentenced the Max to relative obscurity for over 30 years as the fortunes of the Dan Wesson company declined. Not long after its quasi-banishment in revolvers, the Max found a foster home in the T/C Contender, which honestly is the platform where the Max can shine. Since Contenders have NO CYLINDER gap, the flame cutting problem is a non-issue. And since Contenders have relatively long barrels, typically 10-15″, the Max can generate considerably more velocity than in a 4-8″ barreled revolver using the slow-burning powders and heavy-for-caliber bullets that deliver maximum performance. Out of my 10″ Contender I clock 1700 FPS with 200 grain jacketed bullets and 1750 FPS with 180 gainers. This translates to essentially a flat trajectory out to 150 yards (about 5″ drop with blunt or hollow nosed bullets), with adequate velocity at that range to reliably pass through deer. Suddenly, this handgun becomes a 90% gun, like that 30-30 rifle. Yet it still can be holstered comfortably, freeing both hands, and isn’t an annoyance at your side.

Now, at ranges beyond 100 yards, I really think iron sights are inadequate. Magnifying scopes on a handgun are problematic, though, because they require a set amount of eye relief, or distance of the eye to the ocular lens of the scope. Handguns can be used in all sorts of positions, or propped against trees or placed on shooting sticks. My feeling is that a non-magnifying sighting aide, like a “red dot” sight, is ideal. They have no eye relief restriction and no magnification, but they provide a precise single focal point to aim. I have found them to greatly enhance accuracy since handguns are much more wobbly than rifles (it’s amazing how much a butt-stock can reduce small vibrations). This wobbliness makes pressing the trigger at the precise moment when the sight is over the target even more important. And the dot is to me less obstructive and more instinctual than is a cross-hair or two iron sights. I really like my 2nd gen 25mm Ultradot with 2MOA dot size on my Contender. It is also very small, so you don’t need silly hammer extensions to hammer back like you do with most handgun scopes. I have little difficulty getting 1-2 inch groups at 50 yards off sticks with my Contender, and that is all you need to hunt deer. Off hand I need to me more mindful, but I am getting better every day. In short, my accuracy with this handgun under 150 yards is nearly approaching what I can do with my Mossberg 464. And of course, being totally ambidextrous, a contender is as easy to use for a left handed shooter as a right handed one.

Shooting sticks can be made with a bit of para-cord and two 3/8ths or 7/16ths hardwood dowels. You can get all fancy and epoxy some cartridge cases on the dirt end and thread them to take arrow points. But this isn’t necessary. The knot used is called a Pruitt knot, and there are several YouTube videos that show you how to execute the knot. You want there to be a certain amount of friction so that the weight of the pistol resting on the knot will not work down,  but you do not want it so tight that you cannot adjust it easily.

 

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Mowing Pastures

I often think than in attempts to be as ecologically benign as possible some folks neglect mowing pastures. There are few things as beneficial, and for myriad reasons, with only a small fuel expenditure if you are using efficient mowers (or horse powered mowers). My BCS double action sickle mower with Grillo 110 tractor is amazingly efficient. Running around half throttle it easily cuts through anything I’ve put in front of it, and I can do an acre on about 3 pints of gasoline (or about $1.00).

If you don’t make at least a single cutting once in the spring or early summer in a pasture there are bound to be all sorts of weeds that will propagate. The stocking densities to assure complete destruction of weeds in a pasture (where the animals are so hungry they will eat the ok weeds and trample to foul ones) are very high, and I don’t recommend them, especially with dairy animals. It’s better to be a little understocked than overstocked. All it takes is some bad weather and you can go from a sustainable stocking level to overstocked. Since I understock deliberately, and make hay to conserve spring flush, I usually can cut down dramatically on the amount of mowing I need to do, but there are places I don’t have time to make hay, so I have to mow them and just let the hay lay there to break down.

Truly, there are few things better than this to add some organic matter and set back weeds. There is a “progressive” pasture farming group by me which purchases round hay bales and rolls them out in places they think could benefit from this. I think it a wasteful practice myself, as just mowing in place accomplishes the same with far less trouble. If you time it carefully with some pasture plants you can thicken the stand this way. Ryegrass is particularly good at this. Just let it get over mature and start to turn brown on the stems that hold the seeds. Then mow. Those seeds will germinate in the fall or next spring, thickening the stand. Much cheaper than buying seed (which is necessary from time to time).

 

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Pushing Them

A very problematic and widespread attitude in agriculture is the idea of “pushing them.”

This refers to breeding and feeding animals to increase production of a measurable output, which is actually a good thing, but it often manifests as single-minded determination to increase production at all costs.

One of the core motives that explains the “pushing them” attitude is human competitiveness–the whole blue ribbon at the county fair phenomenon. And at county fairs one can see this on full display. It is the biggest rooster or lamb that wins. There is of course no accounting for the enormous expense and care that had to go into producing these “perfect” animals. People keep show roosters indoors in solitary cages and feed special diets so their body is enormous and plumage flawless. People time lambing for January 1st so they have the maximum number of days to cram milk-replacer and expensive lamb manna into them, often in heated pens, so they are huge by show time. There is a whole array of special feeds, usually very rich in protein and vitamins, for these show animals. Applying this kind of feeding strategy widely would be uneconomic, so I view it as essentially vainglorious in a world where people go hungry. But this problem is not confined merely to the fair. I wouldn’t mind it so much if it were. Unfortunately it grips entire industries.

The first example is a pet peeve of mine. With dairy cattle there is a NEVER ENDING push on the breeding and feeding sides to maximize individual cow production numbers. Always pushing to get more pounds of milk per animal. Of course, you have to feed them very rich diets to keep up extreme production and maintain body condition. This is why so many diaries have long abandoned feeding ordinary forages like grass and clover and begun to feed things like grain, pure alfalfa hay, and corn silage. This is also the reason why so many dairies have moved to total confinement and barn feeding. The animals cannot get forage foods into themselves fast enough if you put them out on pasture, and they will burn too many calories walking around anyway, so better to just shove rich food in their face and think of them like a big gland.

Yet a cow is not just a big gland, and sooner or later you are going to run up against a biological wall. The best example of this wall is with Jerseys. They are the smallest breed, with the finest bone structure, yet are pushed to produce quantities of milk that 30 years ago were considered outstanding for much larger Holstein cows. 8 gallons per day is now the expectation for a good Jersey. And their owners are always fretting about milk fever! Why? Milk fever is an acute metabolic disorder that occurs shortly after calving. The extreme calcium demand the milk glands place on the body of the animal severely depletes the circulating calcium, which is necessary for neuron function. Since Jerseys are small and have fine bones, there is simply not enough bone surface area available for the metabolic system to recruit calcium rapidly enough to meet calcium demand. This can create a situation where the cow suffers a temporary drop to very low blood calcium levels, their nervous system shuts down, and they die. This problem was not unknown fifty years ago, but it effected, or rather afflicted, only the highest production animals. Since this trait was not considered (and still isn’t) a cull-trait, the generic propensity for milk fever continues on in the population and of course the highest production animals are the ones most vulnerable to it, since the higher the milk production, the higher the calcium demand. Since nearly all of today’s Jerseys are high-production, they nearly all get milk fever to some degree.

On our cow’s first freshening, she did not get milk fever, but upon her second freshening, she demonstrated classic sub-clinical milk fever symptoms (cold ears, wobbly on her feet) in spite of being on a low-calcium diet during her dry period and being treated with Bovicalc boluses at freshening. There is no doubt in my mind she would have gone down and died had these strategies not been employed. Of course, she does make 8 gallons per day, so I should be happy. This is the price you pay for production, right? Well, no. The way I look at it, just get more cows if you want more milk. There is a biological limit for how much milk they can make anyway. They can only secrete nutrients they ingest, so these super high production cows need to eat constantly to keep up production/condition. The best udder in the world can’t do anything without a rumen to support it. Let’s say I had two 4 gallon per day Jerseys that ate about half as much and didn’t get milk fever. That would be fine by me. Might take a little longer to milk, but I’m ok with that. I’d rather take another 2 minutes to milk per day and not have the check the cow every four hours before she calves to make sure I can give her a Bovicalc/IV calcium so she doesn’t die. What would happen if someday treatments like Bovicalc became unavailable? A near extinction event?

I’ve also observed this problem with honeybees, though it usually disguises itself as being well-meaning. It has been common practice among many beekeepers to feed their bees sugar water or syrup pretty much continuously to increase production of honey. Cheap sugar is converted to expensive honey, which is robbed and then sold. Sugar water has much higher pH than honey, and nobody is going to convince me it has nutrition even approaching that of the nectar of hundreds of flowers; sugar feeding probably contributes to all sorts of colony disorders. It is not the proper food of bees, just as corn silage and grain are not the proper foods of cattle, and yet the push to maximize honey output per hive reigns supreme.

The number of new-bee beekeepers asking how to solve problems they created by feeding sugar is staggering. How do I keep ants out of my hive? Should I built an ant moat? All sorts of questions traced back to imbalances of brood compared to the amount of honey comb. Brood sicknesses of various kinds are probably caused by insufficient protein and too much sugar. Pollen furnishes the amino acids they need to build bodies of growing brood. Nectar furnishes the carbohydrates to provide the energy the colony needs for work and winter survival. So if you give them tons of sugar and no protein, what do you think it is going to do? What would it do if you fed babies tons of sugar and little protein? I suggest bee nurseries are not so dissimilar. Also, leaving them plenty of honey in the fall is much better in my mind than robbing it all and trying to keep them going on sugar water. And folks wonder why half their hives die every year.

If the goal is more honey then why not just get double the hives and take half the amount of honey from them, not feed them sugar, and leave them plenty of honey for the winter. Yea, it will take 10 minutes instead of 5 to tend two hives instead of one, but is this really significant if you have less than 100 hives?

Hives are cheap, unlike cows. I make my top bar hives out of pine boards and some screws and cheap paint. They cost me about $30 to make each and last years since they are made of ¾” wood and have durable metal roofs and I keep them off the ground. If I want more honey, I just make another hive. Of course, I do also ensure there are a variety of pollen and nectar sources for my bees, the backbone being the same plant that provides the backbone of my cattle-feeding operation—white clover. I plant Hazel and Apple and Black Locust and other trees that bring on early Spring pollen and nectar. Crimson clover and Sweetclover both have the places, too. Let things overgrow and little, instead of fanatically mowing everything all the time, an all sorts of wildflowers (weeds) will feed the bees.

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Short run farm fencing and gates

Most rural properties these days have little fencing. Perhaps a pasture will be fenced in, or a garden here or there to try and keep deer out, but usually there are no fences around main fields or around the homestead property.

This is a for a few reasons, but the principle one seems to be the inconvenience and expense of using and making large gates to admit passage of increasingly large vehicles and machines. It used to be 8 or 10 feet was all you would need in the days or horses. Today its necessary it seems to have two 12 foot gates at a minimum to allow any large harvester or tractor through, or even to allow trucks (like propane or septic) and trailers through. Also, folks don’t like getting out of their car to open and close gates. Never underestimate human laziness! So, everybody went gate-less a long time ago opting not to replace the worn out ones that where there. This then becomes the norm of the countryside.

Two things have happened to me recently that have made me want a gate. I no longer want my dog straying off my property and more importantly I no longer want my neighbors rotten mean dogs wandering onto mine. So I decided to put up a very low cost fence that would do the job, not look horrible, and keep dogs in or out. I also put up corresponding gates. After doing so I have realized other benefits. One being that if an animal were to escape out of the barnyard or fields into our “home acre” they would still be contained. Sometimes this becomes a concern when you are delivering animals or doing something like halter-breaking a calf. Also, no more chickens crossing the road.

This type of fence amounts to treated 4×4 posts, 6′ long, sunk about 2.5′ into the ground, which is plenty, and stapling 16′ cattle panels to these posts. I cut the bottoms or tops off my 50″ cattle panels because I think it looks nicer (42″ is plenty) and allows me to adjust for uneven ground. I ran my posts every 16′ which is pretty spaced out, and had to put a post every 8′ at curves. This type of fence is not tensioned like woven wire. Cattle panels are self supporting and this obviates any need for bracing posts at ends or curves. Really, a woven wire fence needs to be a 100′ or so long in a run to maintain proper tension. Short runs of woven wire do not provide the necessary elasticity to maintain proper seasonal tension, and this can pull posts (always the weakest) out of the ground. This isn’t a problem with a cattle panel fence. Now, cattle panels are about 3x the cost per linear foot compared to lightweight high-tensile woven wire, so this type of fence is not for fields and subdivisions of fields; rather it is for use around your barnyard and house, the places where woven wire doesn’t work well.

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I don’t like the look of tubular steel gates, and I think they are very flimsy unless one gets the “bull grade” ones. These bull grade gates (made with 2″ tube and bolt-hinges instead of lag screws) cost around $200 for a 12′ gate. And you get a 12′ gate. No customizing. I have found three alternative gate materials, and I made my own Z-gates rapidly for a fraction of that cost.

The first alternative material is treated poplar corral boards. They are 1″x6″x16′ rough sawn and cost around $10 each from a local home center. The traditional Z-style gate made with deck screws and gate hinges will come in at around half the price per linear foot compared to tube gates, and they look a whole lot nicer. They take very little time to construct, too. A tip: work on top of some 4×4 or like posts one the ground and mark the posts to line up the various parts. Use a cordless circular saw and drill with a speed square to make accurate cuts, and of course, a tape measure. If you want perfectly square gates it is easy to measure the X from corner to corner to make sure they are equal, but sometimes you may want to make a crooked gate (because of crooked ground) and that is something you can’t do with a tube gate. This is the double gate pictured before.

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Remember, the diagonal goes from the bottom of the gate-end to the other corner. Also note spring-loaded gate wheels go a long way toward preventing sag. With gates this long, even these 8′ posts sunk 5′ deep would have trouble preventing sag. Each gate cost around $90; the gate wheels were $15 each. 

The second material I have tried, and I think works very well for gates under 8′ long, is 1/2″x4″ Ash concrete form boards. These are used to make sidewalks/patios where I live, since Ash is the wood of choice for this kind of work as the Emerald Ash borer has made a whole lot of dead Ash trees available. Ash is probably cheaper than pine where I live now. Because these were formerly concrete forms, I got them for free, and they had cement on one or both sides. I scraped most of it off with a brick hammer, made the gates like I would any other using little 1″ or 1.5″ wood screws, and then I primed (with an all-purpose exterior rated primer for masonry or wood) and painted (white barn paint) the gates to conceal the concrete. They look very cute, and I think they should last a while. These gates are so light that ordinary back-yard gate hinges or household door hinges can be used. It is not necessary to use expensive agricultural-style gate hinges.

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This gate cost about $10 for the hardware and paint. The wood was given away. 

The third material, and the one I think most promising, are Ash boards I bought from a local lumbermill. They were rough sawn, nominally 1″x6″x12-14′. They came from a dead standing tree and have many imperfections that make the wood substandard for interior uses. I bought these boards for only $7, 30% less than what the slightly longer treated Poplar boards cost, but Ash is a much stronger wood for its weight than is Poplar. I built the gates the same way but used regular exterior grade (galvanized) wood screws, not decking screws, since this wood was untreated. These screws cost less and work just as well. I then applied Thompson’s Waterseal (for wood, clear, with UV inhibitor), using perhaps a pint of it on a 13′ gate for one coat (which is all that is needed per directions). This gate came out costing about $60 total and is the most rigid. Time will tell if it lasts as long as the treated Poplar or the painted Ash. Maybe in a few decades I’ll report back, but my thinking is that wood which doesn’t come into contact with the ground and is vertical (instead of horizontal like a deck floor) doesn’t benefit much from pressure treatment. What wooden gates need is waterproofing and some UV protection. This can be provided by paint or something like Thompson’s, which both cost around the same and take a similar amount of time to apply per coat (Thompsons is one coat, while one coat for the primer, and one or two topcoats are needed with paint). It really depends I suppose if one prefers the painted or natural wood look.

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