Posts Tagged ‘pasture’

Clearing the Land

When we bought the Flying T, we knew that one of our two pastures was “rough.”

OK, it’s really rough.  Half-forested, largely with poisonous [to livestock] pin cherry trees.  Not much growing in it but rocks and  goldenrod.  Fence falling down.  Steep slopes on a good portion of it.  Rutted with holes to the point that it was unsafe to let the horses loose.  Rough.

The book answer for a pasture that had been let go for that long would be to call in the bulldozer, then truckloads of loam, but that went against two principles we’re trying to follow on the Flying T: 1) go as natural as possible and 2) don’t go broke.

One of the principles I’ve learned from flying is that there are three competing characteristics in designing airplanes (or other machines, for that matter): light, cheap, and strong.  You can build something that has two of those characteristics, but it’s pretty much impossible to get all three.  So, you can make a wing that’s light and cheap, but it won’t be strong.  Light and strong? It won’t be cheap.  Cheap and strong? It won’t be light.

We’re finding similar principles at work in farming, one of which is the “natural, cheap, and fast” law.  So, when it comes to our pasture, while we’ve been doing OK with staying natural and cheap (relatively), it sure hasn’t been fast.  I’d been hoping to have the pasture cleared of trees by winter’s end – we got halfway there.

Burning slash from trees we cut in the back pasture.

We’ve moved a good passel of rocks from that half to the growing rock wall, but there’s still quite a bit to go.  The holes we filled with a mixture of dirt and composted manure.  Our attempt at strangling the weeds with a cover crop of Winter Rye has been partly successful (and partly not).

It’s all taken a lot longer than we’d hoped, and we still haven’t gotten around to the fence.

So now, we’re well-into the summer, and the weeds are starting to come back, competing against the Rye and other forage species we’ve planted here and there.  It’s time to release the goats on the pasture to get it eaten down, but goats without fence go feral almost as quickly as hogs.  The pasture is still too uneven to accept our portable electric net fence.

Then my wife says, “Well, when we lived in Greece, Dimitri [our local shepherd] just walked through the fields with them and didn’t have a problem.”  Well, that’s right.  He did.  And what’s more, we even have an official Greek shepherd’s cane in the house that we bought as a souvenir.

So, this evening after dinner, we played shepherd.  It was a bit of work getting them out to the pasture – goats don’t like new things – but once they were there, they seemed pretty happy!

Since they’ve been on a pretty well-grazed area for a while, we couldn’t leave them out too long the first day.  That’s an easy way to get into a bad case of bloat.  But, in the short time we did have them out, they got a pretty good start.

We even brought the horses out to graze with them for a while.  Zip and Jasper are pickier than goats and weren’t nearly as impressed with the available eats, but they found the largest stand of Rye acceptable.

What surprised us was how easy it was to get them back.  My oldest daughter just started back to the barn while I carried up the rear with the shepherd’s crook, and they followed her home.  I wish I’d gotten a clearer pic, but this is the best I could do as I jogged along.

Is this going to be a quick process?  Nope.  But it looks like it might be relatively natural and cheap!


NPIP – Exam Time for the Flock

Yesterday, at our request, a representative from the Department of Agriculture came out to visit and test our chickens in conjunction with the National Poultry Improvement Program.  NPIP is a voluntary program that provides testing for common ailments in home and commercial flocks.  NPIP helps us to ensure a safe food supply and avoid the transfer of disease through other means (after all, taking care of chickens is not a hands-off activity here at the Flying T).  In addition, it allows those who raise chickens to avoid unnecessary medicines and antibiotics.  Finally, by working exclusively with NPIP-certified hatcheries and home producers, we can reduce the chances that our healthy flock is infected by birds or chicks we purchase as replacement stock.

Some of the NPIP tests are required for 4H and other shows.

The actual process is quite simple for a relatively small flock like ours (23 birds)… or at least it should be.  First,  you need to make sure they’re contained.  To accomplish this, we simply turned off the coop’s automatic door after the chickens had gone to roost for the night.  Simple, right?

However, about an hour before the NPIP representative arrived, our son went to change the chickens’ water, and six of them slipped out the door.  The three kids and I had a heck of a time chasing them down.  Free range means no fences, and lots of places for them to hide, squeeze under, and run through.  It also means that trying to entice them back into the coop with grain doesn’t work well, because there are lots of other, more tasty things to sample out in the woods.  However, after a bit of running, diving, and even climbing the compost pile, we managed to get our escapees back into the coop.  Unfortunately, I hadn’t anticipated the exercise, and so I have no pictures to share.  They would’ve been worth sharing!

OK, it is a simple process, once you’ve got the chickens back in the coop!

We enlisted the kids to help, and they crammed into the grain room along with the NPIP tester, Tara.  One kid would go into the coop and pick up a chicken, then bring it out to Tara, who would start by banding their legs with a numbered tag (for our older chickens, this also required removing their previous NPIP tags).

Then, she turned them onto their backs, and plucked the feathers from a small area under the wing.

A quick scratch with a scalpel to draw blood, a few drops in a plastic vial, and the chickens were released to go .

Within about an hour and a half, the vials were filled and the process was complete.  Tara said that she recently did a flock of 250 birds, and that took all day (with several helpers).

The chickens were none the worse for wear (though they were a bit indignant).

We should get our NPIP renewal certificate in the mail in a few weeks!

Spring is in the Air

Spring is in the air here at the Flying T.

Our resident Boer Goats, Jessie and Gracie, are off at another farm for a month or so in the hopes that they make very close friends with the buck there.  That would bring us kids in September.  In their place, we welcomed two more 4-month-old full-blood Boer does, Ruby and Samy (Samantha).

The Muscovy ducks started laying a few weeks ago, but weren’t sitting, so we ended up collecting a lot of them.  They’re not bad eating and very good for cooking.  On Monday, however, Midnight got the urge and has been faithfully attending a nesting box full  of eggs ever since.  If all goes well, we should be seeing our first batch of ducklings mid-May.

One thing that hasn’t been here at the farm is much in the way of rain.  That, and a dearth of snow this year, means the ground is a lot dryer than normal.  We’ve done some improvement to the soil – lime in the fall and manure in the spring.  But the grass isn’t growing very quickly yet up here or anywhere in our neighborhood up here on the hill.

I overseeded the pasture with with a mix of Orchardgrass, Kentucky Bluegrass, hybrid Fescue, and White Clover right before what was supposed to be a pretty good rain, but it never happened.  Instead, the chickens have had a bit of a feast – an expensive one.  Hopefully we get some rain tonight.

The Winter Rye we planted as a cover crop in the vegetable garden, on the other hand, is quite healthy and ready to be tilled under so we can plant our lettuce, broccoli, and the like.

The drought hasn’t seemed to bug the apples or the peaches, though.  And so far it looks like they survived both our 1st attempt at pruning and some voracious Ruffed Grouse.

The berry bushes are starting to sprout as well, and if we can keep the chickens and goats out of them, hopefully we’ll have another plentiful harvest like last year.

And back in the house, our seed starter setup is working just peachy, with the tomato plants just about ready to transplant into 4″ pots.  They’ve actually done so well that we’ll probably end up selling some of them because we can’t use half of them.

So, all is well here on the farm, but we sure are praying for rain!

Wordless Pics

Some recent pics from around the farm:

Another Rock in the Wall

With the unseasonably warm days we had in the beginning of November, we put some of our other work (including some of the kids’ studies) aside and got to work improving our rear pasture.

The rear pasture is about 1.25 acres and “rough” to say the least.  Based on the size of the poisonous pin cherries throughout the pasture, we figure the pasture has been let go for a good 5-10 years.  We’d previously cleared about a quarter to third of it, and then broadcast spread winter rye seed on that area.  Despite the very suboptimal conditions, the seed has taken relatively well, though not nearly as vigorously as other areas on the property with better soil and preparation.

Over the past week, we got working on the next bit.  The easiest part was cutting down about 20 cherry trees and white pines of various sizes, cutting the larger stuff for the firewood pile while my wife and kids drug the slash to the burn piles.  I also cut up a large white birch the beavers had dropped a bit further down the hill.  More on them in a future post.

Meanwhile, as I was at work, my wife and kids got to pulling stumps, filling holes, and moving rocks.  We’ve got a lot of rocks – it’s not called the Granite State without reason.  Even with the help of the tractor, it’s a lot of work.

Moving rocks is hard work!

Teamwork is essential

A smile makes the work go faster

They're heavier than they look!

Notice the huge brush piles in the background that they've been busy with as well

I’ve helped a bit, but most of the work on the wall we’re starting to build at the edge of the pasture is due to their efforts.  It gives us a new appreciation for the sturdy farmers who built the thousands of miles of rock walls 200+ years ago without farm machinery.

It's a good start!

Our hope is to have enough pasture clear by next spring to have three 1/2 acre paddocks to rotate (two in the front pasture, one in the rear). That will still require some supplemental hay to avoid overgrazing, but will be a lot better than our current situation and make for healthier and more productive pastures in the future.  The seeding plan for the back pasture is to follow the Winter Rye with a good layer of manure and reseeding with Japanese Millet in the summer, then rotate back and forth between the two for at least one more year to break up the weed growth cycle before we move on to more traditional forages.  In a few years, I would like to have a solid Orchardgrass and White Clover pasture established there.

Poison in the Pasture – Pin Cherry

Wild Black Cherry (photo: Ohio Extension)

Both Wild Black Cherry and Pin Cherry trees are members of the rose family commonly found in Southern New Hampshire.  Pin Cherry is a common first-generation species after logging or forest fires create an opening (thus its alternate name, Fire Cherry) and is one of my chief concerns on our property.  We’ve cut several trees down from the margins of our primary pasture, but the back pasture that we’re restoring is positively full of them.

Pin Cherry

Cherry presents a poisoning hazard to all animals, particularly ruminants.  The hazard comes from cyanogenic precursor, prunasin, present especially in the leaves and bark.  When live, these precursors are not toxic, however when the plant dies the compounds break down, producing hydrocyanic acid (cyanide) which is highly toxic.  For this reason, fallen branches and wilted leaves are the most dangerous to livestock.  This hazard can be present in cherry-contaminated silage.  Once the leaves are allowed to dry, the cyanide is lost to the air.  Pin Cherry may contain less of these toxins than Black Cherry (reference). 

Back "pasture" is beyond the far fence... it's essentially a Pin Cherry orchard right now.

Cyanide blocks the body’s ability to use oxygen at the cellular level (the name derrives from cyan, referencing the blue tinge that can occur in tissue without oxygen-enriched hemoglobin).  In most animals, symptoms appear soon after ingestion and start with the body’s physiological response as it attempts to get more oxygen – rapid and labored breathing, anxiety, and stress.  If a fatal dose has been ingested, respiratory and/or cardiac arrest will normally occur within a few minutes to an hour.  First aid exists in the form of a cyanide antidote; however, as it must be given intravenously within a few minutes of the onset of symptoms, it is usually not an available and/or practical treatment (click here for a more extensive discussion on this from the Purdue extension office).

For that reason, prevention is the best cure for cherry poisoning.  We’ve been busy removing cherry trees from areas to which our livestock have access.  In addition, it’s a good idea to check the margins of fields/runouts/pastures after storms, frosts, and/or droughts to collect fallen, branches, and leaves before allowing livestock to graze.

On the plus side, these toxic compounds are concentrated in the leaves and bark, and the fruit itself is edible.  Black cherries can be sweet (watch out for the pit) for eating or processing.  Pin cherries, on the other hand, are quite sour and are best in a sweetened jam or to add tartness to sweet recipes.

Black Cherry wood is also prized for woodworking, though again, Pin Cherry falls short here.  Not only are large diameter specimens rare, but my woodworking friends tell me it is prone to splitting.  However, we’ve found several uses for the copious amounts of wood, and much of what is too small to be good for firewood is in a separate stack to be used for smoking meat next year.  In addition, we’ve been burning all the slash too small for either purpose to use for ash to bring down the acidity and bring up the potassium levels in our fields. 



Winter Rye

Note: this is installment 3 in a series (Legumes, and Grasses, and Weeds, Oh My!), studying forage and pasture management in in New England.

Winter Rye (Secale cereale), also known as Cereal or Annual Rye, is a cool-season annual grass.  Unlike the previous perennial forages I’ve discussed (Timothy and Orchardgrass), Winter Rye is unlikely to be found as a volunteer grass in northeastern fields.

Winter Rye, photo by

Winter Rye is very popular as a winter cover crop, being one of the most cold-hardy forage crops you can plant.  It will germinate at near-freezing temperatures and once it establishes its deep root system, can survive in its dormant stage down to -30 degrees F.  It is also extremely adaptable to poor soil quality and a wide range of acidic conditions (tolerating pHs from 4.5-8.0), however with good soil (ph near 5-7 and available nutrients) it will commonly produce in the ton-per-acre range in New England (it can top 4-5 times that in ideal conditions).

Planted immediately after Fall harvest, it will germinate quickly, start to produce and then go dormant as freezing temperatures hit.  But as soon as the ground begins to warm, it shoots upwards with generous production of dry matter.  Though it isn’t as palatable to livestock as many pasture grasses, its early availability make it a good option for early spring grazing (if soil water conditions allow pasturing).  Further south where continuous freezing temperatures aren’t as prevalent, Winter Rye will grow throughout the winter and be usable for grazing within a few months after planting.

By early May in NH, the ground has warmed and the sun is up long enough to spark the emergence of the plant’s inflorescence (flowers).  When this occurs, vegetative growth stops and the Carbon-Nitrogen ratio of plant begins to peak.  This is necessary if the Winter Rye is being grown for grain; however, it is better to harvest or graze earlier if it is being used for pasture, baled forage, or silage.  As the plant matures, it also becomes less palatable to livestock.

Like other cover crops, Winter Rye can be an excellent tool in a farmer’s toolbox when developing a herbicide-free or reduced-herbicide weed management program.  The early and rigorous growth of Winter Rye in the Spring competes well against many early weed growth cycles, with its tall and dense vegetation shading and thus stunting weeds that do manage to grow.  In addition, Winter Rye functions as an Allelopathic, meaning that it produces substances in its growth that can stop or slow the growth and/or germination of other seeds.  Because of this, it is important to know the possible undesired side effects such as inhibition of germination/growth of desirable species grown in concert with or after the cover crop.

Winter Rye can be planted by drilling or broadcasting.  UVM Extension recommends 1-2 bushels/acre for the former method, and about 50% more for the latter.  It germinates most quickly when drilled in tilled soil (no more than 2″ deep), and if broadcasting should be lightly tilled or disced in.

No-till seed drill... if only...

At the Flying T this year, we are planting Winter Rye in three areas.

1. “Rough” pasture.  This is an area approximately 1.25 acres that had been “let go” for some time, I estimate ~10 years.  I am still removing unwanted vegetation ranging from an overgrowth of goldenrod to poisonous Pin Cherries and Braken Fern that have grown up in that time.  My hope is that the Winter Rye will slow the germination of remnant plants in the Spring.  The plan is to either graze or cut the Rye in the Spring and then immediately reseed with a Japanese Millet/legume mix.  We will use aggressive cutting of reappearing undesired species and encouragement of both volunteer and sown forage species.  Next year, we will repeat, this time adding a legume in the Winter Rye planting (I am getting too late a start this year to do this).  We’ll rinse and repeat over the next couple years and if the experiment works, we should have both increased soil quality and another healthy grazing pasture for our animals without the use of herbicides or artificial fertilizers.

2. Vegetable garden.  Our goal here is to protect the soil from erosion while stabilizing Nitrogen and other nutrients.  Early in the spring, just before planting (and before maturity), we will till in the majority of the crop as green manure, while drying some of it for next year’s strawberry mulch.

3. Experiment plot.  This small (30′ x 30′) opening was full of Goldenrod, Queen Anne’s Lace, and even some Nightshade.  I’ve cut it low and will till it over this week before planting Winter Rye.  Again, the hope is that the Rye’s early growth and allelopathic effects will interrupt the growth cycle of the weeds.  I have not yet decided if I will allow the stand to grow to maturity (to harvest for grain) or cut it early to plant a small experimental bale forage crop or even a small stand of corn.