Monthly Archives: November 2011

They tried it … and they liked it!

Apparently, a couple of farmers in Vermont were on to something. They experimented with a new method of preserving forage in the ‘moist state’ by strong compression in air-tight pits. All three report success and express enthusiastic confidence in the future of this new departure in farming. My guess is that they’d just about had it trying to keep cattle fed and healthy through the long New England winter.

In an agricultural paper dated February 13, 1881, T.H. Hoskins, M.D., reports the value of ensilage as discovered by three Vermont farmers who wanted to continue feeding their cattle a high-quality feed throughout the winter. The farmers – Gen Thomas of Montpelier, Gen Grout of Barton and Capt Morton of Essex – were the Mikeys of their time. They tried it and liked it. The report of their successful experiment was published in an agricultural paper and reproduced for all the people to read and review in Dr. Chase’s Receipt Book and Household Physician, published in 1894. The book is an encyclopedic wonder and history lesson, and was found in many homes.

Dr. Chase goes to great lengths to outline the benefits of corn silage (yes! back in the olden days they were feeding C-O-R-N to cattle!) beginning with a description of silos:

“‘Silo’ is French for pit, and ensilage is the French equivalent of the English word ‘pitting.’ It is applied in this case to the pitting of green forage in such a manner that is shall be preserved, by the exclusion, more or less perfect, of the air from the contents of the pit. This is effected by lining the bottom and sides of the pit with concrete or masonry (brick or stone, the surfaces of which are plastered with water-lime cement. The lines and right angles of such a pit must be straight and true, so that no hindrance shall be offered to the settling of its contents under the pressure which is applied to them after filling.”

The report continues with a description of just exactly what goes in this silo, which might come as a surprise to some who think cows have been forever eating, and should continue to eat, only fresh green grass:

“So far, green maize (yep… that’s corn), taken about the time when the grain is ‘in the milk’, has been used for ensiling almost exclusively; but all green forage may be equally well preserved in the same way. The preparation of ensilage is simply the cutting of the forage, by a suitable machine driven by horse or steam power (ok, today we’ve gone beyond 1 horse power in a big way) into small bits, not exceeding half an inch in length (the Penn State particle separator comes to mind). These are dropped into the pit or silo, and rapidly leveled and trod down by men or horses (BIG horses). This leveling or treading should be as exact and thorough as possible. The treading must be especially well done at the corners, and some silos are built with curved in place of square corners to facilitate this work.”

Considering the fact that this treatise on how to make silage was written over 100 years ago, Thomas, Barton and Morton weren’t too far off. Since the time of their rudimentary but workable silos, agriculture has made tremendous progress in the science of growing, preserving and storing forage for livestock. But silos are doing more than storing feed for livestock  – they’re being used to store harvested crops for use in methane production.

Massive trench silos like this one in Germany hold fermented crops for use in methane production.


A report in The Chemist and Druggist (England) in the winter of 1884 states that “Professor Thorne Rogers reports that ensilage increases the nutritive powers of green forage: that the process obviates waste, saves time and increases the productive power of the soil. The forage is made more digestible, and the farmer is enabled to get a double yearly crop.”

“Mr. F. Sutton confirms this view by comparing the relative value of hay and ensilage from a poor quality of grass. The hay was coarse and poor, destitute of sweet taste and odor, and contained a trace of ready-made sugar. Distilled with water, no essential oils were yielded, nor was there any flavor, save that of decaying grass.”

I don’t think farmers should have to defend the feeding of corn silage to cattle. Corn is a monocot, the sister of grass, and neither corn nor grass grows through the winter. Agricultural science researchers have gone to great lengths to perfect silage crops – from soil, seed, planting and harvest to ensiling and development of balanced diets for cattle and other species.

The silage on this family dairy farm is part of a carefully balanced ration that keeps the cows healthy and productive.


Over the next few months, I’m going to share more of Dr. Chase’s wisdom – he has ‘receipts’ for homemade remedies to cure ailments from scrofula and tetter to plain old-fashioned bronchitis.  Might just need to pay attention to Dr. Chase.






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Ifs, ands, buts and a couple of reasons


You want to visit my farm? Today?

I’ll have to be honest. I wouldn’t want you to visit my farm today, especially if you want to see the whole place…including the remote pastures. Maybe you can come back in a few weeks?


OK….come on over. But I have to warn you – there are some things I’d rather you didn’t see.

Here we go.

Spring was wet, summer was incredibly dry, and we didn’t have rain until September. When we finally got rain, it poured for nearly an entire month. That means we haven’t been able to do everything as we’d like. Probably sounds like some lame excuse to keep you away, right?

Here’s what’s going on.

For now, the sheep are confined to one pasture. It’s plenty big, but as much as we’d like them to be grazing a new field of grass, they’re nibbling away at a bale of hay. We can’t move them to a new pasture because the fence charger isn’t working. Part of the reason the charger isn’t working is because there’s excessive debris on the fence at the stream crossing, and also because of some trees that fell on the fence when we had heavy rain and wind. Not only that, we can’t get back to the area to work on the trees because it’s simply too wet. The truck has 4WD but we aren’t willing to put permanent ruts in the pastures we’ve worked so hard to maintain.

The fence in this stream bank crossing caught a lot of mud, debris and trash from the past season's heavy rain, which means the fence charger isn't working effectively.

(Not to mention the fact that it isn’t really much fun to bounce wildly out of the tractor seat when raking hay in a rutted field.)

Can we visit the animals in the barn? Sure, we can go out there, but I’ll have to loan you a pair of boots. I promise they won’t leak. You’ll need boots for a couple of reasons: one, it’s (still) a muddy walk to the barn; two, I really want to make sure that you don’t bring in anything contagious on your shoes. Sheep and goats are prone to foot rot, which is caused by several microorganisms including Dichelobacter nodosus and Fusobacterium necrophorum. If you’ve walked through an area where infected sheep or goats have been, those pesky bacteria can easily come in on shoes or boots and infect my animals. Foot rot is painful to the animal, and it’s hard to get rid of once it’s in a group of sheep.

Sorry about the shabby arrangement of wool bags and that wool bagging stand in the middle of the floor. Now that I look at it from your point of view, I can see that it looks kind of sloppy turned on its side. But I’m leaving it there. By using the wool bagging stand to divert the sheep toward the chute, I can move them by myself from one area to the next without stressing them.

Oh yeah. Those are lambing jugs. Not too professional-looking, I know. They’re sections of hog panels, bound together with a hodge-podge assortment of twine; some orange, some white, and even a bit of old-fashioned sisal. It’s a pretty good system – they stay upright and they’re quite sturdy, and that’s what really matters. I suppose it’d be easy enough to make a neat set of pens, pick a twine color and

Lambing jugs made with hog wire panels can be put together in any combination for just the right size.

stick with the theme, but we use what we have. The assortment of wire panels hanging on the wall allows us to combine different-size panels to create just the right size space for moms and their newborns when they need a bit of extra TLC. And no, we don’t adhere to any animal ‘welfare’ organization’s guidelines about how long the animal can stay in the pen. We think we know best when it comes to caring for our animals.

Hmm…. Forgot about the cobwebs. I guess it looks like we don’t bother to clean up too often. Honestly, I started to sweep them down at the end of summer, but realized that those cobbies were helping catch mosquitoes. Lots of diseases are transmitted by mosquitoes, including West Nile virus and several types of encephalitis that can be transmitted to humans. The cobwebs will stay.

Why is that lamb in a pen by itself? I spend a lot of time just watching my animals to make sure they’re healthy and behaving normally. I noticed that this particular lamb wasn’t joining her friends at feeding time, so I moved her to a private suite so I could watch her more closely. No, I didn’t call the vet. Farmers routinely take animals’ temperatures, heart rates, and listen to stomach sounds. We watch for signs of illness, and make extra trips to the barn (no matter what the weather is) to check on an animal that isn’t up to par. We know how to do a pretty darned complete once-over to check for illness, and are familiar with the problems that each species is prone to. We also know when to call the vet, and our vets appreciate an accurate assessment of our animals’ condition before they come to the farm.

Oh…our guardian dogs get to choose where they want to be. If that means staying inside with a group of young goats, that’s where they stay.

Livestock guardian dogs are better left alone when it comes to decisions about where to hang out. They really do know where the predators are.


That lamb? She’s fine now. She’s eating hay and grain, drinking water and her poop is normal. Yeah, farmers look at a lot of poop. Sometimes it’s the best way to tell what’s going on in the animal’s gut. It’s also great for the land.

If you’ll excuse me, I’d like to take that lamb back to join the rest of her friends. They’ll be happy to see her.

One more thing: please ask me any questions you have. Any. I’d be honored to be the one to help you learn more about why we do what we do.

And when you visit, I hope you appreciate the sunset and the view as much as we do.


Late autumn sunsets make it worth staying outside!



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Conservation programs benefit farmers and consumers

I don’t understand the massive chunk of legislation known as the Farm Bill. What I do know is the elementary school definition: legislation that sets government farm and food policy. Even simpler: if you eat, the Farm Bill affects you.

I also don’t  fully understand how the Farm Bill becomes, well, the Farm Bill. I know that lots of politicians have their hands in it, and that lots of special interest groups are vying for a piece of the pie.

The 2012 Farm Bill is currently on the table, and there’s already considerable (and ongoing) controversy about it. Just try reading through some of the proposals and you’ll be hit with a stream of acronyms that any government agency would be proud of.

Since I can’t pretend to even start to understand the process or most of the programs, so I’ll stick with the part I’m somewhat familiar with – conservation programs.

Conservation programs aren’t just for farmers. They benefit  everyone by protecting natural resources.


CRP, or Conservation Reserve Program, helped this farmer establish the appropriate trees and shrubs to prevent erosion in a stream. A duck nesting box invites migrating waterfowl.


A program called CRP (yay! an acronym!!) or Conservation Reserve Program, protects topsoil from erosion; which in turn protects groundwater and helps improve the health of lakes, rivers, ponds and streams. We all win.


Conservation programs help farmers with technical assistance and funding for manure storage such as this one on a family dairy farm.

The CBWI (another!!), or Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative, provides technical assistance and funding to help farmers restore wetlands, manage manure and install streambank fencing (which keeps livestock out of streams, which means cleaner water for everyone). Another win.


The manure on this family dairy farm is safely stored in a lagoon until it's time for land application.

The FRPP (like that one?), or Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, provides matching funds for the purchase of development rights to keep productive land in agricultural use. Yet another win.

WHIP (I promise, this is the last acronym), stands for Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program; a voluntary program for landowners who want to develop and improve wildlife habitat on agricultural land, non-industrial private forest land, and Indian land. Goals for WHIP include the restoration of declining fish/wildlife habitat, reduce the impact of invasive species on fish and wildlife habitat, and protect/restore migration and movement corridors for wildlife. A win for wildlife and a win for those who think wildlife are worth preserving.

Wildlife habitat conservation benefits both animals and those who enjoy seeing them in their natural environment.


Whew. That’s enough acronyms. Or I could list all the conservation programs in the last Farm Bill (2008); by acronym, of course.

  • AMA
  •  CCPI
  • EQIP
  • AWEP
  • CIG
  • GRP
  • HFRP
  • WRP
  • Conservation of Private Grazing Land Program

Oops. No acronym for the last one, a program that provides technical assistance for protecting soil from erosive wind and water, initiating energy-efficient means to produce food and fiber, using plants to sequester greenhouse gases and to increase SOM (sorry…soil organic matter), and using grazing land as a source of biomass energy and raw materials for industrial products. Sounds like another win-win.


Conservation programs promote the use of land for biofuel production such as the canola being pressed here.


Money for these programs and all of the other programs administered by various titles of the Farm Bill is up for grabs. Farmers want to do whatever they can to keep water clean, but they can’t easily afford the newest technology in manure storage. Farmers want to preserve open space, but are often tempted to sell when bills mount and developers appear with money in hand. Farmers really, really want to do whatever they can to protect the soil, preserve land, and maintain habit for wildlife – wildlife that enhances our environment and our lives in more ways than we can ever imagine.


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Thesauarus (and almost wordless) Thursday: Autumn

Today I noticed a small patch of snow lingering in a northern corner near an outbuilding.  It reminded me that we are well into autumn and should probably be gathering nuts. After a wet spring and a rather odd summer (not unusual  for Pennsylvania) we saw nothing but rain in September. Just as the leaves were starting into peak color, we were thrust abruptly (but briefly) into winter with a record-breaking nor’easter. Within a few days, we were back to autumn, followed by a few days that might have passed for Indian summer.

Autumn: noun. season between summer and winter.

Synonyms: autumnal equinox,  fall, harvest

Pennsylvania is known for gorgeous fall foliage, which is especially beautiful in the state's rolling hills


The harvest from my garden was slim this year. Despite watering staking and watching for pests, we had about a dozen or so memorable tomatoes, the rest were not. Several chard plants made an effort, but didn’t really amount to enough for even one meal.


One of several swiss chard plants that made it through the drought.


All of the tulips I’ve collected, divided and replanted over the years succumbed to tulip blightBotrytis tulipae – also known as tulip fire. I was quite disappointed to learn that I can’t plant new bulbs in the same area for about three years because the fungus lingers. I’ve picked out a spot near the barn for my new tulips, and they should probably go into the ground now that it’s dry enough.

My flower garden started out well, then caved to summer heat. I watered perennials and left the rest to survive on their own. Or not.

Just before the late October nor’easter hit, I took pictures of what was left of my flower garden. Sad, yes, but there were some real heroic ‘tryers’ that made an effort toward the end of the September rain.

One of two impatiens plants that made it through the heat.

During the summer drought, I could see that my clematis was dying so I cut it back to just several inches of woody growth. In mid-October, it sent out new shoots and bloomed..what a nice surprise!

My cosmos, usually the most reliable plant for cut flowers, was beaten sideways by heavy rain in September. It finally bloomed in late October, and as of today, I still have three blossoms in an old blue medicine jar.

Nasturtiums, another reliable annual, didn't bloom heavily until October.

I’m really glad I took those pictures. Within 24 hours, snow had started to fall, roads were nearly impassible  due to slush and ice, and my poor garden really took it in the socks.

The over-achieving clematis that made a valiant recovery after the summer drought was encased in ice.

Nasturtiums are rather tender, so I didn't expect them to hold up under a load of wet, heavy snow.

The nor'easter dumped a heavy layer of icy snow on the roads.

I'm not a fan of snow, especially snow in October, but it was pretty and serene.


Autumn is nearly half over. By the third week in December, we’ll have our annual winter solstice picnic to celebrate the shortest day of the year. Then the days will be longer, and even though the sun will dip low in the sky for the next several months, I’ll savor what’s left of autumn and remember how fortunate I am to live in a state that truly has four seasons.



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