Monday, February 1, 2021

Update: New Adventures at Ehrenholz Farms

 Whew!  The past 12-18 months have been an absolutely insane rollercoaster ride (even without that pesky pandemic thrown in)!

Allow me to take this opportunity to update you, my readers and farm customers, on what has been happening with me and with the farm.

In 2019, I began to seriously consider leaving the farm.  A few different health issues had combined to pull me up short when considering the future of the farm and my own well-being.  I decided that it would be wise to take a full-time off-farm job - something that would keep me in the world of agriculture, but that would be easier on me physically than the farm work to which I was accustomed.  Taking some sound advice from the local agricultural fieldmen, I took a summer job to get a foot in the door so that I could eventually get a permanent job either with a county or with an extension organization.  

By the end of the summer, I had realized a few things:

a) I am not cut out to deal with the general public as the major portion of my job.

b) It's okay to think creatively about how to make the farm work (I owe this realization to my friend and summer co-worker, Melanie).

c) If I take my overall health - including mental health - into consideration, the risk associated with staying on the farm is manageable.

I was also excited to see what I could do to change the farm to make it BOTH physically manageable and financially viable.

Here are the changes I settled on:

a) I would expand my direct beef sales.

Yes, the pandemic did help me out with this decision.  I had just shut down my beef sales "forever" when the pandemic hit and people began searching for affordable sources of meat.  Boy was I kicking myself for selling those last few steers!

Aside from the incredible expansion of my customer base thanks to the pandemic and associated beef shortage, I had a variety of reasons to keep my cows and continue selling the beef directly to consumers.  The first reason is that my annual review of my financial statements revealed that my cattle were my most profitable enterprise.  Secondly, I have learned in the past few years that cattle are a critical component to a healthy grassland ecosystem.  Correctly managing my cattle and the land they graze will result in healthy soil, healthy plants, and healthy beef.  Why would I want to take my cattle off the land and just watch it deteriorate?  My third reason to keep my cattle is simply that I am addicted to having cows.  That's a real thing.  It's why old farmers don't retire.

Delicious Ehrenholz beef crammed into my sister's freezer.

b) I would stop growing cereal grains and oilseed crops. 

The physical strain involved with growing these crops is not worth it.  Lifting heavy bags of seed, shoveling grain, and wrestling heavy pieces of broke-down equipment into position to fix them are all too hard on me.  The lack of sleep associated with seeding and harvest make also make me weaker and less able to monitor my actual ability to accomplish such tasks without hurting myself.

In addition, the costs associated with growing these crops in a conventional system (which is what I am used to doing) are too high to allow for this enterprise to be financially (or environmentally) sustainable, especially in years when the weather takes a significant portion of the crop off my hands (as has happened every year since I took over the farm).

c) I would start a market garden.

This is one of the most exciting changes I have made!  In spring 2021, I will transform a tiny hay field behind my house into a garden.  I have spent weeks researching different vegetables, fruits, and herbs and how to grow them in a way that creates a healthy ecosystem to produce healthy food.  A healthy ecosystem requires healthy soil microbes, a variety of healthy plants, and a wonderful diversity of pollinators and other beneficial insects.  I feel incredibly overwhelmed thinking of the huge variety of seed I have purchased; I am overwhelmed with both excitement and a sense of inadequacy as I think of how much there still is to learn and how much work there is to do!

I will be selling produce box subscriptions for the 2021 growing season, and will likely sell any excess produce through word-of-mouth and social media.  Maybe one day there will even be a little store on the farm.

Of course, the market garden will require me to do some heavy lifting and hard physical work, but it is a level of physical exertion that I think I can handle.  I have also hired some seasonal employees to help with the physical work, which is another source of excitement and an overwhelming learning curve.

My goal with the market garden is to create a diverse ecosystem.

I have no idea how this will all work out, but I look forward to finding out!  Stay tuned to hear how these adventures go!

Monday, November 16, 2020

Experimenting on the Farm, Part 2

While 2020 has been a year of boredom, new hobbies, and time to catch up on reading for many house-bound folks, on the farm it's been a bit different.  Now that winter has arrived, I've had a bit of time to slow down and write, so I thought it would be fun to tell you, my readers, about some of the new things I've been working on at the farm.

My main objective on the farm is to improve the health and quality of the soil by building biology, rather than focusing on fertility.  A healthy soil biology leads to good soil fertility.

How am I working to improve the soil on the farm?  I have embarked on three experiments this year.  The first two are described in a previous post.

Experiment #1: Rotational Grazing

Experiment #2: Compost

Experiment #3: Cover Crops

A new experiment this year was to implement cover crops with my barley crop.  This experiment had a few objectives.  First, I wanted to increase the biodiversity in the field.  Diversity of plant life above the soil can decrease pest pressure on a crop.  A diversity of plant life below the ground contributes to more efficient nutrient cycling and soil building due the difference of plant needs and root structures.  

Second, I wanted to have living plants growing in the field after harvest for the cattle to graze.  These plants would give me extra grazing days, allow for efficient fertilizer spread (the cows put down the manure themselves), and hold the soil in place once the crop was gone.  

Third, I wanted to be sure to have useful plants (rather than weeds) growing in the field in case of a crop disaster.

The cover crop mix I used was 40% Italian ryegrass, 30% Berseem clover, and 10% kale.  I used this mix with barley in two different situations.  

In one field, we encountered a serious weed problem, as well as significant moisture in some low areas, which meant that we had to wait until late spring to seed most of that field.  The barley-ryegrass-clover-kale mixture was harvested as green feed (similar to hay), because the barley would not have had time to ripen having been planted so late.  After harvest, my cousin was able to graze his cattle on the stubble, as well.  In this situation, the cover crop was meant to add nutrition to the feed harvested.

The green feed mix next to the ripe grain (barley only) in the field that could only be partially seeded early in the spring.

In the second field, I planted the barley-cover crop mix at the regular time and harvested the barley as a feed grain (cattle feed).  The cover crop here was mainly meant to allow for post-harvest grazing.  As it turns out, we had a very wet spring and summer, which caused some crop failure in all of the barley fields in the community, including this one.  However, in every place where the barley failed, the cover crop (especially the ryegrass) thrived.  I was able to harvest some barley from that field, but the real value came from the post-harvest grazing allowed by the cover crops.

In the cut area, you can see the green cover crop growing underneath the golden barley.

In some areas, the kale outcompeted all else.

From a distance, it looked like I had allowed weeds in my barley, but most of this is cover crop peeking through the crop.

In some wet areas, the Italian ryegrass grew where nothing would.

Here are some things I had learned from this cover crop experiment:

  • the Italian ryegrass out-competed everything else in wet or slightly wet areas
  • the kale was a big hit with the cattle (not so much with my dad)
  • the kale grew best in soil located where we had fed the cows the previous winter and tended to out-compete the crop in those spots
  • the straw ended up with a lot of green plants in it, which will likely result in the cows eating most of their bedding
Let me know in the comments what types of experiments you have tried on your farms, in your homes and gardens, or in your businesses!

Experimenting on the Farm

While 2020 has been a year of boredom, new hobbies, and time to catch up on reading for many house-bound folks, on the farm it's been a bit different.  Now that winter has arrived, I've had a bit of time to slow down and write, so I thought it would be fun to tell you, my readers, about some of the new things I've been working on at the farm.

My main objective on the farm is to improve the health and quality of the soil by building biology, rather than focusing on fertility.  A healthy soil biology leads to good soil fertility.

To illustrate this objective, consider the photo below.  Both handfuls of soil came from my garden, from spots several meters apart.  The soil on the left has higher levels of organic matter and fertility than the soil on the right.  This can be seen in the difference in colour, texture, and the amount of roots present in the soil.  The problem with these two handfuls of soil is that I cannot figure out what I did differently from one half of the garden to the other to produce such different results.  If I had thought to take a picture of the difference in the crop produced, I would show that, too.  Suffice it to say, the plants grown in the soil on the left were far healthier and more productive than those grown in the soil on the right.

Two different handfuls of soil taken a few meters apart from each other.

How am I working to improve the soil on the farm?  I have embarked on three experiments this year.

Experiment #1: Rotational Grazing

I've been working for a few years to implement grazing programs that allow the land and plants to rest in between grazing periods (previously, the pastures were grazed continuously throughout the growing season).  There is still a lot of work to do, but we have been able to get the cows to graze more of the under-utilized low-areas.

In the future, I want to get every pasture appropriately divided up for rotational grazing and establish a more consistent pattern of movement.

The video above shows the herd moving from one section of the pasture to another (the sections being divided by an electric fence, which is turned off during the move). As you can see, the move is relaxed enough for a very wobbly newborn calf to keep up.

Experiment #2: Compost

My latest experiment is one that is for the benefit of next year's venture: a market garden.  I am planning to turn a small hay field in my backyard into a large garden for the commercial production of vegetables.  Since tillage is a major cause of soil degradation, I have been exploring ways to reduce tillage in the garden.  One way is to put down thick layers of compost on top of the soil and plant into that, rather than planting into the soil.  

In order for the compost to be free of weed seeds and germs, it needs to undergo rapid hot composting, a process that is very new to me.  I have begun an experiment with a pile of manure and straw bedding from last winter.  Using the tractor, I pushed the pile into rows and turn the rows every day or two.  Microbes with in the rows are supposed to grow rapidly and break down the material within a few weeks, creating enough heat to kill any germs and weed seeds.  

While I have witnessed the piles creating some heat, the pockets of heat are not evenly distributed throughout the compost.  I have my doubts as to whether this will work well in the winter with this older pile of manure.  I will try another round of rapid hot composting in the late spring of 2021 using a fresher pile of manure and straw.

The two piles of compost, freshly turned.

Partially composted manure/straw mixture.

Experiment #3: Cover Crops

As this post has gone on quite long enough, I will leave this last experiment to a later post.

Let me know in the comments what types of experiments you have tried on your farms, in your homes and gardens, or in your businesses!

Friday, September 18, 2020

A Word About Animals

Growing up on the farm, I assumed that all kids grew up understanding certain things about animals.  We had various animals around all the time, watched wildlife run through nearby fields, and read tons of books and watched VHS tapes (remember those?) about animals of all kinds.  While we could be fascinated and enchanted and eager to learn more, the one thing we always knew was that animals are dangerous.

Even a tame animal can turn on a person.  To this day, I never walk near the cows without straining my ears for any sound of fast-moving hooves or glancing over my shoulder in all directions as I go.  My cattle aren't wild or mean.  They also aren't tame enough to have lost their fear of humans.  Even so, I can never assume they are safe.

Wild animals are even more unpredictable than domesticated animals.  Herds will stampede, individual animals will charge, cornered animals will bite or scratch, and some predators will view humans as food.  

That's right.  Those majestic, innocent creatures might just choose you for lunch.  If you go running in the woods, expect to trigger the chase instinct in a cougar.  If you go hiking in the wilderness keep an eye out for bears and have some sort of defense mechanism with you.  Oh yes, I know.  You already know that bears might attack if they are startled or if you get too near their food or cubs.  Did you also know that bears will hunt humans?  That wasn't in your bear aware training, was it?

I'm not saying that every bear will make predatory attacks on humans, but it is not out of the question.  I was reminded of this by a recent post on social media.  Reading the story of a couple who survived a predatory attack by a bear reminded me of something I read nearly a year ago, in a 1921 book by Agnes C. Laut entitled, "The Fur Trade of North America."  Chapter 4 of Part 2 begins this way:

"The city man, who goes bear-hunting with a bodyguard of armed guides in a field where the hunted have been on the run from the hunter for a century, gets a very tame idea of the natural bear in its natural state. Bears that have had the fear of man inculcated with long-range repeaters lose confidence in the prowess of an aggressive onset against invisible foes. The city man comes back from the wilds with a legend of how harmless bears have become. In fact, he doesn't believe a wild animal ever attacks unless it is attacked. He doubts whether the bear would go on its life-long career of rapine and death, if hunger did not compel it, or if repeated assault and battery from other animals did not teach the poor bear the art of self-defense.

"Grizzly old trappers coming down to the frontier towns of the Western States once a year for provisions, or hanging round the forts of the Hudson's Bay Company in Canada for the summer, tell a different tale. Their hunting is done in a field where human presence is still so rare that it is unknown and the bear treats mankind precisely as he treats all other living beings from moose and the musk-ox to mice and ants - as fair game for his own insatiable maw."

The inside cover of Agnes C. Laut's "The Fur Trade of America"

The majority of the chapter is filled by several stories of bears hunting and brutally attacking people (I first read this chapter at night - big mistake!) The chapter ends as follows:

"Such is bear-hunting and such is the nature of the bear. And these things are not of the past. Wherever long-range repeaters have not put the fear of man in the animal heart, the bear is the aggressor. Even as I write comes word from a little frontier fur post which I visited in 1901, of a seven-year-old boy being waylaid and devoured by a grizzly only four miles back from a transcontinental railway. This is the second death from the unprovoked attacks of bears within a month in that country - and that month, the month of August 1902, when sentimental ladies and gentlemen many miles away from danger were sagely discussing whether the bear is naturally ferocious or not - whether, in a word, it is altogether humane to hunt bears."

All that to say, wild animals in general are unpredictable and dangerous. I have seen far too many videos on social media lately of people getting close to such wild animals as bears and bison just to get a video or see the beast up close. These are not tame animals. 

If you want to marvel at the beauty of a wild animal or snap a photo, that's fine.  Just make sure you are at a safe distance.  

If you are in a vehicle, stay in the vehicle.  

If you are on foot, keep your distance.  Keep a much greater distance than you might want.  

If an animal approaches you, even if it seem friendly and/or curious, back away and get to safety.  Do not run unless it is the only option.  Running will trigger a predator's chase instinct and you will never outrun that animal.

Beware large herbivores.  Bison, moose, elk, and even deer can also be dangerous if they are cornered, protecting their young or territory, or during the season of rut.

I don't write this to scare you or to deter you from enjoying nature.  I simply want to do my part to keep you all safe.  As I mentioned earlier, I have seen far too many videos on social media that have left me shaking my head and wondering how the person survived an encounter with so many foolish blunders.

My best piece of advice is this: learn all you can about as many different animals as you can.  

Read such things as pocket guides of mammals, animal behaviour books, blogs from farmers talking about their cows, magazine articles about newly discovered species, books about true stories of crazy survival events.  Buy children's books about different types of animals and read them with your kids.  Everything you can learn about animals (and other aspects of nature) is important.  

Some of the animal information sources in my house. 
I wasn't kidding about the children's books and VHS tapes.

The tiny little bits of trivia may not seem important as you learn them, but as they accumulate, your understanding will grow and you will be well equipped to venture into nature in as safe a manner as possible.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Flexibility in a Farmer's Day

It is 10:38 am on a lazy Monday morning.  It is too damp out to rake or bale the hay that we cut last week.  It is too cold to want to do odd jobs outside.  Okay, it's 6 degrees outside, a temperature that I will consider downright balmy come spring.  But on this September day, just a few days after I spent hours sweating in a tractor, I am not exactly enthusiastic about going outside.  Autumn is my wimpy season.

Inside the house isn't much better at 14 degrees.  I am too stubborn to turn on the furnace yet, so I am huddled under a blanket in my living room, watching a science show and considering my tasks for the day.  

I need to do chores.  At this time of year, chores consist of feeding a bit of grain to the few yearlings that will soon be butchered for beef and feeding the barn cats.  Neither of those jobs is urgent.  The yearlings eat mainly hay - they were eating grass up until a few days ago when I ran out of enough pasture close to the yard - and I know they have plenty of hay to eat until I bring them their dessert.  I only feed the cats to keep them somewhat tame and encourage them to stick around.  They are my pest control officials.  My dad has just told me that he is going to cut the last few acres of hay, so he will be busy until lunchtime or so.

As I weigh my options concerning what I can do after chores, my phone rings.  It is my mom - who is on her way to the city, telling me that some calves, and maybe some cows, are in the neighbour's canola.  Frustrated, I get off the phone, shove my feet into my running shoes, and take off sprinting down the driveway to catch my dad, who is just leaving with the tractor and discbine.  By the time I get his attention, we are both at the end of the driveway and I am coughing in a futile attempt to get the sudden rush of cold air out of my lungs.  Between coughs, I relay the message to my dad and we both turn around and head back to the yard.  Chasing escaped cattle back into the pasture is not always a one-person job.

Dad parks the tractor, while I return to the house to replace my shoes with work boots and to put on a sufficient coat.  As I jog to the garage to find my gloves, I realize I am clad almost entirely in brown.  Brown boots, brown work pants, brown coat.  My dark blue hoodie sticks out the top of my coat, and a dirty orange cap tops my head.  This ensemble will have to change drastically in a few weeks when hunting season starts.  At that time, I will ensure my orange cap is clean and that I am wearing my coveralls with high visibility stripes any time I go out to the field or pasture.  I will not be mistaken for a deer!

Within a few minutes of the phone call, my dad and I are in the truck, driving to the rented pasture where a third of my herd has been living for the summer.  The cows have been escaping from this pasture all summer and we have been chasing cows back in, searching for holes in the fences, and fixing and strengthening the fence as much as possible.  By this time, we cannot fathom where they have possibly found a weak spot to escape.  

Dad teaching my friend to build a fence as we replaced part of the fence on my aunt's land in 2015.

Cresting the hill next to my aunt's property, we slow down and starting scanning the pasture for the herd.  This pasture is actually two separately-owned pastures right next to each other.  Whoever rents my aunt's pasture gets to rent the neighbour's pasture because the neighbour's land has no water.  The problem part of the pasture is on the neighbour's land, where a line of huge power lines run through the property, making it difficult to crop the land because farmers don't want to drive around poles and support cables all the time.  We easily spot the herd spread across this portion of the pasture, but no animals in the next-door canola field.  A few are right next to the fence, in an area that juts into the field, but on closer inspection. they are all still in the pasture.

Relieved, my dad and I drive into the pasture just to make sure nothing is wrong.  All is well.

Since we're there, we decide to count the herd to make sure all of the animals are there.  I will count the cows, and dad will count the calves.  Some time later, we are sure that there are 29 cows, 1 heifer, and 1 bull.  There are at least 29 calves.  There should be 30, but counting calves isn't easy in a slightly spooked, moving, bunched up herd.

Can you count the calves in this picture?
This herd is spread out and standing still. Imagine the difficulty if they were bunched up and moving!

Finally giving up and leaving the cattle to settle down, we return home and get back to what we were doing an hour earlier: Dad takes the tractor out to the field and I finally get around to doing my chores and trying to figure out what to do next.  Utilizing the flexibility that allows for such delays is a normal part of a farmer's day.

What did I end up doing?  I retreated to the (somewhat warmer) house and wrote a blog.