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Welcome and Introduction

Independent. If I could choose one word to describe myself, that would be it. Naturally I have accumulated intense dissatisfaction with the corporate world and the lifestyle it commands. Looking back on my life, I’m surprised no one saw this coming. As I aged, my literary tastes all but spelled out my future:

The Lorax, Jack London, Hatchet, My Side of the Mountain, the rest of the works by Gary Paulsen, The Hobbit, Robert Frost and Walt Whitman, Into the Wild, Walden, Ernest Hemingway (The Old Man and the Sea specifically), Steinbeck, McCarthy and so on.

So here I am, writing from my employment abroad in the Middle East dreaming about being home in the Appalachian Mountains. Self-sufficiency and homesteading have always been a bit of a fantasy of mine. However, the difficulty of diving in debt-free has been intimidating enough to keep me out.

Luckily a plot of land, including a barn and pasture, has been in my family for some time. It has been unused except as a hunting ground. With the blessing of the landowners within my family, I have a chance to realize some of the concepts in my head without taking on substantial debt. My financial aspirations are somewhere in the middle: use what is available to me not to get rich but not to operate at a loss.

As for the agricultural operations, I hope to build soil and quality grazing pasture by using only biological means and earn income by harvesting byproducts of my land management practices. I will be adapting Managed Intensive Rotational Grazing (MIRG) and methods of Joel Salatin at Polyface Farms as well as multi species grazing to suit my needs. In addition to farming, Other side projects like bee keeping, soap making and brewing beer will be included.

These projects are steps to self-sufficiency. It is unfortunate that I missed living in an era where most goods were procured locally. Via my farm project, I hope to contribute to making this a reality once again so any excess goods I produce may eventually find its way to local markets. Providing beer at a local scale would be very satisfying!

So here is my blog. Hopefully when I get to the point of selling grass fed meat, pastured eggs and other products, this can serve to provide complete transparency for my customers. I will include all of the planning and analysis I have conducted to assure that this is a worthwhile endeavour and to gain the confidence of the landowners.

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GIS Planning

Mapping the Farm!

My first step to analyzing the viability of my pasture was to produce a digital map. I grabbed some high resolution imagery and drew the boundaries, otherwise known as digitizing or interpreting aerial photography in the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) industry. After digitizing the pasture, an array of powerful tools are opened up to me to perform geospatial analysis.

Base Aerial Image

Base Aerial

Boundaries Drawn for Pasture

PastureBoundries

 

As you can see, pioneer species of trees have popped up sporadically. I’ve decided to work with them rather than against them as they have created wildlife corridors for deer. However I understand that I cannot consider the area beneath the trees as good grazing material. So my next step was to digitize the trees in GIS software, then cut them out of my pasture polygon.

Pasture with Trees Removed

PastureNoTrees

Geometries like area, perimeter and anything else needed can be instantly calculated:

Acreage of Pasture (top is with trees removed)

Acrage

With these basic data creation steps complete, I can move forward with more advanced analysis to plan the farm. Stay tuned!

Please don’t hesitate to leave comments if you catch any errors in my methodology, can offer feedback, have questions or would like me to perform similar GIS analysis for your property!

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Cattle

Brief Overview: Grazing Sciences

Cows are picky if given the opportunity to selectively graze. They will return to the most delicious grasses as soon as new growth appears while letting the less palatable (but equally nutritious) grasses reach maturity (thus no longer nutritious), seed and eventually crowd out the good stuff. With the Managed Intensive Rotational Grazing (MIRG) system, the animals are given the exact amount of pasture that they can eat in 24 hours before being moved to a fresh paddock which encourages the animals to take a more “mowing” approach opposed to selective. Each paddock is rested until it regenerates.

Grass grows on an “S” curve as demonstrated by this excerpt from the California Grazing Association’s publication titled Principles of Controlled Grazing (PDF):

PrincipleofGrazing

Since I am working with so little land (~6 Acres with trees removed), I want to manage it as efficiently as possible. The next question is how much do I let the grazers mow the paddocks? According to these fantastic demonstrations on Forage Decision Aids by the University of Kentucky, we can directly compare the regeneration of Orchard Grass of the 6 days following simulated grazing to 3.5 inches vs mowed all the way down to 1″.

Combined with various different university studies, most grasses regenerate best when grazed to ~10 cm. At this length, grasses retain enough photosynthetic tissue to create the energy required for regrowth without having to use reserves stored in the root system.

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Cattle

Determining Paddock Needs

While technology is often is a distraction and detraction to satisfaction, it provides invaluable tools. My planning will be done through Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to maximize performance and efficiency of the farm operation.

Calculated Square Footage: Top Row is with Trees Removed

Acrage2

 

Instead of basing my calculations off of stocking rates and head of cattle, I am going to use the amount of land available.

Through much trial and error, I was determined to find a paddock area that would yield 40 individual paddocks. Complicated by removing trees from my pasture data, I could not simply divide my total area by 40 (although parcel editor seems to be able to accomplish this even though I could not get it to work). So the production process consisted of cutting, merging and various other GIS processes as well as running a python command. Here it is for any other GIS users out there:

arcpy.CalculateField_management(“Pasture_Boundary”,”Acreage”,”!shape.area@squarefeet!”,”PYTHON”)

The python command re-calculates the area of the paddocks in square feet.

In the end, I found that 5,000 square foot paddocks produced 45 ugly-shaped but usable paddocks. Remember that grass growth factors rely on climatic variables. The truth is that grass may not regenerate quickly in a drought situation. So I want to give each paddock at least 30 days of rest with an option for 10-15 to accommodate potential drought situations. I designed 40 paddocks for cyclical use while leaving 5 open for the existing wildlife corridor to be used only if necessary.

Proposed Paddocks

5000sqFT_Parcels

Now it will be easy to determine fencing needs!

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Cattle

Calculating Cattle Needs

In my previous post, I decided to start with a paddock size of 5,000 square feet. Joel Salatin at Polyface Farm has recommended in the past to use 200 square feet per cow-calf pair per day.

I adapted that figure to 300 square feet per pair per day as the pasture I will be using has been unmaintained for about a decade. So until I see how much the cattles graze, I am going to be very conservative. The beauty of Managed Intensive Rotational Grazing (MIRG) is that I can easily change on the fly if required.

So theoretically, each daily-use paddock: (5,000 ft^2) / (300 ft^2/pair/day) means I can support 16 and 2/3 cow-calf pairs a day.

I made an interactive spreadsheet to automate these calculations for different scenarios, but I will save that until I dig more into the economics of cattle.

CattleNeedsBasic

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General Pasture

Mapping the Fences

Now that the paddocks are roughly mapped out, I can start mapping the fencing. My plan is to have multiple rows of permanent fencing running north-south with an east-west gap of about 100 feet. Temporary fencing can be laid east-west and moved daily to create new paddocks. Therefore the paddock area can be adjusted if necessary by how far apart the temporary fences are spaced.

Using maps to optimize the fencing uses additional factors than just creating exact areas. Using the parcels as a basis, elevation is also factored in as the most optimal fence will follow the contours as efficiently as possible. To achieve this I downloaded LiDAR data. LiDAR is collected from an aerial source that broadcasts a laser then senses and analyzes the reflected light. It is one of the most accurate technologies to collect elevation data but it is very expensive. Luckily free LiDAR data is available for my farm, but please consider making a donation to show your appreciation if you use free LiDAR data!

Fencing can now be optimally mapped thanks to high resolution, LiDAR-based digital elevation model (DEM).

LiDAR_Pasture

Now I can do my best to plan the fences based on my paddock area needs as well as keeping the permanent segments as straight as possible and minimizing elevation change where possible.

Fences Mapped:

Fencing_Managmen2

There will still need to be some manual cleanup to close some ends, accommodate developments in planning and work with the trees in the pasture. Here is the starting point for you to follow along!

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General Pasture

Mapping the Fence Posts

Lucky for me, there is a built-in tool in GIS software that allows points to be added along lines. I’m going to go ahead and add the points then make modifications to the fence line and posts together.

Constructing Posts:

 ConstructingPosts

Based on recommendation from fence vendors and manufacturers, I want the distance between posts to be no greater than 45 feet. Since I have to chose units in the same coordinate system I am using (State Plane), my input is 16 meters (~40 ft). In the “Construct Point” tool, I choose to create points based on the desired interval, not a total number of posts. Clearly you need posts at the start and end of the fence so that option is selected as well:

ConstructingPosts2

The fence posts will now be outputted to the blank point shapefile in which it was directed. Keep in mind that these are only the permanent fence posts!

For electric fencing, I want well-anchored wooden post for corners and galvanized steel for the line posts. The galvanized posts have an additional benefit of acting as grounding rods for the electric fence system while the braced wooden posts keep everything secure. Symbolized wood/steel posts, cleaned up fence lines and cleaned up post points yield the next iteration of my fence map:

FencePosts

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