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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.

We've heard from many people concerned over the drought in Iowa. The Drought Monitor determined that 59% of the state is in severe drought.  We are concerned and are trying to prepare for the worst.  We're implementing a drought plan we've had in place for a few years, just in case.  Because we rotationally graze, the ground has additional recovery time between foraging. During drought conditions overgrazing certain areas by increasing the stocker rate (number of cattle in a paddock) and allowing them more time in each paddock, gives larger areas of pasture more time to recover.  This allows deep rooted legumes, weeds, and less palatable plants to hold the ground, keeping the soil in place when rain returns. If the weeds or cover crop were killed off, soil erosion would be accelerated. Soil erosion would leave very poor conditions for plant recovery.

As unpleasant as the subject is, culling older herd animals is necessary. A few favorite cows are going to be sold, two horses were sold, and a third is being advertised for sale. There isn't enough hay for the profitable animals so the older animals and recreational pets have to go. It's tough. These are difficult decisions but necessary to sustain the herd and the land.

The sheep who are prone to overgraze deep rooted forages while ignoring grasses have been brought closer to the barn for management. If confined to smaller areas, the sheep will eat weeds and clean up grasses and dry pasture matter. The saying, "Beggars can't be choosers", applies. Another drought management option is early weaning. The calves and lambs are offered better grazing areas and the cows and ewes reduce their required feed intake by up to 40% when not lactating.

The dairy cows and calves haven't been separated, yet.  Their yield is high and milk for the pigs keeps grain costs to a minimum. Sows, boars, and feeder pigs are grazing in smaller pasture areas, keeping rooting behavior to a minimum.

Hay prices and the rising cost of grain has us looking at changing our production model. This year we'll be selling off most of the feeder pigs. Carrying them through the winter months when grain prices will be at their highest would drive prices too high. We'll hold onto our sows and boars and breed for late spring rather than late winter farrowing.

With all of these practices in place we're optimistic about the coming year. As our friend says, "Every dry day that passes gets us one day closer to rain". He's right. Eventually it will rain. That's inevitable. The question is... when. Until that day our drought plan is in full force.

This would be the time to buy larger quantities of meat. The price is only going higher, at least until the next harvest season. Planning ahead can make a big difference in your budget.

Warmest wishes and food for thought,

The Killdeer nests are spread out at the side of our drive, warning cries, from the mother birds, follow us as we walk. She drags her wing on the ground and feigns injury, when it becomes clear that we’re not paying attention, she fixes her wing again.  Continuing her shrill cry of warning; ‘Kill-Dee, Kill-Dee, stay away from my chicks!’ A little further down the lane another killdeer simply cries, “Kill-Dee, stay back, I have a nest here!” A nesting killdeer doesn’t present the broken wing lure, she just screeches her warning (once her eggs hatch she'll use the broken wing ploy, too). Killdeer eggs are so well camouflaged it’s difficult to find them. Once you’ve seen the adult killdeer though, curiosity has you walking slowly, scanning the area for the indented patch of rock on the gravel drive. The nest has four speckled eggs resembling the surrounding rocks. When killdeer hatch they start running, immediately. The young take cover in tall grass and brush. The only identifier to their presence is to witness the antics of the parents.

Our small wind break pines are hosting small, nesting birds; especially finch. They’re hardly noticeable, but when I take care of the turkeys the small birds fly out from the branches. With a long series of chirps they let me know I’m not welcome. This is a fragile time of year for both young birds and new crops. The plants needs rain, the young birds need dry warmth. Severe weather or heavy downpours leave the remains of nests scattered across the yard. It's a delicate balance that we witness daily on our farm. We've rescued a few fledgling birds with moderate success, others we've had to let go.

Another visitor, who just arrived this morning, is an Ornate Box Turtle. As Keith was driving down highway 13 he stopped to rescue a turtle from the road. Garrett identified it, and discovered it’s Iowa’s only completely terrestrial turtle. It’s a threatened species so our local DNR office will be relocating it.

Ornate Box Turtle

Sometimes our small grass farm feels like an oasis surrounded by expanding crop fields with bulldozed trees, genetically enhanced crops, and diminishing habitats.  All for a few more acres of corn or beans, Why?

At the risk of sounding like a  Master Card ad, here I go;
Finding a nesting bird with her beautiful blue eggs, and rescuing a threatened turtle ...priceless.
Creating an oasis for wildlife, plants, and insects ...priceless.
For all types other farming, there’s... (feel free to insert the name of a chemical or crop giant here).


A sure sign of spring


It’s morel season again, if you haven’t been a mushroom hunter in the past, now’s a great time to start. Mushroom hunters will never reveal their secret mushrooming spots, but they'll share how to find them.

Pre-plan your mushrooming trip. When morels are out, so are ticks, use bug repellant. If you are hunting on private property ask permission first. Walk softly and carry a big stick, or at least walk carefully, especially around the base of trees. You’ll use the stick to move leaves and branches out of the way. You’ll be crawling under bushes and around trees, gently moving leaves, to find morels.   Bring along an onion bag or other mesh bag to carry your mushrooms. A paper grocery bag works well, too. Don’t use plastic bags. Morels hold moisture and will get slimy inside a plastic bag. Also, morels attract ants, slugs, spiders, and a host of creepy crawlers which will fall through the mesh bag and back to the ground.  The mesh will also allow spores to fall onto the ground.

The best mushroom hunting weather is just after it rains on a warm spring day. When you get to a wooded area look for dead or dying elm trees. It’s not difficult to identify an elm tree they look like a child’s drawing; straight trunk with a lollipop top. You can look around poplars but you’ll have better luck with elms. If you aren’t interested in hunting in the woods golf courses and parks are also  good spots. Garrett’s found quite a few while golfing. Not because he’s ending up in the rough but because he hunts for them while playing. I would caution that the course probably uses a plethora of chemicals, so be careful.

If you're unsure, or new to mushrooming, your local extension office will happily identify your mushrooms. False morels are dangerous, make sure you haven’t collected any. Here’s a link to help you learn more.
When you get home put your morels in cold, lightly salted water, with a dish on top to help hold them under water. I use clear pie plates to hold them down. We call this “puking” them there 's probably a better term, but it's what we've always called it. Wait a few minutes and all the bugs should be out.

"Puking" morels

Rinse them, place them on a cookie sheet lined with a dish towel or on a rack so the water drains completely. Now for the good part, you can eat them, dry them, freeze them, or sell them. I think they're best served with beef roast or tossed in a light cream sauce and served over pasta.

A word of warning...Once you start mushrooming you'll be addicted. Morel hunting creates friendly competition. Sometimes it's less than friendly. There are groups of mushroom hunters that comb the timber in our area, without permission. Wearing camouflage, carrying maps, and GPS  they're dropped  in an area  to search for morels. Several hours later  they're picked up in a designated location. These professional hunters sell the mushrooms to restaurants and gourmet shops.

Our friend has a special tree where he finds hundreds of morels every spring, it's his secret spot.  Someday he'll pass the location on to his children and grand children. For now he's extremely protective. He’s also the best walleye fisherman around, he has a secret spot along the river for that, too. I hope the professionals never find his magic tree. It's wonderful to see his face light up each spring when he recounts his morel yield.

3/25/2012 one week later
3/18/2012 grass fire

What a difference a day, or in this case, seven makes.  Burned grass and charred ground were the aftermath of last Sunday's burn.  The blackened hillside contrasted dramatically from the green pasture separated by our fence line. One week later the new grass is coming through, hiding the scorched ground.

Only a week ago the landscape looked bleak. Now the birds, field mice, and pheasants are back.  Soon there won't be any evidence of the burn.

The hawks are circling, they can easily see prey below, the field's perimeter still has tall grass and brush for protection.




It all started as a simple ditch burning, in the valley, on a beautiful afternoon.  A few hours and a couple of fire departments later, the ditch, along with about 100 acres, were burned. When Keith and Garrett went to the neighbors the ditch was already burning gently.  A fire break was lit to burn back toward the ditch, protecting the prairie grass. It wasn’t windy in the valley but the hillside had strong gusts which carried the flames across the dry grass.

Burning fence rows and pastures is common practice in the country. When burns are planned a defensive strategy is implemented, the operative word here is planned.  Burn crews are equipped with shovels, rakes, and backpack sprayers. Water tanks on hay wagons and tractors with the chisel plows are ready for action. Those plans are for controlled burns.  A simple ditch burning usually involves only a couple of neighbors, a couple rakes, a shovel and stories to swap.  In this case mistakes were made:

This fire got away.
The grader blade, instead of a disc or plow, was on the tractor.
A defensive strategy plan wasn’t ready

"The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft agley." (The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry.) - Robert Burns

The blaze gained momentum, fueled by the wind, which carried the flames upland out of the valley.  Once they reached the dry grass the fire took off, as they say, like wildfire. Keith, with only a grader blade attached, started dragging a fire break. Successfully containing the fire from heading northeast, the wind shifted and brought the flames back down through the valley and up the slope on the other side. In the darkness the front tractor wheel fell into a gully. It was stuck. The fire department’s water wagon, a few yards ahead, fell into the same gully. It was also stuck.

In 2008 we lost two barns, equipment, hay, straw, and tragically our sows and piglets, in a fire. It was a horrible experience so we use extreme caution where fire is concerned. Fire can get out of hand so quickly, a simple wind shift can wreak havoc and precaution has to be the rule.  Thankfully, the fire fighters, as usual, knew just what to do. There isn’t any damage, in a few days the grass will start growing through the charred mass. The birds, who nest in prairie grasses, are safe. They’re just starting to return. They haven’t started building nests yet.

The school of adversity is a very good school, provided you don’t matriculate too early or continue too long. - L.K. Anspacher

Late February
Ready for spring

On my way to the mailbox today the sun was shining across the fields. You could almost see the green shoots of spring grasses willing themselves to reach through the tangle of brown, lifeless turf.  This mild winter has the shrubs, trees, and plants fooled.  They’re ready to surprise us with early blooms.  Mother Nature still has a snowfall, or two, and bitter days ahead. With tight buds holding out for warmer days, it’s the perfect time to prune fruit trees and frost seed pastures.  Legumes are the easiest to frost seed, the tiny seeds sift through the protective cover of orchard grass. Each freeze - thaw cycle works the seed deeper into the soil. Late winter and early spring rains are magical elements. The seed’s are waiting for warmth to burst out of their protective coat and rise to meet the sun.

Spring snow melt

New data collected by the Iowa Daily Erosion Project (IDEP) strongly suggests that the vast crop acreage within the state is eroding at rates far greater than USDA estimated. The IDEP data is derived from new modeling techniques that for the first time estimate the soil lost to individual storm events.  Topographic and land use information captures the damage caused by high impact events.  Environmental Working Group concluded that the USDA underestimated the erosion rate on more than 10 million acres of Iowa’s farmland.  Here’s the site that updates the erosion maps daily

Click here for more info

Bald Eagle watching over the farm

The Eagle’s Spirit

This past week we’ve enjoyed watching the live internet stream of the eagles nest at the Decorah Trout Hatchery.  The eaglets hatched and the parents had a rabbit along with a collection of small birds to feed them.  Here in north east Iowa  bald eagles are prevalent.  All winter there are a pair of eagles at our farm.  In the spring they relocate to their nest along the Turkey River.  They hunt in our area throughout the year.  As a result, we’ve had to alter our plans during the hatching and farrowing season.

Our sows use to farrow in the pasture.  Between the owls hunting at night, the eagles by day, we were loosing piglets.   Farrowing later in the spring is safer for the piglets.  The bald eagles don’t travel far when their eaglets are very young, instead they hunt closer to their nesting areas.  After ten days the shoats (piglets are called shoats) are too large for predatory birds to carry off.  We have great respect for the bald eagles.  It’s both fascinating and thrilling to see them up close.

A couple of years ago Keith and Cookie were fortunate observers of a ceremony to release a bald eagle back into the wild.  The eagle had been caught in a net, injured, and rehabilitated.  This event was in Blue Mound, Wisconsin, along the banks of the Wisconsin River.  There was a crowd of spectators (mostly boy scouts), a DNR agent. Two Native Americans (father and son) were performing a ceremony to release the eagle back into the wild.  The son explained that his father would be speaking to the Great Spirit and the spirit of the eagle.  His song would unite the soul of the bird with the Great Spirit.  As the Native American elder began singing the crowd became silent.  The eagle, which had been agitated and restless, stopped his movements and focused intensely on the singer.  As the song progressed the bird never diverted his gaze. The DNR agent removed the leather straps that tethered the eagle to her arm.  Now, completely free, the bird remained still and focused.  After several minutes the song ended. Remaining still for a moment longer, the eagle shifted his gaze, then lifted into the sky.  He flew across the river, and alighted into a tree branch on the river’s edge.

For a brief moment in time Keith and Cookie were privileged witnesses to a melding of two spirits.  Our family has a story to pass along; the story of a regal Native American who joined the spirit of heaven and earth and through his song became the conduit for both.

      “I am tired of fighting.  Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolhoolzote is dead.  The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say “Yes” or “No”. He who led the young men (Olikut) is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death.  I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever”.  –Chief Joseph (Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt) speech at Bears Paw Battle Oct. 5, 1877

The way that Native Americans were treated is a shameful chapter in American history.     During the plains wars the soldiers justified their actions claiming the Indians were “heathens”.  This couldn’t have been further from the truth. For years the polluting of our fields and waterways were abusive to wildlife. Thankfully the use of some of those pollutants has been eradicated.  Sadly, we may discover too late the harmful effects and the full spectrum of disorder that today’s defoliants/herbicides has caused.  The proponents of factory farming insist that organic practices aren’t practical for feeding the world.  If one's actions require justification perhaps one isn’t acting “justifiably”.

To view theBald Eagle on her nest here’s the live stream


©Glenda Plozay, Forest Hill Farm Products,LLC