March is the month when January planning and February preparing begins to pay off. The lambs and kids have begun to arrive by now as have the piglets. The seeds I ordered, after pouring over the seed catalogs, have also arrived and will soon all be nestled in the soil germinating. The chickens have begun to lay, so now the routine of checking on and turning eggs in the incubator has been added to the day.
The renewing of life as spring fast approaches is a delightful time and a hectic time. The first fleeces are off the sheep. I always try to shear before the ewes lamb for two reasons. First, it makes it easier to watch over their progress toward lambing and secondly, it makes for a premium, clean fleece to work with. Now the dilemma is over which fleeces to sell raw, which to make into batts or roving and which go into my private treasury.
March is also the month for marketing to be kicked into high gear. The annual farm letter goes out to alert our loyal customers that they need to place their orders for meat animals for this year. Web and print advertising go full scale as we are weekly adding Breeding Stock available for sale and soon the spring’s first crops of fleece and seedlings as well. It is wonderful to have the explosion of production and now is the time to share this with our customers.
Amidst all this activity there is the list of preparations for spring planting as well as fence repairs on all the paddocks. I swear there are gremlins riding the deer who delight in breaking wires and pushing posts over in the spring thaw.
This is the time of year when I often allow the excitement of renewal to turn into worry over all that needs to get done and finding the time to do it. This is when the planning and preparing of January and February becomes the ever growing “to do” list of spring. Having a Check List on the fridge helps me track my progress, keeping me feeling like I am gaining on the tasks at hand.
I often remind myself that Christ said, “Therefore do not be anxious for tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Keeping my focus on the tasks of today leads to enjoying the delights of spring from the first returning robin to the first tomato sprouts. This is the way to relish a farmer’s life in the midst of all the activity that spring brings.
Guest Blog by By Mike Lewis, NCAT Sustainable Agriculture Specialist
I once had a platoon sergeant who liked to say, “The best defense is having a diversity of offense.” It wasn’t until recently that I made this connection to my farm and to my work at NCAT. One of the most common topics that I speak with farmers about is how to best diversify their operation to successfully weather the current reality we find ourselves in, the increasing cost of inputs, and the constantly changing climate, all of which make decisions even more important, as any mistake is amplified in the current environment. One of the things I truly appreciate about working at NCAT is the diversity of expertise, all focused on the same goal of supporting farmers and the environment.
While this is not a blog on farm diversity, it is always good to talk about on-farm diversification. On my family’s farm in eastern Kentucky, we are constantly evaluating our systems and looking for ways to improve our ecological and economic bottom line. Toward this goal, we made the decision several years ago to introduce pastured pigs to our operation. While this may not work for every farm, it worked very well for us.
First, it provides our customers better-quality meat, both in taste and nutritional content, as well as in a community sense. In his book, This Holy Earth, the naturalist Liberty Bailey reminds us that, “one does not act rightly toward one’s fellows if one does not know how to act rightly towards the earth.” I always liked this quote because it articulates the point that caring for the earth and the creatures that share it with us is an act of community. Raising pigs on pasture is better for the pigs, the planet, and the community.
Second, pigs can be an effective tool to help manage your land and improve soil fertility. On my farm, we use pigs to help clear and maintain our forests and sometimes in our gardens to help with tillage. They are an important part of our overall production system, and they can help save us time and money by doing some work for us.
Finally, pigs get to be pigs. Being on pasture allows pigs to get exercise and helps prevent stress and other diseases. With proper planning and rotations, your pigs will have a more natural diet, better attitudes, and a better quality of life. This helps with overall health and wellness of your stock, while also helping to decrease your farm’s dependence on external inputs.
It is important to consider how pigs will fit into your farm’s rotational plan because, as we have learned from experience, pigs can go from being beneficial to being a destructive force overnight. On my family’s farm, we classify our pasture into two types, forest and field. Our stock rotates through these throughout the year, but for the most part, our pigs stay in the forest-based pasture. An important thing to consider is how much pasture you have available, and how often you can rotate those pastures. If pastures are overgrazed, or if pigs are confined in a paddock for too long, they can destroy the soil and hard pack the soil. You should spend a fair amount of time determining the number of pigs your land.
Regardless of where you intend to pasture pigs, you will need to provide them with adequate access to clean water and shelter. Our pigs are pastured a long distance from the water source, so we use a series of 350-gallon storage tanks that we fill weekly using a gas-powered pump that delivers water from a nearby spring-fed pond. While the pump and waterlines have a large upfront cost, they have paid for themselves multiple times, as we spend only about 45 minutes of labor a week topping off the tanks. In our climate, zone 6a, we need to add water heaters for about three months out of the year to ensure that the tanks do not freeze during colder nights.
One of the most important factors in determining your pasture location and layout is your ability to access the pasture when caring for your pigs. Sometimes the best pasture location can increase your workload significantly. Be sure you have a strategy to deal with any challenges presented by pasture location. Our shelters are simple hoop houses constructed of livestock panels that we can easily pull up and move as needed, typically every 120 days or so.
Raising pigs on pasture allows you to offset your external feed inputs, which will help improve your farm’s profitability. We breed our sows in late November or early December, which puts our farrowing date in mid-March. This timing means that from September through November, when the pigs are approaching market weight and eating a lot more, our forest pastures are filled with nuts from the Black Walnut, Hickory, and Oak trees in our pastures. Another strategy we use is to under-sow the forest with turnip and beet seed early in the spring, March and April in my climate, as these crops will provide additional fodder and ensure some dietary balance to the high-protein nuts.
As I said earlier, our pigs spend most of their time in forest-based pastures, but we do bring them into the fields throughout the season to help with clean up, tillage, and fertilization. Every year, we plant about 2 acres of corn, beans, and squash using the traditional three sisters method. In October, we move the pigs in to the three sisters plantings to glean what we left behind for them. The sows get a little fatter right before the winter and turn over the field to help prepare it for our overwinter cover crop planting. Typically, this consists of winter peas, vetch, and clover. If you are planting your fields for pasture, you might consider using a mix of alfalfa, clovers, and bluegrass. I hope this quick overview makes you want to learn more about adding pastured pigs to your operation. I encourage you all to do your research and to reach out with any questions. The introduction of pigs to a farm system can be a cost-effective way to diversify your operation and increase your on-farm revenue. Pigs are not only an important part of our operation, but they also bring us a lot of joy and humor daily. I hope you also find this to be true.
My favorite part of February is changing my focus from harvest and completing the yearly tasks to planning for the adventure of the coming year. I get a sense of accomplishment as I complete the year end paper work for taxes and take the time to evaluate what we accomplished on the farm. By spending the first two weeks of February doing that cumulative evaluation it helps the plans and goals of the new year to take shape.
We have long term goals for 5 and 10 years out and in February we look at how our past year and short term goals for 1 to 3 years are fitting in with those long term targets. We ask ourselves, are we on course or have we changed direction? When these questions have been answered, then we set our budget and begin mapping out our monthly and quarterly plans.
This period of planning the work is exciting to me because of all the possibilities the year holds. Yes, we evaluate what went wrong or didn’t work last year – we adjust and move on. There is no sense in crying over spilt milk, so to speak, so we don’t dwell on regrets. February is a time to see what went right and capitalize on those successes.
The difficult part of this process for me (and hence for Rob because he has to keep reminding me) is keeping my focus and setting CLEAR priorities. The problem for me is there is so much I can do and I can see how they all would be good endeavors but not all will fit within my defined goals or the hours in a day. It is even harder to limit the scope of my plans so I have the time and energy to give each task. I have to remember if I over commit myself I lose the ability to do the important tasks while enjoying the Farming Lifestyle, which after all is why I’m farming in the first place.
In the final session of the three-part Building Strong Foundations series for beginning livestock farmers, NCAT Specialists draw on their own experience to offer tips for success in starting a livestock operation with worms, poultry, rabbits, hogs, sheep, and goats, or cattle. Learn about respecting the limits of your land and choosing a livestock species based on resource base, marketing, and goals. To give an idea of the options available, NCAT specialists provide virtual tours of their own farms.
This video is produced by the National Center for Appropriate Technology through the ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program, under a cooperative agreement with USDA Rural Development. ATTRA.NCAT.ORG. For more sustainable-agriculture resources, including podcasts, publications, webinars, videos, databases and a free “Ask an Ag Expert” hotline, visit the ATTRA webpage at ATTRA.NCAT.ORG.