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

Tool finder

Somebody needs to invent a system that allows people like me to find the tools I constantly misplace on the farm. No, really.

We have 185 acres. Even if I limit myself to the area of our farm buildings, we’re talking 5 to 7 acres. It’s really, really easy to lose tools, even big tools, by simply putting them down and forgetting where they got put.

For example, I spent most of my day before writing this post looking for my lost Sawzall. One would think a red tool the size of a large ham would be easy to find. Not so, as it turns out, when one has to search through at least three different buildings and half a dozen projects in various states of completion.

So, what I need is a system that would somehow catalog where all my tools are in some kind of a central database. Even if it just covered buildings, such a system would cover 90 percent of my tools. And, if it had a way for me to wander around the farm and find tools I left elsewhere, that would be swell too.


Planning spaces: working animals into a sustainable permaculture plan

I’ve learned a lot about utilizing the ground for food production over the past few years, and one of the things I have learned is that there is no space, whether it is a garden, a tilled field, or a pasture, that should ever be left for a single use. Nature multitasks everything, and the best farm plans do the same.

While that is true, I am surprised how many sustainable agriculture pundits leave the animals out of their plans. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few who advocate using animals, but for the most part, most of the people out there talking about sustainable agriculture keep their animals mostly seperate from their agriculture.

What I have come to realize is that the best way to utilize space is to have animals as part of every stage. For instance, we use goats to keep grass areas trimmed and chickens to keep the goat manure broken down. Chickens tend our gardens during the winter months, eating weed seeds and grubs we could never control otherwise. Cows, and eventually goats and chickens, patrol our pastures and keep them healthy through carefully managed grazing.

This year, I plan to experiment with using chickens to tend the aisles of our gardens using tunnels to keep them off the plants. Chickens are death on weeds and insect pests.

All of these ideas, and some yet to come, require some degree of consideration as part of planning our operations. I’ve found that we have to think differently about how we design our growing areas to accommodate animals as well as plants. The more we accommodate, the better things seem to work.

As far as I can tell, there is no foolproof method for such accommodation–that is, I have not identified one yet–but there is a question we should ask whenever we are planning a new space: how will I use animals here?

I think that including animals in an overall sustainable agriculture plan will make the plan that much better for us, our plants, and our animals.


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.


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.


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.