Posts Tagged ‘family farm’

Spending Money to Save Money. Farm Style.

It’s a funny thing.  Spending money to save money, that is.  As consumers, it’s easy to get sucked in by marketing schemes such as “buy one, get one,” or “spend $100 and save $25.”  I’m pretty sure if you posses a debit card, you are guilty of buying stuff you weren’t planning on buying  just to “save money.”  And most of us get home after doing something like that and roll our eyes when we realize what we did.  Well, spending money to save money on the farm isn’t quite the same, but it’s a similar concept.

Instead of tying our money up in a Washington bureaucracy, we gave some to this farmer, for his tractor. And he is going to turn around and buy another tractor with it, stimluating the economy in our own way. 🙂

Well, if you’re a business owner, chances are you’re familiar with an accountant and tax accounting, and you see where I’m going with this.  A couple weeks before the end of the year, Justin and I paid a visit to our accountant.  We had what’s called a pre-tax planning session.  Essentially, the accountant looked at how much money we had taken in (income) and how much we had spent on business expenses.  Take the income minus the expenses, and you have our taxable income.  Taxable income is what Justin and I have to pay our family expenses such as food, shelter, and transportation.

We don’t get much control over the prices we receive for our crops and livestock, nor do we have a lot of control over the costs of caring for those crops and livestock.  This means our taxable income varies wildly from year to year.  Some years we will make a lot of money, other years we will make no money, and some years we will lose money.  In the years we make a lot of money, it is advisable to spend it on business expenses before the end of the year, to reduce our taxable income and therefore our tax bill.  In the years that we make no money or lose money, we will attempt to sell some crops or livestock before the end of the year to give ourselves some taxable income.  It is desirable to try to keep our taxable income with a reasonable range from year to year.  At least, that’s our philosophy.

Well, this year was a good year.  A very good year.  Our income was considerably higher than our expenses.  Which means we had to spend some money or give a huge chunk of it to Uncle Sam.

Think of it this way…

Instead of getting a tax refund, you owe the government $10,000 in taxes on April 15th.  But, you could invest $7500 in your IRA or 401K and only owe $2500 to Uncle Sam.  Which would you do?  Invest the money and pay $2500 or just give the whole $10,000 to help reduce the federal defecit?  I have a pretty good hunch that most would choose to invest in themselves.

So….we purchased a tractor and grain cart as opposed to sending an exorbitant amount of money to our representatives in Washington and Des Moines.  Don’t worry, we will still have a taxable income and will be sending in a healthy chuck of money to take care of our patriotic duty to pay taxes as well as operate our farm more efficiently.

See Russell down by the tire?? The grain cart we bought is huge!! It holds one and a half semi's worth of grain!

Factory Farmed Animals Live in Horrible Conditions and GMOs Will Kill You!

These poor cattle will spend the rest of their lives lounging around, being served food, and having their bedding fluffed. Such a rough life they will live in confinement.

I often find myself in a predicament.  This usually happens when I go looking for trouble.  Somewhere out there in cyberspace, someone will post an article about “Big Bad GMOs,” or the horror of “Factory Farming.”  Inevitably, the comments on these sorts of things are filled with hatred and inaccuracy.  There is always mention of “greedy industrial farmers who only care about making money while ruining the environment and confining animals.”  As a farmer who raises livestock and crops with so-called “industrial” methods, these things always get me going, and they always put me in a difficult situation.

I will reply (yeah, I know, glutton for punishment) by posting a comment to the tune of, “As a farmer who uses modern methods of livestock production, I get tired of people telling me that I treat my animals poorly and my crops are poisoning people.”

And the response almost ALWAYS is something like this:  “Well, I’m sure YOU don’t treat YOUR animals badly.  But INDUSTRIAL agriculture does, they cram their animals into CAFOs and they rob GOOD farmers like YOU from making a living.”

And that, right there, is where the gigantic disconnect between the consumer and the farmer comes in.  I’m still not sure how to bridge this gap.  I often envision myself taking said cyber-person by the shoulders and shaking them.

Here’s the deal.  I AM “INDUSTRIAL” AGRICULTURE!!  Along with thousands of other farm families working hard to feed the population.  When you say “CAFOS ARE EVIL!” You are telling me, my family, and the people that we work with that we are evil.  The animals we raise get sold to “BIG BAD CORPORATIONS” such as Tyson and Hormel.  We buy our GMO seed from Monsanto.  Our livestock is raised in confinement.

These resting pigs have it pretty rough too. When it's below zero outside, they have to relax in a temperature controlled barn. Their feeders have sensors on them that ensure they have access to unlimited feed. The floor allows their manure to drop into a pit below them, keeping their pens clean.

So, if I do decide to push the issue with these people who feel that all farming should look like it did in 1950, they will then proceed to tell me that they pity me.  That the EVIL CORPORATIONS have FORCED me to accept their ways and raise an INFERIOR, INHUMANE, and TOXIC product.  Clearly, I, as an individual, must be STUPID to not see it.  If I was smart, I’d choose to raise my crops and livestock without chemicals or confinement.

And here is my disclaimer, as I have stated before, I do not mean any disrespect to farmers who choose to raise their produce differently from me.  There is no one perfect way to farm, and I know that the vast majority of farmers, and food industry workers, are good people working hard to provide a quality, abundant food supply.

See, when it comes to a debate, many humans have a really hard time telling each other one-on-one that we have a problem with each other’s individual actions.  Especially, when we’re not 100% confident about what we’re debating.  It’s so much easier to throw up a scapegoat, like a faceless corporation, than to tackle an issue on a individual level.

Can you believe it? I let my son touch our GMO corn! But for some reason, he's still healthy and growing.

So, If I am really feeling feisty, I go on to say “I make the choices I make because I am confident that they are the best choices for me, my farm, my family, and the consumer. I educate myself about the applications and consequences of everything we do on the farm, and I am comfortable that the product I provide is safe, environmentally sound, and nutritious.”

And then, I’m told I am a fake.  I can’t possibly be real.  The “BIG CORPORATIONS” have brainwashed me and I am a paid fake.  And if I am real, then I have destroyed their faith in humanity.  Because it just can’t be possible that there’s more to agriculture than what Michael Pollan (the director of the horribly biased Food, Inc and author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma) told them.

Agriculture is my family's livlihood....and our way of life. So, yes, I do feel threatened when it comes under attack.

Here is the truth.

The animals my family cares for are raised in CAFOs and FEEDLOTS.  They are comfortable and they do not suffer, and we work our tails off every day to ensure that.  The animals’ comfort always comes before ours. The hormones and antibiotics that they receive are given in a prescribed manner, under the direction of our veterinarian and feed specialist, according to USDA rules and guidelines.  I fully understand how these products work, and do not hesitate to feed my family the beef we raise.

My son rides in the tractor with his dad. He is adamant that he is going to be a farmer when he grows up.

Our crops are GMO and we use chemicals.  We live right in the middle of the farms where we grow our crops.  My kids play in the yard right next to our crops, they help with the planting and harvest of them.  We follow several guidelines and rules set forth by the USDA to ensure that the crops we grow are safe.  Using GMO technology has allowed us to produce more crop with less fuel, chemical, and water.

Now, if you choose to buy organic, local, or pasture-raised produce, (or whatever the latest food buzzword is) that is completely your choice.  Please, just don’t do it while saying that our “FACTORY FARM”  is inferior, because, I ensure you, we are not.

I feed my kids the beef we raise using antibiotics and hormones because I know that it is safe.

I do not hesitate to feed my family our beef (which is also sold to Tyson) and I do not care if the food I buy in the store contains GMOs.  I am confident that the US food system is reliable, safe, and continually improving.

I don’t deny that there are issues, there always will be.  I’ll admit, there are some things that I see happening in agriculture and food production today that concern me.  I am glad there are skeptics out there, because nothing should ever progress unchecked. I have faith that we will work through these issues and come out better because of it.

I do know that I am glad to be living in today’s day and age, where food-borne illness is so rare that it makes the news, as opposed to years past where it was a common cause of death.

So, back to the difficult situation I put myself in.  Reacting to bad information about farming puts me on the defensive, by default.  And for some reason, people are particularly skeptical of defensive people. At least, I know I can be.

I’m pretty defensive, aren’t I?  I’ll admit it.  Agriculture has been under attack lately, and it seems like every day there is some new piece of misinformation out there.

So….

How can I not defend the way of life, the “BIG BAD INDUSTRY”, that I love?  How can I not reach out to consumers and show them that what my family is doing is not going to harm them, the environment, or the animals?  How can I not begin to take a proactive approach to this problem of misinformation?

A Lesson in Recycling: Corn Stalk Bedding

My sister-in-law Melissa took this awesome picture...there is something about cornstalk bales that is really picturesque, don't you think?

We finished up corn harvest this week!  Woo hoo! Let’s go on vacation!

Wait.

The cattle still need attention….A LOT of attention!  Although all of their feed is now put up for the winter, they still need a stock of bedding to get them through the upcoming cold weather.  They also need their manure hauled out on to the fields and routine health check-ups.  Darn it! I guess Hawaii will have to wait. 🙂

Rolling hills and round bales.

Side note: I can not believe that we are done with grain harvest already!  This time last year we were just wrapping up beans and looking at weeks of corn harvest yet, on top of all the cattle chores that pile up during harvest season.  Farming is incredibly variable.  One year we are setting records on being behind in harvest, and the next we are finished up in record time.  So, although I don’t get to go on vacation just yet… I am eternally grateful for the bounteous harvest, the beautiful weather, and the safety of everyone who helped out.

Sun setting on the bales on a gorgeous late fall day.

So, now that the corn and beans are all put away for the year, it is time to focus on cattle comfort.  Not that we aren’t always paying attention to the cattle, but now we need to make sure they are set for the upcoming winter.

First step, bedding.  Lots of fluffy absorbent bedding. And where best to find this, but in the fields.  Corn stalks, cobs, and husks remain in the field after the kernels are harvested.  Getting them picked up and stored begins with “shredding,” or mowing, to break up the residue in to more manageable, comfy bedding.  Next they are gathered in to windrows with the rake, the same way hay is.  Then the baler, pulled behind a tractor, is driven over the top of the windrows,  picks them up, and rolls them into tightly packed round bales.

Here is a nice video on YouTube from “Mrflyinpig” that shows how the corn residue is collected by the rake and baler. :

Well, now we have a field full of round bales.  They are no good to us sitting out in the field, so we must haul them in.  This is done by putting a skid loader in the field, and one at the farm we are hauling in to.  We haul the bales a couple different ways.  Lately we have been using pick up trucks and flat bed trailers.  We have also used tractors and special bale hauling trailers.  The skid loader picks up the bales and stacks them a certain way on the trailers, which then take them out of the field and in to the farm to be unloaded.

Picking up a bale with the skid loader.

We have bales coming out of our ears right now!  They are all over every farm we have cattle on.  Neatly lined up.  We even have a bunch of them lined up along our driveway to serve as a snow fence over the winter. So, even while they wait to be used, they can serve a purpose!

The trailer waits to be loaded up with bales.

The skid loader putting a bale on the flat bed trailer pulled by the pick up.

Look close and you can see my little helper in there...don't worry, we were hauling in on the farm, no roads.

Couldn't this be an ad for Chevy? I can almost hear the old.... "Like a rock" theme song!! This truck and trailer is all loaded and ready to take the bales in to the buildings.

Recycling is not only is good for the planet, it makes good economic sense too!  The nice thing about using corn stalks as bedding is that they will be “enriched” by the cattle’s manure and then returned to the fields we took them off of.  I know I have written of this before, but I’m going to do it again.  I am continually amazed by the cycle of life and the bounty we can take from the land we are stewards of.  The land grows corn.  The cattle turn the corn in to meat, and in the meantime produce by-products (a.k.a. manure…which is NOT a waste product, but a precious commodity!) to enrich the land for the next crop.  The longer I am here, the more involved I become with the farm, and the more that the reality of the next generation sinks in… the more I appreciate this.

So, after the cattle “enrich” the bales, they are hauled right back out to the field to provide fertilizer for next year’s crop so we can do this all over again.  Have you ever thought about how farms recycle? Or am I the only crazy one?

Loading Hogs

This is me, holding a hog panel, which is used to help guide the pigs where we want them to go. The coveralls are to keep me from spreading any disease to the pigs, and the hankerchief is to keep the "aroma" of the pigs out of my hair.

One of my least favorite jobs on the farm is loading fat hogs.  I’m just not as much of a fan of pigs as I am of cattle.  Never have been. I’d be lying if I said I looked forward to it, but really, once it’s happening it’s not so bad.

Looking down the alleyway, which leads out of the building and onto a ramp that goes up to the semi trailer.

Here’s a run down of how it goes.

All this week we will be loading out hogs.  Two semi truck loads at a time.  The alarm will go off at 4:30 AM.  I will cuss and whine the entire time I am getting ready, on the ride to the hog buildings, and as I am putting on the coveralls and changing my shoes (for biosecurity, don’t want to get the piggies sick).  Basically because it is early in the morning and I just want to go back to bed.  Once I’m inside the building, I get to wait with my hubby, brother-in-law, and father-in-law while the semi backs up to the load-out ramp.  Usually the conversation involves what the neighbors are doing in the field or what we need to do once we’re done loading.

A blue mark spray painted on this pig means he's big enough to become brats.

The pigs are still snoozing, but every time there is a bang of a door or something drops, they all jump up and voice their opinions.  Pigs are like that.  Very opinionated.  They grunt, bark, screech, chomp, and snort to voice their approval or disapproval of an event.  They are also very curious animals, and will swarm around you if you stand still near them.  They have it pretty good in our barns… lounging around in the pens with food, water, and shelter all readily available and closely monitored for them.

The trucker gets backed up, changes his shoes and clothes, and enters the building through a different door to keep the risk of carrying disease into the building at a minimum.  His job is to stand inside the semi trailer and put the pigs into the different pens on the trailer.

Lounging pigs enjoying the sunshine.

The rest of us enter the first pen to sort out all the pigs that have been marked a day or two before loading.  Marking the pigs (with a non-toxic spray paint) that are ready for market speeds up the loading process and lowers the stress on the pigs.  Each pen contains approximately 35 hogs.  Usually there are about 10-12 hogs in each pen to be sorted out.  It is my job to stand at the gate of the pen and only allow the marked pigs out.  My father-in-law, Ralph, works in the back of the pen to bring the marked hogs up to me. My hubby and brother-in -law get the hard job of bringing the pigs up the alleyway, onto the ramp, and into the trailer.  It’s the hardest job because they have to contend with pigs coming up the alleyway that they are trying to walk down, which means they have to crawl over the fences and into the pens.  The fences are about waist high on me, but Justin and Kevin are taller and make it look like they are stepping over a baby gate.

Demonstrating how the gates on the pens open up into the alleyway.

Sorting and moving hogs is a lesson from the school of hard knocks in animal psychology.  It is all about anticipating what a pig is going to do and then channeling his energy in the right direction.  I am having a hard time putting it into words, as it is something you just learn from being around hogs.  Where to stand, when to make noise, when to back off,  when to get the heck out of the way… these are all things that can only be learned by trial and error.  There are a few tips that can be applied, such as try to always keep the panel between yourself and the pig, or do everything in your power to not let them get by you.  But for the most part, working with pigs is like trying to solve a puzzle, it takes a lot of thinking and patience, and then once it starts working out, it will seem easy and you’ll develop a strategy.

More lazy lounging pigs.

There are rules we must follow in loading out.  We can take no more than 5 pigs per person down the alley.  A hog cannot be zapped with a stock prod more than 3 times.  The stock prod cannot be used in the pen.  On a side note, I have been shocked by a stock prod before, it certainly does not feel good, but it did not hurt me either.  A stock prod, like all things, has a time and place where it is appropriate and can actually prevent a stressful situation.  There are also times and places where it is inappropriate and can make a situation worse, it is not a tool to be used willy-nilly.  We do not slap, pull on, or drag the pigs; these are all actions that only contribute to a bad situation.

Semi trailer backing up the the ramp.

Here are some of our hog loading stats: It usually takes us about an hour to load one semi load of hogs.  One semi carries approximately 175 hogs.  The ride to the processing plant takes approximately 2.5 hours.  The pigs weigh about 250 lbs each when they are fat and ready for market.  And, nothing tastes better than sausage for breakfast after a morning of loading hogs!

Farewell, piggies!  We appreciated the opportunity to care for you on your journey to become nourishment for us!

Liz

Chopping Corn Silage for Cattle Feed

This is our new bunker silo a little over half full of corn silage.

Around the beginning of September, the corn is nearly mature and has the peak ratio of nutrients and moisture content to be harvested as silage.  Silage is any form of crops that are harvested and fermented for livestock feed.  Silage can be made from hay, corn, rye, etc.  It is an ideal feed for cattle because it contains the entire corn plant, not just the grain.

There has been a lot of rumbling in the foodie world about grass-fed and grain-fed livestock.  Many would have the consumer believe that cattle in feedlots are fed strictly grain and nothing else.  This is not true.   Cattle must be introduced to grain slowly.  Cattle need forage to keep their rumens (or stomachs) working properly.  Even if a calf is getting all grain, it’s rumen will adapt and digest the grain as forage.  This is an inefficient way to use corn, as the energy value of the corn is wasted, and there are cheaper alternatives to feed cattle.  None of our cattle are ever on a 100% grain diet.  I hope I didn’t lose anyone there.  I could go on and on about cattle nutrition, and I probably will as this blog continues.

The bunker silo has four different bays, we are filling two of them with corn silage. The big tractor pushes the silage up into the bunker, and drives on top of it to pack it in. Packing the silage down helps to preserve it.

Corn silage can be stored in a few different ways such as upright silos, bunker silos, or silage bags. All are designed to preserve the feed at peak nutritional levels over the next year.  We use all three storage methods on our farm and each has it’s advantages and disadvantages.  Here are a couple links to videos of us filling our new bunker silo at the new hoop barn site.  If you have little boys who like to watch tractors, they will love these quick clips (ok, big boys will too)!

The tractor is unloading a chopper box of corn silage here in front of the bunker silo bays.

Corn silage is harvested (also referred to as “chopped”) by our chopper.  It is a big, expensive piece of equipment that cuts, collects, then chops the corn plants into little pieces.  Think M & M sized pieces.  After chopping the corn up, it blows the little cattle M & Ms into a chopper box being pulled behind it.  (See this post about chopping hay to refresh your memory as to what a chopper box is and does). Once full, the chopper box is then emptied in the same fashion as if we were chopping hay…so, check that post if you want to know more!

Hazel making sure Dad is doing a good job. She is so proud to be riding with Dad!

So we began chopping corn silage about 10 days ago, and finished up on Friday.  We have been blessed with great weather this year as well as only one day of machinery break downs.  When corn silage harvest is done, we will move on to earlage harvest…but, that is a whole other post!!

‘Til next time!

Liz

Family Bonding, Farm Style

Hazel and Dad having a little snuggle break in the tractor cab. She loves riding in the tractor!

Fall harvest season has officially begun on our farm.  It is the craziest time of year for us, but also the best.  I just love the fall weather, the changing of the leaves and crops, and the excitement of getting harvest done!  Fall harvest means the kids get to spend a lot of quality time with Mom, Dad, Uncle Kevin, Aunt Melissa, or Grandpa in a tractor, semi, or combine cab.  Many people can’t believe that we bring the kids along with us to the field.  I’m not sure why, as the kids love it!  Now me, on the other hand, I could do without all the packing and planning it takes to be in the field all day.  But then again, I wouldn’t have it any other way, what other job is there that allows you to have your kids along side you?

Eating on the run! BBQ beef sandwiches, apples, bars, and water.

The kids learn a lot of life lessons riding along in the field.  They learn patience.  You can’t just stop in the middle of what you’re doing to cater to every whim.  So they learn the valuable lesson of waiting, such as how to eat when the food is offered and pee when there is a break.  They also learn a lot about what adults do when they are at work, and how to handle a stressful situation.  Sometimes they learn how not to handle a stressful situation and what not to do at work….but either way they are witnessing real life, first hand, and at a young age.

Lucy riding in the tractor with me last fall.

They get to spend a lot of time entertaining themselves and talking with whoever they are riding with.  There aren’t a lot of distracting toys in a tractor cab, so they get to be creative.  We make up songs about what we’re doing, we talk about why we are doing what we are doing and what’s going to happen next.  We practice counting and ABC’s.  We play “find the corn cob” when there is a breakdown and we are trying to kill time.  The kids get to watch the combine’s grain tank fill up, or the semi dumping it’s load of corn.  They never tire of it, even when harvest has drug on for months, they still want to crawl up into that cab and ride.

I should mention at this point, safety is rule number one on the farm.  The kids are extremely aware of how dangerous the farm equipment is.  They go nowhere on foot around the farm without holding someone’s hand, and we are constantly alert as to who is where and what they are doing.  They seem to have a natural understanding of this, and we’ve never had any instances of them behaving dangerously on the farm.  This is not to say that we give them any credit for that, we are always on the look out and reminding them of the dangers of the farm.

I'm pretty sure Russell will be driving farm equipment well before he gets his license.

We are so blessed to be able to work together as a family on our farm.  Sure, there are drawbacks, there is a reason people say it’s hard to work with family.  We have to be constantly mindful of our actions and words and how they might be interpreted, because a misunderstanding at work equals a misunderstanding in the family and hurt feelings.  The lines of communication have to be kept open, but not too open, sometimes it really is better to” just let it go.”  Everyone has to be slow to accuse and quick to forgive.  The one thing that keeps us working together as a family is our mutual understanding that the farm is what provides us with our amazing way of life.

What do those signs in the field mean, anyway?

Does the Channel corporation own this field????

The Illinois Farm Bureau recently surveyed Chicagoans about their impressions of farming.  One very interesting thing they discovered is that over 1000 of the 2000 surveyed thought that the signs in fields indicated they were owned by the corporations advertised on those signs.  Whoa!!

So, let me debunk this.  Those signs are put in the fields by the companies that sold the seed, fertilizer, or pesticides to the farmer who owns the field. The farmer graciously allows the company to advertise their products.  We have participated in this phenomenon.

No, this field is not corporate owned. It is owned by a family who allowed the co-op to plant a plot for research purposes.

Sometimes you will see multiple signs, flags, larger signs, and/or a tent in a field.  This is what is called a plot.  Co-ops and seed companies will often plant several different varieties of seed in the same field to compare the performance of them.  Lots of research and data comes from these educational plots.  Farmers are invited out to view the results, and learn about pertinent agronomy issues.  (Plus a free meal, farmers loooove free meals.  Then again, who doesn’t?!?)

Plots are planted on farmer-owned ground as well.  We have had plots on our farms in the past.  They are a lot of work to plant and harvest, as each variety of seed has to be planted and harvested separately, and a plot can have as many as 20-30 varieties.  Very time consuming, but the information derived is worth it.

This is an example of a plot. Lots of different varieties of seed planted in the same field to see how they perform in similar circumstances.

This is just an overview of how seed plots work.  There are many people in the ag industry whose jobs revolve around the data collected from plots.  So, next time you drive by one of those fields,  go ahead and pull in to take a closer look.  Provided it’s not too muddy… you wouldn’t want to get stuck! Although if you do, I guarantee the farmer who owns the field would get a good laugh at you as he’s pulling you out!!

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