Welcome to Forest Hill Farm

Have you heard…It’s official, as of August 1, 2013 Forest Hill Farm is a certified organic farm! We’re off to celebrate by doing what we love best… farming!

This summer our farm crops are certified. In 2014 the cattle, sheep, and poultry will be certified, as well.  Beef and lamb are 100% grass fed, rotationally MIG grazed and dry aged. Our heritage hogs are pasture raised, eat non-GMO grains supplemented with milk from our small herd of dairy cows.  We’d love to have you as a customer.

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The Off-Season

The off-season.

As a gardener there comes a day when even the heaviest frost blanket can’t offer protection. You resign, relinquishing the garden until spring. Maybe it’s because of this resignation, probably not, but nothing could satisfy the melancholy feeling of the garden shutting down like a fresh picked tomato. Fresh tomatoes are gone until next year, this is the off-season.

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There’s a group of small, like-minded farmers who network together. Barter and trade are frequent among us. Last year we traded a young Gloucestershire Old Spot boar for hen and tom heritage turkey’s. This spring the hens were late to set their eggs, some never cycled into egg laying. Talking with a turkey raiser he determined last winter too severe. Turkey hens, regardless of their care, just weren’t up to the task of laying, at least not fertile, viable eggs, anyway. That is until this week.

In front of the machine shed door a Narragansett hen sat sunning herself. She puffed her feathers, called in a high-pitched whistle and seven small turkey poults scooted underneath her. Doesn’t she know this is the off-season?

Later in the day I collected pumpkins for the sows and boar. Among the vines and fruit another Narragansett hen is sitting on a clutch of eggs. One of the Muscovy hens hatched eggs last week. Five ducklings follow here through the pasture every afternoon. We haven’t found where she’s hiding her brood, hopefully a weasel or owl won’t find them either.

The peach trees, all but one, have been dormant all summer. Scratching the surface bark there’s life under the cambium layer so they weren’t cut down. Maybe next spring they’ll surprise us with buds, it’s doubtful, but I remain optimistic. In October of 2012, following one of the worst droughts in our area, the lilac bushes started to blossom for a second time in one season. The October flower clusters were sparse, but the following spring they were full of flowers again as if the off-season blossoming hadn’t interrupted the cycle.

DSCN2720The oak tree along the lane is dropping bushels of acorn that go uncollected. The oak in the pasture is dropping a heavy crop for the pigs to feast on. They’ve gleaned the fallen nuts leaving the ground underneath bare. One pig in particular stands sentry, he won’t let the sheep near the tree. He doesn’t realize the sheep want sweet clover not bitter acorns. Between the pumpkins, clovers, apples, and nuts the pigs diet is diverse. Their commercial feed goes untouched when there’s so much they can harvest themselves. This is one of the benefits of pastured hogs; a healthy diet.

Categories: Chicken/Turkeys/Geese and Duck, Life, Turkey | Leave a comment

Erodible Land versus the Yellow Caterpillar

I grew up on a beautiful tree-lined street where towering Elm trees canopied the yards. One day a tree trimming company drove up the road marking every Elm with a bright red X. The following week they cut them all down, the branches and leaves thrown into a giant chipper. The street was bare. The shade gone. The cool breezes and sounds of birds disappeared. It was so quiet; not a squirrel’s chatter or bird’s song greeted us when we stepped out of the house. The town replaced the Elm trees with small oak and maple, which wouldn’t cast shadow, provide shelter or shade for years. Today the threat of the Emerald Ash Borer is at the threshold of our county. But there’s an incipient disease in the rural countryside that’s a greater threat than all other tree diseases combined. It’s erodible land versus the yellow Caterpillar.

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This particular caterpillar takes down a tree in seconds. It can wipe out a tree line or decimate a timber with no regard to the years it took to mature. It’s nerve center focuses on destroying every living plant in its path. It doesn’t discern old growth hardwoods from fast growing scrub trees. Do you remember learning taxonomy; Kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species? Well, this yellow caterpillar isn’t in the kingdom Animalia. It’s a manufactured machine, its nerve center is the operator. This yellow caterpillar is a bulldozer. Eight dollar per bushel corn brought bulldozer’s disease to our county. I thought the falling price of corn would stop the disease, but it hasn’t. If anything, it’s made otherwise reasonable people into fiends pushing over trees to eek out another row of corn.

Here in north-east Iowa a high percentage of the crop ground is erodible (click here for the Iowa Daily Erosion Project). Decades old trees, some centenarians, that once held ground in place, drank up excess water, provided habitat, shade, oxygen, beauty and so much more are pushed into gullies and piled at the edges of farm fields. Some farmers in our area don’t find value in trees. They buy cheap land and ‘sculpt’ it to their needs. In the process destroyed habitats, uprooted trees, and the bare sloping hillside releases valuable top soil into waterways, never mind the toxins that follow after a crop is planted. Adding insult to injury, some of these farmers have received millions of dollars in government subsidies over the past ten years for maintaining crop ground. It’s unfortunate, but often, this short-sighted nature passes down to the next generation, the destruction continues.

Having a passion for trees, especially since moving to this farm, it saddens us to see the vacant ground eroding where towering trees once stood. A previous owner of our farm hired a local ‘sculptor’ to clear this land. Uprooted trees filled a ravine, the remains mounded into piles for burning. We’ve planted orchard trees and over three hundred hardwoods with a direct seeding of Chestnut, Oak and Walnut. These will hardly mature in our lifetime, but the planting continues. Dutch Elm and Emerald Ash Borer have nothing on the yellow Caterpillar.

 

Categories: Land, Life | 2 Comments

Bee Quiz

Bee Quiz

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Knowledge is power – the more you know about bees the more conscientious you’ll be of their habitat.  Here’s another bee quiz.

Q.  How much honey does one worker bee produce in her lifetime?

 a)  1 quart of honey
  b)  half a cup of honey
  c)  1/12 of a teaspoon

Answer: c

Q.  How much honey does a small colony of bees need to survive the winter?

a)  50 pounds of honey
b)  35 pounds of honey
c)  75 pounds of honey

Answer: b  
A productive hive can make 2 pounds of honey a day. Thirty-five pounds of honey provides enough energy for a small colony to survive the winter.  

Q.  There is enough energy in one ounce of honey to supply the needs of one bee flying a distance of..

a)   100 miles
b)  from the Florida Keys to the Pacific Northwest
c)  around the world

Answer: c  

Q.  Queen bees lays up to how many eggs each day?

a)  2500
b)  500
c)  2000

Answer: a  
A queen bee lives for about 2-3 years. She is busiest in the summer months when the hive needs to be at its maximum strength, she lays up to 2500 eggs per day.

Q.  How fast does a honey bee fly?

 a)  10 miles per hour
  b)  15 miles per hour
  c)  18 miles per hour

Answer: b 

Honey bees fly up to 15 miles per hour. Their wings stroke 11,400 times per minute which makes their distinct buzzing sound

 Q.  The sting from a drone bee is more potent than the sting of a worker bee?

a)   true
  b)  false

Answer:  false

Drone’s don’t have a stinger. A dron’s role in the bee colony is to mate with the queen. Immediately after mating the drone dies. There are very few drones within the bee colony. Drones do not contribute to the hive, other than to mate with the queen.

 Q.  In 1947 there were 5.9 million managed bee colonies producing honey in the United States. How many managed bee colonies producing honey were there in 2008?

 a)  6.5 million
  b)  755,000
  c)  2.3 million

Answer: c

In 2008 the USDA reported 2.3 million honey producing colonies in the United States, a decline of 61% since 1947

Well, how did you score? Learn more about bees at the Iowa Honey Produces website

Categories: Bees | 3 Comments

Baling Hay

Baling Hay

It’s hot inside the tractor cab. The fan works but there’s no air conditioning. Keith took the door off so I’d have some relief. When I head west into the afternoon sun the cab heats up fast, It’s like sitting in a fishbowl without the water. Turning east, the open door catches a breeze, and it cools down. I wish I could bale the hay only heading east.

DSCN0026(7)My companion, Esme is always happy. She loves riding along with me. The cha-chunk, cha- chunk, cha-chunk of the baler picking up hay is hypnotic. The constant rhythmic cycle, along with the warm air, and quiet music from the radio puts me into a trance. Every now and again the sound changes; cha-chunk, cha-chunk, cha-clink.  Sometimes shear pins break while baling the thickest hay. Esme and I get out of the tractor. She runs off in search of snakes and mice. I take the wrench, bolt, washer, and nut out of the toolbox to repair the pin. In a few minutes were back to work. Esme’s in her seat, I’m in mine. I have to sit sideways facing backwards so I can watch the windrows and the baler. In the thickest rows I adjust the tractor’s speed or the speed of the power take-off (PTO). Again, the rhythm of the baler along with the warm sunshine puts me into a trance. Cha- chunk, cha-chunk, cha-chunk. Esme sits up, looks out the window, starts barking. Cocking her head to one side she barks happily and wags her tail.  As I glance out the door I notice a tire rolling past us. “Where would a tire come from way out here, Esme?” It took me a second to realize that the only tire out here had to be from either the tractor, baler, or bale basket full of hay. Pressing on the clutch and brake pedal I downshifted. The tractor stopped. The baler tilted awkwardly to one side. The hub was buried into the earth. The tire continued rolling down the hill. I watched it curve. Circling, it rolled into the tall grass of the waterway, wobbled and fell over.

DSCN0024(10)I  made a call to my pit crew, who weren’t happy to hear from me. They bombarded me with questions. The first, “Did you check the tires before you started baling?”

“Of course I did.” If you consider walking past the tires and noticing that they were attached to the equipment checking, then I checked.

“Did you notice the tire wobbling?”

It’s hard to notice a tire wobbling when you’re fidgeting with the radio. The signal’s very weak out here. I don’t say this out loud, that would be suicide. “Nope, I didn’t notice a thing.”

The discussion escalated, “How does a tire roll past without you noticing it for 50 yards? Look how long it took you to stop.” He continued with increased volume, “I hope the axle didn’t crack. The hub looks alright, but we have to dig it out.”

My response is lame, “I didn’t notice any problem with the baler, and it wasn’t 50 yards.” Looking at the bare ground where the baler dragged across the field I calculate that it was only 45 yards. 48 yards at the most. I hate when he exaggerates.

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They unhitched the bale basket, moved the tractor and baler to level ground and began the repair.  Adding insult to injury they weren’t happy when I took out the camera. They gave me ‘the look’. The one that says, ‘Are you seriously taking a picture? Don’t you have anything else to do? Let’s recap why we’re here…You called us to help you fix a tire. You never mentioned that it fell off and rolled away or that the hub was buried. We’ve been working our butts off in the hot hay mow to get this put up before it rains. It’s sweltering. We’re hot. We’re uncomfortable. We’re very CRABBY! You’ve been riding in a tractor with an open door and fan blowing on you. You’re drinking ice tea. You’re listening to the radio. You’re driving through the field with that irritatingly happy dog and enjoying yourself. Are you seriously going to take our picture, now?’

After a couple of shots I put the camera away. I brought them cold drinks and walked around the equipment pretending to inspect every inch of it. I had no idea what I was looking for, but I wanted to look efficient.

After refilling my drink, adjusting the radio and getting Esme some water we were back to baling within an hour. Our friend, Rusty Little had the hay curse but I have the equipment curse.

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Goodbye Queen

DSCN2521It’s quiet when I work with the bees, I work alone. Every move is choreographed ahead of time. The bee suit is too hot, the veil makes my head sweat, and I will NEVER wear gloves again.  So, I wear shorts, a t-shirt, and worn out tennis shoes. I’m not brave, actually I’m afraid of getting stung, but with everything you enjoy there are consequences. Getting stung is one of them.

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The best weapon is a calm attitude and a heavy plume from the smoker. One of my hives isn’t as strong as the others. I had to re-queen it. Earlier in the spring I was installing a second package of bees and I made a mistake. I lost the queen. Well, she wasn’t really lost, she flew away. Worried about getting stung, I wore a full bee suit complete with thick gloves. After shaking the bees into the hive body I got the queen cage ready. I carefully removed the plug end and stuffed a mini marshmallow into the opening. I placed my gloved finger over the opening and moved two frames apart, hung the cage, and removed my finger. Looking down I noticed the marshmallow stuck to the glove, “Damn!” I tried to push it back into the cage, but before I could get it back into the opening the queen moved to the end and lifted herself into the air, “Damn, damn, damn!”  I watched, dumbfounded, as she flew higher and higher until she disappeared from sight. I let out a desperate cry, “Oh no. Stupid marshmallow!”  I thought, there goes my queen, $90.00 just flew away because I was afraid of getting stung. Fear, a glove, and a mini-marshmallow brought my hive’s production to a halt.

We covered this in beekeeping class. The instruction was very clear; “If your queen escapes stay very still. She won’t recognize her new surroundings. She won’t know the bee yard, or hive. She doesn’t know the workers, who’ve surrounded her cage on her trip north, they only met a day ago. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, she’ll fly in a circle taking a mental picture of the area. The queen will view you, the beekeeper, as a fixture of that area. In her mental picture you belong where she belongs. It’s very important to remain still and leave everything as it was when she flew off.” 

I waited.  No queen in sight. Two minutes – no queen. Three minutes, still no queen. Five minutes, no queen, just sweat running into my eyes and trickling down my back. Bee suits are incredibly hot. Keith was headed to town. He saw me standing still in this ridiculous outfit and called from the truck, “Hey, was there a nuclear accident at the plant?” he laughed and drove off.  I’d have given him the finger, the gloved one with the marshmallow stuck to it, but I was standing perfectly still waiting for the queen’s return. Lucky for him I couldn’t move for a few more minutes.  After ten minutes I gave up. I remembered one last piece of advice from class, “Never, EVER, let your queen escape.”  If she does its goodbye, queen!

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Walking of the Bulls

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Walking of the Bulls

Forget running with the bulls. A slow ambling stroll through the pasture, to reunite the bulls with the cow herd, is relaxing. They grazed their way through the valley, when they got closer they picked up the pace a little, but they were still moving slowly. There’s no sense running the bulls, they have a job to do, they need to conserve their energy. The younger bull will service the heifers, the older one the cows. Given today’s date calving should start around May 1, 2015.

Categories: Bulls, Cattle, cows | 2 Comments

Life’s No Picnic, it’s a Vacation

My life’s no picnic, it’s a vacation!

Keith got home from a soil building conference and pasture walk which featured a speaker who ranches in the Dakotas. Last winter they fed four hundred cattle on 300 acres of cover crops and stockpiled forage. They didn’t feed a single bale of hay. They also run a lodge which is a hunting, fishing, and working cattle ranch for vacationers.

Garrett and CT

Garrett and CT

Keith and I looked through their vacation packages. We were getting excited about all the activities offered. This vacation would just be for the two of us, Cookie will be in Peru, Garrett in Germany. Part of the all-inclusive vacation package is allowing guests to choose their adventure and incorporate it into their stay. Keith loves to fish, I like working with horses and cattle. Keith could spend his day’s fishing and I could ride, work cattle, and experience a REAL ranch. As we searched through the website we became even more enthusiastic; jeeps and ATV’s are available for the guests to use as they explore the ranch.

We looked through the price guide for each vacation package and started setting a budget.

Garrett and Fancy

Garrett and Fancy

Then I looked out my window where three perfectly beautiful, well broke, horses were grazing. “You’d like to work with the horses and calves,” Keith said. I glanced out the window in the other direction and saw a few calves running together. A couple of days ago, when we moved the cattle, one calf ran in the wrong direction. After trying to get it headed in the right direction Keith decided to rope it so it would move along with the herd. Garrett was reaching for the calf at the same time Keith was casting the rope, he caught Garrett’s arm along with the calf.

Keith and Cookie fishing

Keith and Cookie fishing

“The fishing would be great for you, you haven’t gone fishing in a while. It would be relaxing,” I said. Again, from our window, I looked across the hills where the Turkey River winds through the valley. It has some great fishing spots. The Big Springs Trout Hatchery is just around the corner from our farm.

“We could go on daily hikes, or drive jeeps or ATV’s. We could go exploring every afternoon and at night they have a great restaurant featuring grass-fed beef,” I let out an audible sigh, “although, no one produces better grass-fed beef than us.”

“That’s true,” Keith nodded, “You know, we’re surrounded by hiking trails. Pikes Peak State Park and the Effigy Mounds aren’t far away. We could go boating on the Mississippi River anytime we choose, it’s just a few miles away. There are tributary rivers to kayak or canoe or we could use the bicycle paths, ATV trails, or drive our old jeep on any adventure we’d like.”

Suddenly I had an epiphany, “Your right! People pay money, a lot of money, to go on a vacation to experience how we live our daily life. Our life is a vacation!” Some days it’s no picnic, but, apparently it is a vacation!”

 

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Bulls

Red Angus Bull Foresthillfarm.comBulls

Typically, the bulls get turned out with the cows on the 4th of July. For the bulls, it’s celebration day.  This year we’re thinking of holding them back for a couple extra weeks to make sure we calve when the grass is growing again. Last winter was too harsh. Spring came so late that some calves were born with snow covering the ground.   We’ll have two angry bulls, but the cows will appreciate calving later in the spring when the grass is abundant.

Red Angus Bull Foresthillfarm.com

Noooooo!

 The younger bull will run with the heifers, the older one with the cows. Using this gestation table for cattle breeding we can schedule delivery with the forage cycle of our pasture.  If the bulls service date is July 4, then the calving date is April 12. Heifers sometimes deliver up to ten days early, cows up to ten days late. Our target date for 2015 is May 1. The bulls will have to wait until July 23, Sorry, bulls!

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Timing Storms

DSCN0684Timing Storms

Several years ago friends from our homeschool group took a cross-country trip to visit family in California. Marie set out with her two kids, Marcie (seven years old) and Bobby (ten years old). Her husband would join them a couple of weeks later. As they got into Kansas severe storms surrounded them. Tuning the radio to an AM station they heard the static and knew they were in the thick of it. The National Weather Service was broadcasting the path and locations of multiple storm cells. Marie could see some rotation of the clouds in the distance. She pulled to the side of the road and gave each of her kids a task; Marcie would listen to the radio and call out town names, along with the direction and speed of the storm. Bobby’s task was to find the area on the map and calculated the route they’d take to avoid the most severe weather. The two worked as a team timing storms.

Marie had complete confidence in her kids, they worked well together. In some areas Bobby would have his mom pull over and wait while Marcie watched the clock, timing their move to the next safe area. On Marcie’s and Bobby’s instruction Marie would either move ahead or wait for the storm to pass. At one point they saw a tornado crossing the highway some distance behind them. The three hopscotched, waiting and moving, according to the weather service’s alerts and the teamwork of  Bobby and Marcie. Rolling into a small town they saw buildings destroyed with a large debris field expanding for several blocks. Had it not been for the kids mapping and timing skills they would have been in the direct path of this tornado. Marie was thankful that she spent time teaching mapping skills, it paid off.

 The ignorant man marvels at the exceptional; the wise man marvels at the common; the greatest wonder of all is the regularity of nature. – G.D. Boardman

 

On Monday night Keith was in central Iowa for a meeting. On his way home severe storms surrounded him. He listened to the radio and I watched the weather broadcast provided by KCRG TV. They tracked the storm’s speed, timing, along with the trajectory. I called Keith, we figured out when he should move or stop to avoid the most severe storm cells.

He’d pull over for a few minutes, then move ahead to a safer area.  Some of the storms closest to home were reported to have some rotation.  We timed his trip perfectly, he avoided downed trees, hail, and straight line winds. I was thinking of Marie, Marcie, and Bobby and thankful they shared their story with us. I was also grateful to the weather staff at KCRG TV.

 

 

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Good Morning, Piglets!

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Good morning, piglets! The first of our sows farrowed Sunday morning. 10 healthy piglets were enjoying breakfast when I went to the barn. They’ll stay inside for 8 – 10 days until they’re big and mobile enough that eagles won’t prey on them.

Our goal is to raise healthy hogs. We’ve been concerned about PEDV virus. The confinement hog operations in the area spread manure on the fields and there’s always manure on the roads. We’ve been careful about washing the truck’s tires and not allowing visitors for a few weeks to make sure there isn’t any contamination brought to the farm. The experts say that PEDV  is deadlier in the cold months, but we’re not taking any chances. Also, we don’t use a feed mix with blood plasma products, just grain and fresh pasture for our pigs. There’s a possible link between feeding blood plasma and PEDV. Wasn’t anything learned from Mad Cow Disease? Cows are herbivores, but someone had the bright idea to feed young calves bovine meat and bone meal. The hog industry feeds porcine plasma to young pigs that aren’t old enough to start eating a grain based diet. I’m proud to go against the grain of conventional farming. 

Categories: Livestock health, piglets, Pigs | 1 Comment