Farmhack: My latest attempt at temporary animal fencing

I’ve spent quite a bit of the past decade trying to figure out how to create portable temporary animal fencing. My previous attempts were mostly focused on cattle because that’s what we had, but now that we have sheep and goats instead, the durability needs of the solution has changed.

My latest attempt uses 3/4in EMT conduit to build a frame to support 10ft sections of sheep fencing held on by 16 gauge wire. The secret to this assembly is the handy fittings from MakerPipe that allow me to assemble the frames with little more than cutting the pipe to length and wiring on the fence.

These panels are very lightweight but strong enough to resist rubbing by our sheep and goats and our livestock guardian dogs leaning on them. Once I get enough built to show them in use, I’ll post an update. –DLH

Good rules for rounding up wayward animals

If you grow livestock, it is almost inevitable that eventually some of them will get out of the place you keep them. This problem could result from a poorly latched gate or from an animal’s desire to see if the grass is really greener on the other side of that fence. Either way, at that point, you’re now in the wayward animal chasing business, so here’s some advise for getting them back where they belong.

  • Always wear your boots: It is amazing the places animals will get themselves into when they’re out, and if you’re not wearing boots while you’re getting them back where they belong, you’re probably going to wish you had. As I mentioned in my “The farm uniform” post, a good pair of steel-toed boots are indispensable for farm work and doubly so when chasing animals.
  • Always carry the right stick for the right job: There’s a reason herdsmen have carried sticks for thousands of years: they work. The most basic stick is a simple walking stick (I use mine often), but you can use a shepherds crook for smaller livestock or a poultry catcher for birds.
  • Most animals will run the opposite direction you approach them from: This is an almost absolute rule. Granted, you have to approach the animal from some direction, but as much as possible, do so from opposite the direction you’re trying to get them to go. Most animals will also run for home when startled, so use that fact to your advantage.
  • Fence lines are a good way to stop forward progress: Fences stop animals from running in a particular direction and can act as a “second person” when trying to round up an animal. Use your fences to your advantage.
  • The more people you have the better: Granted, this is not always possible, but get as many people, equipped with boots and sticks, as possible to help round your animals up, especially if they are bigger animals like cattle. Consider calling neighbors if you need to.
  • Stay a leg’s length away unless you want to get kicked: Unless you want to get kicked, stay away from the kicking bits, especially with larger animals.
  • A caught animal will bite, kick, and flail to get away: If you have to catch smaller animals, be assured that it will fight back when caught.

Also, while animals getting out is almost inevitable, here are a few things you can do to make your roundup easier.

  • Interact with your animals when they are calm: As you interact with your animals more, they will get used to your presence and will not be as flighty when you need to work with them when they are stressed. This interaction is especially important for large livestock that cannot be caught and manhandled.
  • Consider a perimeter fence: One of the best ways to keep escaped animals contained is to limit how far they can run. Having a perimeter fence will help with that task.
  • Also, walk your fences regularly: Animals will find the weak points in a fence and get through them. Walk your fences regularly to make sure they are in good repair.
  • While you’re at it, use stronger fence: A lot of people use line fence because it’s cheap(er) than other kinds of fencing, but it’s not always the best option. If you have places where animals work the fence or keep getting through, consider other kinds of fence like cattle panel.
  • Have enough gates: Escaped animals are rarely cooperative, so trying to herd them toward the one gate in your fence can be a difficult task. Consider having gates at each corner of a fence and in the middle for especially long runs.

Granted, these ideas won’t keep your animals from getting out, but they will help you get them back in once they are out. Good luck and happy herding.


The farm uniform

While I’m sure most farmers don’t think of it this way, there is a definitive uniform most of us wear as we go about our daily tasks. It’s a practical collection of clothing and tools that help us get our jobs done.

Here at Innisfree Farm, the uniform is pretty well defined. At its most basic, it consists of a hat, t-shirt, pair of jeans, socks, and a good pair of steel-toed work boots. Added to that is a good multi-tool and a pair of work gloves. During the winter, the ensemble expands to include stocking caps, sweatshirts, long underwear, and winter work gloves.

Some farmers replace the work boots with mud boots of one sort or another, but I find the risk of crushing my toes often outweighs the benefits of staying clean and dry. Further, almost any kind of clothing can be worn, as long as it covers most of the body and is tight fitting enough to avoid getting caught in machinery, a problem that is especially present in the winter when we have to wear more clothing.

Some accessories that often go with our uniform include a good flashlight, a toolbox filled with our most commonly used tools, and a water jug. Sometimes, a pair of suspenders can be useful to help keep one’s pants up when the work requires constant bending over.

Overall, this is a time tested uniform for farming as I have seen it in use.


It’s all fun and games until the wheel falls off

Ok, maybe I’m being a little dramatic, but it’s hard to feed cattle when the only tractor we have that can move bales develops a flat tire–probably a broken bead due to the unforgiving frozen terrain of the barnyard. Of course, that whole event started because our bale wagon has been frozen to the ground for two weeks.

The flat tire event precipitated two hours of breaking apart round bales stored in the barn by hand and throwing them down into the mangers I repaired over the summer. Let me tell you how much fun 3000 pounds of hay is…

There is a moral to this story, though, that is more than complaining about things going wrong.

First, there is the moral of always be ready to improvise. Contrary to the popular idea, improvisation is more than just figuring a solution on the fly. Sometimes, it means having a plan ahead of time (like having hay in the barn and mangers that can hold it) and thinking about what could go wrong.

Second, there is the moral of learning from one’s mistakes. Having gotten the bale wagon stuck, I now have a whole new plan for how to place said wagon in the coming year so that it doesn’t get stuck.

Third, there is the moral of having the right equipment for the job. Our little Kubota is an amazing tractor, but we’re beating her up moving 7,500 pounds of hay every three or four days. It’s good to do things as inexpensively as possible, but don’t incapacitate yourself by underdoing what needs to be done.

Adapt, improvise, overcome: the morals of the sustainable farm.


Upside down

I’ve always heard about how dangerous farming can be, and looking at all the big machines and whirling widgets leads me to believe that’s true. I’ve worked very hard to be as safe as possible, but frankly, sometimes, accidents just happen.

An example was last night, wherein the hitch pin for the borrowed tedder I was pulling came out, causing the tongue to dig into the ground and flipping the thing completely over. Amazingly, the only serious damage was that the sheer bolt and bearings on one of the PTO shaft u-joints were completely destroyed, which means replacing the PTO shaft. Otherwise, the thing is still in good working order and is a testament to quality Hesston engineering.

Nevertheless, the whole incident reminds me that farming is not for the feint of heart, and it takes true love of what one is doing to overcome all the crap that can tear someone down. I hope everyone remembers that kind of thing the next time they’re standing in a grocery store looking at all the food: in those boxes and cans and displays are a thousand stories just like that one, and I hope that it might prompt a few more people to go see what goes on at the source.


2010- A beer odyssey

Here’s one for the “checking something off of life’s list” category: today, at long last, I purchased the supplies necessary to form the beginnings of what I hope to be my long endeavor with brewing beer myself.

Fortunately for me, and for Dayton, the owner of Belmont Party Supply in East Dayton has made starting this endeavor easy by opening Miami Valley BrewTensils, a fully stocked craft brewing store located at 2617 South Smithville Road in Dayton, right next to the party supply store. I spoke with Jeff Fortney today, and he was very knowledgeable and eager to help me get started brewing.

In the mean time, here on Innisfree, my goal is to begin not just brewing my own beer buy growing everything I can to brew it with. If all goes well, by next summer, my “Beer Garden” will be fully established and providing the ingredients necessary to create my own “Innisfree” home brew.

Stay tuned for more information as this project progresses.



Part of the revolution in food production I am joining is to reject commodity markets in favor if finding ways to raise food that we will sell directly to the people who eat it. The last time I checked, no one eats the GMO field corn and soybeans that dominate our agriculture sector, mostly because they can’t. That field corn and soybeans are only good for industrial food factories that churn out products that have names many people can’t even pronounce and have to be regulated by the FDA.

Instead of raising chemicals for the industrial food supply, my goal is to raise food that belongs in your pantry and flour jar. To that end, I’m experimenting with a variety of grain and legume products, including amaranth, barely, flour corn, oats, quinoa, and rye. This year, I’ll be able to harvest what I’ve planted by hand, but at some point I’d like to grow more, and the easiest way to do that is with machinery.

Unfortunately, if you’ve looked recently, the entire food production world is geared toward making growing anything but commodity products on a huge scale in the United States almost impossible. The big equipment companies assume you want to farm 2000 acres of the same plant, and the small equipment manufacturers in Asia and Europe can’t find distributors in the US because most implement sellers don’t think anyone is interested in buying.

It seems like an impossible situation unless you’re stubborn like me and have a habit of looking at every implement yard you pass.

Allis-Chalmers All-Crop Harvester 72

In which case you would see this very good condition Allis-Chalmers All-Crop Harvester 72 sitting in an implement yard. In basic terms, this is a small combine that you pull behind a tractor, and it’s perfect for harvesting small amounts of grain without the headaches of a regular combine, which includes having another engine to maintain and fuel.

If I were to buy this thing, I would be able to harvest small stands of any kind of field harvestable product–from alfalfa to zinnias–even just an acre. Perfect for what I need, except that it requires me to spend money–really my mother-in-law who owns the farm’ money–and that’s hard to do when one is trying to be as responsible and frugal as possible.

So for the moment, I ponder and I pray. Here’s a chance to take another step toward what I know I want to do. Now I just have to decide if it’s the right time to do it.


Get a bigger sledgehammer

So, we have about a foot of snow on the ground here at Innisfree, which means it’s time to use the PTO snowblower I hooked up to the tractor Friday to clear the driveways and a path to the barn and hay-yard. That would be, it would be time to use it if it worked.

Somehow, the shroud around the fan that propels the snow into the chute got bent, meaning that the fan jammed against the shroud and the whole assembly ground to a halt.

How do you fix something like that? With a bigger hammer.

Really, using a combination of a come-along and chain to bend the offending part combined with hitting the shroud repeatedly with a sledgehammer NASCAR-style,  I managed to bend the shroud back into some semblance of round so that everything could once again turn freely.

If you’re thinking about farming yourself, make sure you keep a large selection of hammers, sledgehammers, mallets, and crowbars on-hand. I promise you’ll need them.


PS: As an aside, with the amount of hay forking, sledgehammering, and other arm using activities I’ve been doing lately, I should look like a potbellied Popeye by the spring. Farming is a great workout.

And everything broke

The farm I am helping run is successful and debt free because my in-laws ran it in a very particular way: they stayed out of debt as much as possible and kept their machines running for a long time instead of constantly replacing them with newer and more expensive models. Their farm is a model for success that I find very attractive and one of the things that has made me so willing to give Innisfree Farm a try to begin with.

One of the downsides of that model, however, is that everything has a certain age to it, and that age makes it statistically more prone to breaking. Today, it seemed like everything broke: the older tractor is leaking vital fluids at an alarming rate, the newer tractor had a flat tire, and just to add insult to injury, the ancient deadbolt lock on our back door locked itself, forcing us to break and enter into our own house (ironically, through the same window that was broken to unlock the door the last time that happened).

Of course, this all meant spending a few hours in the cold, banging on things with a mallet and swearing a little (not too much, lest to offend), but I’m not really complaining. Why? Because the labor was my own, which cost nothing, the tire just needed reseated because the bead got broken, and another farmer loaned us his tractor until we can get ours fixed.

We’re going to make Innisfree Farm work the way it has since the beginning: hard work, rolling with the punches, and finding as many ways as possible to keep it in the black. While other farmers might be sure that we’re going to fail because we’re not using their borrow-and-farm methods, I am sure that the way we’re approaching these things will mean that we’ll still be in business even in the years when bad crops don’t cover their operating loans and a statistical percentage of them go under.

Maybe when that happens, I might even be in a position to buy. But, I’m not going to get ahead of myself. Steady as she goes.