Sustainability & Our Precious Soil

As farmers, we've been told over and over, your #1 asset is your soil.

 It makes sense, the soil is the foundation of everything on this farm.  For us and most sustainable livestock farmers the pastures feed our sheep by daily spring, summer, and fall gnashing and in the winter its fed as hay.  That's all pretty straight forward, right.? 

 Prior to my farming life my familiarity with grass was only my own "city" lawn.  The lawn that framed my house and defined my space....the lawn I had to mow.  Almost every week-end in the summer I knew I'd be rolling out the self propelled grass eating machine to "manicure" my lawn. Just like everyone else in the neighborhood I kept my 9 to 5 schedule  during the week knowing yard work, long moments with coffee and the religious newspaper experiences were all part of my upcoming, predictable, always looked  forward to week-end.  I don't recall ever worrying about the grass other then it's color or the number of dandelions that emerged.  I probably could have done more to beautify my lawn but that wasn't my thing.  I was all about my garden beds and the pots that adorned my entrance or patio. As long as my grass was "groomed" I didn't do much else to my lawn.  My next door neighbor, now he was into it.  Every evening after work he was ready to work some more... in his yard.  His week-ends were spent fertilizing or amending something.  He had the lawn!  You know, the kind you imagine running barefoot through. Everyone knows the lawn I'm describing, like a green carpet with perfectly shaped edges.

I drove in and out of that neighborhood with all the perfectly manicured and aspiring to be lawns and never thought was all I'd ever known.


if I knew then what I know now.

As a farmer working directly with mother nature I see so much I never realized.  

She speaks in so many visible ways.  

Naturally, as grasses grow then die back with the seasons, the soil is replenished with decomposing nutrients and a layer of "mulch" for protection.  If we mow the grass or take the grass for our livestock or "manicured" lawns we've robbed the soil of it's natural sources for replenishment .  

Simply put, "taking" the grass

 impacts the soil's fertility. Whether we mow a lawn or graze a pasture we are interrupting the natural process.

Because we depend on the grasses on our farm we learned very quickly the choices we had available to keep that grass healthy and growing!    If we we're going to take her natural source of nutrient we had to give something back.  

Our choices?  Natural or Synthetic. The nutrients in both types of fertilizer are much the same. The differences lie in their source, quantity, availability to plants and long term effects on the micro life of the soil.

Natural fertilizers sources come from plants, animal waste and natural minerals.  They also provide micro nutrients such as boron, copper, iron and manganese. Synthetic fertilizers contain nutrients made from fossil fuels.  

 See this beautiful pasture?  Just as green and lush as you can imagine.  It's kept that way at a tremendous expense.  Every year the farmer applies synthetic fertilizers and every year it looks like this.  What could be wrong with this?  Just like my "city" neighbor applying all those synthetic fertilizers on his lawn, the results are gorgeous and we're conditioned to want them that way.

So golly, why not?  

The synthetic fertilizers are like steroids, they feed the plant but interrupt the symbiotic relationship between the plant and the soil.  The plant can no longer depend on the soil to feed it.  

Eventually, the grass, without another application of those same synthetic fertilizers won't even green.  The natural flora of the soil is gone.  Believe me, I've seen it, even on this same pasture not far from our farm.

 Our other option and the only sustainable solution... we rebuild and/or replenish the soil with natural sources of nutrients.

Why isn't the natural solution the most chosen method?

First, we've been conditioned (brainwashed) to dependency on the commercially available options.  Secondit takes an investment of time and effort.

 It takes years of applying natural sources of nutrients back to your soil for the perfect balance to be achieved.  It takes testing your soil to know what's absent.  It takes sourcing the nutrients or in our case creating them from sources here on the farm.  We collect the leaves and gather our kitchen scraps.  We trek our barn waste to our collection areas along with all the other valuable waste materials and layer them together to age. In this way we build our own dark rich compost that we refer to as gold. We apply that "gold" to our pastures and our soil has what it needs to do what mother nature intended...GROW GOOD STUFF!

So, it takes first admitting the need to do it for the health of our soils and ourselves and second the commitment to the investment of time and labor.

Are we willing to make that investment?

Can we afford not to?

Come out to our farm and see first hand how my immediate boss,

Mother Nature

, whispers in my ear, pokes me in the arm and sometimes slaps me upside the head...

As I write this post I feel proud that we've taken the time and ever prouder of that dark, rich, healthy soil we give back to our soils........

DIY Heat

 This past fall we began gathering wood for our winters heat.  On one particularly beautiful fall day my husband and I headed out to gather the split wood from trees he had already dropped for one reason or another.   

Immature Sweet Gum seed pod

We choose trees that are nuisance trees like sweet gums.  I hate to call any tree a nuisance but sweet gums drop seed pods that get in our sheep's wool and create major havoc.  We choose trees that might have been hit by lightening, or others that if we don't take them down they're coming down on their own.  An amazing tid bit of information I've learned through my  recent wood burning experience is that each tree variety produces a different quality of heat.

My right hand is on the gas lever

We have a great system working together.  My husband John uses the chain saw and cuts the logs.  I place each log into the wood splitter.  The gas powered splitter feeds the log into a steel wedge that splits the log.  Each log gets split in two, then each 1/2 gets split in 1/2 again.  So, each log is    basically split into 4.  

                 Shall we say it is then, a "pretty log"?

After the logs are all split we are ready to transport and stack them in one of the buildings near the house where they can dry and age.  This way we have easy access to the wood at all times.

 I realized as we gathered our wood how much I appreciate our heat.  With each crackle of the flames, the scent of  smoke and ash, and last but far from least, the increase in our  indoor temperature...I am so appreciative.  

I am not criticizing anyone's enjoyment of their automated heat systems.  I have sure enjoyed them over the years.  I  certainly appreciate the existence of an automated heat source as I clean up the residue from our wood burning stove.  I appreciate the automatic response of the temperature control panel...heat on demand!

I also appreciate knowing the difference.  I appreciate being in a place in my life that I am reminded that warmth didn't always come so easily.  

Do you think being able to realize the difference(s) helps us appreciate what we have?

They don't wear galoshes

We have had so much rain here this year.  My 102 year old mother in law says she has never seen anything like it and that's a whole lotta years to be comparing to.   We've certainly seen rain in large quantities come through quickly but not over such an extended period of time. The farmers growing vegetables have had quite a difficult year.

As livestock farmers, were not complaining. If your in the business of grass, things are good!  We have an abundance of grass and the sheep are loving it. This would be a year we'd duplicate in a heart beat...if given the choice.  Alas, that's not the way mother nature works.  So, we'll enjoy our bounty this year and hope to be as grateful next year.... regardless of what she has in store for us.

Rain or shine, there are chores on the farm that must be done!  Egg collections is just one.

Much to the dismay of Sir Richard (pictured here) we collect eggs daily.  He'd prefer having little progeny strutting about.  At least, based on his frequency of procreation you'd want to think that.  Believe you me, it's far from his fault there aren't little chicks running around.  Those of you that know chickens know what I'm talking about.  Wear those hens OUT!  That's why many farms choose not to have a rooster.  Unless you want chicks there is really no reason to have roosters.  Unless of course your like me and believe a farm isn't complete with out the morning crow of the rooster.

For some reason when it rains our eggs are covered in mud.  I haven't quite figured out how the mud gets on the eggs but they are generally covered.  It's not just one egg.  It's not just one hen.  I try not to disturb the eggs too much so if they arrive looking clean I put them directly in the egg carton.  On a normal day of collection (sans rain) there is always an egg or two that needs a bit of attention but not the majority and mud is usually not an issue.

The girls have nesting boxes to lay their eggs.  The nesting boxes are under the cover of the chicken coop roof so neither the nests or the coop perches are exposed to rain or mud.  The nesting boxes themselves aren't muddy.  Just how do those eggs get so muddy?  Maybe their feather bums drag across the grass hitting the occasional mud puddle or two and that's how it happens? They share nesting boxes so maybe it's one hen that is just a dirty girl with dirty feet?  Maybe it's one hen that likes to dirty the other girls eggs?  Maybe the hens get a little crazy?

Maybe Hen Party has more meaning then we know?  There are too many dirty eggs for it to be one or two hens.  How many hens does it take to have a hen party?

Hay. A little three letter word that packs a PUNCH!

It's that time again on the farm. We cut and bale hay in the spring and fall, as if once per year wasn't enough. There are a lot of chores on a farm but I'm here to tell you this is without a doubt the most dreaded. I thought I would share some baling 101 hoping it will provide some comedy relief for me and maybe a bit for you?

There are 2 options for bale structure,

round bales... or square...

There is no disagreement that round bales are easier by a long shot. They're easier and less expensive to bale and once baled they're easily handled and moved. With the round bales weighing in around 1200#'s, you drive up to the bale with your tractor (every farm must have a tractor...every girl too but that's topic for another Blog) and a spear like implement attached to the tractor. You literally spear the bale and you move it easily where ever you need. The dreaded square bale, weighing in at 45-60#'s must be manually lifted from the ground (we don't have the modern conveyor belt system that loads the bales) and stacked on a trailer to be moved to storage. Everyone knows a girls upper body is not the best for throwing, especially throwing 50#'s...and UP no less.

Wondering why we've chosen square bales? Although we continue to try to invent a way to feed our sheep the hay from a round bale we haven't come up with a system yet. The round bale stands some 6' tall. The sheep eat pulling from above, pulling hay right down on their beautiful wool. It can actually ruin a whole fleece. So, until we create another system, square baling it is!

Another side note about putting up hay, to add to the misery ....hay ALWAYS goes up later in the afternoon which means heat. Your sweating from the physical work and the sun beating down on you as you lift these 50# bales.   You always have hay bits flying in your clothes and sticking to every exposed inch of you...does it sound fun?

OK, you think it's over?


Now we must unload the same hay into the barns and stack it for storage. OMG. Yesterday we were doing just that and I was trying to explain to my husband that yes, I can do this but I am a girl! You have to know my husband, he says, "yes, but your a FARM girl" way out of that one! I love this farm but when it's time for this chore I find myself creating excuses, like I was 12 again! When I imagined this place I guess I thought hay would just be bought and delivered, no work there. I didn't realize the finance's of farming (or lack thereof ). The cost of hay continues to rise and with the drought we have more and more need.

Let me introduce you to something I'm REAL proud of...Our John Deere T-24 from the 60's. The very first square baler John Deere made. She's an antique alright. Everything on her moves, nothing electronic on this baby. She can be temperamental but who wouldn't be with that age...but she's tough. I don't know what it is with me but I just love watching her work.

I like having the right stuff to get things done. I don't mind driving the equipment, I don't mind a little of anything...but 300 bales of hay in a day!

I keep threatening to call all my "city" girlfriends that go to the gym for their daily workouts.  I'll bet they'd have some major sore going on the next day.

I imagine I'll always dread this oh so necessary part of livestock farming.  I must admit, the smell of the fresh cut grass and the barn stacked high with the forage for the long winter ahead feels mighty good!

Winter, did someone say winter?  I'll take some cool after this day!