What fool would go out in -30C wind chill and stick their bare hands in ice water? ME! My cattle's water supply had frozen over in the night so I had to break the ice and take it out. (Bare hands because I need to keep my mitts dry to keep the skin on my hands from freezing.) They could probably survive eating snow for moisture for a day or two, but since their rumens are a major source of warmth I want to ensure they are eating as much hay as possible over the next few days.
The cattle take it all in stride, by the way. Snow collects on their thick black fur indicating they are not losing too much body heat to the cold.
There is frost on the INSIDE of the window where I am writing this. At least it is not cold enough for our plumbing to freeze (a lesson from the even colder winter of 2014-5).
Time to pull the blinds and hide in the living room in front of the wood stove with our dog.
It has been 30 months since my last blog. I thought I should do something grandiose, but that was a year ago. So today's post is just a quick slice of life on the farm.
This is our second winter with cattle. Last night was surprisingly snowy, given that the temperature only rose from -17C to -10C. A steady wind kept the wind chill about 7C colder, so I figured the cattle would spend the night in their shelter.
Here is how they greeted me this morning.
They also know how to take care of themselves: staying outside in the cold reduces parasite and disease pressure versus stabling them. Ee! Bah gum, they're all champions! I wish our old farm house was as well insulated.
A lot of my friends think that my winters are like vacation time because I don't have any livestock over winter. The pace is more relaxed, but winters are more like having a desk job than being on vacation. Some of the things I've been up to:
Accounting: catching up on entries for the last year and re-structuring the system to manage things better.
Continuing Education: Winter is the best time for farmers' availability so most workshops, conferences and seminars occur now. I missed the big conferences this year but took a course on holistic management, attended Grey-Bruce Farmers' Week Eco-day (for us weirdos who don't want to spray if we don't see a problem), and workshops of woodlot management and soil microbiology. A woodlot conference and a forestry workshop are also scheduled.
Website Development: I've put up few new posts or pages despite the best of intentions, but it took a while to figure out how to backup the site before I could upgrade everything to the latest version. I have designed a structure, but still need to implement it and populate it with content. An RSS feed so you can conveniently subscribe to our latest news is also in the works.
Strategic Review: After two years on the farm I have a better understanding of the land and my capabilities as a farmer. I've been exploring raising beef cattle and pigs, but each of these includes analyses of the minimum infrastructure required to get started, how big an operation I could manage and its infrastructure and profitability, as well as related decisions on making or buying infrastructure, keeping a herd versus buying in for a season, and impacts on my organic certification.
Planning: I'm behind on vegetable planning for this year, but I'll sow the first seedlings this week. The farmers' co-op finalize their "chick days" schedule and prices around Valentine's Day so I'll be picking that up next time I'm in town and scheduling the meat bird slaughter dates before I place the order for chicks (our processor only does certified organic runs on Monday mornings so I have 20% of the dates available).
Of course, I can do all of this (except the continuing ed) in my pyjamas with our bouvier Beauregard keeping my feet warm, so it is still a pretty good life.
Here we are on the last day of 2014. It has been a challenging year at Better Together Farms, highlighting some of the limitations of ourselves and our land. I think we finally know enough to chart a plan to get us where we want the farm to go (with a little help). Charting this course will be the major challenge in the months ahead.
Many of my former actuarial colleagues don't believe this is as difficult as I make it out to be. I think the major challenges are breadth and risk. You need to know a little about a lot of things to farm: soil chemistry, soil biology, plant biology (of both what you want to grow and the weeds that get in the way), a little plumbing and managing water pressure and volume for irrigation, basic mechanical skills to use, maintain and diagnose equipment, basic construction skills. Also everything you grow on your farm has its own learning curve. For example each vegetable crop has particular frost sensitivities in spring and fall, sensitivity to summer heat, optimal spacing, moisture and sun requirements, harvest period for each seeding, particular pests and diseases (and tips to identify them), particular nutritional requirements (and tips to identify deficiencies), and variations by variety.
There are the skills and knowledge not directly related to production. Research is a big one: after touring dozens of farms in Ontario I believe each farm is effectively a unique combination of soil, flora, fauna, topography and micro-climates and a unique expression of the skills, resources and values of the farmer. So finding information relevant to our situation or transforming the results of studies for application on our farm is a tricky business. Purchasing is another a big one: farms aren't big money-makers so you want to innovate to use what you have and what is cheap as much as possible. A lot of industrial farmers like big shiny new equipment; a lot of them are in a lot of debt and would be bankrupted by a couple bad years. Also most of the supplies and equipment are heavy or bulky, so you want to find things locally if possible. The one-size-fits-all world of online shopping doesn't work when shipping costs are greater than the cost of the item.
As a former actuary, I can talk a lot about risk, so I guess I'll leave that for a future post.
I wish all of us a happy, healthy, successful 2015!
Looking back, I am embarrassed at my inactivity on this blog and website. Going forward this will be the main source of news and photos for Better Together Farms since we will delete our Facebook account before 1 January 2015. I hope to add webfeed functionality like RSS so it will be easy for you to stay in touch with us, but I expect it will be something like March before I get around to setting that up.
Our second year on the farm brought many lessons including:
The stony ridge in our vegetable field curves around to the north -- I broke several tools finding this out.
Twitch grass must be brought under control before you plant -- we were running late due to the wet spring so we transplanted our most robust crops after knocking back the twitch. Those plantings were eventually overrun and lost to the twitch -- you just don't have the time to do the volume of weeding required.
A lot of our crops have a narrow window of opportunity on our farm. I realized last year that our frost-free period is almost two months shorter than the first farm where I interned near Toronto. This year, delays from fighting the twitch grass made me realize that this only allows a couple of weeks to plant our long-season and hot crops like tomatoes and winter squash.
Don't plan to build in the spring. Paint and other weather-proofing only cure reliably in the warm nights of July and August. This means that by springtime we need to have designed and sourced materials for stuff we think we will need next year before seeing how things work this year -- tricky.
It has been four years since I left actuarial work to pursue our farm dream, so we are taking this winter to do a strategic review. We will definitely add pigs to our enterprises in 2015, but the ultimate size of each enterprise needs to be re-evaluated.