Cattle, Garden

Rainwater Collection Series 1: Gutters for Barn

WARNING: This post gets dense!

Rainwater collection is another vital aspect of my farm operation. While a well is drilled, pumped and plumbed, I would prefer to save its operation for emergencies. I will be designing a system that uses as little energy as possible.

An aspect of large initial investment will be to instal gutters on the barn. Its 60 foot by 80 foot pitched roof serves as a perfect mechanism to harvest solar distilled water, aka precipitation. I want to do my own legwork in designing a system before I contact installers for quotes. has available a resource in this PDF Proper Gutter and Downspout Sizing.

An important piece of data to acquire is the rainfall intensity over a 5 minute period for 10 year and 100 year rainfall events. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provides a tool that allows you to retrieve data for a specific location either visually by panning and zooming in a map or by inputting coordinates.

Following the sample calculations found on page 6 of the Gutter Supply publication using my barn and location, the process is as follows:

Total roof area in two dimensions is 80 ft *60 ft = 4800 square feet

Roof pitch is vertical rise/horizontal distance from start to end of rise is 15 feet vertical over 30 ft horizontal * 12 inches/foot = 6 inches per foot (on my barn)

According to Table 1-1 in the Gutter Supply publication, the constant for my roof pitch adjustment = 1.10

Therefore roof area adjusted for pitch is 4800 square foot * 1.1 = 5280 square feet

Number of downspouts desired = 4 (my preference)

Roof Area covered by each downspout is 5280 square feet / 4 downspouts = 1320 square feet per downspout

Because of the poor amount of cities represented in the PDF, I compared my rainfall to a few cities using the NOAA tool. Knoxville had a 5 min rainfall total of .440 inches while my location has .437. Close enough.

Per the terribly formatted Table 1-2 in the PDF, 1 sq inch of gutter can drain 180 square feet of roof area. So 1320 square feet / 180 = 7.333 square inches as a minimum per downspout.

Finally, comparing the figure of 7.33 square inches to the Table 1-3 in the PDF shows that 4 inches of any shape gutters would perform adequately in a 10 year rain event.

Following the final 3 steps shows that I would need a minimum downspout size of 10.15 square inches in a 100 year event at .690 rainfall intensity. 4″ gutters would still serve in every shape except rectangular corrugated.


Wow Bravo if you stuck through that. None of the other posts in this series will be this technical!


Cattle, Side Projects

Brassica Cover Cropping as Biological Soil Tiler

The sustainable farming and land management industries are constantly coming up with innovations to find biological solutions to problems that have been solved through petroleum use since the 1940s. Brassica cover cropping is one example of this.

Brassicas typically have a large taproot and for ease of visualization, the most promising plant in this system seems to be the Radish. Sown in the late summer, the radishes drive their taproot into the soil as they take up nutrients. They are not harvested but left to last through a few freezes resulting in their death. As they decay, the nutrients are released back into soil and the taproot leaves a cavity in the previously compacted shallow layers of topsoil. Hence the tiling effect without mechanical soil turning that disrupts microbial activity and over-oxygenates the soil.

Erosion resistance and water absorption are boosted so well by this process that many riparian managers are studying the effect of planting them in drainage areas. Urban sprawl of impervious surfaces change the hydrology of the area by providing a flush of water during precipitation rather than an sponge-like absorption by local soils that gradually releases stored water into waterways. By aerating the remaining available soils with brassica cropping, that rush of creekbank-eroding rainwater can be somewhat alleviated.

I haven’t found much scientific data (at least not behind a paywall that double dips into taxpayers’ pockets). However there is a bit of literature from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (government source and PDF warning!) that makes me think this is an interesting development to follow!

I was introduced to this concept by my friend who is the farm manager at Frying Pan Farm Park in the bustling DC metro area. Being the last working farm in the county, they strive to strike a balance between typical farm operations and acting as a working farm museum for public education and enjoyment. Its great to see a farm with such a strong public presence exploring concepts of sustainable farming!

Cattle, Chicks, Garden

Purchased Tanks for Water Collection: Warnings and Advice

I have been browsing craigslist regularly for anything from animals to equipment to discarded plastic drums for water tanks. After doing some extensive math that will be included in a future series of posts, I quickly realized that the rainwater collection system would be best served with a higher capacity than 55 gallon drums could accommodate reasonably.

Off to Craigslist in search of some of the 250+ gallon tanks that come in metal cages, pictured below.

Water Tank

First for the warning: Like 55 gallon plastic drums, be VERY particular to source a tank that stored food materials or safe chemicals. Watering animals, plants or yourself with water tainted by industrial-grade acid, chemicals, etc would be tragic and entirely avoidable.

Advice: Don’t write off tanks with chemical stickers like I almost did. Luckily the craigslist ad for 300 gallon tanks had a price that made me inquire despite almost dismissing the option due to visible chemical stickers on the tanks. Here is a picture from the ad:


Turned out the tanks contained medical grade Hydrogen Peroxide. The seller of the tanks explained that he does not clean them out as the solution keeps the inside of the tanks sterile. All that is needed to make them food-safe is to add 10 gallons of water, slosh it around and dump it out as the trace amounts of it have been diluted to ~1% and will break down into water + oxygen gas once exposed to light.

Self-sanitizing 300 gallon tanks at twice the local going rate for 55 gallon drums? I took as many as I could safely haul at once and may go back for more. They would make the perfect mobile watering tank for cattle, rain barrels or even a tank to combine smaller rain water containers together! Also I am sure they could be used to barter with other farmers/gardeners if I find myself with too many in the end.

To recap, when sourcing potential water tanks, be very careful to determine exactly what they held previously. If they were used for non-food uses, see if there is a way to make them food safe before writing them off. After all I much prefer my Hydrogen Peroxide container to the cleaning I’ve done in the past to an agave or honey container!


Cattle, Forestry

Carbon Medium for Nutrient Absorbtion in Compost while Wintering Animals

Follow up to Wintering Animals = Backbone of Soil Building

Capturing all of the nutrient rich excrement from the wintering of animals is going to require a huge amount of carbon. Skills I have gained while studying forestry and the associated graduate projects I assisted will be called upon in order to accumulate the carbon biomass I will require. I’ll write a well-cited post on my sustainable forest management plans once I have finished collecting and amassing my research. The gists of my strategy will be to provide the canopy disturbance necessary to have a healthy, sustainable forest.

Good points were made in Joel Salatin’s book, Folks, This Ain’t Normal. Starting around page 182, Salatin asserts that soil is built and carbon sequestered more efficiently via grasslands opposed to forests. Trees grow very slowly, then die. As they decompose, much of that sequestered carbon is released right back to the atmosphere. Grasslands grow, die and decompose every year; multiple times a year if serviced by grazers and herbivores. However the sequestered carbon in the grasslands us more fully absorbed by the soil and stored in the animal tissue of grazers. Salatin’s assertions seem to be backed up by this study I found.

To minimize the negative impact of forest land on the atmosphere, I plan to eventually harvest the dead, diseased, crooked or otherwise undesirable trees from the forest to make room for subsequent generations of oak and hopefully someday soon, American Chestnut. Despite my minor in forestry, I have a lot more to learn about sustainable harvesting. Fortunately, there are many pioneer trees in the pasture that need removed, and the unmaintained forest has many dead trees that should sustain me for at least a year while I broaden my forestry knowledge.

I will likely invest in a wood chipper to process the farms own biomass to provide the winter bedding. I may also seek out locally discarded christmas trees, shredded paper/cardboard, peanut hulls (suggested by Mr. Salatin in our correspondence) or any other source of easily attainable carbon material.

Note: If you plan to store wood chips on your farm, please be sure to do so in a manner that accounts for the heat generated as they naturally decompose. Limit the height of piles to prevent a fire hazard in your structures and to ensure that the chips dry fully.


Cattle, Garden

Wintering Animals = Backbone of Soil Building

Pulling directly from Joel Salatin’s model at Polyface Farm located in the same valley as my own farmstead, the key to building soil will be through compost.

Have you ever turned onto a country road to be immediately hit by the stench of a chicken house or cow operation? What about seeing a huge manure lagoon, no matter how pretty the tank is dressed up?

Farms that smell are polluting by leaching nutrient-rich animal waste into the atmosphere or ground water. My main issue with industrial farming is that carbon is being pulled from the soil and not replenished whether it is by crop production or animal grazing. The agricultural world is slowly realizing that healthy soil and all of its micro/macro organisms need more than periodic injections of Petroleum-based Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium (NPK) fertilizers. Most of all, soil requires organic matter, not to mention multiple other elements beyond the three provided by surplus explosives after World War I. Did I mention the inventor’s role in producing chemical weapons caused his perfectionist-chemist wife to commit suicide?

Back to my farm operation. The backbone of building soil on my farm is going to be the composting of animal wastes captured during winter in a carbon medium. Joel Salatin accurately refers to it as “A Carbonaceous Diaper”. Each cow will produce up to 100 pounds of nutrient rich waste a day. Thats a lot to capture and I will have to lay down fresh, dry carbon bedding pretty frequently! I will discuss the sourcing of carbon in a future post.

Every time I lay down additional bedding, I will toss in some goodies. Local corn, spent grains from brewing beer, old hay, etc. The cows will tromp down the manure/bedding into a pretty solid manure pack. The anaerobic decomposition process will start building soil while also providing heat for the barn and animals. After the cows head back to the pasture in the late spring, it will be time for the pigs to shine! They will be brought in to root up the compost to find the treats I left them. This process will turn the compost as well as aerate it which turns the decomposition aerobic, completing the process of turning the waste into the highest quality soil possible!

Stay tuned for a post on sourcing the carbon for bedding!


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.



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



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:


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


Now it will be easy to determine fencing needs!


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):


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.