Saturday, February 20, 2010


BaaaaaaaaaaBaaaaaaaaaBaaaaaaaaa. I force myself to screw my eyes open. The clock says 12:30 AM. The bottle lambs are hungry early. I close my eyes and try to nap for another 30 minutes thru the din but it is hopeless so I get up early. I pull on some pants, turn on the light in the kitchen, light the stove burner, put the bottle milk in the double boiler and throw another log on the wood stove. I release the two bottle lambs from their pet carrier in the living room and the lambs start to romp and scamper around searching for the milk bottle now warming on the stove. I check the thermometer and it is 18 Deg. F outside with no wind and low moisture. The barometer is steady. I step outside briefly into the cold dark night. A sliver of a moon to the west shines bright and the Milky Way sparkles overhead. On these cold nights the stars seem extra close. All is quiet on the farm so I opt out of the scheduled late night walk to check the lambing paddock and lambing jugs. On a quiet night like this the sheep don’t seem too interested in lambing. Although it’s cold, any lambs born tonight will have no problems so long as they stay with mom and there is little wind and no moisture.

By the pound Lamb lags behind as the fifth most popular meat eaten in the United States behind every other livestock meat except mutton and goat. The average American eats less than a half pound of lamb per year. This, however, is starting to change as American chefs start to serve more good lamb and a new generation is exposed to it. Good grass fed lamb by nature is tender and mild of flavor with a light marbling and excels in the oven or on the grill. The US produces relatively little lamb at around 90 tons per year compared with Australia at around 500 tons per year and the US has a small national commercial sheep flock at under 10 million head. It always surprises me how many people I meet that have never tried lamb. Looking for a quick dish to take to a potluck a couple of months ago, my wife Jerre sautéed up a pan of lamb shoulder steaks. The steaks were cooked in grape seed oil with nothing but a little added sea salt. We cut out the bone and diced up the meat and served it on toothpicks. Many people at the party raved about what they took to be beef tenderloin steak and were quite surprised to find out it was lamb.

I shiver from the cold night air and step back inside the house. The bummer lambs are at the door to greet me and start to suck greedily at my pant legs. I gently herd the lambs back into the kitchen and check the milk bottle. Three squirts from the nipple on the inside of my wrist confirms that the milk is slightly above body temperature. I herd the lambs into the living room by the wood stove and sit down for some serious lamb feeding. The little male lamb jumps for the bottle and starts to suck hard. The little girl not wanting to be outdone tries to push him off the nipple then settles for sucking on the end of the little boy’s tail while she waits her turn.

While our heritage Jacob sheep are typically excellent mothers a small percentage of lambs will be rejected by the mama ewe either because she does not have enough milk or more typically because either the lamb got separated from mom right after birth for a time or because the lamb has a sharp tooth that hurts the ewe’s nipples. Worst case the mother has died due to birthing difficulties. There are many tricks including jacketing, powders, stanchions, tooth filing, etc. to help graft an orphan lamb onto a surrogate mother but this is typically only somewhat successful. If a lamb does not graft onto a surrogate mother the lamb becomes a bummer. Bummers pose something of a dilemma. Bummer lambs tend to be small and require expensive replacement milk and more labor. Typically it costs more to raise the bummers than they are worth in the market. Large producers typically don’t bother with bummers and since lambs typically need a little coaxing to remain alive anyway it is usually less than a day before these bummer lambs succumb to lack of food or care. Being more stewards of the land than agro-businessmen we see it as something of a duty to raise the flock’s bummers. This is why I am sitting in the living room at 1 AM between a big dog crate and the wood stove feeding the lambs.

Interestingly, commercial lamb production is tied to sheep’s second product, wool. Sheep are a dual crop species producing both meat and wool. Central Oregon used to be a huge producer of wool and lamb. Now you can drive around Central Oregon for days and never see a sheep. My next door neighbor, as an example, ran between 3 and 5 thousand Romney cross ewe/lambs in the 80’s and the early 90’s. During World War II, the Korean Conflict and the cold war the US military needed lots of wool for uniforms. US production was not up to the task and the US was importing tons and tons of expensive wool from England and Australia for uniforms. To cut costs congress enacted a subsidy to promote US production of wool and this made sheep production viable. Sheep production had declined significantly after the great depression. As a result of this subsidy the number of sheep in Central Oregon and across the country boomed again. I have a picture of me as a toddler standing next to my dad in his Army Uniform. My dad’s wool kaki uniform (called “pinks” at the time) was a great example of American high quality wool gaberdeen. By the time I joined the Army in post Vietnam 1983 uniforms were mostly cheap plastic (polyester, rayon, nylon) with little wool or cotton. Wool was no longer a strategic commodity so it was only a matter of time until congress killed the wool subsidy. In 1993 the subsidy was completely eliminated and to the day that was the end of large scale sheep production in Central Oregon. Aside from the little heritage boutique herds like ours there are still a couple of commercial sheep producers trying to buck the trend but with commercial wool worth less than the cost of shipping it to market sheep production becomes a hard way to make a living. If you want to see the benefit of more sheep around demand and buy more American wool. Good wool is a joy to wear. I love wool. Wool socks, wool underwear, wool shirts, wool whipcord pants, wool coats, wool mittens, wool hats, I love wool. Unfortunately most of the wool I wear has to come from Australia, New Zeeland or Canada instead of the US because they all value wool enough to subsidize it as a nation and all of these countries proudly market their high quality wool. We as a country place no value in our wool. Sadly, even old establishments like Pendleton and Woolrich import much of their fiber from outside the US.

The little boy lamb has had his fill of milk replacer so I coax him back into his crate and switch to the little girl. The little girl struggles with the rubber nipple and I have to hold her and coax her to take the milk replacer. Lambs either take quickly to the nipple or they struggle with it the whole time. A lamb that struggles with the nipple is a cause for worry. Last year a late season storm in March came fast with high winds and a cold driving rain. Our bummers were a couple of months old by then and while living outside had cover out of the wind and rain. Even with shelter, to a lamb, those that struggled with the nipple caught pneumonia and died within 48 hours of the storm. This same fluke storm killed over 5000 freshly shorn ewes farther east in Oregon and Idaho.

New lambs are about the cutest thing around but they grow fast and by the time they are 9 to 10 months old they are mature and as rams are at this point quite a handful. Sheep meat is graded based on the animals tooth wear. Lamb is graded based on no visible wear on the incisors. Lamb is typically anything up to 1 year old. Hogget is any sheep showing no more than 2 permanent incisors in wear and is typically under 2 years old. Anything older is considered Mutton. We typically process our sheep at anywhere from 9 to 16 months. While the sheep processed at 16 months are not “technically” lamb we find the quality to be the same as those processed within the 1 year boundary. One of the big reasons for the big decline in lamb as a meat source comes from the prevalence of mutton during the depression and thru the war years. Mutton has a rich typically overpowering taste and can be excessively fat. GI’s and sailors coming back from eating too much mutton during WWII wanted nothing to do with any sheep product and taught their children to avoid it as well. My dad and I believe his dad as well liked lamb with mint sauce so I grew up eating lamb once a year for Easter dinner. Until I was an adult my only lamb experience was the leg of lamb with mint sauce every Easter. As a young National Guard trooper I spent time in the 80’s with the Scottish territorial “Cammeronian Rifles” as part of a military exchange. Scotland was my first experience with mutton. Mutton kidney pie, mutton stew, mutton fat in the breakfast black pudding & beans, a sheen of mutton fat on the big hot tanks we dunked our mess tins in. I can understand why the WWII veterans came back with a distain for any sheep product. If I hadn’t had earlier good experiences with lamb I doubt I would have ever tried sheep again. My distain for mutton was again reinforced on the Oregon Trail Sesquicentennial wagon train when the mutton gravy on biscuits served at a local community breakfast celebration was rancid and I believe all including the hardest outriders lost their breakfast about an hour after eating that mutton gravy.

Ok, I am tired of fighting the little girl to get her to drink more. With effort she has worked down about 1/3 of a bottle of milk replacer. I supplement her a little with some colostrum paste and put her back in the crate. Happy now, both lambs turn about, lay down and fade into a milk induced stupor. We won’t be hearing from them again until about 6:30 in the morning. With the stove blazing the house is warm again so I stretch out in front of the fire to absorb some of the excess heat before heading back to bed.

So with all of the disadvantages why raise sheep? To answer this you have to think like a producer not a consumer. Sure dollars and cents commodity wise it does not add up but when managed well sheep are excellent grazers and I can easily run one lamb ewe combination with every cow calf pair at virtually no extra cost. The sheep favor different plant species than the cattle and as a result the pasture grazing becomes more efficient and we get a more even sward height. Unmanaged sheep can devastate a field of grass quickly. Managed sheep grazing can fine tune a field to optimum solar production. Aside from the practical grazing reasons I like sheep because they seem to me to be the most compatible of the livestock grazing species. The lambs running around the house intermingle with the humans, dogs and cats with a certain indifferent harmony I don’t see in cows. Sometimes the ewes almost seem grateful for the help you are providing their babies which is very different from the standoff behavior of cows. I guess I just like sheep.

Mojo our herding dog just came in and nudged me with his cold nose. I must have dozed off in front of the wood stove. Time to bank the fire, get up and go back to my bed and sleep. 6:30 lamb feeding is only a couple of hours away…..

Friday, January 29, 2010

A stitch it time saves nine

Lady with a newborn Jo

The dogs stir at the feet of the bed. I look at the clock it is 11 PM. Bone tired I know I must get up and check the heifer. Jerre, my wife, had the 10:00 watch. When she came to bed she reported that the heifer was up and eating and didn’t predict any birthing activity for a few hours at least. Our Irish Dexter cattle are easy calving but any first time mom can often use a little help and encouragement even if they are hearty and rangy like the Dexters. Just five more minutes and I will check on her. Zzzzzzz….

When I decided to write the blog I decided that I would write as often as I could without impacting the farm operation and I wouldn’t sugar coat farming good or bad. Farming is a 7 x 24 thing. You may not need to be active 7 x 24 but you need to remain vigilant as Mother Nature can be a cruel mistress. Aside from the medical field I can’t think of too many other jobs where you get only one chance to fix it. Aside from personal safety, a mistake in the office or in industry and something might get scrapped or a little profit lost. A mistake or oversight on a farm and something or someone is likely going to get maimed or die.

At evening feeding I noticed a cow in the field off alone by herself. This is typically the first sign of either an impending birth or an impending death. I walked out to check on her and sure enough it was one of our heifers. She was calm and let me walk up to her and a quick inspection showed that she was expelling her cervical plug. Expelling the plug typically means a new baby in 12 hours or less. Sun setting fast, I race for home, hitch up the stock trailer grab a lariat and raced back to the field. Back in the field things go my way. My first rope loop fly’s straight and I catch the heifer by the horns. A quick dally to the tie off point on the trailer and the tug of war begins. After a few minutes of fighting the rope (remember she is in labor) I get her calmed down and change my dally point and start to hand winch her into the trailer. “OK girl front feet first and then the back” a little wrestling match ensues but minutes later I have her in the trailer and none too soon as the sun is setting. The recent rain is not helping much and it is a bumpy slippery drive out of the field. I hit the irrigation road (now made up of deep mud ruts) and I slip left to avoid the ditch and with mud flying gun it for the hill. The Jeep writhes as it fights for traction and a way out of the field. Out of the mud now I stop and check the heifer and smear the mud off my headlights and head for home. At home, we make the heifer comfortable with a straw bed, hay & water then go in to the house for supper. Now the wait begins.

Zzzzzzz….I wake with a start... the clock says 11:40, SHIT, I forgot to check the heifer…. I slept thru my watch. I have never slept thru my watch, military, maritime, industry or farm before. I stagger from the bed pull on pants and a flannel shirt tuck my feet into unlaced pack boots at the door grab a hat and head for the stock trailer 25 feet from the back door. I shiver in the 30 degree air. I turn on a small light and squint to help my eyes to get accustomed to the light. The heifer is standing and looking at me. Everything looks OK. Wait, what’s that by her tail, Oh no… I quickly climb into the trailer and get behind the heifer. A calf is hanging out of the heifer, amniotic sack broken, head and front legs out, eyes bulging, tongue and gums blue. I grab the calf’s front legs above the fetlocks, they are stone cold. Gentle traction and a slight rotation to the right releases the calf. Sometimes heifers tire out before completing the job and this is such a case. If the calf gets out past the ribs the calf can expand its lungs and breathe. In this case the calf’s chest did not clear the heifer and with the umbilical cord pinched the calf is starved for oxygen. Calf in hand I climb out of the trailer to get some room to work. First I clear the calf’s airway then grab the calf by the hind legs and give it a couple of good swings. No response…I lay the calf on the ground and start moving it’s legs and massaging it while giving it artificial respiration thru a nostril.. puff, puff, rub, rub, nothing…. I grab a long hay stem and tickle deep in the nose, puff, puff, rub, rub, still nothing…… After five minutes of this with no progress I am starting to wear. I stick the cold wet calf under my shirt hoping a little warmth might illicit some slight response…..nothing…… Only ten minutes into this little drama I admit defeat. Damn….. I lost her….. A quick inspection shows it to be a fully developed girl. She might be a couple of days premature as female calves often are but she has a good coat of hair and fully ruptured incisors and probably weighs about 35 lbs. How could I have been so boneheaded to sleep past the check time? No guarantees but 40 minutes may have made all of the difference. I close the calf’s eyes and carry her away from the trailer and stash the small lifeless body under a tarp. Since the heifer never got a chance to mother the calf she does not appear to know any better. With an older cow in the field the mother will lick off and stand watch over the baby even if it is stillborn. It is heart rending to remove the dead calf in these situations with the mama cow balling and carrying on for her baby. At least I don’t have that to deal with tonight.

I feel sick and I am pissed off as I trudge back to the house. Too tired to have gotten up at 11 now I am mad and can’t sleep. I pour myself a 4 finger whiskey and bolt it. The whiskey burns my throat and warms my chilled body as I pour another. Mad at myself for piss poor management of the situation I pull out my calving books to look for some sort of sign I missed that would have made me want to be more vigilant or would have made me do the right thing. I already know I picked up on all of the signs and this was just pure laziness and poor stewardship with a little missed teamwork mixed in. I pour another big whiskey and I turn to Wendell Berry (an agricultural poet and writer) for solace. This usually helps in times like this. I open the book to a random page and to this…

“To live, we must daily break the body and spill the blood of creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily destructively, it is a desecration.”

Wendell Berry – The Gift of Good Land

Well, that didn’t help…..

Drunk & depressed, now I really feel like crap. I go to bed and fall into a fitful sleep.

Morning comes way too early. Even after two cups of coffee, my head throbs and my eyesight is blurry as I put on my boots and hat to head out to do chores. As I complete the morning chores I eye the blue tarp but I am not ready to deal with it yet. In cases like this I have a hard time coming to terms with putting the little calf on the compost pile or just digging a hole and burying it. In some way I feel this little dead calf needs to be treated with reverence and respect, an offering to Mother Nature or the coyotes or the bald eagles. I drive the heifer back to the field and cut her loose with all of the other cows. Out of the trailer and 35 lbs lighter she kicks up her heels and races out to meet the other cows. I wish I could be so light… Back at the farm I wrap the little dead calf up in the blue tarp, place her in the back of the jeep and head for the south 40. In this case the south 40 is a small meadow way back on some of our leased land with some juniper trees and a good view of the rim rock. I take the calf out of the back of the jeep and place her in a natural resting posture under one of the juniper trees. I am behind today with a whole lot left to get done before I end the night at a meeting around 6:00 but I really need a break. I go sit under a juniper tree opposite the calf. I pull out my pipe and load it with tobacco and strike up a match. Puff….puff…puff. The tobacco cloud rolls out over the brown grass in the gentle breeze and my mind starts to ease.

Only now resting under this tree with some sense of closure do I assess the financial impact of my oversight? Assuming this calf had made it thru calf hood she probably would have sired 13 or 14 calves. Had she not been calf worthy she would have brought around $1,000 in 2 years at market or around $1,400 as a cow calf pair. Either way the impact will be a big difference from an industrial loss. In industry, profit and loss is a fiscal quarterly affair. In farming the impact of this calf may be slight now but it will echo for years to come. Aside from the gain in forage this calf would have eaten I won’t see the financial burden of my oversight for at least 2 years. Our farm like all small farms works on a very tight margin. Every calf, every lamb, every egg, every chicken, every potato or every garlic clove matters. Waste is anti ethical, anti stewardship.

On this spot last year I found a beautiful set of 4 point horns left by a shedding buck. This set of horns now has a place of honor on the table in our yurt. With luck I may not visit this place in this manner for another 6 months or a year. I will leave this place now and within the hour the ravens will be here to pluck out the eyes of the carcass. The bald eagles will be here too tearing at the soft parts of the flesh. Whatever is left by nightfall will be the domain of the coyotes. Any bones left scattered after a couple of days will start to bleach and will eventually be ground down to nothing by the voles and field mice looking for minerals.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Monday, January 25, 2010

You are what you eat – or – is $4.00 for a dozen eggs too expensive?

Brrrrrrrrrrrrrr… The hammer mill hums along as I shovel the whole corn into its always hungry loading chute. Small farming often entails repetitive tasks that once mastered don’t require much mental effort to accomplish successfully. Making chicken food is one of these tasks. Making the chicken food entails lifting 1 ton grain totes with a hoist, dumping the grain in the totes into rodent proof steel drums, running the whole grains from the drums thru the hammer mill where it falls into more steel drums and then combining the now ground grains along with other foodstuffs & minerals into another steel drum and thoroughly mixing the feed. This chore typically takes an hour or two every 10 days or so to make about 600 pounds of chicken feed. Today I am thinking about eggs while I mix the feed.

Yesterday, while thumbing thru the Sunday newspaper looking for the comics, I came across a sale flyer for one of our local grocery stores. As a small farmer I don’t get into the grocery store much so I was surprised to see a dozen eggs on special for 99 cents (limit 2 dozen eggs per customer). Sure, these will be runny pale yellow eggs with poor quality white shells and they probably have been in cold storage for more than 6 months BUT…. Let’s see…. 99 cents divided by 12 hmmm around 8.25 cents per egg I think. Let’s assume that this is a lost leader to get more people into the store so the store is selling them at cost. How the heck do you produce an egg for 8.25 cents????? Ok, let’s ignore the fact that the super hybrid de-beaked chickens are in battery cages 6 or 8 to a cage, kept in light 24 hours a day breathing in high concentrations of ammonia caused by the high concentration of manure, fed antibiotics to survive and pushed to produce greater that 1 egg per 24 hours. These chickens will also be destroyed spent & unfit for eating at around 16 months of age when there production starts to go down. Sure, these factory methodologies have been designed to reduce costs but this level of automation still can’t explain eggs this cheap.

Wooooooowwwwww…..…clink,clink,clink…. Contactor switched off, the hammer mill slowly spins to rest so back to the chicken feed. Let’s see winter ration… 4 parts non GMO corn, 1 part wheat, 1 part non GMO whole soybean meal, 1 part oilseed cake & 1 part alfalfa meal and a liberal scoop of the farmers secret natural mineral recipe. The wheat, oilseed cake & alfalfa are all locally grown. The corn & soy both come from parts farther east (Washington & Idaho) as neither can be efficiently grown in our climate. Keeping the feed local really gets tough when it comes to minerals. All of the minerals we use come from natural mineral deposits in Montana, Wyoming, Utah & Pennsylvania or are harvested from the North Sea. While I don’t like the “food miles” associated with the mineral supplements they are by weight a very small portion of the feed and the natural minerals really make the health of the chicken & the quality of the egg.

My hand starts to ache and sweat runs down my forehead as I use the giant wooden spoon to mix a layer of feed. Mental note - I really have to find a cheap old cement mixer to help with the mixing. I have to remind myself that all of this work making feed really pays off when it comes to costs. At the local feed store a bag of commercial Purina feed, loaded with GMO soy and corn costs about $12 for a 50 lb. bag. A bag of commercial organic feed costs about $22 for a 50 lb bag. My home brewed feed made with non GMO ingredients & the best natural minerals money can buy comes out at around $10 for 50 lbs. and I don’t have a million plastic feed bags to dispose of. In winter when the pasture is dormant each chicken eats a little under a ¼ lb. of feed per day or around 5 cents worth of feed. We go through about 300 lbs of chicken feed every 10 days. Since we believe in heritage breeds, letting the chickens sleep in the dark and letting the chickens roam about expressing there “chicken ness” we get about 40% egg laying efficiency in the winter instead of the commercial 102% to 105% year round. Based on this I like to use the figure of 12 cents of feed for every egg our hens produce or roughly ½ the value of a medium sized egg. The other half of the value of the egg is in the preloaded costs associated with the cost to buy the chick, raise the chick thru pullet, repair and maintain equipment, egg cleaning, sorting & delivery costs, etc. Labor value to the farmer for all of this work? As with many small farming tasks $0.

Ok, so aside from getting to enjoy watching the chickens run around and getting dusty exercise like making chicken food why would we possibly want to be in the chicken business if it does not pay money? The key to this is in thinking like a producer not as a consumer. As consumers we tend think of money as an end product not as a means of exchange for real products. As a producer it is vital that I think around money to the end products. Aside from laying eggs chickens do two things really well…eat bugs and poop. By trailing the laying hens in their mobile chicken coops behind the cows & sheep during the grazing months the chickens get to dig thru the cow pies looking for fly grubs (protein supplementation) and at the same time distribute excellent non petroleum produced natural nitrogen fertilizer on the pastures. While I can’t really quantify in dollars the health value of fly control to our herds & flocks I do know that the value and the quality of the nitrogen laid down as chicken poop is way more cost effective than buying organic fertilizer at Wilbur Ellis and firing up the tractor for a couple of days to spread it around. Not only is the chicken fertilizer of a higher quality but the chickens spread it for me!

People often ask why we don’t feed “certified organic” feed to our chickens. While we choose foodstuffs to mix that are non GMO and have few if any petroleum based inputs we could not feed “certified organic” without going broke. Currently I pay $500 a ton for non GMO whole soybean meal. The current price for “certified organic” soybean meal is $1,200 per ton. While our egg production can operate at $0 it cannot sustain very long at a net monetary loss. So…. This brings us back to the 8.1/4 cent commercial eggs. How do they do it? Even with tricks like buying GMO grains in huge quantities, feeding a percentage of urea soaked paper pulp for protein or re-feeding processed manure to recapture the available nitrogen the truth is they can’t. Eggs at 8.1/4 cents each is in economic terms referred to as dumping. Didn’t the Chinese just get into trouble for this? Right now industrial egg and dairy producers have a huge surplus of product because our current global economic slowdown has had a significant impact on the industrial producers export market as a result they are wholesale dumping at below cost in the US marketplace.

The other day, muddy, soaking wet & frozen after morning chores I ducked into a local quickie café to grab a cup of coffee on a parts run into town. I particularly like this place not for the bland coffee but for the concrete floor. It is really embarrassing to leave farm guck on the tile & industrial carpet at the big national coffee chain next door. An older retired gentleman wearing a BMW baseball cap and Las Vegas sweatshirt stretched tight over his belly was sitting at the counter waiting for his breakfast. As I was the only one in the place looking like a drowned rat dripping mud and manure onto the floor, the old guy asked me what I did for a living. I told him I was a farmer. Without hesitation the old guy started railing on the high cost of food. Eggs came up and he rallied on about how we were all fools for letting the stores rob us of $2.50 for a dozen eggs. I just quietly smiled as I watched him eat his tasteless pale yellow runny shit and paper fed battery cage produced eggs. “You get what you pay for I guess” I said with hot coffee in hand heading for the door and out for round 2.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Are cows using up all the water in the West?

Young bulls enjoying a drink.

It is another overcast morning here in Central Oregon. It is warm by our standards with just a thin sheen of ice over the puddles from the melted snow. Part of morning chores here include a 6 mile drive over to our cow herd. Since we are a small farm we rely on leased land and contract grazing to keep the cows in fodder. Right now our cow herd (about 80 animals total including the cows and this years calves) are earning their keep grazing down an old spent orchardgrass field so we can over seed it in the spring with some New Zealand perennial rye grass. The cows need drinking water and supplemental hay & minerals and with all of this wet weather it is tough to get thru the field and out to the cows without creating deep ruts of mud. Right now our lightest tractor is a little 10hp. Farmall cub and once I can get it started on these cold mornings it is a champ at getting the water and hay out to the cows without tearing up the fields.

1950’s era Farmall Cub

Since we rotationally graze the cattle we have to move temporary fences daily to provide more fresh pasture to the animals. Since we want to tear this field up just a little we keep the paddocks small and move the cows at least once if not twice a day. Moving fences on a pleasant day like this is relaxing and sort of like taking a brisk walk with a little stooping and bending mixed in. On a really frozen day moving fences can be quite the upper body workout as it can be a real struggle to get the fence posts into the frozen ground. Today the ground is soft and the fence moves easy. Moving fence is a good time to do heavy thinking as the fence chore requires little thought and it makes the time pass faster.

Ok, I know I am biased as I like cows. I like watching their culture and mannerisms, I like using them to manage the land and pastures & in the appropriate circumstances I like to eat them. Cows have in recent years been vilified as the destroyers of our climate & our public lands. Somehow as I watch them peacefully graze this winter hayfield I have a hard time believing that cows will be the downfall of our civilization.

Cows eating supplemental hay on an orchardgrass field.

I read something last night that has me thinking again about an old issue - Are cows using up all of the water in the west? Back in the 90’s Newsweek quoted an estimate of 2,500 gallons of water being required to produce 1 pound of beef. Last night I read a statistic in an article by John Robbins that estimated 5,214 gallons of water was used per pound of beef and in the same article an estimate by David Pinmentel, PHD. of an astounding 12,000 gallons of water per pound of beef. Since I claim to be an environmentally friendly farmer and my customers tend to ask me these kinds of questions I thought I had better get my head around this issue. I can’t vouch for a lb. of McDonald’s burger or for feedlot grain or potato fed beef but I find it hard to believe my grass fed Dexter cows could be using anything close to 2,500 gallons of water for a pound of beef let alone anything close to 12,000 gallons of water per lb.
Ok, so here is my attempt at crunching the numbers. I am going to start from what I know. I know that by rotationally grazing on 1 acre I can produce about 1000 lbs. of beef in 2 years. I know this to be true because I have done this before. For this mind experiment I will put 2 Dexter bulls on 1 fenced acre. I will break up this field with electric fences into paddocks so that I can raise part of this acre as hay for winter feeding. At this low stocking rate I won’t worry about Organic Fertilizers other than the manure and Urine the bulls produce during their 2 year stay on the field. Since this field is so tiny the bulls will need to be confined to a comfortable but not a big penned area and fed hay for at least 90 days during winter. As we don’t want waste to run off into the stream we will spread wood chips over the manure in the pen to create a hot composting bed. The compost from this bed will be excellent fertilizer for next fall’s crops. A bull will consume about 14 lbs of hay per day so we will need to put up a little over 2 tons of hay for winter. This will be a stretch on our little 1 acre but I know it is doable because I have done it. The bulls will stay exactly 2 years as we find we get our best beef when we process exactly at 24 months. For convenience lets assume we get no rain this year and all water comes from irrigation. So that I don’t cheat let’s skip trans-evaporation rates & all of the water that returns to the watershed by percolating thru the sandy loam soil. Let’s forget all of the fancy things I do to stretch out water use and assume I use the maximum water allocation permitted (1 acre foot) per year for this little field. An acre foot equals 325,851 gallons. Over 2 years this would equal 651,702 gallons applied by sprinkler to the tiny field. Let’s assume that the bulls drink from a tank fed by a pump. On a really hot day a Dexter bull drinks around 20 gallons per day. Multiply this over 2 years and you use another 14,600 gallons of water. Ok, so now we are up to a total of 666,302 gallons of water. If we go back to our 1000 lb finished beef number we get a total gallon per lb. figure of 666 gallons per pound of beef. Wait a minute….even Newsweek came up with 2,500 gallons of water per lb. of beef. I must be way off somewhere. Ok, It does rain here and rain does make the grass grow. Here in Central Oregon we get around 10 inches of rain per year. An inch of rain equals about 27,154 gallons on our 1 acre field multiplied by 10 inches and 2 years we get a total of 543,080 more gallons of water or another 543 gallons per lb. of beef. Ok so now we are up to around 1,209 gallons per lb. of beef.. Transportation can’t be much as the butcher is only 7 miles away and we sell most of the beef within a 50 mile radius. Processing can’t be more than 1 gallon per Lb. The water needed to produce the 20 gallons of biodiesel to hay the field won’t be much. Let’s assume another 100 gallons per lb. worst case for all of these other “extras”. Ok, Let’s call the total 1,300 gallons of water per lb. of grass fed beef the absolute worst case scenario. That is one heck of a lot of water but not even close to Newsweek’s puny figure of 2,500 gallons per lb. of beef. How the heck does David Pinmentel PHD. come up with 12,000 gallons of water per lb. of beef. The cows better get a daily bath and massage with those kinds of figures. Ok, 12,000 gallons times 1000 lbs. per acre means 12,000,000 gallons of water per acre. Lets go back to our figure of 235,851 gallons per acre foot of water. An acre foot of water equals the number of gallons of water required to flood an acre with water 1 foot deep. Ok so rough estimate 12 million gallons equals about 37 acre feet of water. Divided by 2 years and we are still are looking at more than 18 acre feet per year. Our poor bulls aren’t going to just be really muddy they are going to need life jackets. Where do you buy a lifejacket for a bull? I don’t mean to be disingenuous thru oversimplification and humor and I am sure David Pinmentel PHD, is earnest and does stellar work. I would really like to read his study as I am obviously missing something really big here. So how much water do I really think it takes to produce a pound of our beef? When I take everything I can think of including our management practices, trans-evaporation & soil percolation into account I get a number in the high 400’s and I think there is still room for improvement.

According to a quick web check soybeans & rice both take around 250 gallons of water per lb. of production. I don’t really know what they take as neither successfully grow in production here. This makes the two heaviest plant water users still a full 100% more efficient than our beef production. If nothing else this emphasizes why eating smaller portions of grass fed beef really matters. Why raise beef at all when plants are so much more efficient at water use? I have lots of thoughts here probably better saved for another post as all of the fences have been moved and it is time for me to head up the hill on the Farmall Cub and home for a lunch of corn, rice & grass fed beef roast.

Sean Dodson the FoodieFarmer

Friday, January 1, 2010

Combining the best of both worlds. Old horse trailers as chicken coops with pastured heritage chickens.
So what’s with the poor grammar in the blog name?

I must admit that I am a “foodie”. I have never liked the term and have denied being a “foodie” for many years but now as a small direct market farmer I know I am a “foodie”. There are lots of definitions of “foodie” but other than having a deep passion for exceptional and different food experiences I think what sets a “foodie” apart is their intellectualization of the eating experience. As I heard Joel Salatin once say “aside from what goes on behind closed doors with your spouse or partner eating is the second most intimate experience you will have [sic].” Knowing where the food came from, it’s genetic particulars, how it was raised, processed, best cooked or preserved, its traditions and nourishing value is all of vital importance to a “foodie”. To be successful as a small direct market farmer It is vitally important that I can accurately explain why and how I produce food. Not only do I need to be able to produce an exceptional food, I need to be able to help my customers appreciate the food through appropriate handling & cooking practices. What I did not expect when I first became a small farmer was that as much as 20% of what I do is education. Perhaps a more controversial aspect of “foodie” is something I am hearing more and more from my customers and that is the “spiritual” aspect of food.

As a small farmer “farmering” is a daily adventure. “Farmering” is a term used to describe a means and methodology of performing repairs using the tools and materials at hand. This means what is exactly at hand. If you are faced with a situation where a broken shear pin is stuck and needs to be tapped out but your ball peen hammer and pin punch is back in the bed of the truck, well, you just give it a good bashing with the adjustable wrench or rock you are holding. “Farmering” includes driving on tires that are only almost flat, struggling with old rickety half broken equipment, taking a quick tack weld to hold it together when you really should take it apart and do it right the first time, using the parts of an old unusable something to make a completely different useful something or using a stick to clean out the guts of the unfortunate field mouse that got blown thru the irrigation pipe into the sprinkler head. With farmering, aesthetics are not even of secondary consideration they are of absolutely no consideration. One of our seasonal workers goes so far as to describe “farmering” as our farm esthetic. In the rare occasion that I buy something new or unbroken he is always nice enough to point out that it goes against the farm esthetic. The eco movement coined the three R’s long ago “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” I think they forgot the most important one “Repair” In our disposable culture repair is more often than not a lost art. “Farmering” is all about the repair experience.

“Foodie” and “Farmering” at first glance appear to be at opposite ends of the spectrum. “Foodie” can be pure intellectualism at its finest. There is lots of literature written about food. Sometimes a good meal experience can be described as pure poetry. “Farmering” on the surface appears to be all about strong back & weak mind. All bloody knuckles and chipped paint. I disagree with this assumption. “Foodie” & “Farmering” both have their yin & yang. “Foodie” in its production state is brutal. Its blood and guts, rotten vegetative matter, mud and crap. “Farmering” at it’s best can be enlightening. A good cobbled repair can have hints of the sublime. This blog will attempt to explore the “Foodie Farmering” experience.