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.

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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.

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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.

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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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