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Large-Scale Community Farming — PrairiErth Shares Strategy, Lessons on Organic Transition

Large-Scale Community Farming

The team at PrairiErth Farm includes (from left): Annette McKeown (apprentice), Jon Clayschute (crew leader), Cassidy A. Dellorto-Blackwell (apprentice), Carly Ambrose (apprentice), Leslie Gravitt (harvesthand), Craig Tepen (farmhand and wholesale coordinator), Katie Bishop (farmer/owner) Hans Bishop (farmer/owner), Graham Bishop (“pig guy;” helps Dave with chores and manages the pigs) and farmer/owner Dave Bishop.

by Tamara Scully

PrairiErth Farm’s 400 acres of Illinois fields are home to corn, soybeans, oats, wheat and alfalfa. They are also home to a diversity of livestock, 10 acres of vegetable crops, 10,000 square feet of hoop house growing areas and beehives. And they are certified organic. The farm, nestled within the Big Ag world of the Midwest, promotes a globally local food system. Their stated mission of “working to develop sustainable life systems on the farm,” extends well beyond the farm. Not only do owner Dave Bishop and his family promote sustainable agriculture to local politicians, the family regularly advocates in Washington, D.C. They continually work to develop a food system in which organic agriculture, independent farmers, regional processors and local agricultural systems work together to grow food transparently, fostering lasting connections between farmer and eater.

“I believe a diverse mix of plants and animals is the foundation of a sustainable farm, and the emerging globally local food systems offer the best — and perhaps ultimately the only — real path into a food secure future,” said Dave Bishop. Continue Reading →

Eggs: Tips to Boost Production

boost egg production

Fresh eggs at an outdoor market in New York City.

The humble egg is one of the great staples of the human diet and a major pillar of the local food movement. Modern industrial farms have taken measures to increase egg production rates that go far beyond what we in the eco-agriculture movement would consider normal or humane. But even ecologically-conscious egg producers, whether at the commercial or homestead level, can implement measures to safely increase laying rates. The three most important  factors for increasing the productions of eggs are breeding, nutrition, and bird comfort and well-being.

Brown Eggs: The Foundation of the Natural Food Movement

Before discussing these three factors, we should mention a few words on the egg that, rightly or wrongly, has become key to the natural food movement: the brown egg.

Brown eggs can range in color from terra cotta and deep, chocolate brown to a very pale tan. Internally, of course, they are inherently no different from white eggs. Taste and nutritional value vary by almost exclusively by how the hens are raised.

Brown eggs are largely produced by breeds and crosses that were developed to be either meat or multi-use birds. Early in the last century, extensive work went into boosting the production of many brown egg laying breeds. Since World War II, though, most poultry breeding has utilized hybridization to produce an industrialized bird for the colony house and the laying plant. These hens look the part, but they aren’t what they once were, and may even be coasting along on performance data derived from birds of that earlier era.

The larger-framed, heavier-bodied brown egg hens were never meant to compete as layers with white egg breeds such as the Leghorn. They are larger-framed, slower to develop, consume more feed while growing, and need more housing and nest space to maintain condition. They also produce fewer eggs per hen. Their larger size can give them an element of durability that may be lacking in birds with higher metabolisms, among whom are even some brown egg hybrids.

The brown egg laying hybrids often have a rather rapid burnout factor, and many flocks are turned after just a single season of laying. Sadly, their smaller size and the wear and tear of heavy production tends to leave them with very little salvage value. The better laying lines of purebred brown egg layers tend to come from plain vanilla breeds such as the White Plymouth Rock, the Australorp, and the single comb Rhode Island White.

Boosting Egg Production with Breeding

Breeders can steadily make flocks of these traditional brown egg laying breeds more productive. A modest flock of closely-bred females can produce replacement pullet chicks for quite large laying flocks. Such a venture is truly sustainable because the most important input, the seed stock, comes from the original farm. It hinges upon identifying the most productive females and their male offspring and using these birds to create a line that performs uniquely on the home farm.

Boosting egg production with breeding

Boosting egg production begins with good breeding.

The Hogan method has been taught for decades as a tool to evaluate the layer potential of young stock and the continuing performance of production birds. It is a fairly easy method to teach, but is relatively labor-intensive, requiring each bird to be evaluated by hand. The laying flock should be worked at regular intervals to remove poor performers and ill or injured birds. This ensures that valuable feedstuffs are only going to those birds that are most fully and profitably utilizing them.

The egg producer needs to be as serious about breed choice and performance improvement as the producer of fine Hereford cattle or blooded horses. If your flock is rooster-heavy, is filled with hens past their second year of laying, has at least one of every breed in the big hatchery catalog, or if the only culling is done by raccoons and foxes… the answers to your laying performance questions are being answered before your eyes! To become sustainable and to build predictable performance, the good egg producer must become a good poultry breeder.

A note on ordering chicks: Good foundation stock does not come cheap, and better-bred pullet chicks may now cost $7 each or more. Of late, I have seen many trios of adult breeding birds (one male and two females) priced at $75 to $100 or more. For chickens? Yes – just try to keep in mind that this is still a lot less expensive than the going price for even the most commonplace feeder calf.

Boosting Egg Production with Feed

Good feed is the fuel from which eggs are produced, and a thoughtful plan of nutrition is essential for chickens at all stages of development.

Boosting egg production with feed

Never cut corners when it comes to layer feed.

Hens individually consume rather minute amounts of feed daily, and their rations must be nutrient-dense and consistent in form. Depending on her size and breeding, a hen at lay will consume between 4 and 8 ounces of feed daily. Those concerned with paring feed costs should thus begin with birds that will produce eggs in a truly feed-efficient manner. To that end, the producer must keep goods records so she can determine the actual amount of feed used to produce a dozen eggs.

Some rather exotic poultry ration formulations have been bantered about of late. These regimens may be appropriate for a few particular markets with customers that can afford to pay a sufficient premium to offset the added costs of such feedstuffs. Some can be quite costly to formulate. Components might not be readily available, and specially-designed rations may have to be bought in lots as small as one to three tons. The old rule of thumb is that, in order to be able to afford the on-farm equipment needed for processing, a grower has to produce a minimum of 100 tons of feed yearly.

Steady improvements in poultry ration quality have marked the modern livestock era. Advances in the understanding of nutrients were often applied first to rations for baby chicks and laying hens. Today we see some of the major feed suppliers offering all-vegetable blends of poultry feeds, feeds with bolstered levels of omega-3s, and rations fortified with components such as kelp and fish meal.

Here are a few key aspects of poultry nutrition:

  • Begin with a high-quality chick starter, purchased in small amounts to ensure the freshness of supply. Most starter/grower rations today are meant to be fed until the young pullets produce their first eggs. These high-quality feeds perform the twofold task of developing both the frame and the egg tract. After the first eggs appear, the young females should be gradually shifted to a quality laying ration. Some farmers are going back to the old practice of offering finely chopped hard-boiled eggs to their chicks several times each day. For wholesomeness, offer no more finely chopped egg than the chicks will clean up in 20 minutes or so at each feeding. This works especially well for chicks that have had a hard time in shipment or have otherwise been stressed. Within a short time they should be shifted over to a complete starter ration that is fed free-choice.
  • Laying rations formulated as small or mini pellets will help reduce feed wastage. Birds are better able to retrieve feedstuffs that they flip from the feeder if the feed is pelleted.
  • Buying feedstuffs at roughly two-week intervals, if possible, is one way to safeguard ration freshness and to even out costs over the course of a year.
  • Once home, all feedstuffs should be protected from vermin and dampness. A 55-gallon barrel will hold a bit over 300 pounds of most feed types.
  • Most complete poultry feeds are now fully supplemented and include needed minerals and grit. Though the offering of oyster shell was once widely prescribed, it was often sold in forms too large for chickens to adequately use.
  • Many old hands provide grit simply by dumping creek sand into low-sided wooden boxes that are accessible to the birds. Cherry granite grit of the appropriate size is a clean grit product and is available at a reasonable cost.
  • Scratch grain is not needed in many feeding programs today. Birds prefer it to the complete feeds that bolster egg-laying performance, and egg output may decline if too much grain is consumed. It may be best to provide no more grain than the birds will consume in 20 minutes or so, and to offer it at the end of the day to bring them back into the coop. This gives the birds an added boost of warming energy going into a winter night.
  • You can’t wring many eggs out of elderly hens or those bred for other purposes, but too many farmers still supply rather costly feedstuffs to birds that cannot make good use of them.
  • Feedstuffs and seed stock are never areas for cutting costs.Increasing egg output begins with practices as simple as supplying the birds with fresh and clean drinking water and feedstuffs. It continues with producers gaining the experience to know which birds to replace, knowing when to replace them, and developing better replacement birds.

Stress Can Slow Egg Production

Stress can slow egg production

Reduce as much stress from your hens as you can.

Seasonal stresses can affect egg production. Producers in the Southwest have long known that extended periods of wind and heat can send egg production into a nosedive. Hard, cold snaps of even short duration can similarly send egg numbers downward. Here in Missouri, we have the good fortune to often get long spells of deep cold and harsh summer heat within just a few months of each other.

Veteran producers have a bag of tricks to dip into when their birds are in need of a bit of a boost:

  • An increase of protein can often be helpful during these stressful times. Some farmers top-dress hens’ regular feed with a bit of gamebird breeding ration that is substantially higher in crude protein content. I prefer a laying ration that is 18 to 20 percent crude protein. This is much higher than many generic laying mashes that top out at 16 percent.
  • A bit of green feed can be offered in the form of leafy legume hay fed from a simple mesh feeder that is suspended just above the birds’ heads. Stalks of a green crop such as collards can be suspended above the birds in a similar manner. This practice works well in cold and damp weather and gives cooped-up birds a way to work off some energy. A flake or two of alfalfa hay offered every couple of days will also help maintain good yolk color and boost fertility. I had a vo-ag teacher who held that there wasn’t a ton of livestock feed anywhere that could not be made better by the simple addition of a bale of good alfalfa hay.
  • Include a vitamin/electrolyte product in the drinking water during periods of stress.
  • There are a number of appetite-stimulating/tonic-type products that producers can add to drinking water. These can range from simple concoctions of red pepper, garlic, and oregano to a wide array of commercial booster products.
  • Make sure that birds are free of performance-robbing parasite loads. Just arriving on the scene from oversees are wormers that can be used while the birds are in lay with no need to discard the eggs.
  • Another cold weather trick even older than me is drizzling a few ribbons of wheat germ or cod liver oil atop the laying ration several times each week.

Successful, profitable egg production begins and ends with the hen’s breeding, feeding, and care. I hope the tips in this article will help you sustainably and economically increase laying rates, no matter what scale you’re at.

Kelly Klober specializes in raising livestock using natural methods. He is the author of Talking ChickenDirt Hog: A Hands-On Guide to Raising Pigs Outdoors … Naturally, and Beyond the Chicken. All are available from Acres U.S.A. For more information visit www.acresusa.com or call 800-355-5313.

This article appeared in the August 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Pollinators: Bees and Other Insects Will Increase Farm Production

Farmers can play an important role in creating monarch feeding areas and managing migration corridors.

Farmers can play an important role in creating monarch feeding areas and managing migration corridors.

Supporting resident and migrating pollinators, including bees, not only aids a critical link in the natural ecosystem cycle, but a farm’s production can increase substantially with the presence of ample pollinators.

By giving pollinators safe shelter, water and a supplemental food supply in addition to nectar supplied by crops, their activity on the farm can increase. It’s helpful to remember that while pollinators include the more familiar honeybees and mason bees, they also include various other animals. The Fish and Wildlife Service reports that there are more than 100,000 different animal species (they say the numbers may be as many as 200,000) which play roles in pollinating the 250,000 kinds of flowering plants on the planet. The most common ones are the insects which include bees, wasps, moths, butterflies, flies and beetles. But they report that as many as 1,500 species of vertebrates, including birds and mammals such as hummingbirds and fruit and nectar-eating bats, also serve as pollinators.

Though butterflies and moths pollinate somewhat differently than honeybees, the more familiar pollinators, they’re still a vital link in nature’s overall pollination plan even though a few of their caterpillars can become pests to farmers growing certain crops.

Butterflies, in general, have very good vision and can also see the color red, which bees cannot, according to the USDA Forest Service. They’re also able to detect ultraviolet light which further helps them find nectar. Butterflies taste with their feet and prefer bright colored flowers that are open during the day and that have wide landing platforms whether the flowers are in close clusters or larger singles. While perching on the flowers, pollen collects on their legs and wings as they hunt around for nectar. Not as much pollen is touched and stuck to their long legs and wings as does pollen on bees, but their flight range is often further, allowing them to spread the pollen they do collect throughout a larger region.

Monarchs, specifically, are known to seek out milkweed to lay their eggs. Their caterpillars feed only on milkweed (meaning they leave farmed crops alone) and milkweed also offers nectar to other important pollinators. But as adults, monarch butterflies need a steady supply of other nectar plants. And with monarchs being migratory, the Monarch Joint Venture (MJV) points out that the timing of the blooming plants needs to correspond with the timing of the monarchs’ arrival. Therefore, even if a list of favored monarch nectar plants is planted and nurtured on the farm, climate change and other variables could mean those plants’ blossoms open too soon or too late to feed the butterflies when they are passing through. The MJV website, monarchjointventure.org, has articles and links for rural landowners interested in aiding both the western and eastern monarch populations.

Farmers can play an important role in creating monarch (larva and butterfly) feeding areas as well as helping to manage their migratory corridors. According to MJV, agricultural fields used to be an important source of milkweed for monarch caterpillars because historically, native milkweed grew alongside crop plants. The widespread use of herbicides and herbicide- tolerant crops diminished much of the milkweed growing on farmlands. Though milkweed can tolerate light tilling, it can’t survive herbicides. MJV suggests that farmers plant native flowers in fallow fields, hedgerows and farm field margins which combine early, middle and late blooming species with blossoming times that overlap. If possible, they suggest allowing native milkweed to either grow in unused portions of the farm, or to use either no-till or low-till farming techniques and allow more milkweed to grow alongside crops.

Though the cost of the initial native milkweed and flower planting, including the time itself to plant the pollinator habitat, can be an obstacle for some farmers, others may be able to synergize their monarch (or other butterfly and moth pollination projects) with agritourism to at least indirectly benefit the farm’s bottom line. CSA farmers, for example, can request help, donations and feedback from their members regarding the farm becoming a monarch or butterfly habitat. Farms that benefit financially from positive public exposure can use the project to attract media attention. The MJV also offers information on Citizen Science projects CSA members can take part in. Farmers involved in farm-to-school programs may be able to coordinate farm tours with area teachers and classrooms. The tours can be fee-based at cost-per-head, or can be used as a method to sell other on-farm products directly as a result of visitors coming to the farm to see the monarch habitat. And of course, a native nectar garden also feeds other pollinators which can directly enhance the production of many farm crops.

Various moth species contribute to butterflies’ pollination for daytime bloomers as well as for plants with flowers that open at night. In one extreme case, the crop cannot survive without its partnership with a specific moth. The yucca plant which is grown and sold far from its original native habitat depends on the yucca moth for survival. The adult yucca moth doesn’t seek nectar because its lifespan is so short. But after mating, the female moth carefully scrapes off pollen from yucca flowers, holds the pollen in a lump under her “chin,” then purposefully and carefully deposits pollen into the stamen of a flower.

Not only that, she makes sure the pollen is deposited in a different flower from the one she collected it from to ensure cross pollination. She eventually lays her eggs in the flower, and though some of her young will consume a few seeds, the number of yucca seeds eaten in general does not put a dent in the number of seeds that will be formed because of her pollination. She can even detect if a flower already has eggs laid in it and if so, she moves on to another flower, which makes sure no flower will have too many of its seeds eaten because of too many larvae. Though yucca plants are grown and sold far beyond their area of origin, even into Canada, the moths have managed to follow them and adapt to the newer climates.

This report appears in the July 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

RESOURCES


For those interested in adding habitats or gardens specifically for pollinators, the following sources offer free or low cost guides.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offers basic overviews for planting pollinator gardens and building bee nesting blocks. From there, it offers links to more in depth information and instructions; www.fws.gov/ pollinators/pollinatorpages/yourhelp.html.

The National Center for Appropriate Technology offers a low-cost publication on attracting native pollinators. It provides information and resources on how to plan for, protect and create habitat for native bees in agricultural settings. The full-color digital version is currently $4.95. The black and white print edition is currently $7.95; attra.ncat.org/ attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=75.

When planting for pollinators, native plants are usually encouraged. Landowners can contact their local or state Native Plant Society for names of and resources for appropriate species.

The Pollinator Partnership of the NAPPC offers free eco-regional pollinator planting guides and resources for pollinator gardens and lists the types of blossoms the various pollinator species groups (bees, bats, etc.) prefer; www.pollinator.org.

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service offers a number of documents and leaflets on conserving pollinators; plants.usda.gov/ pollinators/NRCSdocuments.html.

Some state’s cooperative extension services offer guidance on planting for local resident and migrating pollinators. To find extension services in any given state, visit the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s extension page; www.extension.org.


 

 

Integrating Sheep into Organic Production

Flock_of_sheep

Using domestic sheep rather than traditional farming equipment to manage fallow and terminate cover crops may enable farmers who grow organic crops to save money, reduce tillage, manage weeds and pests and reduce the risk of soil erosion, according to Montana State University and North Dakota State University researchers.

The preliminary results are from the first two years in a long-term USDA research, education and extension project, which is showing several environmental and economic benefits for an integrated cropping and livestock system, according to Perry Miller, MSU professor of land resources and environmental sciences.

The project featured a reduced-till organic system, where faculty researchers used domestic sheep to graze farmland for cover crop termination and weed control. Placing sheep at the heart of the project helped MSU scientists find out that an integrated cropping system that uses domestic sheep for targeted grazing is an economically feasible way of reducing tillage for certified organic farms. Continue Reading →

Dealing with Heat & Drought

400px-Drought

by Dr. Ed Brotak

With the arrival of spring, farmers and gardeners look forward to the start of the growing season. As temperatures warm, spring planting can begin. Fruit trees will break winter dormancy. Pastures will start to green up. Livestock become more active. But as spring turns into summer, the weather can also provide challenges — the greatest of which are heat waves and droughts. Temperatures may soar past levels where plants and animals begin to be affected and can reach a point where production is negatively impacted. At worst, damage or even death can occur. Drought is an even greater threat to crops. A lack of water causes even more immediate production losses and a total loss is certainly possible. For many locations, heat and drought go hand in hand during the summer, and just about every year somewhere in the country heat waves and drought occur.

What constitutes hot temperatures depends on where you live. For Fairbanks, Alaska, 90°F is rare but has occurred. In Columbia, South Carolina, where it can top 90°F many times in the course of a summer, even 100 degrees is not that unusual. This is important since to a large degree agricultural operations are geared for normal conditions; the type of temperatures normally experienced and expected. With the relatively cool waters of the Pacific just offshore, the West Coast has only brief hot spells when an offshore flow develops in summer. From the Rockies eastward, abnormally hot conditions become more of a periodic threat. Continue Reading →

Interview: SOS: Save our Soils — Dr. Christine Jones Explains the Life-Giving Link Between Carbon and Healthy Topsoil

Christine Jones Interview

Christine Jones

Dr. Christine Jones, interviewed by Tracy Frisch


To the pressing worldwide challenge of restoring soil carbon and rebuilding topsoil, the Australian soil ecologist Dr. Christine Jones offers an accessible, revolutionary perspective for improving landscape health and farm productivity. For several decades Jones has helped innovative farmers and ranchers implement regenerative agricultural systems that provide remarkable benefits for biodiversity, carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling, water management and productivity. After a highly respected career in public sector research and extension, in 2001 Jones received a Community Fellowship Award from Land and Water Australia for “mobilizing the community to better manage their land, water and vegetation.” Three years later she launched Amazing Carbon as a means to widely share her vision and inspire change. Jones has organized and presented workshops, field days, seminars and conferences throughout Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Europe, the United States and Canada. Last year, she gave presentations to American organizations and institutions as diverse as Arizona State University, NRCS, Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance, the Massachusetts chapter of Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), San Luis Valley Soil Health Group and the Quivira Coalition. In 2015 Jones’ personal commitment to make the biggest possible impact globally will take her to Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Kansas, New Mexico, California, Florida, Costa Rica and South Africa, as well as many regions within Australia and New Zealand. In early March she travels to Western Australia, 2,500 miles from her home, to hold the first in a series of Soil Restoration Farming Forums, in which 11 farmers will receive monetary awards for reversing soil deterioration in dryland cropping systems through intercropping with perennial warm season grasses.

ACRES U.S.A. You’ve written that the most meaningful indicator for the health of the land and the long-term wealth of a nation is whether soil is being formed or lost. Yet there’s a widespread belief, actually dogma, that the formation of soil is an exceedingly slow process. Even some organic researchers accept that idea. You describe the formation of topsoil as being breathtakingly rapid. Continue Reading →