Attack of the Killer Cucurbits!

We’ve struggled to grow plants in the Cucumber family: squash, pumpkins, melons, zucchini, etc. I think mainly because cucurbits are extremely “hungry” for nitrogen–even more than Corn. And since we do not use synthetic nitrogen sources (because I think it is stupid; it makes up 80% of the air we breathe), they have been runty. When they are runty, they are assailed by Cucumber Beetles that absolutely devastate the crop.

Not any more!

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Wife for scale. From left to right, Flint Corn, Tomatoes, and the Killer Cucurbits!

This site was where chickens were “pastured” last year and it received a generous Red Clover hay mulching I wrote about earlier. It was also in Sweetclover/Winterbarley before the chickens, which also helped.

Never have we seen cucurbits so vigorous, and these are the winter squash, which are big favorites of everyone. They are crowding out the tomatoes and have completely disregarded my “raised beds.” Next year, I am planting corn and squash in patches, not in beds.

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Another Rainbow

Rainbows occur so frequently here that we don’t take much notice of them. I keep reminding myself that I saw a rainbow about twice in my entire childhood.

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Shade

The matter of the benefits of shade to grazing animals is one of some dispute. Some producers hold that it isn’t really of any true benefit, that it is just a case of humanizing the animals. We like shade. So we figure they like shade. There is something to recommend this mode of thinking. Cattle have much heavier coats and hides than we do. They don’t seem to sunburn, even on their exposed skin (udder, vulva). I would reckon that they are much more sun-hardy that we are, but after all, they are just more everything-hardy. Cattle are comfortable in freezing weather that would kill us in minutes if exposed. They can suffer dehydration and starvation better than we can. There is reason why it takes about a dozen guys to bring down a bull in a bullfight, and even then, the bull doesn’t always lose.

But were not talking about what animals can survive. We are talking about what best promotes their growth, contentment, and productivity. There is no doubt in my mind that shade is not only greatly preferred by cattle if they can find it, but also that it has some tangible productive benefit. The question is how does one obtain shade without causing other problems.

The first and most obvious way to get shade is from trees. They were practically made for giving shade. But if some fool cut down every damn one of the trees where your animals are going to live, then you can only plant trees and wait for them, and they won’t be ready in your cow’s lifetime. I have detailed elsewhere how I have gone about developing a silvoculural plantation on my place where the animals wont destroy the young trees. But the cattle I have now will never benefit from this.

So one is faced with a couple of options. You can grant them free access to a barn or some building if you have it. Or you can put some type of shade providing structure in their paddocks. If you are moving their paddocks around, this is a real challenge, because the shelter will need to be portable. And portability and sturdiness and wind-hardiness are pretty much directly opposed.

Here’s what I’ve done so far. I put four 4’x4’x8′ posts into the ground and made a roof out of 2’x4’s and a tarp. This is very cheap and can be put up in a couple hours if you are efficient about it (here’s a tip, build the roof first, use the roof to locate the holes, then put in the posts!). It costs around $50-80 depending on local treated lumber prices and the quality of the tarp.

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In about one day the cow will completely trash the sod under the tarp, and it will be necessary to put bedding down to control the mud. The more animals you have the larger such a shelter will need to be. They are handy places for terminating some polywire or having a mineral feeder, too, as they keep out the rain. Obviously, such a solution is only a pale imitation of a real tree, but at least it wont just blow away like an patio umbrella or other portable solution. Shade Haven type shelters, while an elegant solution, cost more than all the farming equipment I own, and are not practical cost wise for any but the large producers.

Sometimes animals figure out their own solutions. Our calf uses giant ragweed to take shelter under from the sun. This may be the best use of ragweed yet!

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Now, planting stands of ragweed for shade has to be one of the craziest ideas. But it sounds reasonable. They grow fast and at the time of year you need shade. They wont provide much at noon like a tree will, but before 10 and after 2 they should be effective if your animals are smart enough to stand in the shadow. Cattle, in my experience, find it unpalatable. Maybe sunflowers would work this way, too. But I don’t know. Maybe I’ll find out next year, but sometimes you learn from the most unlikely sources.

 

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Pasture vs. Hayfields

Pastures and Hayfields are like Hay Forks and Pitch Forks. They are similar and can actually be interchanged, but the differences are significant.

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From left to right: Ryegrass-White Clover pastures, Oat hayfield, our vegetable garden, and a Red Clover hayfield. Our lawn in the foreground and our neighbors’ house in the background. 

Pastures are used primarily as places where animals directly graze (consume) the herbage in-situ. The plants in them tend to be low-growing and tolerant of hoof traffic and highly competitive vs. other plants.

Hayfields are used primarily as places where herbage is harvested and preserved in some fashion for consumption at a later time. Usually it is preserved as hay, which is drying the herbage using sunlight/wind. It can also be preserved as silage/haylage, which uses fermentation of the herbage inside air-tight bags by anaerobic bacteria for preservation. The plants in hayfields tend to be taller-growing and less tolerant of hoof traffic. Height helps it mow nicely and increases the yield.

But of course, you can cut the herbage in a pasture and dry it–making hay. In fact, this is almost necessary in Spring and early Summer. Cool season pastures grow so vigorously at this time the animals will not be able to keep up with it if you have a stocking density that will work out for the rest of the year. For example, Bluegrass makes 70% of its annual growth before the month of June and doesn’t really start growing in earnest until mid-April. So 70% of its growth occurs in just 2.5 months! So what I do is mow all my pastures once or twice in the Spring and early Summer for hay. This sets back weeds and solves the over-production problem by conserving all that growth for the winter. In fact, you can usually grow enough hay for the winter this way off your pastures if your pastures are so large as to be the primary source of nutrition for your animals and you live in a moderate winter climate.

And you can also allow animals to graze a hayfield. In fact, there is a technique for winter feeding in-situ called “stockpiling” that is essentially allowing a hayfield (usually of Tall Fescue grass) to grow tall towards the end of the season (October) and allowing animals to graze it in the winter rather than cut it for a final cutting of hay. This is a very economical technique, but one I think is best suited for meat animals (not dairy). Keeping dairy animals clean (not muddy) is important, not so much with animals going to slaughter.

Stockpiling works particularly well with Tall Fescue because it is among the few pasture/hayfield plants that seem to actually improve when they are frosted. It is also cold hardy and one of the most tolerant of being trampled. Tall Fescue, though, is only OK in terms of palatability, and it tends to dominate in a  mixed pasture, though you could stockpile with a Tall Fescue rich pasture. Perennial Ryegrass, Tall Fescue’s better tasting but less rugged cousin, doesn’t do as well. But Timothy and Perennial Ryegrass do pretty well in more moderate winter areas like mine.

I’ve tried a few times now to get a formal hayfield going–something I only harvest hay from–in the manner of most farmers. I am officially giving up. To begin with, almost all my attempts fail. White Clover is so aggressive in my soil type that it overwhelms almost any attempt to grow something other than another clover. Grasses and less aggressive legume species (Birdsfoot trefoil, Sainfoin) are hard to get started on my place. I’ve decided to just roll with it instead of fighting it. After all, White Clover is a wonderful plant, and is the clear favorite of our cow.

I have been able to get Red Clover to grow up into a nice hayfield, as you can see. That was the Rye field I posted about earlier, but I no longer use these hayfields for making hay. To begin with, I think pure Red Clover is too rich as hay. Our cow’s urine smelled like straight amonia after a few days on Red Clover hay. Put her back on Timothy-Red clover hay (that I bought) and things went back to normal. I now use my Red Clover almost entirely for soil-improvement purposes (cover croppping) or as a source of mulch. I rotate them through with my garden. I’ve found that Red Clover is quite good at shading out many weed species, too, so it “cleans the soil” for gardens and since all clovers fix their own nitrogen plus a significant surplus, they fertilize the soil for gardens at the same time, something that Buckwheat and Brassicas, two popular “cleaning” crops, don’t do.

So for hay, I entirely rely on the Springtime overproduction of my pastures. It also means that I make hay that is shorter, which is harder to mow, and that I make hay out of very moist Ryegrass and White Clover, which are both slow to dry. I read recently of the practice of adding a significant portion of very late maturing Timothy to pastures (Timothy is usually thought of as a hayfield plant, not a pasture plant) to help the pasture “stand” and dry down a little better. An added benefit is that is seems to improve the overall palatability of a White Clover/Ryegrass pasture. I know that for equids at least, the Timothy adds long-chain fibers which help keep the animals teeth in good shape. I am not so sure this matters much to cattle, but hey, I doubt it will hurt. I’m going to put 50 pounds of Timothy out there this August. We’ll see what happens next year!

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Hay Forks vs. Pitch Forks

When you see movies and such where a bunch of angry farmers are marshaled to fight someone or something, they should come armed with HAY FORKS, and for good reason. They would certainly make devastating improvised weapons.

Check out the point on a my SHW Hay Fork.

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Those points are needle sharp, and the weight of the fork (around 2.5 pounds) would make this devastating if it were to be put into any soft tissues of the body, or between ribs. Of course, it is a tool of peace. It is for collecting and moving hay. And it does this job much better than other forks. It is lightweight (since the handle is Ash, not Hickory or Oak) and there is a bend and taper to the handle that makes it very good for moving hay.

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The spread to the three tines (hay forks usually have 3 or 2 tines) makes it “bite” and hold a wad of tangled up hay. It’s pretty remarkable how large of a bunch of hay such a fork can hold.

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And the curve of the tines makes it “skid” across the ground when collecting hay. When held at the right angle the points do not catch on the ground or grass, but they do penetrate into a windrow of hay.

Compare this to a PITCH FORK, which despite superficial similarities, is a completely different tool used for a completely different thing, and would make a clumsy and ineffective weapon, something that Hollywood prop guys don’t seem to grasp.

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Pitch fork to the left. Hay fork to the right. 

Notice how much straighter, thicker, and longer the handle is on a Pitch fork. It is also made of Hickory or Oak, making the whole tool weigh close to twice as much as a Hay fork. It has a ferruled connection to the forged tines, too, which makes it much stronger, better at prying, and a heavier. The long handle affords greater leverage.

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The parallel tines of the a Pitch fork make it terrible at “holding” wads of hay, which is stabbed like spaghetti. It is however much better at “holding” wads and clumps of manure and straw, which is held like you would with a spoon.

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Also notice how blunt the ends of the tines are compared to a hay fork. Pitch forks are not for stabbing things; they are for prying apart layers of compost or manure pack.

Having the right tool for the job is of supreme importance, particularly when an external source of power is not employed. I duffed for years with that Pitchfork moving hay, and always thought it miserably slow and the weak point in my haying process (accumulation and movement of the loose hay), but now I feel differently. Two adults (and women are just as good at this as men, it requires little strength) with two good Hay forks can move a lot of hay quickly and smartly.

Just look at this pile. It’s as American as apple pie.

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My wife made the stack; she is much better at it than I am. And you’re looking at a lot of hay right there. That little brown hay fork is very old and is why I learned of the difference. It needs a handle badly, but should be good for another hundred years.

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So Long Johnny Popper

I sold my 1955 John Deere 40U today. I just don’t use her much anymore as I can do everything I need to do with my much more efficient Grillo 2-wheeled tractor.

Over the last year of owning the Grillo I’ve come to the conclusion that old tractors are better off in parades/shows than anywhere else, and I suspect that is exactly where my old 40 is going to spend her years.

There is just no comparison on a small acreage (under 10 acres). You get more work done, often faster and usually better, with a tiny fraction of the fuel input using a modern 2-wheeled tractor, and it IS because technology has improved since WWII. Modern 2-wheeled tractors cost about the same as an old 4-wheeled one, and two-wheeled tractors are vastly better in the garden. No wasted corner space and modern 2-wheel tractor implements are vastly better, too.

One of the important yet invisible advantages is the matter of soil compaction. My Grillo weighs a little under 300 pounds. Put an implement on and it weighs between 300-600 pounds. My 40 weighed around 3500 pounds and even more when implements were added, and that is a LIGHT tractor relatively speaking. I used to think that 4 wheel 3-point tractors were essential because they can pull implements like subsoilers, but the truth is that radishes probably do a better job, and about half the reason why you’d ever want to subsoil is because you’ve compacted the soil with tractors!

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A Key for Fence Posts

A neat little trick I learned from two places–a hillbilly and an astute New Zelander–is called “keying a fence post.” It shouldn’t have surprised me really, since this is how a standard T-Post works.

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That little wing on there is a “post key.”

The flat piece of metal on a T-post increases the surface area that resists flexion in the perpendicular axis. The same idea can be applied to a fence post. If you have a terminal fence post (this would not work as well for a corner posts which must resist flexion in perpendicular axes), adding a key can provide substantial bracing WITOUT digging another hole or using another post. It is a very efficient and neat way to improve post performance with only minimal increase in cost.

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This key has just been placed. It has not been pounded into the ground. It should be tamped in deeper using the same tamper you use to tamp in the soil around the post to about 3-4 inches below grade. 

I think it is pretty obvious how this works. It is best to dig a groove in the soil with a flat edged spade and the make sure to pound key, which is nothing more than a CCA treated (for ground contact) 2×4 or 2×6 cut to about 16″-24″ long, a few inches below grade so it snugs up against the fence post.

It is best to backfill and tamp the post in to about 8 inches from grade so that when you set the key there is still some room to pound it UP AGAINST the post on the side that the post is gong to be pulled. This works best with square posts (which tamp in better anyway), but will work with round as well. No fasteners are needed.

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All this has had is a boot heel press. It can be tamped in another couple inches, and this works better when soil is moist (after a rainfall). Note how it is snugging up against the post.

I was amazed at how much additional rigidity the key adds to the post in that direction. It is very noticeable when you shove on the post in the other three directions where the key provides no support. Of course, making sure to thoroughly set (by tamping) the very bottom of the post at an adequate depth is essential for good performance. The tendency is always to not dig deep enough or tamp long enough or hard enough, and I’ve never met anyone that does either of these adequately the first time. It seems everyone needs to learn the hard way. These posts are only 6 feet long with about 30″ to 32″ below the surface and 40″ to 42″ above the surface–a ratio of about 3:4. Posts should be at least a ratio of 2:3 and preferably 1:1.

With lightweight fencing materials, like polywire, this kind of post termination is more than adequate for even long runs in a permanent installation.  It is also very cost effective, making rotational grazing on even relatively small scales (1-10 acres) worthwhile, and completely answering the accusation that rotational grazing is too expensive. With land prices as they are, its too expensive NOT to enjoy the numerous benefits or rotational grazing for the moderate costs of lightweight and effective electric fencing.

 

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