Monday, July 30, 2007

Phase II of the dirt farming project

Using a rented no-till seeder and tractor (a Case-IH 685 -- a very nice tractor with a wheel under each corner and a low center of gravity), I planted the turnips and kale on July 28. The turnips are on one side of the field, and the kale on the other, with a strip of Italian ryegrass in the middle. The ryegrass will serve to provide fiber and a more familiar source of energy while the lambs adjust to the brassicas (also known as a "runback" area -- the lambs can run back to familiar feed while learning about eating their turnips and kale).

The no-till seeder didn't do a great job. It frequently clogged up with trash from the oats and peas that were harvested earlier this month, so I had to slow down and lift the seeder out of the ground to allow it to empty out. This leaves a combination of unplanted areas and big piles of straw. The seeder wasn't equipped with coulters, which would have sliced the trash into shorter pieces that could have slipped through the seeder points.

As always, pics to follow.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Recipe for fun

1 Border collie puppy
1 recycle bin

Mix and serve

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The final tally: 72 bales

The oats and peas are cut and baled, despite a couple of equipment hiccups. Good thing too, because the monsoon seems to have moved into central New England.

I estimate that these bales weigh about 1,200 lbs. at about 50 percent DM (will be determined by feed testing later this summer, after the bales have cured). So 600 lbs DM times 72 bales equals 43,200 lbs DM stored, or about 7200 sheep/days of feed. That's enough to feed 60 ewes from January 1 through April 30. (I'm estimating consumption at 6 lbs DM per head per day; on the high side because the material is mature and stemmy and there will be significant waste).

Another measure is that it's just shy of 3300 lbs DM/acre.

Pics to follow.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Down for the count

The oats and peas are finally mowed! Baling will start tomorrow.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Still standing

We're still waiting for a break in the weather to get the oats and peas harvested. They're now six feet tall. The oats are getting hard, and the peas have pods. I'm getting very concerned about being able to get the brassicas planted in time.

Humiliation at the sheepdog trials

Anyone who has competed at a sheepdog trial knows that it can be a humbling experience. By their very nature, sheepdog trials expose the faults of a dog and his handler: it's a pressure-cooker situation designed to seprate the excellent dogs from the pretty good dogs from the so-so dogs from the biscuit-eaters.

Even when I was going to a lot of trials, I was never a really good handler. I think of dog trials as social events with an opportunity to figure out what training I need to work on with a particular dog. For the past few years, for various reasons, I have been out of trialing, and now that time and life circumstances are allowing me a little more time for myself, I decided to dip my toes back in the water.

There was a two-day open trial at Merck Forest and Farmland Center July 7 and 8, and I entered with Tweed. The weekend served double duty as a getaway for Lynn and me. The scenery at Merck Forest is spectacular. You should go. Really. It's open for hiking, there are rustic cabins. Just go sometime.

These are Sufflok Punch draft horses. The stallion is in the foreground, and three mares that are in for service are in the background.

But anyway, on to the trial. The title of this post indicates a little bit of what happened. Humiliation. Specifially: was it humiliating that Tweed crossed over on his outrun both days (something he never does)? Yes. Was in humiliating that on Saturday he got the lowest recorded score (other than the dogs that retired or were disqualified)? Yes, in a way. Was it humiliating that on Sunday an angry ewe tried to ram Tweed, and faced with the choice of disqualifation or taking the long walk, I took the long walk? Yes it was.

But all of these on-the-field insults were minor compared to something that happened off the field. As I was standing back, watching the last few runs before I was up on Sunday, a spectator came up to me and said, "You're Jon Katz, aren't you." Note the punctuation -- she didn't ask a question, she made a statement.

If there is someone who I am not, and who I do not aspire to be, or be anything like, it is Jon Katz. I sincerely hope I am not as fat, stupid, and arrogant as he is, although I certainly realize that I harbor each of those faults to some extent. Katz is a self-appointed Border collie expert who actually doesn't know biscuits from shinola. He would never show his face at a real sheepdog trial because there'd be a serious danger that he might learn something or get punched in the nose. Or both. He has published a string of books so full of bad information about Border collies that it's hard to even know where to start criticizing the specifics of his writing. One feels like the quantum theorist Wolfgang Pauli who, upon reading a paper that was so vague and misinformed that it couldn't be supported or disproved, said: "This isn't right. This isn't even wrong!"

Being wrong is forgivable. Being not even wrong is not. Being mistaken for someone who is not even wrong -- well that just sucks.

Here's the high point of the weekend as far as trialing went. Tweed lining up his sheep for the pen on Saturday. He was one of just two or three dogs (out of 54 that ran) who had a perfect 10-point pen. Not surprising when you consider what Tweed and I do: we put sheep in pens. But these sheep were not interested in going into pens, and many dogs and handlers had their runs ended without getting the sheep in on Saturday -- the sheep would end up circling the pen until the handler's time ran out. So what does this mean? It means that Tweed can do well if we practice.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007


A nice, gentle, steady rain is falling and is supposed to continue all night. It might be too late for the annual ryegrass I planted on Canoe Meadow, but we can always hope. This is the first measurable rainfall we've had for about three weeks here, although it has rained as little as three miles north and south of us.

I know there are parts of the world where no rain for a few weeks is normal, and other places where they wish it had only been a few weeks. I should -- and do -- count my blessings. But in those places plants, animals, and production systems are geared for dry spells. Here they are not. If we go a week without a soaking rain during the growing season, I get uneasy.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

My life as a dirt farmer

As an experiment this year, I rented a 13-acre field that had been used for silage corn production since Jimmy Carter was president and decided to produce two crops on it. The first crop will be harvested as silage for winter feed. It's a blend of forage oats and field peas. Once the they're harvested, I'll seed one half of the field with turnips and the other half with kale. I'll fatten lambs on these brassicas this fall and see whether there's any difference in rate of gain, forage production, and economic yield between the two. This experiment is partially funded by the USDA's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program.

I had the field plowed and disked by a local farmer. I had the fertilizer dealer blend the seed in with the fertilizer and it was spread with a bulk truck. After that, I rolled the field with a cultipacker. Here's how the field looks on July 1, 55 days after planting. I would have liked to have harvested the field at this stage for the best forage quality, but because I am at the mercy of custom operators, it's currently scheduled to be harvested on July 9. Let's hope for good weather.

The whole seeding process happened about a week later than I would have liked (again because I relied on custom operators), and as a result the seed went down into very dry soil. Cultipacking was difficult because the soil, which is very light, often rolled in front of the roller, burying the seed rather than pressing it into the soil. Where this happened, germination was thin and the plants didn't do a very good job of supressing weeds as shown in the photo on the left.

However, in places where the seed took well, the crop is thick, lush, and well over three feet tall. Weeds don't stand a chance, as shown in the photo on the right.

Here's the stage of maturity on July 1: oats have started to head out, and the field peas just starting to bloom but have not produced any pods yet.

Look out, world! Here comes Fern

My friend Dee Woessner wrote a haiku called "On Starting Dogs." It's about the experience of working with a Border collie puppy and the process of taking a little ball of fluff and raising it to be an indispensible co-worker and boon companion. I'm embarking on that journey with Fern, a split-faced bitch that I got in April from Maria Amodei.

Fern is the smartest pup I've worked with in nearly 15 years, and she's a joy to be around. If she's inherited the traits that I want from her parents, she'll be a hardworking sheepdog, working directly and taking control of her sheep. It's too soon to tell if she'll live up to her pedigree -- buying a puppy is always something of a crapshoot, although we try to load the dice by choosing pups from parents with a history of producing good workers.

In these photos, taken on June 30, 2007, Fern is roughly four and a half months old. She's just starting to "see" sheep -- by which a shepherd means that she's showing interest in them and starting to show some form and purpose in her approach to them. Although she can run like the wind, Fern doesn't have the physical ability to really work sheep yet. More importantly, she doesn't have the mental capacity to handle the pressure if she's challenged by the sheep or her handler, so there's really no training going on at this point. I'm just exposing her to sheep and helping her out when things get hairy -- mostly by getting her out of her own way!

In this photo she has just noticed that the sheep are moving away from her, and she has dropped her head and tail into the classic Border collie working pose as she continues to walk up on the flock. She's not showing any interest in circling the sheep to head them yet (although she did do so a little bit today when I didn't have a camera). She is looking purposeful and probably most important and unusual at this age, thinking about what's going on.

When these two lambs realized that they had been separated from the rest of the flock, all hell broke loose -- they were calling and running. All the activity caught Fern's eye and she went into chase mode. No harm came of it -- the lambs rejoined their mothers and Fern thought she had saved the day. But this sort of situation is why it's risky to work puppies on larger groups of sheep. If she had tried to head off the lambs, they almost certainly would have gone over her which could have rattled her confidence and put off the day when she's ready to start real training.

Hey, wait a minute! This sheep smells like a dog!

On Starting Dogs
By Dee Woessner
Needing diamonds
we incubate stones
and hope

Fern is one of the nicest stones I've ever attempted to incubate.

Zeus on guard

On Memorial Day weekend, my wonderful livestock guard dog Ed (shown on the right in a 2005 photograph) left his sheep, I presume to run off a coyote. Three days later he was hit by a car and killed nearly eight miles from the flock. I was bereft -- it was hard to go and check on the ewes and lambs and not have Ed greet me and give me the status report. But there was also the scary fact that my sheep were without one of their two lines of defense against predators. The electrified net fencing would work for a while, but eventually coyotes would probably find a way to defeat it unless I found a dog to replace Edward.

I put out the word through a number of Internet communities, and got a response from Kelli Fogg at Shuttleworth Farm in Westfield, Vt., that they had a dog to spare. Zeus (shown to the left in a photo taken June 30, 2007) came to me about two weeks after Ed's untimely demise, and has picked up where Ed left off without missing a beat. Zeus is much more flock-bound than Ed was -- which I am hopeful means that he will not feel the need to persue his enemies so far that he can't find his way back to safety. I'm grateful to Todd and Kelli for responding to my need with the right dog at the right time. I was also overwhelmed by the outpouring of sympathy and offers of help ranging from free puppies to extended loans of dogs that other shepherds offered me in my hour of need.

Meet the lambs

Lambing at Edgefield Farm started on April 24 and ended on May 20. With the exception of a few hoggets that were intentionally bred late, the entire flock had lambed within 18 days. This was our first year with some purebred Coopworth ewes, and they've produced some decent lambs for us. This is a Coopworth ewe paying very close attention to her twins.

In addition to the Coopworths, we also bred a group of crossbred ewes to a Texel ram. We also keep a few purebred Texel ewes. Here's a Texel ewe and her lamb. Texel sheep are prized for their meaty carcasses. They're not the prettiest sheep in the field, but they're gorgeous on the grill!

Here's the whole flock heading out to graze. All these photos were taken June 30, 2007.