Farming

In the orchard

Recall that we had only one freeze this winter, albeit a harsh one. 17 degrees at JVF though slightly higher in Houston. The rest of this winter was mild, spring-like and wonderful for the human inhabitants. But not enough chill hours to get the chill the peaches need to produce their wonderful fruit. My rough estimate is that we will get about 15% of our normal harvest. The pigs, our primary consumers, will be disappointed for sure, not to mention friends and neighbors.

That’s farming.

Sustainable Sustenance...

is what we offer. Sustenance to maintain the body and soul, grown for humans but in a humane and sustainable model. Sustainable sustenance really says it all when speaking of cutting edge farming, so the English professionals among us will have to excuse the redundancy of the term (both words derive from the single Latin term, sustenir, to sustain). Our mission is to feed the human population in a naturally holistic and harmonious adventure at the edge of the farming community. Everything else cascades from that mission. Richer and erosion-proof soil. Cleaner air. Purer water. Shrinkage of the dead spot in our beautiful Gulf of Mexico. Healthy, happy people. Children growing up as healthy adults. Carbon-trapping grasses. Flourishing microorganisms. Fewer drugs and supplements in our bodies. A net financial gain for our members finishes the long list of elements bringing you Value every day that you are with us in this adventure into the new world of eating (see the footnoted summary below of my earlier blog hit concerning financial value if you missed it).

 

State of the Farm

We remained dry in August and as we entered September, but not unusually so. This is the time of year when we are watching for that right window to begin our preparation of the pastures for winter grass plantings. If we start too early, we can damage the summer grasses by exposing them to persistent heat and dryness; if we start too late, we can have poor germination due to an early frost. The prediction is for a colder, wetter fall and winter. But predictions are for the amateurs. We know that a prediction can be generally accurate but not at all so for our little micro-climate. So we watch our atmospheric conditions closely.

What we have seen lately is heavy afternoon showers easily visible from our hill top but without a drop falling on us. Until we get some of that good rain, we try to remain patient but it`s easy to say and harder to do because the task ahead is labor and time-intensive.

We plan to have 58 acres of rye and oat winter pasture this year, and will implement that in stages of 10 to 15 acres at a time. Each stage will include shredding (to open the soil to sunlight), light disking (to expose some fluffy soil), planting, and dragging (to insure good contact between seed and soil). None of the stages can be combined. Each stage will take a day of time on the tractor. So that’s 40 hours per stage (10 hour days), and 5-7 stages. We are looking at something in the ballpark of 200 to 280 man hours between September 15th and November 15th . That’s in addition to all other regular tasks and assumes the weather allows – it can go from too dry and hot to too wet and cold very quickly.

So there you have it – while it’s not brain surgery, it isn’t kindergarten either. And if you are risk-averse, stay away! But you’ll miss a wonderful life that is different every day and always challenging.

Jolie Vue Pork

It is easy to discuss nutritional advantages of grass-fed beef, raw milk, chicken and eggs — the research on all of these are deep and wide. Pastured pork is not so. I have found nothing on the subject of the superiority of naturally raised pork except this — pigs finished on seasonal acorns, as they are in Spain and Italy, have fatty acid profiles that look just like olive oil. So that’s a good start. Let’s take it from there.

First, the old wood forest at JVF is loaded with oak trees. In a good acorn year, you can’t take a step without stepping on acorns. But there’s more. The other dominant tree is the native pecan. It is well-established that the pecan contains the most complex variety of oils of all of the nuts. The pecan falls like rain every year as well. Then, I read a study of nuts in general — it turns out that every nut, including the lowly peanut, contributes some quantity of healthy oils, regardless of type.. So from acorns to pecans to almonds, cashews, to peanuts and the rest, very good oils are available to enrich the heart-healthy nature of well grown pork. So how do we take advantage of this knowledge?

While we make free-choice grains available about 22 days of every month, it’s the other 10 days when the pigs are rooting for native grasses, sapling roots, dewberries, grapes, and wild plums. When our native grasses go to sleep, we broadcast winter grass seed, including rye, oats and clover. Then when we are finishing the pig for market, they also get fresh fruits and roasted peanuts.

Lastly, what they don’t have is as important — no drugs, no antibiotics, no hormones, no steroids. 
In summary, fresh fruits and roasted nuts, along with the foods provided by nature and topped off with good grains give our pigs a wide variety of nutrients.

If flavor tells you anything about the nutritional value of any given food, and it does, you know you must be getting the best with JVF pork. It’s flavor still surprises us favorably after 10 years of eating. It simply raises the bar for the rest of the pork world and we have found no one who has hurled that bar. That’s a fact.

The Red Herd at JVF

Recall that half of our mother herd resides at JVF and the other half at Clay’s Mayfair Ranch. We sent the JVF herd to “vacation” at the Mayfair in August while we rested JVF and planted winter pasture. While the two herds were together, we re-mixed them so that the JVF herd is now all red in color – Red Angus and Hereford - and the Mayfair herd is more varied, consisting of everything from black to red to striped. Why the change? We are taking advantage of the added vigor that cross-breeding provides. The red herd will be sired by the Hereford bull, with his girlfriends being Red Angus and a couple of Herefords, while the Mayfair herd will be sired by the Red Angus bull, and his girlfriends will be a very mixed lot. Think of cross-breeding as mimicking the American experience; that turned out pretty well. We’re hoping for similarly successful results.

The Art of Grazing

Those of us who depend exclusively on grass to feed and finish our beeves are simultaneously weighing soil and plant health against our desire to produce appropriate weight gain and good health in our mother and calf herd. What is best for our grass crop is not always aligned with our growth and health goals in our beef crop and the reverse is true as well. Balancing the two is where the art of grazing comes into play.

Consider the prime examples of that interaction between our two crops - grass and beef - and how that might maximize one while sacrificing the other if the two goals tilt too far in favor of one over the other.

“Mob grazing” is a very popular technique these days. The concept encourages extreme fencing of the grazing areas so that cattle are led daily through a series of very confined pastures. The goal is to give the herd access to fresh grasses in crowded conditions, then move them to the next confined sub-pasture. The herd may move as many as 3 times a day. This method maximizes pasture health in three ways: only the top portion of the grass is nipped by the herd, leaving plenty of sun-catching blades for quicker re-growth; manure, our natural fertilizer, is concentrated rather than spread over a large area; and the grasses are trampled into the soil by the hooves of the herd, increasing the organic matter in the soil. This approach maximizes grass.

So mob-grazing is great for the soil’s health. What do the cattle think about it? They are not fond of it because they are constantly operating in crowded conditions and always moving from one place another. They like some breathing room and some regular housing, just like we do. Space and normality in other words. And the back of the mob is not doing nearly so well as the leaders. Most of the herd are left with a feeling of anxiety. Clay, a/k/a the “cow whisperer”, taught me this in our earlier days of experimentation with our grazing methodology. We were getting good grass results but slower beef growth; our system was out of balance. One crop, beef, was sacrificed for the other, grass.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have let the herd roam over huge areas of the farm when it was divided into larger pastures. The herd likes that but it has the opposite effect on the grass. Beeves like some grasses over others and they particularly like the young grasses as they are just starting their growth cycle. When left to large areas, they will go around eating their “ice cream” grasses and then make their second rotation on the same grasses as the grass is just starting to re-grow. Not good for the grass to be nipped down when it is so young. Its growth is stunted while the less desirable grasses thrive.

Our approach today: we now have a total of 6 pastures dedicated to the herd’s use, having divided the largest pasture into 3 parts. (Over time, we will further divide in half 2 more pastures for a total of 8 that are of about the same size.) We will experiment with occupying these pastures 2 weeks at a time, giving them many weeks of recovery before being grazed again. We think that is a good starting point, and will make adjustments as we watch the balance between grass and beef growth.

There are other factors to consider which I have not detailed here but that is the short course on the art of grazing.

From the Front Porch

We have designated the 2 acre yard around the new hill house as our grass conservatory. At best, the soil is a ½ inch deep, perched as it is at the top of the county, and underlain by sandstone. Thousands of centuries from now, that sandstone will become limestone, but for now, it is soft and porous enough that roots can dig in. We imagine that any grass that does establish itself will be full of minerals as a result and the cattle, during their occasional controlled grazing, certainly appreciate its nutritional qualities. Mostly, we irrigate it. We have already discovered a never before seen variety of bluestem, called Gordo. Gordo apparently likes plenty of water because as soon as things went dry, it faltered. But not before we could strip it of seed, which is preserved in baggies and refrigerated. When the fall comes, we will plant the seed around various pasture sites and see if we can establish a new-to-us native grass. It is a very prolific grass in moist conditions.