The peril of chasing diminishing advantage

Many small-scale farmers get caught up in comparing the relative “efficiencies” of various methods of production and various crops and livestock. I’ve read, for example, that Jersey cattle are more efficient at converting a given unit of forage into a unit of milk compared to other breeds. This seems to simply be a fact, and it makes thermodynamic sense; being the lightest dairy breed, Jerseys “fight gravity” less to meet basal metabolic needs, so they can put more remaining energy into milk. But what of it? I posit that for all but the large scale farmer (this would mean hundreds of even thousands of cows) the differences in efficiencies among breeds of dairy cattle are nominal. Factors such as overall health, cold and heat hardiness, ability to cope with various adversities, and even subtle behavioral factors (like a cow that cooperates well with milking, doesn’t challenge fences, is generally tractable and calm, doesn’t want to kill your dog) can be far more important than a 5-10% difference in feed conversion ratio.

This is true of crops as well. Supposedly certain hayfield crops yield slightly more than others. Orchardgrass is said to yield more total dry matter than Timothy. Perhaps 20-30% more according to some highly idealized trials. But I say: what of it? If anyone (besides the Ag School grad students) could actually realize the productive potential of Orchardgrass by cutting the stuff before it goes to seed, it might be worth it, but I’ve never seen it done, so I think in the end Timothy does just as well, and it is of greater palatability anyway. The same can be said of Red Clover vs. Alfalfa. Now, I don’t want to say that Orchargrass and Alfalfa are bad. They are both good. And I am confident that Timothy and Red Clover will never out yeild Orchardgrass and Alfalfa (other things remaining equal), I am just pointing out that this isn’t something to agonize over. The perfect can be the enemy of the good. Really. Just weedy grasses can be fine, too. Parts of my property were mown lawns before I purchased the place. When I bought it, I stopped mowing them and they more or less became hayfields. And over time I’ve seen them transition from mostly fescue to a greater variety of grasses, forbs, and legumes. In fact, in many ways I think this pasture is better than the ones I planted. The cow seems to think so. It is true there is a lot of red and tall fescue in there, and there is a whole lot of Bluegrass that seems to want to make seeds before it makes leaves, but overall it’s pretty good and getting better. My planted pastures, which are mainly White Clover and Ryegrass, are getting worse in some places (where I have been too lax with mowing and grazing). Weeds, particularly Sour Dock, are advancing in them, whereas Sour Dock isn’t even found in the old lawn.


Old Lawn, where one can see some Orchardgrass, Bluegrass, Long-leaf Plantain, Red Clover, White clover, Dandelions, and Johnson grass. There’s some carpetweed, too. But about 90% of it is highly palatable and I’ve never planted it. More diverse too. But our cow intensively grazed this spot last year and it was clipped a few times.


Planted pasture. We see some errant Yellow Blossom Sweet clover and Red Clover, plenty of spilled wheat, some marestail, and too much white clover. Though everything here is palatable except the mares tail, it is not very diverse, and there are not many forbs (plantain, chicory, dandelions).

And this is true of construction techniques and production methods. I’ve seem comparisons trying to demonstrate the supposed advantage of metal buildings vs. wood vs. straw vs. masonry. All I can say is that a well laid-out, sturdy, long-lasting, and low-maintenance building is and asset, and anything else you’re better off NOT having. One example of supposed “efficiency” is the much vaunted Joel Salatin style chicken tractor (really a portable shelter, so I don’t know why it is called a tractor, it sure doesn’t provide traction). I think these things are atrocious. They are very low, don’t afford any room for chickens fly or roost above ground, which is something chickens like to do, and the whole system only works because of the use of lightweight scrap aluminum panels. If he paid market price for these panels, the whole thing would be prohibitively expensive, and if he subbed affordable steel panels for aluminum the “tractors” would be too heavy to move with only human power (either horsepower or horse power would be needed). Few people have spent as much time in scrapyards as I have, excepting scrapyard employees or professional scrap collectors, and I have never yet seen significant quantities of scrap aluminum panels anywhere near the size convenient for making chicken tractors. So every time I hear people extoll the efficiency of these things, I laugh to myself knowing that simple static structures for chicken keeping cost less and are made with obtainable materials, are sturdier, allow the birds to roost. Deep bedding solves the poop problem.

Presently, we keep our chickens in a semi-portable structure. As the wind where we live is substantial and would destroy flimsy portable structures, and since I wanted to be able to stand up in mine and give the chickens roosts off the ground, our chicken structure requires sturdy garden wagons and two adults to move, and it isn’t very pleasant. But so far it hasn’t blown away (some built-to-code buildings around me have), and the chickens are doing well. But I now think it was a mistake to make it portable at all. I could have built are larger, sturdier, and cheaper structure if I had made it completely static–with posts sunk into the ground (a rudimentary foundation). Of course chickens would not be able to go around on grass that way, but I’ve found that is little value, and chickens have the annoying tendency of not pooping evenly. They like to concentrate too much into certain places, and in those places, the soil chemistry gets out of whack and can take years to recover. I think it is better now to simply put deep bedding down generously (yes this costs something if you don’t grow your own straw, but at least you get multiple returns on the purchase: bedding, compost, and long-term soil fertility). Then clean it out in the spring or whenever and compost it along with a bunch of spoiled hay you will surely make this time of year (yes it is more back work, but I think it is worth it compared to messing up soil chemistry). And try to pick a breed of chicken that is mellow if you plan on keeping them in a static shelter with a fence around it. Our first flock was Rhode Island Reds, supposedly the most productive of the brown egg breeds, and they are good birds, but they are high-strung and some are downright hostile; the cocks are terribly abusive on the hens, too. We’ve found Barred Rocks, which produce almost as many eggs (supposedly, we’ve observed no actual difference in production), have a mellower disposition and seem to take close quarters better, and actually are more active foragers. We see them eating clover and tender greens more so than Rhode Island Reds for what it’s worth. They are also a bit meatier, so the spent hens are even better for making into soup.


Our first semi-portable chicken house.

Chasing after efficiencies, or the most perfect, has definite perils. The chief among them seems to be paralysis. A number of my projects and an even greater number of projects I’ve observed have made no or little progress because the person working on the project was so focused on their idea of perfection that it took too long to get done, or they lost motivation, or ran out of resources. Spending forever looking for the perfect cow is counterproductive when any GOOD cow will do. And delaying planting because you are waiting to get the latest greatest seed is definitely a bad idea. Perfect weather never comes; the good will have to do.

Part of this problem, I think, comes from the being American. I’ve long noticed that Eastern Europeans, especially Russians, are very resourceful and ingenious in how they solve problems before them. (This is not to say that other peoples are not resourceful and ingenious, but often their climates are much warmer than mine, and so I don’t spend much time studying their methods). I think this is not so much because they are Eastern European, but mostly because of legacy of the Soviet economic system, which seemed to educate much better than it provided consumer products. In America, all too often, we simply throw money at a problem and open a catalog. When there was no catalog, you had to open your mind. I think we Americans are capable of this, too, but we need to be aware. We also need to escape the prejudice that many Americans harbor against anything that is connected to real, actual work or the “3rd world.” In fact, when I try to solve a problem I’m having on the farm, I immediately go for the “3rd world” solution, which is often very hard to find since it doesn’t have a chrous of ad-men backing it up. The irony, sometimes, is amusing. I have to sit through a 30 second sports sedan advertisement to look at a video of how poor, rural Indians plant peanuts or how some Romanians make hay using hand rakes and donkey carts. Usually, it is apparent to me that these folks are much better farmers than I am, and are far more accomplished, and probably consume a fraction of the quantity of fuel or energetic resources, despite my best efforts.

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A Room With a View?

Well, just to demonstrate the sort of nonsense that seems to constantly happen on a farm, I noticed this one a couple days ago.


Yes, that is a spider that decided to crawl into the milk line of our milking machine and starting making to make a little studio apartment him/herself. Now, I can see this sort of thing happening in the vacuum line, which stays in the barn and isn’t cleaned after every milking, but this is the milk line, and therefore this spider did this sometime between evening miking and morning milking. The milk line is hung up with the claw cup on a clothesline to dry after washing, so this spider had to climb a wall, walk out on about three feet on the clothesline, then craw down the outside of the milk line, then crawl back through the inside of the line to get in there. I don’t really understand what was so appealing about this real estate that the spider was willing to go though all that trouble. I thought perhaps it enjoyed the view since it’s clear tubing, but this spider’s eyes are so tiny that I think this spider probably doesn’t see very well anyway and is more of a tactile hunter.

In any case, nobody wants a spider in their milk, so I had to re-wash the line, but at least the eviction went smoothly. He/she just ambled out without any coaching and proceeded to look for a home on our kitchen windowsill.

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Overseeding clover

I did a little experiment (accidentally, as usual) here on what is better for overseeding Red Clover into, Rye or Wheat? Well, the answer is clearly Wheat. They were overseeded the same day in late February, and the Wheat and Rye were both cut on the same day in mid-May. Today the Red Clover in the Wheat is clearly ahead of that in the Rye. I attribute this to less shading by the Wheat. However, I did notice there seems to be more weed growth in the Wheat as well, and the Wheat yielded less straw and green chop. Clearly, both work well, so really, it seems you can’t go wrong either way.


Here’s the Rye. 


And here’s the Wheat

No planter, no drill, not even my humble cultipacker were in on this deal. All I did was simply go out on a nice day in late February with my little Earthway and broadcast some Red Clover seed at the 12 pounds per acre rate recommended for a pure stand. And there you go.

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Crazy Weather of Indiana

Well, it has been a pretty nutty spring. Early warmth, dry April, six inches of rain in six days in May. Folks re-planting, re-spraying, re-tilling. Yet the pastures are just thriving and the milk is flowing and the calves are fattening.

But sometimes crazy weather can look pretty cool. We were able to snap this Westward picture. Truth is, it looks much worse than it was.


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Mow-hawking the pasture

I plant trees haphazardly in my small 1/4th acre formal orchard and in the yards around my house, but this kind of disorder would never do in a much larger silvopasture or hayfield. The solution, called “Mow-hawking” by Phillip Rutter, is shown in his book Growing Neo-Hybrid Hazelnuts. It works with other trees, too!

Basically the idea is to plant trees in straight rows and carefully mow right up alongside the trees to control the grass (I cut this excess pasture growth to make hay). This limits grass growth, and therefore competition, to just a small percentage of the radius around the tree, yet is is efficient from a mowing standpoint since you don’t have to change directions. If your mower side-discharges, you would want it to discharge away from the seedlings if it could injure or bury them. Otherwise, the discharge could make a good mulch. Since I used a sickle-bar mower, the clippings just fall over evenly in the path.


Note the Black Walnut seedling just right of center. It’s hard to seed but there is a whole row of 50 these trees. I could have done a better job here, too. 

One could also come back and clean up between the trees if they wanted, though this should be necessary, since the trees are above the pasture (this is a key advantage to planting a seedling vs. a seed) and should stay there in this most hazardous establishment year. The point of mow-hawking is to simply LIMIT competition from the pasture plants for water, oxygen, and nutrients (not light). Deep rooted Black Walnut should soon get to a depth lower than where shallow rooted clover and short grasses hang out pretty quickly. Next year, the trees should be at an advantage vs. tender perennials, and should keep that edge until the tree dies or is harvested. The greatest hazard to the trees right now is my mower!

So far, Oaks and Elderberries (which are pretty unstoppable plants) have held up best from our planting in March, at nearly 100% survival, despite an unusual nearly April-long drought followed by 6 inches of rain (flooding) in the first week of May! It seems that about 20-30% of the Walnuts may have been lost. The Butternuts, Pecans, and Persimmons are all doing better, and in that order.

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Roasting Old Hens

When I was a kid watching old cartoons (Disney and Warner Brothers from the 1940s-1960s) on Saturday morning I always thought depictions of roasting chickens strange, mostly because they didn’t look anything like the roast chickens I saw in real life. Their legs were always sticking up in the air, while the chickens I saw my grandmother prepare were always fat-breasted and their legs small and to the sides.


Raised from a day old chicks, these Rhode Island Red hens layed eggs for a couple of years on grass, and then were killed, plucked, eviscerated, and roasted. They will make fine soup or stew. And look how their legs stick up like in old cartoons!

I think I may have figured out why. Years ago chicken was more or less a luxury food. Chickens, after all, eat mostly grain. They are graminivorous birds despite the ideas of pastured poultry evangelists. Chickens do peck and scratch grass, but my observation is that they derive little more than a vitamin/mineral supplement from being on pasture. It is no surprise that EVERY pastured poultry producer feeds grain-based feed like everyone else. Pasture does improve their health, and I think, their flavor. It is why I support the idea, but let’s not kid ourselves. Chicken meat is  NOT an ecologically sustainable staple protein source. They eat foods that we can just as well eat (wheat, corn, and soybeans), and despite their unsurpassed (among warm-blooded animals at least) feed conversion ratio (1.8 to 1), you still need to grow grain, usually though tillage, to feed them. In fact, on pasture, chickens eat considerably more of this grain based feed to reach a given slaughter weight. This is why ruminants are the most ecologically benign source of animal protein–the diary cow being the queen among them–because they can derive their basic nutriment from perennial grasses, legumes, and forbs (and can self harvest it). Farmed, herbivorous freshwater fish (various Carps and Tilapia) are the only animals that come close to rivaling ruminants to my thinking, and these are among the least favored fish flavor wise (at least to most Americans, the Chinese wisely disagree).

Years ago, all this mattered to the general economy. Since WWII we basically wallowed thermodynamic excess. We have all the diesel to burn in our tractors. We have all the natural gas to make into nitrogenous fertilizer. We have all the propane to dry corn/roast soybeans. Years ago, when we didn’t have this energetic largesse, we had to use horses to work the fields, and use the air to provide the nitrogen, and air-dried our corn in cribs, which placed a limit on how much we could store. We didn’t even grow soybeans because they are mildly toxic to most animals (certainly to all poultry) unless roasted, and nobody had that kind of energy back then. We roasted the chicken back them, not their food. The major energetic input came from the SUN, not from the GROUND.

So, most chickens kept were mostly for their precious eggs, almost essential to good cooking. Though eggs have never been a STAPLE protein source. The chicken meat eaten years ago was more or less the byproduct of egg production. About half of all chicks are going to be male and so will never lay eggs. You can either dispose of them, as is done in modern egg laying operations, or you can raise them up as a cockerel (intact young male chicken) or a capon (castrated young male chicken) to be eaten when they are about 4 months old. Since a hen lays about 400 eggs or more over her career, you need relatively few hens to produce all the eggs a society needs, and you will get only a moderate amount of male chicks as a byproduct. They weren’t a primary protein source. Beef and lamb and milk were. Or fish taken from the vast ocean in places like Japan. Or plant proteins were the primary source (and unfortunately an inferior source) in some very poor places.


The Cornish x Rock broiler chicken, a hybrid grown for meat production. I call them “fake” chickens sometimes. Image courtesy of Wikipedia. I’ve never kept these things and never probably never will.

Well, back to my original observation of cartoon chickens. Cornish x Rock broilers are bred to grow extremely fast. So fast in fact that their bone structure and heart can’t really keep up with their muscle growth (particularly breast muscle). At about 10 weeks or so of age, their bones are too weak to hold up their enormous weight, and they can no longer stand, or sometimes they suffer heart attacks. Their diet is scientifically formulated, expensive, and very high in protein (about 22%).

Cornish x Rock broiler’s legs are relatively stumpy and wide set, because people prefer white breast meat to the dark meat on the thighs and legs, so when you roast them their legs don’t stick up very much. They just kind of flop there. When you roast a spent hen (a hen that no longer lays) or a young cockerel or capon from an egg-laying breed of chicken like a Barred Rock (one half of the Cornish x Rock hybrid) or a Rhode Island Red, the legs stick up in the air like in old time cartoons, because these chickens actually used their legs in life. The muscles were strong and supported their weight. Of course they are dark and less succulent, but they indeed have more flavor. In fact, about half as much “real” chicken is needed to achieve strong chicken flavor in a stew or soup, and about about 3x to 4x as much time is needed to make “real” chicken tender. But contrary to common propaganda about the matter, OLD HENS and YOUNG EGG-BREED COCKERELS/CAPONS MAKE FINE EATING if you do it right. Since cutting broiler-type chickens out of my family’s diet completely, I haven’t missed them a bit. In fact, when I eat it at relatives’ or at parties I am stunned by how bland and dry commercial chicken tastes.

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30-30 For Pest Control

Sometimes what you have is better than what is theoretically “better.” Some time ago I settled on the idea that the ideal around-the-farm cartridge for dispatching varmints was .223/5.56×45. It is, after all, one of the standard small arms cartridges of NATO. It is unquestionably one of the finest, if not the finest, varmint cartridge. It combines a very flat trajectory, with appropriate power levels, and is economical. It is most often chambered in either semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 or the Ruger Mini-14. It is sometimes found in bolt-action rifles or single shot rifles.

30-30 WCF is seldom thought of a a varmint cartridge. It is generally thought of a intermediate power deer hunting cartridge, a role that I think it is optimally fitted for. But it is also surprisingly versatile. For example, it makes a fine intermediate range varmint cartridge and will hit with considerably more authority than a .223. Also, owing to the POOR ballistic coefficients of lightweight, flat-pointed, 30 caliber bullets, energy is shed rapidly beyond 300-400 yards. So if you are concerned about errant shots going over to the next county, it offers a bit of advantage in this way.

So how does the standard 55 grain .223 varmint load stack up to a 100 grain 30-30 varmint load?

First let’s take a look at the lightweight contender. I am using the excellent 55 grain Hornady spire point bullet (intended for varmints) with a standard load of 28 grains of BL-C(2) propellent.

24370 6mm .243 80gr GMX


Goes out to 250 yards with about 7 inches of drop! Enough power at this range to dispatch coyotes. 

Now let’s take a look at the middleweight contender. I am using the unusual 100 grain Hornady Half-jacket bullet (intended for the 30 Carbine) which features a flat point and should expand rapidly or fragment on varmints. Hornady technical support stated this  bullet is safe to use in tubular magazines, and it listed in the 8th edition of the Hornady Load Manual for used in a Winchester 94 (a tubular magazine lever rifle with a 20″ barrel). Propelled by 38 grains of BL-C(2).

24370 6mm .243 80gr GMX


Equivalent energy at 250 yards, and the trajectory is very close to .223. The impact will be much more devastating at close ranges, of course, and since one doesn’t eat varmints, I greatly prefer instantaneous flattening of the critter instead of wounded and enraged. 

In fact, under 250 yards 30-30 is a better varmint cartridge than .223, and I would reckon that about 95% of practical shots at petty animals are taken under 250 yards in the wooded and hilly Eastern US.

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