If you know much about farming, homesteading, self-sufficiency, raising livestock, or many other things, you can probably tell that I'm a total novice. Sometimes I try to make it sound like I know what I'm talking about, but I don't. Those who can, do. Those who can't teach. Those who can't even teach write blogs. (Great, now I've insulted not only myself, but every single person reading this...)
Most of what I know comes from reading. The good thing about books is that it's hard to get published. Not just anybody can crank out a manuscript, get somebody to print it, and have it distributed widely enough to get it on my radar. But books have their limits.
So another way I've been learning lately is by seeing how others do it. Last weekend we toured a small poultry and egg farm. The had about 400 chickens of various breeds, if I remember right, and they used several different methods for keeping them, from pens in a barn to a traditional coop to moveable pens. Today I went on a tour of several pasture-based dairy farms. I saw three different operations ranging in size from 60 acres to 700 acres. None were capital-O Organic, but a couple were working on getting certified.
Both the poultry farm and the dairy tour were a bit too crowded for my anti-social tastes. The tour today filled two buses and a couple vans. About 60 percent of the attendees were Mennonites, and I was one of a very small percentage of non-dairy farmers on the tour. But I did get to talk with an organic dairy, beef, and chicken farmer, a couple of feedlot farmers, some grass-based cattle farmers, and a Mennonite farmer, among others. Lots of opinions and lots of ideas.
Many of the people were asking questions about milk production, organic co-op pricing, the requirements for becoming Certified Organic, feed rates and costs, and they were carefully studying the milking equipment and feeders in the various milking parlors. In other words, business.
We're not going into the dairy business, or really any business. The goats should at least pay for themselves, but we're not doing it to pay the mortgage.
I was more interested in the phyical layout of the farms, the shortcuts to keep from spending a fortune, and the creative solutions to common problems. One guy used asphalt covered with manure and straw for his winter dry lot instead of the more common concrete slab sprayed clean. When asked how he could do calving without any lights or electricity, he said, "I just get up at sunrise and go see what I've got." One farmer made a crude "sidewalk" from the milking parlor to the pasture by digging a trench, filling it with quick-crete, and covering it with dirt. This kept the cows from getting ankle deep in mud walking on the ever-sinking gravel. Rather than continuing to spend $500 in gravel every nine months, he spent a few hours and $400 one time and it should last for years. And they didn't even have to train the cows to walk on it. They figured it out on their own, pretty much immediately.
I also learned that cows love rye but it doesn't grow well here, that they don't like fescue but they do very well on it, that "friendly-endophyte" fescue costs four times as much as endophyte-free fescue for the same results. And I actually knew what they were talking about, which is scary.
I also learned that not only did the poultry farmers love Golden Comet chickens, but so did two different dairy farmers.
And finally, I got to visit a very interesting market. The tour started and ended at a place called The Old Home Store, which as far as I can tell is the Mennonite equivalent of Sam's Club. It was like a large, very well stocked pantry (in the old sense of the word), and just about everything in it was made within 50 miles of the store. They had produce, candles, home canned soups and vegetables (Tangent: Why is it called canning when it uses jars, not cans?), baking supplies in bulk, canning supplies, local meats (both fresh and dried), homemade jams and jellies and candies, baked goods... No brightly colored logos or fancy labels or giant inflatable product displays... I was fascinated by the spice aisle, because the spices were stored in little plastic tubs, kind of like margarine used to come in (Tangent: Why is the "g" in margarine a soft g when it's clearly not followed by "i" or "e"?). The tubs were much larger than the little spice jars you see at the store, and these were stacked high and deep. They seemed to go on forever.
Not expecting to be wishing for spending cash on the tour, my wallet was rather empty. I don't know if I should have been, but I was surprised that the store took credit cards. I bought a few slightly unusual things, and the little Mennonite brother and sister fought over who got to give me my free sample of snack mix. Some things are universal.
At any rate, I learned a few things, and I probably picked up a few more through osmosis. I was disappointed that I missed the tour of the veggie farm with a focus on sustainability, but there's still an heirloom vegetable research tour coming up. I doubt I'll make it, but you never know.
Oh, and in case you're wondering, most of these are put on by an organization called the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. The one today was by the Ohio Forage and Grassland Council.
So now I have some actual observations to go along with the words I've read. As Yogi Berra may have said, "You can observe a lot just by watching."