Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Rutting Buck

My kids joked that my goat farm has gotten off to a slow start because the first few goats I bought were gay. This is not entirely true.
I bought my first two females, Allison and Michelle, from Larry Grove a goat farmer in Rappahannock County.  They were 4 months of age.  Both were Boer and Spanish crossbreds—they are by temperament and milk producing ability designed to be meat and not dairy goats. Dairy goats produce enough milk to share with humans.  Meat goats produce enough only for their offspring.

When my does reached 8 months of age I went to Bill Segrest, another Rappahannock County farmer, and bought a young buck named David.  Bill told me David had one flaw: he was born on the coldest day in February so his right hoof froze and fell off.  Nature is indeed cruel to animals. Still in my naïveté I thought David would make a fine sire.  Little did I know that a goat needs to be large enough and have enough strength to mount and copulate with does so by definition he should be bigger than they.  So for goats, size does matter.

After 5 months when gestation should have been complete my does were still not bred.  I phoned up Mr. Segrest and he exchanged David for a larger male.  With ranching one cannot be shy about sex.  So I took a look at his testicles and notice that he had only one.  Bill’s son-in-law told me he should still be able to do the job.  Five months went by and my does had grown to huge proportions so I assumed they were finally pregnant.  The veterinarian came around and inspected them with his sonogram and pronounced them, merde, without kids—they were simply fat from gorging on the spring flush of pasture grass.  It turns out that Mr. Segrest had tried to castrate his goat—to make what goat farmers call a “wether”—but botched the job.  He had not properly fastened the rubber bands used to castrate farm animals around both balls, so only one fell off leaving an impotent male.  

So I exchanged this second sterile buck for two does and one buck only a few months old.  Then I bought another very young buck from another farmer.  Bad luck prevailed.  I backed over with the first buck my pickup truck and the second one died when all the goats climbed atop a mobile pasture chicken coop which then collapsed on top of the hapless little fellow.  This is where I made my second mistake: if you are looking for a herd sire start with a proven performer, an adult.  I thought I could raise my young bucks to adulthood and then they would breed.  After all they reach puberty at 2 months and at that age are air humping like a couple of teenage boys watching Penelope Cruz.

Now I was really mad.  I had begun to receive phone calls and emails from customers who wanted to buy goats but I still had none to sell.  My does were anxious to get going too.  Their tails were twitching and they were mounting each other—an obvious sign they were in heat.  This is when I met Steve Shippa who runs

Steve is one of those upper middle class people who also farms.  In California and Kansas people farm to make money and go to the bank for loans.  In Virginia farming seems to be a past-time for those who have made their money elsewhere.  Still Steve is a heck of a nice fellow and extremely knowledgeable about his 100-head herd of Boer goats.

Steve said I could buy his herd sire for $300 which was $50 less than I had budgeted so I said “OK”.  I drove over to his farm in Berryville and came head-to-head with a raging, snorting, 260 pound buck in full rut.  This goat like most males smelled terrible.  A buck in the rut urinates all over himself and secretes must from his glands to woo the female.  This foul odor for goats is some kind of cologne.  Steve had locked up his love struck buck alone but within eye sight and downwind of a herd of does who too were primed for romance.  The buck was as horny as an aircraft carrier full of sailors on furlough and just as dangerous.  He pounded his massive head against the fence which strained to contain him and bent the steel latch which held the gate shut.

Steve and I wrested this animal into a cage in the back of my truck and I drove back to Rappahannock drawing stares from motorists on the highway.  At a gas station a couple of men walked over to look for they had never seen an animal so large.  I explained that the Boer goat breed had been imported from South African some years ago for their large size and docile demeanor except of course when the un-castrated male is within the vicinity of does in heat.  I told these men that this goat was the grandson of a goat which had sold for $45,000.  Boer goats until a few years ago were hard to come by in the USA so had sold for a premium.  Now instead of being ridiculously expensive they are just downright expensive.

I took my buck home and turned him loose with my 6 does.  Goats normally make a soft bleating sound something like the familiar “bah-bah-bah” of sheep.  This was how my 50 to 80 pound females had behaved.  They were gentle to the point that I let my friend’s 7 year old daughter feed them from the palm of their hand.

But the rutting buck snorted and sniffed and howled like some kind of small dinosaur “oooh—aaaargh--woooo”.  My neighbors were ½ mile away at the closest point and I am sure they thought I must have been conducting some kind of mass slaughter for he howled as he circled the does and thoroughly cowed my otherwise large and frightening 120 pound Great Pyrenees livestock guard dog.

The frightened does scattered but the buck was relentless in his pursuit.  He went first for Allison, the dominant doe in the pack, and had soon mounted her after knocking her around a bit.  I was fairly frightened and fascinated at the same time as he went for my timid little doe with his tongue hanging out and mounted her with such force he pushed her to the ground.   It reminded me of high school and college.  Back then if you wanted your date to put out you fairly wrestled her to the ground.

The doe put up a fight for a while then relented.  Soon after that she began to nuzzle up to the foul smelling beast.  Within an hour the buck had moved onto the second largest doe in the herd and she too became part of his love circle.  The two does fell into his harem as sycophantic groupies and the embraced each other in an agrarian ménage a trois.  As I write this essay the buck had already bred a third doe and three more remain.

Breeders have told me I can breed my does three times in two years.  I hope to buy three more does next week to jump start my late developing herd so by next year I do not have to turn away so many customers.

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Fall Planting at the Goat Farm

A few weeks ago my son asked me to help him with his high school algebra.  The time could not be better for I had recently begun to study again the calculus text that I waded through in college.  (When winter rolls around and farming slows down in the vineyard I need something else to pour my energy into so I study.)  Still I was not able to explain to him—to my satisfaction—how to use Newton’s iterative method for approximating square roots.  Newton’s theory is based upon a series that converges i.e. a sum ∑ that sums to some number.

It was with this puzzle in mind that I went to Borders bookstore as I do practically ever Wednesday with my children.  There I went looking for something written by David Foster Wallace.  I had just read in The New York Times that this genius, who was characterized as the most important writer of my age group, had died.

So I picked up Mr. Wallace’s book on mathematics called “A Brief History of ∞”.  It is a fascinating read.  With his vast knowledge of ancient philosophy, Greek, an of course mathematics he walks the reader through the theories of Pythagoras, Zeon,  and Euclid.  He writes that it totally upended the well-ordered world of the followers of Pythagoras when they found that not all numbers could be expressed as a ratio of two integers the most famous of these of course being the length of the hypotenuse in an right triangle whose measurement could be calculated by the Pythagorean theorem.  Peering into the boundless world of mathematics was too much for some people as the boundary between genius and madness is slight.  Mr. Wallace writes that some of these scholars lost their minds and went insane.  After he wrote that David Foster Wallace lost his own mind then hanged himself.  Reading that I needed to go back outside and work on the goat farm before I too became unhinged.

Yesterday I took delivery of 20 cubic yards of grape skins from D & M container company.  They haul away the grape skins at The Winery at LaGrange and Pearmund cellars after the wineries are done pressing them into juice.  I had the truck drop this next to the dump truck load of sawdust that I got from Ramoneda Brothers, a local company that cuts oak trees into staves used to make wine barrels.  I plan to use these two steaming mountains of raw material to make compost.  Compost is humus or carbon in its most basic form which I will use to apply to my pastures to boost the organic material in the soil.  The grape skins are steaming now because fungus, yeast, bacteria are doing the work of breaking this down to compost--as they do so it generates heat.  The sawdust is not steaming anymore but if you plunge your hand into the middle of it the temperature is well above 150 degrees and steam gushes forth and the air fills with the smell of ammonia letting you know it is still breaking down. You are supposed to let it keep decomposing until the smell of ammonia is gone.  At this point the compost can decay no more and it will smell like earth, dirt, potting soil.

I will use the sawdust on my existing pastures.  The grape skins are for the new pastures and for spring application to the others.  Last year I bought a bulldozer and used it to clear away 6 acres of ragged forest.  I say it is “ragged” because there was no merchantable timber there—a logger working on my farm this year completely passed it over.  I wanted to expand the 5 acres of pasture I had to 11 to provide more room to plant more forage for my goat herd.

The pastures that I currently have were used for many years to produce hay and I am still producing hay there for my animals and for my neighbor's cows.  Each year the grass that grew there is hauled away thus taking with it all of the nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, and trace materials that were taken up by the plant.  Since I had not been adding fertilizer to the soil the soils were severely depleted.  So this year as I started to contemplate how to turn those 6 acres of forest into pasture I started looking at how to improve the health of the soil of the overall farm. 

I started where you are supposed to start and that is with a soil report.  The PH of the soils in my pasture was 7 which is fine since I had been putting on lots of lime.  But the PH in the new pasture which had been woods was 4.8.  I scarcely has 4 pounds per acre of usable phosphorous and not much potash at all.  I broadcast some buckwheat seed after I finished cleaning the trees off the new pasture but it would not grow in soil that was 100 times as acidic as the existing pastures.  So I called the farmers cooperative who came out and spread 2 tons of lime per acre with their truckers and then waited for cool weather to seed grass.

When the weather cooled I used a land rake to smooth out the soil and then broadcast 3 bags of MaxQ fescue grass seed along with 150 pounds of MAP (10-52-0) monoammonium phosphate which is phosphorous with a little nitrogen.  I wanted to put down rock phosphate too but I had already spent too much money so put that into the budget for next year.

Then I went over to Farfelu Vineyard to see about buying their manure spreader.  A manure slinger spreader is a wagon with a chain that is pulled along as the tractor pulls the spreader. The chains push the manure or compost onto sprockets which then fling the compose up and out in an even shower of fertilizer.  It’s a costly machine, $3,600 new, but I bought theirs used for $2,500.  Fareflu had been one of the very first wineries in Virginia but had recently gone out of business finding no buyer for their operation and no winery interested in their crops of baco noir and other old fashioned grape varieties.

My new pasture planted with fescue, the next project at the goat farm was to build an electric fence to keep in my does and buy a new buck to grow the herd.  A goat fence—any goat farmer will tell you---is only a rough approximation of where the goats might be at any given time.  My goats for the most part had become tame and had gotten used to roaming around my farm.   They were happy climbing on top of my pickup truck, sleeping under the tractor, and following my great Pyrenees guard dog around the farm and on occasion off the farm.  If it were not for the dog suffering from wanderlust I could have let the goats roam indefinitely on my 65 acres since they stayed on the property.  I soon grew weary of having my neighbors call the animal control officer who in turn would call me and show up with his flashing blue lights to help me shepherd the herd back onto my property.  I was particularly annoyed that Mrs. Coughlin, who owns the farm next to me, didn’t just call me because everyone in the neighborhood, including her, knew who owned the goats.  So I finally decided to fence them in.

Goats, given a choice, prefer to eat tree leaves and vines than graze grass.  They will stand on their hind legs and nibble leaves.  This is why goats are used to clear brush.  Leave enough of them in a small area and what had been jungle will soon look like a city park except of course  the leaves they cannot reach will still be hanging.  It makes the woods look like you cleared them out with a landscaping service that only employees midgets.  But if I was to grow my herd to 40 or 50 animals I needed to fence them in especially since I wanted to practice rotational grazing techniques meaning move them from paddock to paddock as different varieties of forage were ready to be grazed or grasses at different stages of growth.  That is the best way to improve the health of the farm and the animals at the same time and the practice followed by the best of the grass fed farmers, especially those calling themselves "organic".  

So I strung electric wire around 2 acres of land which I had cleared with the dozer.  Half of it was cleared well enough where I could plant winter rye, Austrian peas, rape seed, triticale, and turnips which would grow into the looming cold weather.  But the other half was a tangle of trees which I had pushed over with the dozer which broke down for the last time before I finished the job.  So I left that side to the goats to clear out and got rid of the dozer.

Winter rye is for me a green colored cure for the misery of winter.  In the winter the ground and the sky take on the same grey colored hue when the sky is cloudy.  This misery can last for a few weeks and one can understand why people in places like Finland, Toledo, Siberia either drink heavily in the darkened days of winter or sun themselves under sunlamps.  A better cure might be to plant something that stays green for much of the year.  In Finland I think they grow pot indoors to provide some color.  In Virginia I wanted to grow winter rye especially as the police here in Virginia frown on growing marijuana.

In Virginia fescue goes dormant when the north wind turns icy.  It does not turn green again until 4 months later.  But winter rye as the name implies grows later in the year and comes out of dormancy earlier.   So it’s bright green in December which is a cheery hue compares with the monochrome of the rest of the landscape.

My new pasture is now green with 4 acres of young fescue growth and I have 2 acres of winter cover crops growing.  The goats after much effort have learned for the most part to respect the electric fence while the goat dog still goes in and out as she pleases.  The next activity for me after I pick up my new buck next week will be in April when I use the rotavator plow to till in the cover crops and plant summer annual perl millet.  I see so many goat farmers feeding their animals grain and buying expensive hay.  Rotational grazing and planting the highest quality forage is the way I plan to build up my herd and goat business.



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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Virginia Barley for Ethanol

Farmers have found a new use for barley beside making beer.  Barley, in particular hull-less barley, can be used to make ethanol.

The Chesapeake Bay foundation has prepared a report which they handed out at the August Virginia Biofuels Seminar.  In it they worry than the increase in prices paid for corn will cause farmers to plant more.  Corn they point our requires lots of nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizer. Nitrogen fertilizer when it is applied to the soil turns into ammonium which drifts off into the air and nitrates which can infiltrate the ground water if they are not taken up by plants.  Phosphates have a triple negative electrical charge so they bind to positively charged clay colloids found in the soil.  So phosphates by themselves do not leach into the groundwater and run off into streams.  What causes phosphate buildup in the Chesapeake bay is soil erosion.  Phosphates in the bay cause algae blooms which snuff out oxygen and thus fish and can cause entire dead areas in the ocean as it had done at the mouth of the Mississippi.

The answer to this says the Foundation is to plant winter cover crops and of course something besides corn.  These cover crops will take up unused nitrogen from the soil and curtail soil erosion.  They further say that grassland is preferred to corn and for this reason are endorsing biodiesel from warm season grasses and ethanol production from barley.

No ethanol plant is yet opened in Virginia while one is planned for Norfolk and two for Baltimore. These of course will be on the water where barges and ships from the Midwest can ferry their corn.  Pointing toward the sea they have their backs turned on Virginia agriculture.  How does this help the Virginia farmer?  It does not.

Instead it would be better to source biomass needed for fuel from local sources.  Virginia farm land is expensive and while we have wide open spaces nothing is as wide open as the plains of Kansans and Iowa.  Plus their soils are superior for growing corn because of their water and nutrient holding capacity.  Another alternative to corn is proposed for Virginia:  barley.

I always find it fascinating that for every aspect of agriculture you can think of you can be certain you can find a scientist somewhere in the Cooperative Extension Service somewhere who is expert on this topic.  In these bad economic times where people are wondering how government can help even libertarians would agree that the USDA agriculture extension is helpful to the average citizen, especially to farmers.

So it is with Wade Thomason who has found a market for prospective Virginia barley farmers and offers advice.  He says “Most people associated barely with beer.  Not Virginia barley.”  The challenge for the biofuels market is, “How can we increase ethanol production without depleting corn?”  Barley is excellent for, “The cost of growing barely is significantly less than for corn.”  Barley grows in cold weather which is why it used for a cover crop which has already mentioned as a way to reduce soils erosion.  Further Dr. Thomason says barley improves compacted soils because their roots break find and open up fissures in the soil.

Hulless Barley is better than other varieties of barley because, as Dr. Thomason says, it has “Higher Starch, Higher Protein, Lower Ash, and Lower Fiber”.  There is increased interest in Virginia barley with recently newspaper articles entitled “Virginia barley could find its way to your gas tank”, “Virginia Farmers Hope Hull-less Barley Grows into a Moneymaker” appearing in “The Virginia-Pilot’ and “Farm Bureau News”.  Thus USDA is pushing barley with a Maryland Cover Crop program that pays a $10 to $15 per acre for growing hull-less barley.

The use of corn for ethanol has of course come under criticism because of recent food riots in Asia and because higher corn prices cause higher food prices because cattle and pork are fed corn in confined feeding operation to fatten them up.  Still barley is not without some cost disadvantage.  Dr. Thomason says,  “Wheat or hull-less plant would cost 5-10% more to build than a corn plant and 2 to 3 cents more per gallon in production.  Hulled barley plant would cost 20-30% more to build and adds about 5 cents more per gallon to the cost of production.”  With gas costing $4 per gallon, 5 cents does not seem like much of an issue.

Dr. Thomason wraps up saying that hulless barley is superior to hulled barley because it can produce 2.27 gallons of ethanol per bushel versus 1.64 gallons.  He also says, “Osage Bioenergy plans to open a multigrain ethanol facility near Hopewell.  It’s not done yet, but they are having a groundbreaking ceremony on Friday so it’s closer than anything else at this time.  They can use almost any grain, but they hope to run on mostly barley, both hulled and hulless.”

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