Tree-line and fence-line mowing

One of the challenges of fences and trees are that they are difficult to mow around; this reason, more than anything else it seems, determines the pattern of the rural countryside. People either have essentially unmanaged woodlots scattered among vast fields with roads criss-crossing them and houses and barns dotting them. This has so many invisible problems. The unmanned woodlots become harbors for pestilent deer, are not very productive of edible crops (about all they are good for is cordwood), and because they are like little islands they hardly prevent erosion or build soil fertility. The fields are extremely vast and barren in the winter usually, allowing for erosion and leaching of nutrients into the groundwater.

I have a vision of a what I think is a much more productive and environmentally benign agriculture, one that involves all three “platforms” if you will of land-based food growing. It involves managed tree production (for fruit, nuts, and wood), pasture-based herbivore production (for meat, milk, fiber, and leather), and a limited amount of field-based vegetable and grain production sort of all mixed together. The problem with this system is that it is difficult to keep tidy and under control because most agricultural machinery is built strictly for field use. Not so with the little Grillo two-wheeled tractors, which I think are basically designed for use in vineyards and Olive orchards in Italy where they are designed and built. Fortunately, vineyard/orchard type machines overlap with my tree and pasture garden farming vision.

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A key advantages of the Grillo and the double-action cutter bars, aside from being very efficient (acres of hay and mulch are mown with mere pints of gasoline) is that the cutter bar is IN FRONT of the tires. The herbage is standing tall before it is cut without being smashed down first. Another advantage is that the footprint of the tractor occupies about half the width of the cutter bar. The cutter bar extends to the sides like the head of a hammerhead shark. This means it conveniently slips under fences wires, even very low ones. The handlebars can be offset to the left or the right helping to ensure the driver doesn’t get shocked by the fence, too. Four wheeled tractors and haybines and mowing machines are simply not this agile. I do realize that the being a walk-behind machine sort of limits the total capacity of what can be done in a day, but I almost think that is an advantage, keeping things on a more human scale.

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Indian Corn Heap Big Lie

Sometimes, when something is hyped, and you buy into the idea, when he reality of its failure sets in, you can either pretend it ain’t so and quietly go along with the lie, or you can expose it thus revealing yourself to have been a dupe.

Well, here you go. This is the last “Indian corn” I am going to mess around with.

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Victim of Blackbird assault.

I’ve messed around growing Roy’s Calais, supposedly preserved by some tribe. I’ve tried Hopi Blue. Both were nothing compared to modern field corn; so different that one could hardly believe they are the same species. And I’ve grown Painted Mountain, which really takes the cake as the worst corn I’ve ever grown.

This is just pathetic. Given the best bit of soil in the garden. Carefully planted. I will say it did get off to an early and fast start, but then it just stops. It doesn’t grow tall-or strong, which is what a short corn is supposed to do. Lodges over in a storm that didn’t topple any corn, sunflowers, or amaranth around it, including sweet corn (normally the wimpiest of corn plants).

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Sweet corn left, and Painted Mount right.

It still made a few little pathetic ears, some of which I sampled when still sweet, and it did taste good, but then the Blackbirds came and took nearly the whole crop. Apparently this corn has wimpy husks, and these Blackbirds, which I’ve never known to be corn eaters, easily peel them back. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of acres of corn all around me, and even some sweet corn growing right next to the Painted Mountain, and not one of them has been touched by Blackbirds. And look at the comparison to Country Gentleman sweetcorn, which is not at all noted for its vigor. The ear and the husk is what makes corn such a wonderful plant. It is the easiest of all staple plants to harvest, store, and is the most resistant to arial assault, or should be.

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What corn should look like. This is a SWEET CORN. Needless to say my neighbors field corn is far more impressive.

Maybe the Indians stood in their fields all day to scare away the birds. Pretty poor use of time if you ask me. And I don’t have time for the Seed Catalog Hype anymore. Good thing this wasn’t “survival food.” Some preppers may be in for a surprise.

I have a principle that I think should govern all alternative farming: try everything once, and don’t be surprised if it doesn’t work out. There is reason why there is conventional farming and alternative farming. Conventional farming is a gradual refinement of the most economical (at least by the “rules of the game”) and dependable practices and crops. Alternative farming (and everything I do is alternative) is by its nature not dependable. You are going to have mega fails like Painted Mountain corn. This is why one should always TRY FIRST then go big if it works. It is also why there should be some amount of diversity, too. If one thing fails, you have a backup (and a reference in the case of Sweet Corn in this example).

Now, one must actually TRY, which means doing all the right things and giving whatever thing your growing what it needs, but if it can’t do what it is supposed to, then it needs to be cut loose. And this applies to livestock as well.

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Still Can’t Beat the Venerable 30-30 WCF

Recently I had a discussion about an interesting cartridge, the 450 Bushmaster. Basically the idea of the Bushmaster is to deliver big-bore ballistics in the AR-15 platform. Now, I happen to hold this to be a very poor idea. The virtue of the AR-15 is basically two characteristics. It is light and it is accurate (for a semi-auto). When chambered in a big fat cartridge like 450 Bushmaster, you reduce the mag capacity, and you turn it into a potential shoulder kicking machine. Now, the AR is pretty good about recoil with its straight line butt-stock and recoil buffering bolt carrier, but there is simply a lot more momentum with a big bruiser like the 450; there’s no denying it.

But this doesn’t mean the 450 is bad. It has a certain virtue in bolt action rifles. Being rimless and straight walled, it should be both reliable with feeding and straightforward for reloading. And Ruger has recently seen fit to produce their interesting scout rifle in 450, which I think, is quite sharp looking.

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And this makes sense: the ballistic profile of the 450 goes well with the scout concept, which is that it is an all-purpose, ultra-rugged and fast-handling, type of rifle, and the short length of the 450 makes it workable on the small-frame rifles designed for .223 Rem. Usually a scout rifle’s defining feature is the forward mounted scope, which greatly limits its magnification. With limited magnification comes limited range. And 450 is a real sweetie inside 200 yards: efficient, not overpowered, and will certainly have an advantage in that at 45 caliber it starts off at the same diameter that 30 caliber bullets may expand to! At least one would think.

But look, only a 4 +1 round capacity! Couldn’t double stack it I guess. And it’s a bolt action, and therefore sub optimal for left-handed shooters. But, with that short barrel it should be fast handling and not much velocity will be lost with a big-bore cartridge like the 450. At six and a half pounds, it weighs the same as my Mossberg 464 with a 20 inch barrel and 6+1 round capacity chambered in 30-30.

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Let’s see how the Ruger (at more than twice the cost) stacks up to my Mossy on Eastern Whitetails, on paper at least.

450 Bushmaster propels a .458″ 250 grain bullet at about 2100 FPS out of a 16″ barrel (Hornady Handbook of Cartridge Reloading, 8th Ed.)

30-30 WCF propels a .308″ 170 grain bullet at about 2250 FPS out of a 20″ barrel. (Personal observation, which closely matches Hornady Handbook of Cartridge Reloading, 8th Ed.)

Clearly, at short range, the 450 has an advantage in kinetic energy. Let’s see how much game-effectiveness it has using the H.I.T.S. calculator.

Ballistics of 30-30 using Speer #2014 170 grain jacketed flat-point Hot-Cor bullet, BC: 298.

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At 100 yards, a HITS score of 864 is achieved, at the upper limit for medium game. At 250 yards, a HITS score of 708 is achieved, still well within the range for medium game (deer).

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Ballistics of the 450 Bushmaster using a 250 grain Hornady FTX bullet, perhaps the optimal bullet for this cartridge. BC: .210.

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This yields a HITS score at 100 yards of 780, actually below that of the less powerful 30-30. Don’t believe me, punch it into the calculator yourself! At 250 yards, it only yields a HITS score of 585, nearly at the bottom limit for medium game!

And the 450 uses more powder and certainly would kick more. Those loads, with either Lil’Gun or Win 296 powders are over 40 grains. It takes only 36 grains of LeveRevolution or Bl-C(2) to get the 30-30 going.

Now, there are two reasons for this, which really boil down to just one. The first is that the 30 caliber bullet (despite bing flat pointed and not ballistic tipped like the 450’s) has a much better ballistic coefficient, and so retains its energy better over distance, and the other is that the 30 caliber bullet will penetrate better. Both of these are due to geometry: sectional density. Generally bullets with higher sectional densities are not only more ballistically efficient, they also penetrate more deeply into the tissues of animals.

A 170 grain 30 caliber bullet should have no problem passing through the broadside of a deer (thus making two bleeding wounds). A 45 caliber bullet going the same speed, though much heavier, has less sectional density, and may not pass through (leaving only one). At 250 yards the 450 has pushed so much wind it has far less to push into the deer. It also drops more at that range, making estimating holdover more difficult.

Not only does the 30-30/Mossberg 464 combo outperform the Ruger ballistically for deer, it also outperforms with anything lighter!

30-30 makes a decent Varmint cartridge inside 200 yards. And it makes a very good plinker, too loaded with a power like TrailBoss. It is possible to match 22 WMR type ballistics using a 30 caliber round ball in 30-30 with TrailBoss powder. Makes a fine squirrel gun (if legal) or night-time skunk/coon gun.

Now, the Ruger may have an advantage in the reliability department. In general, bolt actions, and particularly the full-length extractor type ones, are very reliable. But who knows? I’ve only had slight reliability troubles with my Mossberg, and none with the Speer Hot-Cor bullets I reference here. To me the ambidexterity it an advantage. And levers are usually faster to operate than bolts. Both rifles take scopes well, and there are forward mounted Picatinny rails if wanted to put a scout scope on their lever action.

I guess it’s just another example of the classics are classic for a reason!

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Fencing solutions

Fencing is essential to managed rotational grazing, yet there is virtually no consensus on how to build fences or even what kind of fences should be used. Everybody agrees that rotation is good, that grass-based feeding is good, that there are virtually no drawbacks to the system, but when it comes down to actually executing it, there is very little information and guidance. It is one the reasons why I started this blog.

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The foundation of the system, my terminal post with its two  2′ long arms. This is a 6′ long 4″x4″ CCA-treated post sunk so its top is 40″ above grade. The bottom arm is screwed on about 20″ from grade. Those are ring insulators. I keyed these posts as they lack a brace. Because the arms project from the post, mowing with a bar-type mower or even a deck type mower that is low enough and projects to the side is very easy. This makes mowhawking the pasture easy with the fence in place.

You can always (if you have enough) just throw money at a problem. This is what many farmers, especially small-scale farmers with outside-income jobs, essentially do. And you can build very neat and impressive looking fences, or have them built. But on a small scale, where you are already disadvantaged by that scale (geometrically speaking, fencing is cheaper the larger the area), you can quickly render an operation non-competitive economically if approached this way. I always strive to produce the most economic fence I can while still being effective and minimally aggravating.

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A side view. It may seem a lavish use of insulators, but they are a dime a piece. And that is only $5 worth of post you are looking at, and about $2 worth of 2×4. The most expensive stuff here are those alligator clips and the stainless-steel springs that hold the wires together.

A while ago I learned that on small scales it is very important to install static and at least semi-permeant fences for all the major subdivisions. I have always held it essential (and most people agree) to have tight perimeter fencing, but its job is mainly to exclude predators like coyotes and feral dogs, not just contain livestock.

Many seem to think that it is advisable to use lightweight portable fencing for internal subdivision. What I find happens with such portable fencing is that it is so aggravating and time consuming to use that the animals will almost invariably be left too long in a  given paddock. It only takes about twice or three times the amount of time to install PERMANENT fencing, and being permanent, moving animals is as simple as opening a gate or two. If you really want to rotate, I really suggest you put in permanent fence at least everywhere animals will be in a given season. I think portable fencing has its place–with poultry mainly–or for special circumstances, but it is simply exhausting and a real drag if it is what you are going to rely upon. If it’s your full time job, then fine, but if not, do yourself a favor and go permanent.

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Demonstration of how a “gate-end” works. Those two wires coming off the front terminate on a woven wire fence with a reel and a non-conducive end. This has been up for a few weeks, and the birds have already anointed it.

Now, with fencing everywhere, the material costs blow up! Instead of just fencing a paddock or two, you are now fencing upwards of eight (generally, at least eight paddocks will be necessary if you plan on seriously rotationally grazing, ideally around 20 or more paddocks), so it becomes absolutely essentially to be as economic with the material as possible. And since the fence is permanent, you can’t simply take it up and then mow if needed. Mowing fence lines is one of the great pains in the butt with any kind of farming, and is the main reason why so many farmers ripped their fences out years ago (when they decided to grow grains for cash). So I designed my fences with mowing in mind.

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My “telephone-pole style” in-line supports. Very cheap. This is 5′ of a CCA-treated 2×4 (~$2.50) cross drilled to take two 2′ arms of a 3/8″ fiber rod ($1.20). This IS very easy to mow under, and if you put your trees in neat rows, like you should, you wont kill any when you mow. I used 5 cent spring clips on the right and just poly wire tension on the left!

Finally, because of my silvopastoral scheme, I need to protect the trees from browsing. Most of the good trees for silvopasture, like Oaks, Pecans, Walnuts, etc. are at least somewhat vulnerable to predation from herbivores, especially Goats, which are notorious destroyers of trees. This conveniently resulted in a  double wide division fence, which has two advantages. One, it completely stops and across-the-fence nursing, when you are trying to ween young animals (yes, they can nurse right through a woven wire fence). Two, it is three dimensional, which is a powerful deterrent to jumpy animals like sheep and goats.

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I didn’t even use a 5 cent spring clip here! Bonus: it provides a way to tighten up the line when it slackens out. No need for an in-line tightener!

In the end my system comes out to be very inexpensive, especially compared to my woven-wire permitter fence. The way I look at it, if you are going to invest in woven wire fences, or a few gates, it is worth permanently subdividing if your operation is 10 acres or less. Perhaps semi-permeance would work better if it was larger, perhaps 10-40 acres. And for anything over 40, I would recommend having permeant posts and all, but stringing up only a few paddocks at a time. Enough that you can move animals from one to another easily, but minimizing the feet of poly-wire out there in the elements.

As a final note, I am really impressed by Kencove’s “braided twine” poly wire. Not only is this stuff inexpensive, visible, relatively light and narrow, and contains tinned copper and stainless conductors for excellent conductivity, it doesn’t tangle up the way TWISTED twines do. Braiding also seems to protect the conductors from abrasion as well. It’s only $100 for a half mile of it! Granted, this is more than electric wire, but you need far fewer posts, and the visibility (especially at night) is far greater. I am using about a 65-75 spacing, with very little slack!

Posted in Grass, Home Economics, Pasture Farming, Rotational Grazing | Leave a comment

Menacing Clouds

To the Northwest we observed very unusual looking clouds this evening. As night fell they moved across to the North and provided nature’s version of a laser light show. Not a drop of rain fell on us, though.

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Marlin 39A – And How to Secure It

The Marlin 39 type rifle, which is basically a Model 1891 (the rifle of choice of Annie Oakley) is a all-steel, moderately priced (about $400), well-made 22 LR lever action rifle. It is perhaps the oldest repeating rifle design still in widespread use and was recently in production, though Remington (who owns Marlin) is now only selling it as a ridiculously over-priced fancy custom edition. Shame on you Remington! May Mossberg, Henry, Browning, and any other consumer-oriented manufacturer EAT YOUR LUNCH. However, it must be said, that all those rifles are made of cheap aluminum, have straight stocks (I greatly prefer the pistol grip stock), and none of them have the suburb 22 Caliber barrel that Marlin was famous for.

There are a few things about the 39A that I really like, and some overlooked advantages. To begin with it has a relatively heavy, almost cylindrical, “Microgroove” barrel. This makes for a very accurate rifle, nearly as accurate as my “accuracy machine” Kimber 82. The Microgroove barrel is called so because instead of having 4-6 lands and grooves that make up the rifling, it has about 18 very shallow and narrow lands and grooves. This distorts the bullet less, makes the barrel heat up less (less friction), and fouls the barrel less. The coin used to rifle these barrels engraves both to the full depth of the groove and the top of the lands, leaving a very good finish on all bullet-contact surfaces (unlike miserable 30 caliber Microgroove barrels, which have rough perpendicular drill marks on the lands and foul terribly, and give all Microgroove barrels a bad name). The 22 caliber Microgroove barrel is perhaps the best factory-grade 22 caliber barrel out there.

Being a lever action design, it is essentially ambidextrous, which is important for a lefty like me in a family of mostly righties. Add to that a 19 round capacity magazine and a breakdown mechanism, which is simple, keeps the scope aligned with the barrel, and facilitates breech-end cleaning. Most semi-automatic 22 rifles cannot be breech-end cleaned easily, though I’ve noticed Ruger is now making a breakdown 10/22, but since the 10/22 takedown separates at the chamber area, any scope mounted on the receiver will be disturbed relative to the barrel. As far as I am concerned, a pointless feature!

Breech end cleaning is preferable to muzzle-end cleaning since the muzzle is the most delicate and important part of the barrel. It is the last bit that the bullet “sees” before going on its journey downrange, so if there is some nick or flaw near the muzzle, it will disturb the bullet at this most critical time. Cleaning with rods is always risky. Most can damage a barrel if misused, and this is why it is better to push them in from the breech-end which is less critical if you nick it. It’s also nice when you don’t have to tear down the whole rifle and get out all your tools to clean from the breech-end. For this Marlin, all you need is a quarter and a small flat screwdriver (the one in a Swiss Army knife works).

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Using a quarter or half-dollar or similar coin, start to unscrew the big bolt on the right side. Bring it most of the way out with your thumb and forefinger.

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Holding the receiver with your left hand, gently rap the muzzle on a cloth covered table or similar surface that wont scratch. The receiver should spit in half. Then push the rectangular bolt back with your fingers and take the small flat screwdriver, push the ejector down with thumbnail, and capture it with the nut by turning that screwdriver.

There are couple of things I dislike about the Marlin 39, and all Marlins. One is that they do not cycle as smoothly as the Winchester and Winchester-like rifles, like the Mossberg 464. Another is that the the newer ones (last 40 years) have stupid cross-bolt safeties. I have no problem with safeties. I like safeties. But give me a TANG safety, which is ambidextrous, fast, and unobtrusive. Also, Marlin just doesn’t do that good of a job on their triggers. The trigger isn’t bad on this rifle, but it is not as good as it should be.

But, like all lever actions, it makes a great bedside rifle. A while ago I learned that trying to get a rifle out of a safe or whatever when you need it, at night, when you have a raccoon or some critter killing your chickens or whatever, is hopeless. By the time it is ready, it’s too late to do any good. That is why you need to keep the rifle HANDY, LOADED, UNCHAMBERED, and SECURED.

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The magazine tube is filled, there is nothing in the chamber, and the lever is locked to the stock. There is no way an unauthorized person can chamber a round or shoot it, yet it takes only seconds to make it shootable.

A key advantage to any closed loop lever rifle is that you can lock the lever to the stock preventing the action from cycling. Bolts and pumps and whatnot are not nearly so conveniently secured this way. Despite being completely secure (a bolt cutter or hacksaw would be needed to defeat this) I can undo this in about one or two seconds. I keep the key around my neck on a dog-tag chain even when I am in bed. If you buy a lock with a pair of keys, this makes one for the wife, too.

The chain I have here is just off the shelf chain from Home Depot. It is a bit heavier than needed, I think. Perhaps there is nicer chain, but it is zinc plated and smooth, so it doesn’t scratch up the rifle. The lock is a Master 130, which is the smallest lock with a 4 pin tumbler (and so a decent sized key) and two locking notches. It costs about $5 with two keys. Smaller locks (120s) are “luggage size” locks. They are so small that it is hard to get the key into them quickly, and their tiny 3-pin tumblers have tiny keys. They may work, but I like the slightly larger lock. Also, the keys are all metal (I think they are brass) and don’t have stupid plastic tabs which break and look and feel stupid around your neck.

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It’s a good idea to practice unlocking and locking a bit with an unloaded rifle. It’s also a good idea to anoint the lock with a dab of light lubricant every now and then so the key slides in easily. If you have a home with children, securing all firearms is essential, and this is the most cost effective way I am aware of for rifles.

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Beets

Another crop we’ve struggled with are plants in the Beet family, which includes Swiss Chard. It’s funny because when we lived in the city we had no problem growing beets in our little backyard garden. In fact, Chard was probably the most successful and abundant crop we grew.

Beets are unusual in that they have very high Boron needs. They are pretty needy of all the soil nutrients, actually. But they are well worth it in my opinion, as they are extremely nutritious, fast growing, store well, and taste very good (at least in my opinion). I am the sort of person that can’t decide what is my favorite soup: Green Pea soup, French Onion soup, or Borscht (Beet soup). They are all vegetable soups.

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Planted mid-May, these beets did their job in about 60 days. Wish we planted more. Indiana clay in the background.

I’ve known for a couple of years now that our soil is particularly deficient in two nutrients mainly: Sulfur and Boron. When most farmers detect weak performance in their crops, their instinct is usually to apply N, P, and K (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium). Years of this treatment probably explains why my Phosphorous and Potassium levels are borderline excessive. Nitrogen, being so soluble, washes away and escapes into the atmosphere. They also used too much Dolomitic lime, raising my Magnesium levels to about twice what they should be.

I’ve never applied any elemental fertilizers other than Gypsum (which is Calcium Sulfate) and Borax (Sodium Tetraborate) to correct the deficiencies (and improve the Calcium:Magnesium ratio). And the amounts were modest. I bought 4 boxes of 20-Mule-Team Borax at Kroger and eight 40 pound bags of pelletized Gypsum from Rural King and applied them with my little Earthway spreader. It is very important to be even and careful with this, as Borax is toxic to soil if over applied. Never apply more than 2 pounds per acre of Boron (Borax is about 10% elemental Boron, so about 20 pounds per acre per year of Borax).

I now think a better way to apply such “dangerous” soil amendments as Borax is to apply  them evenly over manure-straw in the barn, then shovel out the manure into the manure spreader, and then spread in the place your garden will be next year, giving it all year to sheet-compost. No making piles of compost that you have to move twice, and it is achieves a nice even distribution of the elemental fertilizers in a bulky organic matter containing milieu, which sort of buffers the effects of strong elemental fertilizers like Borax! It is one of the reasons why I think animals are almost essential to garden farming.

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