Dave's Spring on the Farm Update
My first blog post. Here I go.
I'm not much of a writer as growing up there was aways something "better" to do on the farm! But I do enjoy learning from other farmers and hearing what they are up to, so I guess it's my turn to share.
This season is sure to be a spring that our family will always remember. It will forever be known as the year that we built our store! It has been a very exciting learning curve for me. I have worked on numerous small building projects on the farm growing up, however, in no way have I formally been taught the tricks of the trade. So to be building this ourselves from the ground-up is fairly intimidating. That being said, we have had lots of help from family and friends. A lot of phone calls and questions answered and hands to help with physical work. It has been great to see how many people we have in our corner that support our dream.
At the end of March 2021 we began site prep for the store. This entailed stripping some clay down and building it back up with gravel to make a solid base to pour concrete in the barn. We then poured our concrete floor and power troweled it to produce a nice smooth finish. Shortly after we began to frame our walls to form the space which would become our store. Then, with it being spring, work seemed to stop all together as we focused on planting crops.
I also, with my dad and my brother, raise beef cattle and grow various crops such as sugar beets, corn, winter wheat and soybeans. When planting begins, sugar beets are the first on the list to go in. Ground conditions were excellent early on this year. We had all of our sugar beets planted in March! Then we moved on to corn beginning at the end of April and stretching into the first two weeks of May. Personally, I think corn planting is always the most fun to plant because it is usually high paced and moves quite quickly if the weather co-operates. Next up on the list is soybeans. There were a few days where we had to debate giving up on planting corn and switching the planter over to soybeans. It's not as easy as you may think. The planter needs to be thoroughly cleaned when switching between crops. We try our best to get one crop done and then switch to the next. But it all depends on what fields are ready and when! Of course, we ended up having to do that after ONE field just wouldn't dry up. It is always a goal for us to have all the crops in the ground by the end of May. Some of them can be planted later but it is much better for them to be in earlier in the year to produce a better yield. We were very blessed this year with some good weather to create good conditions to plant our seeds. As I am writing this all those plants are beginning to poke up through the soil and it is extremely satisfying to see the fruits of our labor.
Calving season is a BIG highlight here on our farm. Maybe that's because I get to "sit back" while the bison cows do all the work! Since the calves are typically born smaller, at about 40-50lbs, it allows the bison cows to do the work on their own. This is really good for the bison and us because they wouldn't let us help them anyways. Bison are a wild animal with a lot of natural instincts and this is one of them. It's our goal to preserve these natural instincts.
In our region, bison naturally calve in late April-June. I always find this amazing because it is that innate ability to know when it is best for them to calve. The pastures are full of lush green grass for them and have been for a couple weeks already. This is important because as the calf nears full term, the pregnant momma cows have an increase in nutritional requirements. The cow needs to feed herself, that baby calf and also start producing milk. This nutritional need continues after the calf is born as the cow continues to nurse the calf for several months. For those first weeks though it is crucial for the mom to produce high quality milk in order to make the calf grow strong and healthy and for the cow to remain in good health too. We are super proud to see our herd grow and know that we are helping to restore the number of bison in North America by creating an environment for them to just do their thing.
Now with planting done and calving season almost done, I've managed to check a couple more items off our store to do list. As of writing this, all the insulation has been completed and the vapour barrier has been installed. In the next day or two the drywall will go up and in the following week the mudding and taping will be completed as well. Meanwhile our neighbours, Against the Grain Milling, have been installing the board and baton exterior cladding. We really are excited to be working with them as they pulled ash logs from our own woodlands and brought them back to their sawmill to make them into boards for our store. The exterior of our store is looking great. There is still much to do before July 10, our opening date, but it should all come together.
This spring, we also tried our hand at raising meat chickens. Lia and I have enjoyed keeping a couple hens for personal eggs for a few years now, so this year we decided to add some more chickens to increase the diversity on our farm. We received 50, day old chicks at the beginning of April. While they were little, we raised them in a brooder in our garage and then as the weather warmed up, they were moved out to our shed. At about 3-4 weeks olds, the weather was warm enough that they graduated to a chicken tractor. A chicken tractor is a fancy name for a mobile chicken coop. This allows us to keep them out in the pasture where they dig and scratch and have more fresh air and sunlight than they could ever hope for. They urinate and deficate out in the pasture so we never have to clean out a pen or barn because the manure is already where we want it and need it. Chickens are also great for eating fly larvae and other parasites or bugs that dwell in the manure left behind by the bison. They will scratch through the old manure patties and pick them out. Sounds gross but it really is nature taking care of itself and there are so many neat things for us to learn from this as we go. The chicken tractors also keep the birds safe from any predators. Although, that being said, we still had 16 fall prey to a mink or weasel. As disappointing as this was, this is farm life and we have to take this as a lesson learned and try harder next time! We want our animals to be in a safe and comfortable environment. Overall, we've really enjoyed this addition to our farm and the benefits we see from it! Hopefully, we will grow this area of our farm even more next year.
Another important job for me during the spring, summer and fall is managing the grazing. Before we got our bison I had very little experience with grazing animals. So I set out to learn as much as I could and still try to absorb as much information as I can on the subject. This includes listening to a lot of podcasts while driving tractors and signing up for online courses - I highly recommend Working Cows Podcast, Roots and Ruminants Podcast and Regenerative Agriculture Podcast. I also have highly enjoyed reading Healthy Land, Happy Families, and Profitable Businesses by David Pratt of Ranching for Profit . Of course, nothing teaches you like just jumping in and doing it!
I decided to use a rotational grazing method here. I try to give them one acre paddocks and they typically will stay in that paddock for about 3-5 days depending on the time of year. In spring and early summer we ordinarily have a lot of moisture, so the grass grows and recovers very quickly. As a result, in the spring we move them every 3 days.
This means that each paddock will get about 30-35 days pf rest in the spring before it is grazed again. This recovery period is crucial for the health of both the pasture and soil. It prevents overgrazing of the plants which eventually stunts their growth. If that happens, the weeds and trees would take over the pasture and you could be left with nothing of value for the bison to eat. As the bison graze the tall grass they also trample some. This might look like a waste but it is actually very important for the soil. The trampled grass does die but as it does it shades the soil which keeps it cooler and therefore retains more moisture. Decaying plant material also brings more carbon back into the soil which in turn produces more soil. The other huge benefit to rotating the animals in this fashion is parasite control. Parasites can be found in the manure left behind by the bison and if left too long in one area the bison will graze everything down to the ground and eventually will unintentionally pick up these harmful parasites, which can cause them to get very sick. Parasites are probably one of the most significant factors in the death of bison. When the pasture is left to rest for a period of time, some of those parasites die off because there is nothing left to feed on. As the plants recover they also grow higher which means that the bison don't need to eat so close to the ground where the parasites are living. Then they won't pick them up as easily. There are multiple reasons why the management of our pastures is so important to me but it also one of the jobs that I get the most joy out of as I take care of the animals and the soil.
Now there's still lots of work to do on the farm store and animals that need tending to, so I better get back to work! There's much to do when on a farm! Thanks for reading along and if you have any questions feel free to ask!