Category Archives: Infrastructure

The Ponds Work, and Now They Work for Us

A big hole where a pond will be

Good Life Ranch is hilly, to say the least.  We are in the “Knobs” country west of the Appalachians and most of our property consists of the western and southern sides of a ridge and the hollows running up into it from the valley floor.

Gravity does a number on water coming off of a ridge.  Erosion city.  Or country.  Or whatever.  Most of the time nature will figure out a way to slow the water down with deposition, meandering, or vegetation.  Leave it to mankind to create straight lines that allows water to build up speed.  Water coming downhill at speed will take away your topsoil and subsoil really quick.

We have such an eroded spot underneath a powerline cut that runs straight down the ridge and is kept free of vegetation by the utility company.  It needed to be fixed because it has created a 10-foot deep gully that kept getting deeper and straighter with every major rain event. 

In permaculture, often the problem is the solution.

Why not fight water with water?

Our solution was to build a pond and swale system to slow the water down, spread it out, retain it in a couple of ponds, and allow it to slowly infiltrate into the soil.   Much better than having it all running directly into the stream below and taking more and more soil with it.  Eventually it would have taken the fence too.

So I took out the trees that would have interfered with the digging or were near the dam wall for the ponds.  I hate taking out trees, but it had to be done and rest assured, more will be planted elsewhere.  Trees in or near the dam wall would eventually undermine the integrity of the structure as their roots invaded the ponds seeking the water.  My neighbor has a skidsteer and rents himself out for $25/hour so I hired him to actually do the digging.  It only took him a few hours to dig the ponds out and build the dam walls.

Then we put in swales on the downhill side of the ponds.   That is where the water goes when the ponds are full.   A swale is a level ditch, dug on contour, with a mound of uncompacted soil on the downhill side.  That mound of uncompacted soil serves to wick water up to trees and shrubs planted in it and creates a nice place for their roots to to stabilize the system. 

The idea is that the ponds and swales act as a “surge protector.”  They slow the water down, spread it out, and allow it to soak into the ground rather than carrying off all of the soil as it rushes unchecked into the stream below.  The ponds can each hold 10,000 – 15,000 gallons of water each when full, and the swales can hold several thousand more so there is quite a bit of water retention there.

So we got all of that done during late August and early September, the driest period of the year.  Then we had to wait to see if it would work.

Ponds dug and ready for rain

And we waited…

Then we got a couple days of nice rain!

Ponds holding water

And the ponds worked!  They held water.  It may sound silly, but it’s always touch and go until a pond actually fills up.  Some leak, some blow, some never fill.  These did, as you can see.

Now not only do we have surge protection spreading water through the landscape and preventing erosion, we also have water retention.  That allows for all sorts of other possibilities.  The ponds can water livestock, hold fish, provide wildlife habitat, and all manner of other ideas.

Using water to buffer water.

The problem is the solution.

Thanks, permaculture.

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New Pastures are Nice

Over the past 5 years we have been slowly fencing in pastures to keep our livestock safe and secure and to help protect our erosion prone areas like steep hillsides, ponds, and streambanks.  We started off with nothing fenced in, just a half mile of decorative white vinyl fencing that the previous owners installed.  The livestock laugh at that fence as a barrier.  They go right through it.  

Our first grazing animals were the goats, and we made do with electric netting with them for a year while we fenced in our first pasture that fronts the road.  The electric netting works really well for rotational grazing, but it’s not good for the sole barrier between the animals and danger.  Sometimes it shorts out and it’s no barrier at all when it’s not electrified.  Sometimes it blows down in heavy winds.  It’s just not good to have only electric fence.

We finished that first pasture in mid-2011 before we got our first few cattle, and then we fenced in another smaller pasture the next year.

Those were the easy ones.  The final 2 pastures were much more difficult to complete because we had to go over the ridge, through the woods, to grandma’s house we go.  Those 2 pastures were finally finished in very late 2014, so this has been our first full year with 4 pastures that we can rotate our animals around on.  It’s still less than 40 acres, but it’s the only grazeable land we have right now.

The final pasture, all the way on the north side of the property, was utilized by our Amish neighbor for the last few years as cropland so there was no pasture there.  This spring I seeded it with a mixture of grass and clover.  Those are the only  seeds we’ve put in any pasture.  The other pastures have been rejuvenated through grazing alone.

But seeding that pasture was definitely worth it.  All year it has been lush and green and growing faster than any other pasture we’ve got.  The cattle and sheep race me to get into that field every time we rotate them back to it.  It makes me think about drilling some seeds through the sod in our other pastures next year. 

Sheep and cattle enjoying lush November pasture

Internet in the Boonies – or “Why I Hate HughesNet”

Sometimes a farmer needs the internet.  You may want to research livestock breeds, order heritage seeds from a mom and pop nursery, download an electrical schematic to fix the tractor, maintain a website to attract customers, or take an online course to further your education.

But out where we live, internet options are limited.  When we lived in the big city we had our choice of providers, pretty much all of whom delivered reasonably fast internet at a reasonable price.  It’s amazing what competition in the marketplace can do.  Unreliable companies and services go out of business quickly, and reliable companies continue on.  In rural America, that’s not the case.  From the time we moved to our farm in 2010 until September of 2015, we had only 1 choice in internet service provider – HughesNet.  Cue scary music.

We “inherited” our HughesNet service from the previous owners of our property.  But for 5 years, regardless of how many times I logged in and mad the change or called to tell them, HughesNet was never able to put our names on our service.  They were happy to accept our payments, but they were somehow unable to put our internet service into our names.

HughesNet Gen 4 advertises speeds of 15 megabites per second (mbps).  We never got close to that:

  
As you can see, with HughesNet Gen 4 we topped out at 3.49 mbps, and had periods of 0.10 mbps and 0.13 mbps.  And if the weather clouds up, forget it.  So the times that a farmer is most likely to have a moment to use the internet, it is not available.  HughesNet definitely overpromised and underdelivered.  Streaming video at those speeds is not a pleasant experience.  You can’t see any detail in the picture, and the constant buffering will quickly make you give up.  Video chatting with friends and family is out as well.

What you also don’t hear in the commercials, and did not tell us when we signed up for their service, is that HughesNet limits internet usage on your account.  You get 20 GB on the plan we had, which might seem like enough to watch a couple streaming movies in a month but is really only enough to update your computer and apps.  If you go over your 20 GB limit, HughesNet shuts your speed down to nothing.  Literally nothing.  You don’t think it’s possible for HughesNet service to get slower, but it is.

I tried many times to get HughesNet to look at our service, but they refused to acknowledge that there was any issue.  “Internet speeds vary” I was told.  “The issue must be with your computer.” “You must be measuring your internet speed incorrectly.” 

For those 20 GB of low speed (3.49 mbps maximum speed is low speed, HughesNet) our monthly bill was $99.99, plus all of the federal and state taxes that appear on any internet, cable, or phone bill.

We had Winstream phone service, and I would stop in their office in Campbellsville every few months and ask if their internet service was available to us yet.  The answer remained “no” until one auspicious day in late August of this year.  They gave me a modem and told me to hook it up to our phone line.  I asked how fast it was and the representative told me to expect 12 mbps at the top end.

“Is there a limit on internet usage or downloads?” I asked.

“What? Of course not.”

I took the modem, plugged it in, and 5 miutes later Lindsey said “It’s like we just jumped 30 years in technology.”

It was that much better.

  
Windstream delivered exactly what they said.  12 mbps.  No download limits.  We can stream movies and video chat with our families when our son wants to see his grandparents.

Videos are in HD and don’t have to buffer.  Updating a computer takes minutes rather than hours.  My son now knows his grandparents have discernible faces.

And the price?

Hard to say.  

I can tell you this.  We were paying $45 for Windstream phone service and $99.99 for HughesNet internet.  Now Windstream gives us much better internet service and upgraded our existing phone service for a monthly bill of $64.99.

Life is better.

One of the best phone calls I have ever gotten to make was to break up with HughesNet.  Of  course, I had to tell them my name was Michael, because they still couldn’t get my name on my account.

Check out provider options before moving out to the boonies.  You may have more luck than we did starting out.   I can heartily recommend Windstream, and tell you with equal vigor to steer clear of HughesNet.

Happy interwebbing, farmers.  May you find non-buffering vdeos of rotationally-grazed cattle in your future.

Another Growing Season in the Books

It’s been a ridiculous amount of time since I’ve blogged.  I probably should apologize, but I’m not sure if anyone reads this anyway.  But with a 160-acre farm, a full-time teaching job, a wife, and a young son (oh yeah, that is new, too) I feel like blogging definitely falls on the low end of my priority scale.  You understand.

Good Life Ranch has grown and changed a great deal since December 2012, which is the next blog post down the page.

I’ll try to go through the most exciting (for me) changes and improvements we’ve made, in no particular order.

#1 – We traded our goat herd for hair sheep.

 

St. Croix sheep at sunset

 

Not everyone made it into the picture, but you get the idea.

The goats were great, and did their job of clearing brush well.  So well, in fact, that they ate themselves out of a job.  We were actually able to sell the entire herd to one farm so they all got to stay together as a unit and keep their herd structure intact.

Now that our pastures have been improved a bit through our management-intensive rotational grazing, we decided that hair sheep would be a good choice.  They don’t compete much with cattle in terms of the species of plants they graze, they don’t share parasites with cattle so each becomes a dead-end host for the other species’ worms, and the meat is a lot easier to market than goat.   They are also a dream to shepherd around the property, unlike the goats.  They also stay where you put them, unlike goats.   Want to test a maximum security prison?  Put a herd of goats in there and they will find the potential escape routes for you.

 

Our sheep are a bit friendly, as a bonus.

 

#2 – We chose a breed of hog to stick with.

Back in 2012, we were trying out all manner of heritage hog breeds and crosses – we had Gloucester Old Spots, Red Wattles, Mulefoots, Durocs, Tamworths, Hampshires, Berkshires, Herefords…. all have their strengths and weaknesses.

We settled on Large Black hogs.  I trust I don’t need to describes their physical appearance.

Large blacks are good grazers, docile, fertile, good mothers, and very intelligent.  They also have delicious marbled meat that can only be described as “phenomenal.”

They have thrived here for us.  We had a new litter just the other day and the piglets are already roaming all over the pasture following mom on her quest for falling nuts.

 

Piglets! Not large yet, but definitely black.

 

#3 – Our cow herd is growing and thriving.

We have grown from our initial 2 cow-calf pairs into a herd of 17.  We have had a few more animals go through our farm.  Some have graced plates and some have gone to join other herds.

Red poll beef is just awesome.  We raise them for 30 months on nothing but grass of course, and the meat is flavorful and so tender that you really don’t even need a knife on the steaks if you cook them right.  I’ve never had such tender beef before.  I was very nervous before trying it.  Our other meats were very good, but beef on grass only really reflects the character of the grass that the animals are raised on, and I was worried that our still-too-acidic soil would produce off-flavors in the meat.  Not the case at all with our beef.  I’m either lucky or good.  Probably door #1 on that one. 

 

Our herd of cattle and flock of sheep. Our “flerd.”

 

 

A bottle calf. That was a learning curve for everyone.

 

 

Red Poll bull Shuter’s Last Chance aka “Russell”

 

#4 – Back to dogs as livestock guardians.

Even though there is the added chore of feeding them because they don’t eat the same things as the stock they are guarding like llamas and donkeys do, dogs have the advantages of mobility, intelligence, and aggressiveness.  Our new dog, Bubba, is a rescue from a colleague at work, and you don’t mess with his charges.  The first time I picked up a newborn goat kid with Bubba around, he tried to kill my ass.  In front of my grandmother, no less.  Had me down on the ground, big holes in my best jeans.  So now Bubba gets tied to a fence post or tree whenever I have to work with an animal.  But if he’ll do that to me, I now a coyote or a livestock rustler (yes, those exist and strike often around here) doesn’t stand a chance.  Our neighbors have lost animals to both and so far we have not. Bubba did chase a utility company lineman out of the field and the lineman was yelling to his buddies to “shoot the polar bear!”  Bubba is 140 pounds, but still a bit shy of polar bear status.

 

Bubba

 

 

The bane of Bubba’s existence.

 

#5 – Our infrastructure is improving.

We have 4 fields fenced in now, and water access in all 4 with no lugging of 5-gallon buckets for hundreds of yards, which is good becaause I’m getting old.  All told we have around 45-acres of grazeable land now where even if an electric fence is knocked over by wind or a rogue animal the herd still can’t wander off.  

We’ve installed a water tower to gravity feed water to 2 pastures, a solar pump to supply water to the 3rd, and a couple of ponds to collect water for the animals’ use.

 

2 ponds collect water on the hillside

 

I’ve built Eggmobile 2.0 so that the laying chickens can follow the sheep and cattle around the pasture, filling their ecological niche as nature’s sanitation crew.  This version is much sturdier and more maneuverable than its predecessor.  I’ve also built the pigs a Love Shack to keep them warm in the winter and give them a place to make a nest for their litters.  It can be pulled around the farm as needed to keep the pigs moving around the pastures and woodlots as well.

 

Eggmobile 2.0

 

 

The Love Shack for the large black hogs.

 

#6 – I took a Permaculture Design Course and am now a certified permaculture designer and consultant.

This was one of the best courses I have ever taken, and I have been to a LOT of school!  I took the course from a man named Geoff Lawton, who is well-known in the permaculture world, and I can’t say enough about his teaching ability.

If you are unfamiliar with it, permaculture is a discipline that uses ecological principles to benefit humanity and the environment.  Basically learning how to accentuate and accelerate natural processes in order to create security and an abundance of food, energy, and health.  I highly recommend looking into permaculture.  If you’re reading this blog and not a blood relative of mine, you’ll be interested in it.  If you are a blood relative, you may still be interested.  Because it is interesting.  🙂

I am now able to use my knowledge to create and design properties for people who would like to create a little slice of food-producing, energy-producing, waste-reducing, health-increasing, happiness-inducing oasis on their property.  If you are interested in doing something like that, get in contact with me.  I’d love to help you make your dream come true!  

Geoff Lawton doing his thing.

 

#7 – Lifestyles Lane is ready.

Thanks to the help of our intrepid interns, we now have quite the impressive array of structures back in the village.  I believe I have posted about Haiti, Cambodia, and the urban slum.  We also have India, China, a refugee camp, Moldova, and a Maasai round house.

I am indebted to all of our interns who gave so generously of their time and energy to help us build all of this, so I feel the need to credit their effort by listing them here.  They are:  Cameron Day, Alexa Zanikos, Grayson Middleton, Catherine Alvarez-McCurdy, Katie Black, Annalise Carington, Julian Cross, Dana Eardley, Meredith Prentice, Sam Abney, Jacob Klein, Riley Francis, Allison Vigil, Rachel Seidner, Trevor Antrim (twice!), Bianca Lopez, Mariana Vazquez-Walter, Alex Cohen, Sarah Elizabeth McLaughlin, Emma (King) Fife, Tyler Swank, Hannah Kavy, Laura Prentice, Gabriela Castanon, Jake Weeth, Joy Rathman (twice!), Mackenzie Despain (twice!), Judah Oechsle, Grace Herndon, Abigail Land, Brianna Vitt, Sarah Gonzalez (twice!), Savannah Gonzalez, Liam Day, Caitee Nigro, Nicholas Ochoa, Avery Riester, and Isabella de la Rosa.  Muchas gracias a todos!

It’s been a great couple years.  I will put more effort into keeping this blog more active.  Please ask questions and give feedback in the comments section.

Early Winter

It’s been raining for 4 days straight, so I’ve finally found some time to blog.  I may have to cut this short if it keeps raining and try to teach the chickens how to swim.  Sorry for the long absence, but I’ve been teaching Spanish at the high school lately (yikes!) and with the daylight getting shorter each day I just haven’t found the time to put pencil to paper.  Er, fingers to keyboard.

Since the last blog, we’ve mostly put the gardens to bed.  There are still some greens and peas hanging on, but everything else has been chopped and mulched with leaves from the surrounding trees.  I’ve been working really hard on the gardens this summer and fall.  Next year should be our most ambitious gardens yet!  Lindsey’s dad Ronnie wants to help out with the gardens and essentially combine our labor on the gardens here to produce veggies for both of our families.  I’ve prepped the 2 raised bed gardens that we’ve used the whole time we’ve been here, the 3 Sisters garden that we made two years ago, and the new “straw garden” I made last fall and put to its first use this year.  I’ve also “broken ground” on two new gardens that we’ll use for the first time this coming spring.  One will be another standard garden and the other will be a trellis garden for growing vertically-oriented crops like cucumbers, Malabar spinach, peas and beans, and small squashes.  All of our gardens are created by first closely mowing all of the vegetation.  Then we lay down cardboard sheet mulch to block any regrowth (thanks to Jake and Ronnie’s move we’ve had access to a lot of cardboard).  After that I throw on layers of manure and old hay and straw and let that mix compost in place all winter.  Then in the spring, the garden is ready to go!  Plant, mulch, harvest!  All told, next year we should have almost 12,000 ft² of garden space in production next year!

The Food Forest in the backyard is moving along nicely as well.  This year we managed to get almost of the trees planted!  Our ultimate goal here is to teach people that a phenomenal amount of food can be produced in a regular suburban-sized back yard.  When we moved here there were a few raspberries planted in the backyard, but that was it.  Last year we planted grapevines and built an herb spiral with our interns Cameron and Alexa.  This year we got 5 apple trees in the ground (Gala, Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, MacIntosh, and Arkansas Black), 2 plums, 2 sweet cherries, several blueberry bushes, 3 pawpaws, a mulberry, 2 hardy almonds, 2 brown turkey figs, 2 mayhaws, and 2 golden chain trees.  Most of the trees look like sticks right now, although the ones we planted in the spring put on some good growth.  These will be the canopy layer of our Food Forest and we wanted to get them growing as soon as possible since it will take several years for us to begin to see the literal fruits of our labor.  Next year the goal for the Food Forest will be to begin the establishment of the understory plants to grow underneath the trees.  These shorter plants will provide some food, but will also accumulate nutrients, block the grass, and generate mulching material on site.  Right now all the mulch comes from old chicken and rabbit bedding.  These plants will include comfrey, horseradish, rhubarb, Jerusalem artichokes, sea buckthorns, nasturtiums, daffodils, and other shorter plants.  Once the trees get larger, we’ll add some more vining plants for another layer in the forest.

We also got a corral built around the winter quarters for the cattle and goats.  Now the animals should be secure behind a solid physical barrier.  We’ve been using just electric fencing and that isn’t a great winter solution because it doesn’t work very well in the winter.  We can’t keep the batteries charged well in the cold and snow shorts the fence out on occasion.  But now we shouldn’t have to worry about escapes due to faulty fencing.  We’ll be down to just human error now.  No place else for me to hide!

We are continuing to learn about pigs.  I really like them!  They eat a lot, but they are very useful and I can see them improving our woodlots paddock by paddock.  Now if their jaws could just get strong enough to actually crack all of the black walnuts they have access to we could cut the feed bill down significantly!

Finally, we’ve adopted a cow for the short term.  One of our Amish neighbors needed his cow bred, so we traded out our bull Russell’s stud services for some hay.  I didn’t ask Russell for his permission, but I can attest to the fact that he did not mind a bit.  I like this deal a lot.  Our bull knocks up someone else’s heifer and we get a half a winter’s worth of hay from it.  Only with cows…

 

South Field Fenced

Google Earth image overlay of the area we just fenced. About 8 acres south of the greenhouse and bird barn.

Hooray!

Last week my neighbor Elden and I finished fencing in the south field.  This is important because we now have 2 securely fenced areas in which we can graze our animals.  That’s good because next year we will have to separate the bulls and bucks from the cows and does during the time from calving/kidding until rebreeding.  Without this fence we would have been solely reliant on electric fencing to contain them.  Our animals are well-trained to the electric fencing and do respect it, but I don’t like it as the sole containment for the animals because sometimes storms or high winds can knock it over and then your prized animals are loose in the woods somewhere…

This fence job went far more smoothly than when we fenced in the front field last year.  We bought a hydraulic post pounder and used a skidsteer to set the posts in the ground.  So much faster than digging all the holes and setting each post by hand (which means hauling in gravel, shoveling it into each hole, and then tamping the gravel down with the throw bars – exhausting), as well as heart-pounding, ear-splitting, and dangerous.  But it only took us 3 days to get all of the posts into the ground, as opposed to 4 weeks last time.

This field formerly had a fence along the eastern side just below the old logging access road you can see in the Google Earth image.  This fence row had grown up over the years and was covered in cedars, honeysuckles, brambles, poison ivy, and all manner of other nasties that would make clearing the fence row difficult.  So in the month prior to starting the project, we ran our goats and pigs (separately, of course – no goat suppers for the pigs!) through the fence row.  Those guys happily ate, trampled, and otherwise demolished the vast majority of the nasty stuff.  By the time they were through with it, Elden and I only had to spend a morning with a couple of chainsaws to clear out the remnants.  Aren’t livestock wonderful when you can use them to do your dirty work?  And you’ve never seen happier pigs!

After setting all of the posts and braces we stretched 4″ x 4″ goat and sheep fencing and hammered and hammered and hammered and hammered staples to secure the fencing to the posts.  I think this type of fence will do much better for us than the standard field fencing we used in the front field.  It doesn’t matter for the cattle, but the young goats get the heads stuck in the field fence constantly and the 4″ x 4″ fence should keep them from being able to stick their heads through and getting caught.

All that’s left to do is stick the gates on for access and the field is ready for grazing!  It’s first action will be the cattle and half of the goat herd.  The other half of the goat herd will remain in the front field.  This separation is to prevent inbreeding and so we can control which buck had access to which does.

Next project: corral panels and gutters for the new barn to provide a more secure and drier winter environment for the cattle and goats.  Should be done by the first week of November!

Beginning our Forage Forest

So I don’t know how many readers have actually been able to visit GLR yet, but for those who haven’t gotten the chance…

… It’s a bit hilly, hillbilly.

We have 3 fields/pastures totaling around 40 acres that are relatively flat, but the aren’t all connected.  Plus, we’d like to be able to utilized more of the property for food production.  So here’s the plan, which is now underway.  Barely.

The green highlighted area above the pasture and below the old-growth forest is the area that will become the forage forest.

In the Google Earth snapshot above, the green area represents what will become the forage forest.  It’s an area that was once clear-cut and turned into pasture but over the last 15 years or so has grown up with all manner of brush – young cedars, oaks, poplars, hickories, and some brambles and berries.  When we first moved here I thought we would clear out all of that secondary growth and turn that portion of the hillside below the old-growth forest at the top of the ridge back into pasture for our ruminants.

The problem with that idea is the slope of the land:

Here’s a view of the typical slope we are talking about. It seems much steeper when you’re on site.

I understand that the previous farmers on this property had turned this portion of the farm into pasture, but I also have eyes and can see that all of the topsoil on this slope is not there anymore.  It’s probably been washed down into the creek and off to the Green River.  That slope is just not conducive to short grass.  It needs things with deep roots to hold the topsoil in place.

Those of you who know me know that I like to think about things for long periods of time before taking action.  I’ve been pondering that steep hillside for 3 years now.  I’ve thought… pasture, orchard, grapes(!), water slide into the creek, leave it alone, etc.  Then I came across a book that I think all landowners should read – J Russell Smith’s Tree Crops.  It was written in 1929 and it’s still revolutionary and ahead of its time today.  It has inspired what our hillside will become – a forage forest using native trees to hold the topsoil, provide forage and shelter for our livestock, and provide a microclimate under the canopy into which we can sow annual and perennial ground-level crops.

Here’s the idea:

  1. We utilize the pigs and goats this fall to eat down some of the brush (especially the briars and brambles) and root up the thin soil a bit to help loosen the grip the bunchgrass has on the hillside.  This part is starting to happen as we speak.
  2. This winter, when there’s more room to move around after the leaves are off and the goats and pigs have thinned things out a bit, I will go in there and selectively remove trees.  Most of the cedars will go away to be used as fence posts or be turned into other useful things.  Lindsey likes them to keep moths out of her sweaters.  The best oaks, hickories, and berry patches will stay and the rest of them thinned to give the best trees room and light to grow even better.
  3. After the thinning, we will plant some native forage-producing trees in the gaps created by the thinning process and (for the shade-loving trees) under the canopies of the existing nut trees.  These forage trees will include things like honey locusts, mayhaws, pawpaws, persimmons, crabapples, and mulberries to complement the oaks and hickories.
  4. Underneath the canopy (after the pigs have tilled the soil a little for us) we’ll plant a mix of perennials and annuals that we hope will become a permanent feature of the forest.  We’ll have to manage it carefully for the first five years, but we hope to establish clovers, orchardgrass, alfalfa, Jerusalem artichokes, squashes, berry bushes, turnips, rape, peas, sunflowers, and other little treats in the understory of the forest.
  5. Over time, these planted trees and the existing trees will begin to produce forage that the goats and pigs can self-harvest.  Our plan is to combine the understory plants and the fruit- and nut-fall from the trees and actually not have to feed anything other than what the livestock can gather in the forage forest.

The hard work will come in when we plant the trees.  Kentucky’s Dept of Forestry at least makes it easy to acquire them.  You can order bundles of 100 bare root trees for around $40 from them.  Anybody wanna come help dig this winter?  The hardest part (for me anyway) will be the patience needed to wait for the trees to grow.

So when this forage forest kicks into full production (in like 10 years, *sigh*) our pigs’ year will look like this:

January-February: piglets born, everybody’s in the warm barn, adult pigs eating walnuts saved from October harvest and our extra corn
March:  pigs go into the cattle/goat hayfeeding area to churn compost for us, pigs feeding on the compost and our extra corn
April-May: pigs go onto pasture and start heading towards the forage forest, feeding on grasses & clovers on spring pasture
May-June: pigs go into the forage forest where mayhaws and mulberries are ripe and falling to the ground for them
July-August: mulberries continue to fall, blackberries ripen, ground cover crops plentiful
September: ground cover crops are still going, nut fall is starting, crabapples and pawpaws are dropping off the trees
October: nut fall is in full swing, pigs feast and fatten on hickories, acorns, and hazelnuts
November-December: persimmons and honey locusts drop their bounties, pigs are finished.  Pork is harvested, breeders return to barn.

So that’s the plan – to create a forage forest that produces our pork without any off-farm feed inputs.  With good management, I believe we can also harvest extra fruits and nuts from the forest and run our goats and poultry through the forage forest occasionally as well.  The best part of all of this is that, in addition to producing all of those wonderful products, this plan will actually stabilize that hillside, prevent erosion, shelter our animals, create a corridor to move the cattle through to the back pasture, and provide valuable timber towards retirement time for Lindsey and I.

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New Old Truck

New Old Truck

New Old Truck

We needed a different truck.

We bought our current truck from the previous owner of our property.  It’s a 1997 Silverado 1500 with over 150,000 miles on it.  That’s all well and good, except in the last 2-3 months the transmission has decided that 2nd gear is superfluous, the doors have decided not to open from the inside, and the brake lines won’t hold fluid.  So basically, Lindsey declared it a death trap.

The new old truck we got today actually has more miles on it, but it’s newer and in much better shape.  It’s a 2004 GMC 2500 HD 4×4 diesel with a crew cab.  It also is loaded.  It should have everything we’ll need for the farm and family – room for 5 full-sized people, towing package with Reese and gooseneck hitches, 4×4, and nice tires.  Lindsey is a big fan of the seat warmers.  I looked it up, and this truck cost $48,000 when it was new.  The blue book on it is still over $20,000, and we got it for about half that.  We got a really good deal on it because of the miles, but mechanically it’s in great shape and it should last us a good long while.  (Knock wood)

Thanks to Mom and Pop for help with the down payment!

Lindsey’s singing a song as we speak:

“Geoffson got a real sweet ride.
Geoffson’s truck got doors that open from the inside.
Geoffson got a real sweet ride.”

Barn Raisin’

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We just finished a new barn on our property.  We needed a sheltered area for the goats and cattle for the winter as well as a predator-proof nighttime roost for our poultry to deter the extremely bold and clever minks.

We had one large barn from the 1940’s already but it leans pretty badly, is elevated off the ground (not predator proof), and doesn’t offer any sheltered areas for livestock that are secure.  We have 2 useful stalls that we use for quarantine purposes, but that old barn is really not useful for anything other than storage.

So with the help of Abe, one of our Amish neighbors, we designed a combination run-in shed and poultry roosting house to serve our purposes.  The completed structure is 20′ wide, 48′ long, and 8′ tall at the lowest point of the roof rising to 12′ tall at the apex.  The poultry roosting area is 16′ x 20′ (320 square feet) and the run-in shelter is 32′ by 20′ (640 square feet).

The poultry roosting section is completely enclosed with poplar boxing harvested from our woods at the top of the hill.  The boxing goes all the way up to the roof and spacers are attached to prevent any critter from climbing over the walls.  We also sunk hardwood boards a foot into the ground below the boxing to prevent digging critters.  As an extra measure of protection chicken wire will be stapled to the baseboards, buried beneath a thick layer of gravel planted with thorny cactus and multiflora rosebushes to form a (hopefully) impenetrable barrier to predators.  If any minks, raccoons, or stray cats can get through this, then we’ll just have to give up on raising chickens.  Inside the roosting house will be a bamboo roost, nesting boxes, and a feed bin with a rodent-deterring latching system all over an auto-composting deep bedding system.

The run-in shed serves as shade and shelter for the ruminants during stormy winter weather.  On the open front we will attach 2 16′ gates to span the open side.  One gate will open outwards and one gate will open into the shelter, allowing us to utilized the gate to help us corral goats for hoof trimmings.  We purposefully placed the shelter connected to the garden area to collect the fertility from the hay and manure for our crops.  Basically, the cows poop, we add some grain and cover it with straw or hay, the cows poop more, we add more grain and cover it with straw or hay, and the cows trample out all of the oxygen.  This binds all of the nutrients together and stores them until we’re ready.  No smell and no shoveling manure!

Once the cows and goats are back out on pasture in early April, we’ll buy a couple feeder pigs and turn them into the shelter and garden area.  The pigs will root through all that hay, straw, and manure in search of the grain we buried in there for them.  In the process, the pigs will inject oxygen into all that organic matter and the whole lot of it will begin to compost.  After a few weeks we will have a garden that has been fertilized and tilled as well as a couple of pigs to eat!

This shelter went up very quickly.  It took 3 men (2 Amish and 1 Geoff), 1 teenager, and 1 kid 5 days to complete it.  Very economical as well.  Abe gets good prices.  I priced out the materials at Lowe’s and the wood alone was only $700 less than we paid for the whole structure and the labor.  Plus, it’s built far more sturdily than I could have hope to build it alone.

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The Yolkswagon

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Our Eggmobile is finally complete!

The Eggmobile was invented by Joel Salatin from Polyface Farm to move chickens around the pasture behind cattle in the pasture rotation.  The cattle (or sheep, goats, etc) consume the grass, leaving it short for the chickens.  The ruminants are moved along and then, just like in nature, the birds follow behind the grazing animals.  The chickens visit a section of pasture 3 days after the ruminants do because if you wait 4 days then the fly larvae that are laid in the fresh manure have already become flies.  On day 3 the larvae are nice and plump, so the chickens destroy the cow patties looking for the larvae.  This helps in 2 ways: first, it spreads the manure piles (read: fertility) around and second, it keeps bothersome fly populations low.  As a side benefit the farmer can collect and sell tasty eggs from his pasture sanitation program rather than paying money to purchase insecticidal sprays and fly medications.

My dad won the naming contest before we even announced it, and our new Eggmobile is called the Yolkswagon.  We’ll have to put a logo on it or something.  Maybe one of our summer interns will be artistically adept (more on them later).

The Yolkswagon is 8′ wide and 24′ long and will accommodate up to 250 chickens at night.  During the day, of course, the chickens will be out foraging in the pasture.

Like everything else so far, we built this on the cheap using mostly things we had lying around the farm.  The bottom frame is 2″ x 3″ steel tubing that the previous owners left us.  The steel tubes are bolted together to form a homemade trailer.  Over this framework we attached a layer of 2″ x 4″ wire fencing.  Then we put a layer of chicken wire over that to form a floor that the chickens can walk on but that will also allow their droppings to fall through to the pasture below.

We used some lumber left in the barn to frame out a basic box on top of the steel framework.  There are some diagonal braces for extra support.  Plywood is attached to the framework to form the sides.  The roof is a white PVC product that will keep the rain out and let the light in.

The Yolkswagon has 4 doors cut into the plywood sides.  One door is large and on the front panel.  This door is for the humans to access the Yolkswagon to add feed and water as well as for cleaning purposes, when necessary.  There is a door on the rear panel for the chickens to come and go.  And there is one door on each side to allow us to access the nestboxes daily to collect the eggs.

We put the chickens up in the Yolkswagon for the night so they could begin to get used to their new digs.  Then we started to tow the Eggmobile to the back forty because we wanted them to be far away from their normal area so they couldn’t wander back.  We want the Yolkswagon to be their home, not the poultry house, the backyard, or the gardens.  This is when we found out about my construction mistake.

I had put 13″ flat-free wheelbarrow tires on the trailer.  This was not smart.  I should have gone with the larger tires and an axle, but I was trying to do this cheaply and I thought that pulling the trailer around the pasture at a couple miles per hour a hundred feet at a time would be fine on those smaller tires.  I kept testing the Yolkswagon out as we worked on it by hooking it up to the truck and pulling it around a little, and everything worked fine.

But when we had loaded the chickens up and were moving the Yolkswagon to the back pasture the 13″ tire came right off its wheel.  Luckily Lindsey has some things that she has to go to E-town to get tomorrow, so I know what I’m adding to the list: larger tires!

Oh well.  The wheels will be back on the wagon tomorrow!

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