Monday, May 31, 2010

Figuring it all out

This last week was a lesson in humility.  For the first time we put up our entire hay field loose, using the hay loader and hay trolley/grapple forks in the barn.  This has been a goal of mine for quite a while, as it's the only practical way to make hay without using a tractor.

Yes, it's much more work; of that there's little doubt.  But it's much less work than trying to revive a planet we've put into cardiac arrest -- a requirement if we continue using tractors. 

Suffice to say that there was a steep learning curve.   I learned that it's not possible to back up a hay wagon into the barn.  The only way to back it up is to disconnect and walk it while manually steering via the tongue.  A fully loaded wagon doesn't always move too easily.  It was hot -- in the high 80's.  Good for drying hay, not so good for working.  That's how haying always goes. 

The hay trolley in the barn worked very well, but it takes a bit of technique though.  You have to pull it hard back towards yourself at the center of the barn, fast enough that it trips the release at the center of the track.  But you don't want to pull too hard, or 60lbs of sharp pointy steel will come crashing down on top of you from 30' above.  I finally figured that I could loop the trip line around a beam, which lands the grapple forks well away from me.

It's hard to say exactly how much hay we put up when there are no bales to count.  But, based upon last year's 2nd cutting which produced 160 odd bales, I think we put up the equivalent of 200 bales this time around.  We can fit 4 600 foot long windrows on the wagon before we have to return back to the barn.  With about 28 windrows, that's 7 trips to the barn and back (actually more like 8 or 9, since it took a few trips before we figured out that we could fit four of them on the wagon at a time).

Before we started, I figured that we'd pitch everything off of the wagon and into the hay loft by hand until it became too high, at which point it would become worthwhile to use the grapples.  I was naive.  The grapples can unload a full wagon in 4-5 bites, which is much easier than using pitchforks. 

The horses pull the hay rope, which lifts a huge pile of hay up to the peak of the roof.  As soon as it reaches the trolley, the trolley trip is released, and the whole assembly flies to the end of the barn where it hangs until I pull the release on the grapple forks, when a few hundred pounds of hay drops to the floor with a big woomf!

Another recent lesson in humility was my attempt to cultivate our small patch of field corn using the horses. I was able to focus on the horse's hooves or the cultivator's position relative to the corn plants, but never both at the same time. I think I managed to "save" about 10% of the plants in the last row before I gave up. With the cultivator set to its widest possible setting, there's about an 8" slot through which the corn must pass.

We bought a reproduction of the old "Planet Junior" wheel cultivators, which I've been using instead. It's not nearly as fast, but most of the corn plants get to live for now, at least until I polish my horse cultivating.

BTW -- if you're looking for a non-gas powered option for garden cultivation, I highly recommend the Planet Junior style cultivator. The original models trickle through on Ebay, but they go for about the same price as the reproduction which we purchased.

Buttercup the cow is just about to calve, based on the way her udder is growing ever larger and pinker.  Both she and Josie are due on June 5th, although Josie doesn't seem to be showing it as much.   Like my great grandparents, we're going to try leaving the calves with their mothers, which is almost unheard of in the modern dairy world, where feeding cheap powdered "milk replacer" is the new norm.  Most dairies "beef" their cows after 3 lactations now.  My great grandparents had cows that they kept in production well into their teens.

Eulogy For A Breaking Heart
Gerald Herbert - May 2010
“A young heron among oil-covered mangroves in Barataria Bay, Louisiana"

This photo recently appeared in one of the economics blogs I read. It's not as if I've never seen a photo of a pathetic oil soaked bird before, but this time around I realize that I'm responsible for what it shows. BP is nothing more than our hired hit-man. Sure -- they deserve some credit, but the real guilt rests on the folks who paid them to risk this.  Look in the mirror to find your culprit.

Unless you and I change our lives dramatically we're going to do this again, to billions of other creatures, including ourselves. I'm not talking about changing the flavor of our lifestyles ("I know -- I'll sell my SUV and buy an electric car!") because that won't solve our predicament. Major painful changes are necessary (as in making car ownership a distant memory). Yes -- we will be seriously inconvenienced, to say the least. Personally, I'd take the inconvenience over watching my son realize that his future is no brighter than that of the heron in this photo.

You say you can't get to work without your car?  Then move to where you work, or find a different job.    You would *die* if you could no longer drive to the mountains each weekend (as I once did)?  Find another way to have fun, or figure out a way to live in the mountains.  Can't live in your house without using fossil fuel heat or air conditioning?  Then you're living in the wrong spot.  Find a way to eliminate the need for fossil energy.  You're smart -- you can do it.  Yes, it is that important.

From a contemporary perspective, you and I seem pretty normal. We do pretty much the same thing as everyone else. Our houses are about the same. We all drive cars, and occasionally fly in airplanes.

From a historical perspective, however, you and I stick out like Roseanne Barr at an Anorexics Anonymous meeting. Compared to everyone who came before us, we're fabulously wealthy. My family of three has 600 slaves working for us, and is probably just like yours. Just because we pump our slaves out of the ground in places like the Gulf of Mexico, dig them up from underneath the boreal forests of northern Alberta (now the leading source of oil imports in the US), or blow up entire mountains in Appalacia to get them -- doesn't mean we get to live with a clear conscience. Instead of stealing the lives of folks we've kidnapped from other continents, you and I have resorted to stealing the future of our own kids. But everyone else does it, which makes it alright I guess...

Friday, May 14, 2010

Farmer Training Techniques

The horses have developed an annoying habit over the last few weeks. They now like to run away from me when I approach them with halters in hand. Bruce likes to tease me. He lets me get close, sniffs the halter, and then spins around and bounds playfully away, farting with every bounce. He still follows when I give up and walk back to the barn though, because he knows my backup plan always involves the grain bucket.

When he's finally harnessed and ready for his bridle, he's decided that he can no longer accept the bit in his mouth unless I smear it with molasses first. I tried not to let him make a habit of this, but he tried harder than I did. I'm becoming very well trained.

Doc has become ever more friendly lately. He walks up to me whenever I'm out on the pasture (so long as I don't have a halter in my hands), as he's developed a taste for back scratching. He's even started reciprocating, and now scratches my butt while I'm scratching his back. Sometimes he gets a little carried away though, and just bites me.
Just before the rain started, I managed to put our plot of field corn in; maybe a half acre or so. The horses did everything -- plowing, disking, harrowing, and planting.

While sitting on the newly converted corn planter, I started to get a little nervous. The drive chain was grinding away menacingly next to my pant leg. The depth control lever was pointed right at my chest, and the row marker was held by a rope which would surely hook my foot if I needed to bail off the back for any reason. It dawned on me that the corn planter might not be OSHA approved.

We put together a "chicken tractor" last weekend.  It's basically a portable chicken coop for broilers out on pasture, ala Joel Salatin. Broilers don't live long enough to become smart enough to roam freely, so they stay in this until they're butchered. It allows them to eat some grass and bugs in addition to their grain. We just drag it forward once a day to give them fresh greens.

Word has it that the chicks know enough to stay away from the advancing rear wall as you move it forward, but we had 3 that apparently failed to read their Proper Chicken Behavior manual. When we moved the tractor for the first time this morning, two of them got their legs stuck.  One went to birdy heaven. Hopefully we can avoid that in the future, or we won't be eating much chicken this year.

Horses are an easy choice for a farm; they lasted on farms up through the 50's, well beyond the point at which cars became commonplace. Horses for transportation are another matter though, particularly on roads which are still dominated by cars.

I've spent much of the last several months contemplating how our life will change if I replace my car with a buggy. Where can I safely tie up while I'm in a store? What routes will I take in to town? I'd like to take the shortest route, but that's along a busy highway which would be suicide. There are safer routes, but they are considerably longer. That's a big deal when you're relying on a horse's muscles rather than a gas tank.

I say "my car" because Rachel isn't yet on board with "our cars". So long as we retain "her car", most of my contemplation is probably moot, because I'll just use it instead of the buggy whenever the buggy seems to be too inconvenient. I suspect that will be the case about 98% of the time.

How long will it be before energy constraints reduce traffic and make the roads safer? The Pentagon now says we're likely looking at a 10% shortfall in oil supplies by 2015, with shortfalls increasing every year.  Will that be enough to change the traffic levels? I couldn't find exact figures, but I suspect that's a much greater shortfall than we experienced during the oil shortages in the 70's. I remember the gas lines from the one in '79, enough to know that it wasn't fun for most people.

Conventional crude production peaked 5 years ago.  If we count unconventional crude and condensates, world oil production peaked in July of '08.  We're still near the top of Hubbert's roller-coaster shaped curve, but the downhill leg has begun.  Net oil production (even including new fields as they come online) is expected to decline at a rate of over 6% annually according to the IEA.

Our world will be a whole lot smaller than it is now if we go buggy (it's like going "batty" - only different). I won't be taking any day trips up to Grand Rapids to check out a find on Craigslist. Buying farm supplies will be difficult. Most of what we purchase is from Shipshewana, about 50 miles round trip by car, and further if we take back roads. That will be out of buggy range. I could take my bicycle, but cargo capacity will be much reduced. Taking the bike in the middle of winter or the humid heat of summer wouldn't be easy either. Maybe we'll rely more on UPS?

There are plenty of Amish in the area -- but the nearest are probably about 15 miles away. Within our own buggy range, there won't be much in the way of buggy accomodations, like the hitching posts that many businesses maintain in their parking lots. The highway department also avoids using rumble-strips on the side of the highways in Amish areas, but our local highways are loaded with them (they can scare horses). We won't really be able to blend in here in Three Rivers.

Most all of my ancestors did just fine without cars. Our house was built well before cars existed. Only the last 3 or 4 generations had the benefit of cars in my family. Granted, earlier generations lived in a world which was organized to function without cars, but much of that infrastructure still exists. Are we as capable as our great grandparents?

Most people that I share these ideas with are pretty dismissive. How can you live (particularly in a rural area) without a car? Everyone is convinced that we'll all be able to transition to electric cars soon, but I think we'll sooner find ourselves buzzing around in flying saucers like George Jetson. The energy which made the technology of the 20th century possible was great stuff, but the technology won't keep flying along without the energy that feeds it.

I guess the obvious consequences of our petroleum addiction are more acceptable when the addiction and associated denial are shared. Just like our sheep, humans are herd animals. So long as we're doing what the rest of the herd is doing, we should be fine, eh?  

In the last 15 years we've already started to pay for our addiction by giving up most of the world's coral reefs, among other things. It angers me that everyone seems to be so accepting of this, and so unwilling to stop doing the things which caused it. I wonder if most people even comprehend how important the reefs are to their own existence, beyond the fact that it won't be fun to snorkel on them any more. The oceans as a whole aren't far behind at the rate we're currently pumping CO2 into them. If the ocean ecosystem goes belly-up, a worldwide shortage of fillet-o-fish will be the least of our worries (assuming we're still around to worry, that is).

The Deepwater Horizon Rig wasn't just another oil rig like the many others which fill the gulf. It was an ultra-deepwater rig, designed to get oil at depths well beyond what we've drilled in the past. Much of the oil that remains will be deep-water. Mishaps will be more common due to increased pressures at these depths, and they will also be nearly impossible to recover from, as evidenced by the current spill.

We're going to destroy more and more unless each of us personally kick the oil habit. Have you ever thought of how much you're willing to destroy before you make your own changes? How will you explain to your kids that driving your car everywhere or flying to Hawaii for vacation was more important than preserving the only planet they could have survived on? I don't think they'll view it the way we see it now.  This is the one inheritance they can't live without, and we're gleefully spending it before their eyes.

Nobody can expect everyone to immediately stop using cars. We typically live miles from our employer, states away from our families, and have no decent public transportation.  We still think it's fine to go for a Sunday drive and waste a few gallons of gas. Maybe it's time to start positioning ourselves for a transition?

There's really no questioning the fact that we will -- sooner or later -- run out of fossil fuels that are economicaly viable. It's just a question of when. I expect that most of us will be forced to make significant changes within the next 10 years as a result of peak oil.

And on a lighter note, this is what a frustrated lamb does when mom won't get up for nursing time.