On our regular walk through the timber Keith and I noticed signs of the changing season. The color change of the leaves is obvious, but there are subtle signs, too. The wooly bear caterpillar's color range of reddish-brown to black is an indicator of the severity of the coming winter, if you believe the folklore. According to The Farmer's Almanac the legend is; the wider that middle brown section is (i.e., the more brown segments there are), the milder the coming winter will be. Conversely, a narrow brown band is said to predict a harsh winter.
Maisy and Spike are staking out hollow trees looking for raccoon and opossum. Spike cornered a momma coon, at our urging he backed down, she wouldn't have.
The canopy overhead is sparse now. The natural windbreak of the ravines shows signs where deer have bedded down for the night. Young trees have fresh rubs where bucks are marking their territory. We've seen large bucks in the timber and larger gatherings of doe. In another month the area will be overrun with men in orange blasting away at anything that moves. The cattle will move closer to the barn during hunting season, the dogs instinctively know to stay close. For us, this is the most stressful time of year.
Last year a neighbor was surprised to see a group of hunters in his timber. He asked them to leave, but they insisted they had hunting rights granted by the landowner. They continued driving deer towards other's in their group waiting for the animals to get within firing range. Every year we're amazed at the techniques used to bring down deer. Hunters waiting on two different hillsides will shoot into the valley as another group runs the deer through the draw. Generally these aren't local folks. They come from different counties and states, all hoping to take home a trophy buck. This season our neighbor has a preventative plan to avoid the situation. He's implementing something along the line of the old adage, 'walk softly and carry a big stick.' In this case it will be a very big and powerful stick.
About twenty years ago the University of Missouri Southwest Center experimented with a 'close planting' garden. On a 30' x 30' plot one ton of vegetables was grown using only 27.5 hours of labor. Today it takes 4 hours, per person, of a five day work week to pay for purchased food. An estimated 70% of processed foods on the grocery store shelves contain genetically engineered ingredients, and then there's the distance that most food travels before getting to your store. Whole Foods Market defines local as within 700 miles. For Kroger stores, it's a two state range. Giant Eagle defines local as from the same state the store is located. This graphic from 1919 compares 'Vegetables Grown For Home Use Only' and 'Vegetables Grown For Sale'. So, what is he distance of Local?
You can't get more local than your own backyard. This is the time of year to start planning for next year's garden. Cover crops of green manure ( buckwheat, annual rye grass, clover, etc.) should be planted now. They'll add nutrients, aerate the soil, fix nitrogen, and feed the microbial life of the soil. Adding chopped leaves, from deep rooted trees, will mineralize the soil. Bare ground is the enemy of garden productivity.
Thank you to the staff of Farming Magazine for allowing me to use this graphic. It appeared in the Fall, 2013 edition of their great publication.
Keith came into the house wearing his work boots, as a general rule we don't wear work boots in the house. I thought he must have something very important needing immediate attention. He was carrying his phone and asked if I could guess what he found in the tall grass. Since I've lost a fence post pounder, and a collection of other tools, over the years, I figured he'd found one of them with the hay mower. Luckily, that wasn't it.
Keith likes for me to guess things like, “Who do you think I got a call from today?” Or, “Guess who I ran into?” Then there are the, “Guess what I found in the pasture?” questions. He also likes to stump me with trivia, too. He'll ask me,“Do you know how many kernels there are in a bag of seed corn?”
“Eighty thousand,” I'll answer casually. I'm smarter than I look.
“That's right, you're pretty good.”
Actually, I'm not smart. I have a great memory. He's asked me the same trivia questions over, and over, again.
He started telling me about the swishing sound he heard in the tall grass. It wasn't loud, but it was distinct. When he parted the grass blades he noticed grasshoppers and crickets. Then he saw her; the Praying Mantis. She rested on his hand for a while. He took her picture then got rid of her. We haven't seen too many Praying Mantis over the years, which is a good thing. Praying Mantis aren't welcome here. Praying Mantis kill humming birds. Keith's pictures were terrific, so, unlike the Praying Mantis, I will not be biting my mates head off, especially over something as insignificant as dirt tracked through the house.
Our plans for this farm included rotational grazing, we started out following this practice but in 2009 Keith became interested in Management Intensive Grazing (MIG Grazing). It's the practice of heavily grazing an area by increasing the number of livestock on a small parcel of land for a very short period of time and then moving them to the next paddock. This practice replenishes the soil by allowing grazing, trampling, and animal waste to increase organic cover and vital nutrients. This restorative practice is essential to preventing desertification. We've been following the practices of Allan Savory and Greg Judy.
This is the 2010 areal view of the planned paddock layout:
These photos show the paddocks after grazing with new areas the cattle have moved to.
Cookie ran past me and shouted something about needing to find a marking flag. I had no idea what he was talking about but I followed along to help him look . We found an older, tattered one in the machine shed. When I asked what he was marking he ran ahead to show me. He was seeding the pasture behind the hoop building with oats, barley, clover and rape seed. He noticed a Killdeer faking a broken wing, carefully he searched for the nest and found it in the gravel at the edge of the field. That's when he rushed past me looking for a flag. I'm proud that our boys have an appreciation for nature and respect their habitats. Over the years we've had unusual guests at our farm. When Garrett was younger he would find snakes in the spring and keep them until August, then he'd release them. Turtles, squirrels, bunnies, snakes, opossum, salamanders, and starlings have all made their way from our farm back into their natural habitat. Here's a small sampling:
On January 29, six years ago, we bought this farm. It wasn't a decision made in haste, we'd been preparing for the previous seventeen years. It wasn't a leap of faith, a bold adventure, or a risk. It was a confident step in the right direction. Farming started as a dream and three and a half acres. Later ten additional acres were added the farm grew steadily from there. Eventually expansion became impossible due to rising land values and housing developments taking over farmland in our area. The decision to move to Iowa wasn't difficult, it's been rewarding.
This farm was planted fence row to fence row with corn. The soil wasn't healthy, it was washing away with erosion. The land had been over used. The barnyard was overgrown with giant ragweed and the house, which we didn't see until we took possession, was horrible. Somehow we saw past these deficiencies and a bigger picture unfolded before us. Years of raising chickens, pigs, goats, turkeys and eventually cattle prepared us for growth. It was a culmination of dreams, plans, and knowledge. Six years later we've managed to halt the erosion, plant a couple hundred trees, replenish the soil, and plant a garden.The land is recovering, it's rewarding us with beautifully rich pastures. The wildlife is returning also; pheasants and wild turkey roam the fields. Hawks, hunting for snakes and field mice, fly above the baler while we make hay. Rabbits are abundant, aren't they always. They eat the trees, shrubs, and garden believing they were planted especially for them. Occasionally they're spotted nibbling the blueberry bushes. The dogs see them too, but, neither bunny or dog makes a move. Unfortunately, the dogs aren't menacing enough to keep the vermin away. The bunnies know it. Our pet rabbits, George and Popeye were viewed as protected pets and now all rabbits fall into this category. It's the same with raccoons. The dogs remember playing with Sammy, who was included in all of their farm adventures, to them, all raccoons are acceptable. The chickens strongly disagree.
Walking through the apple, peach and cherry trees I noticed chew marks and stripped bark on the youngest trees. The rabbits, sitting on top of snow drifts, ate the trees lower branches above the mesh wrap that was supposed to protect them. On winter afternoons a walk through the farm reveals areas that still need attention. Year by year these areas are shrinking. Eventually improvements will be made by desire instead of necessity. That day doesn't seem as distant anymore. However, one more improvement needs to be added to the never ending "to do" list; rabbit proof fencing.
Drought conditions continue to dominate the news. We've decided to have a positive attitude towards whatever life throws at us. If it's out of our control, it's out of our scope of worry. The site below has maps tracking drought conditions in the United States since 1896. The data is fascinating. Take a look at 1934, 1936, and 2012. Here's the Drought's Footprint Our neighbor remembers the drought of 1936. He and his brothers would walk their dairy cows onto the road and have them graze the ditches because the pastures didn't have any forage left for them. Some area farmers were cutting down cottonwood and poplar trees and feeding the leaves to their cattle. I hope this cycle ends and there will be plenty of snow cover this winter. I can't believe that I am hoping for snow.