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Updates from the FARM!
Posted 7/7/2014 2:28pm by Jon.


I think about cows a lot. Yes, I could have gone for the easy verb choice there - ruminate -  but I think so highly of cows that I don’t want to borrow their word without permission, which, being bovine, they would grant, I’m sure. Cows grant and gift us plenty of wonderful items: meat, milk, and life-giving butter,  are the obvious but most folks will be surprised when I also add ‘companionship’.  Its true - they make great friends. They wait patiently for us to come to them for a visit, they make room in the pasture for us, and when we sit, they gather round to listen to us talk about them and their lives. 

Well, I’m a bit cow-crazy but I have such a high regard for them, and I’ll tell you why --
There is a classic poster still available entitled “Foster Mothers of the Human Race” that has stylized images of the major dairy breeds, attractively posed. This celebration of cows and their role in human domesticity is not overdone. 10,000 years ago or more, and possible in Turkey or Africa - there is research for both locations - they were used, as they are now, for meat, milk, and work, as draft animal. When used for meat, there is little wastage - from the hide for leather to the blood for sausage or as a soup thickener - the whole cow is a chef’s delight. Their milk is the starting point for butter, cheese,  and all the fine products that come from that and all over the world oxen are still used as a source of power.
As wonderful as all these uses are,  what is most remarkable is that they are capable of doing this - to eat, digest, grow, milk, work  - on something humans can’t use: grass.
 
So how do cows eat grass?
I think everyone knows that a cow has four ‘stomachs’ -rumen, reticulum, omasum, abomasum -  but the reason for one stomach with 4 compartments is not as clear. Three would seem to be both sufficient and useful, or even two, but this very complex system has evolved over the centuries and is remarkably unchanged for a species this old. In fact,  cattle nutritionist know that you can’t fool the rumen for very long — it will attempt to revert to a stable state in the face of all sorts of additives and insults. What goes on in the most famous of their digestive organs, the rumen, is the subject of countless and endless articles, papers, and books. It is an entire ecosystem and researchers just can’t help themselves: they go so far as to actually open a port in the side of a cow so they can reach in and sample the byproducts of digestion —  the bacteria, protozoa, yeasts, the entire microbial population. This "fistulation” or  "cannulation” of a cow is not uncommon at research facilities and the cow herself seems to unfazed by this. But, then, cows are pretty much unfazed as a state of being: they aren't into drama, quick motions or unpleasant people. They like to ruminate. 
 
A mature cow eats 30-40 pounds or so a day of good quality grasses/legumes  or about 2-3% of her body weight and measured on a 100% dry matter basis. That means measured without moisture - and the reason for that is this allows a comparison of nutrient levels between feeds. So, how much land will a cow graze then? Let’s say that here on MV a summer pasture or hay field will produce over the course of the summer grazing period (1 May to 1 October or so) 4000 pounds of  forages per acre,  an area  roughly 210 yards by 210 yards - - let’s correct those pounds  for an average moisture of 20% and guestimate that there is 3200 pounds of cow feed in a summer acre. And the cow can eat 30 pounds a day, so, we have enough grazing for about 100 days, sometimes more.  Not surprisingly the cow will eat less of poor or mature forages and more of younger and better forages. But the wonderful part about cows is that they can make use of all that high fiber  that we can’t digest. That 50 gallon capacity fermentation tank she walks around with enables the cow to process and use for maintenance and growth feedstuffs that single stomach animals can’t do anything with. That fact is the basis for why we are not a grain-feeding farm for our cattle - it’s just not necessary for them, which isn’t the same as saying it is bad for them. 
 
And why grass-fed in Katama?
Grains represent a concentrated energy source for beef and dairy animals, or any ruminant actually. And, cows like grains - just like we all like ice cream. If a cow was to come across a pile of corn left negligently in the field, she’d eat until she was sick. There is more energy is one pound of corn than in one pound of excellent grass, and that makes a huge difference when figuring out balanced diets. A cow, or any other animal, can only eat so much in a day, so the more concentrated the energy form, the more energy they can take in — and more energy ingested means that they have more energy available for growth after they meet their maintenance needs. So, with grain feeding a beef steer can be market ready in many fewer months than a grass fed animal: the difference can be as much as ready to ship in 16 months vs 30  months.  That’s a very serious economic impact. However, there are health risks for the cow with heavy grain feeding: too much of the starches and sugars (carbohydrates) that are the major components of grains can give the cow acidosis - an upset stomach, which means that the ph of the rumen is out of the ideal range. When this happens the cow goes 'off-feed', and from there things can get worse. It’s a delicate balancing act, but the rumen is a very determined organ, and is able to recover.  However, a complete refresh of the microbial population and re-establishment of the right balance can take 3 weeks if a proper feeding routine is re-established.
 
Something else happens with grain feeding: cattle deposit more fat, and a different type of fat, than with grass feeding. The meat from grass-raised and grass-finished cattle are leaner than grain-fed.  This is well-documented. Other health claims, specifically for higher levels of  conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and omega 3 fatty acids’s are also true, but mostly not significant for human diets: salmon would have about 30 times as much of these nutrients in equal serving size of 3 ounces. The reasons for preferring grass-fed as either an eater or rancher don’t need to be complex or based on calculations of milligrams of  nutrients - it is that, as built,  cows do fine without grains and that has enormous implications for the best use of constrained resources . Almost all of the negative/condemnatory papers about beef/dairy and their resource use is based on the grain-feeding model. It is our responsibility, as grass farmers, to distinguish what we do from other methods, understanding that there are always trade-offs in production systems - a lengthy topic for another time. 
 
For us, on the historic Katama plains, we grow grass and not grains, and our first obligation as stewards of this land is to fit our production to the best use of our environment. So, we raise and graze cattle and sheep. We’ve selected two breeds of cattle we think work well for our climate: our logo the Belted Galloway and our second breed, the British-American White Park. The Belted Galloways with their distinctive white belt are originally from Scotland, and were well adapted to those poor pastures and damp chilly ocean winds….sound familiar? Besides black and white, Belties come in red and dun colors, and first arrived in the US in the late 1940’s. They are naturally polled - hornless - and are considered small (“compact”) in comparison to other breeds. They remind me more of buffalo than anything else, perhaps the shaggy coats and large heads.
Our other choice has a long, fascinating and convoluted history, with different versions and some mistaken linkages. 
One story line ties them to the Ancient White Parks with a  history and location dating to the midEast and the time of the Crusades, but this is not at all clear and genetic markers dispute this. Even if this isn’t true, their history in the US has multiple players as well, and makes for good reading.
They are  predominantly polled and are white with black (sometimes red) ‘points’: eyes, ears nose.  They have more stature than our Belties but are equally nicely tempered. Their calves are a bright white, and the older cows fade into a nice cream color.
 
Pasture Rotation, also known to our visitors as, why the animals are never in the same place
Julie the Herd Boss - did you know that cows are part of the genus Bos (Bos Taurus) and that may be the origin of calling cattle ‘Hey bos, hey bos’? - anyway, Julie, Elana, Olivia, Emma and Colin keep all our cattle rotating through our pastures on a frequent basis. This is a management practice known variously as: strip grazing, intensive grazing, rotational grazing, or mob grazing. In all its forms there is a common thread: confine the cattle to a small area, let them graze it down to a certain height, move them to a new area where the grass is at a certain height, repeat. Moving can be multiple times a day, daily, every other day, etc. dependent on field conditions and number of cattle. It is labor intensive and growing in usage. The goal is improved soil conditions and better grass utilization, leading to more cattle being fed per acre used, and (hopefully) more pounds of gain per acre. One thing it certainly lacks is the vista that, as a Wisconsin kid, I grew up with: cattle scattered far and wide over green fields at sunset….however, our cows have adapted well to the system, waiting patiently for the crew to come and move them to a new area. They patiently stand behind their single strand of electric fence and urge the wranglers to hurry up, but rarely take it on themselves to break through. Good cows.
 
Our cows are are almost always easily viewed from one of the farm roads; c’mon by — they’d like to view you, too.

 

Tags: cows
Posted 6/5/2014 9:47am by Elana.

Turkeys have arrived! We order our baby turkeys, called poults, in June to grow up on pasture and be ready in time for Thanksgiving. We raise two types of turkeys: the White Holland and the Standard Bronze, both heritage breeds. They arrive fully capable of eating, drinking, and chasing each other around, even at one day old. They'll spend several weeks in a 'brooder,' an indoor room with heat lambs and radiators keeping it at a balmy 100 degrees. Always curious to an extreme, I found it difficult to take a photo with all the turkey beaks pecking the camera. 

Posted 5/8/2014 11:21am by Elana.

Our pastures are slow to spring up this year after the difficult winter, so we've had to get creative with areas to graze our sheep. Here they are enjoying lush grass and tasty weeds on 'goat mountain' behind the cow barn at the farm. With a flock of over 100 sheep, the ewes and lambs quickly demolished the tender spring flush of new growth. 

Posted 4/24/2014 10:45am by Jon.

We are surrounded by eggs. Every day Elana or Julie or super-volunteer Maria bring in more, mostly very clean, very large and very many. Even the pullet eggs - from the ‘teenage’ hens  - are getting bigger as the birds mature. We’ve donated over 150 dozen so far, and taken hundreds to Cronig’s, supply the Charlotte Inn and The Harbor View but we still can’t keep up. And later in the year we’ll lament the diminishing numbers and wonder why we didn’t freeze them.

Well, we didn’t freeze them because you can’t. At least not in their shells. You can break them and freeze them either as mixed or separated white from yolk, but we’ve not yet discovered the market for this here on the Island…or could afford the machinery. There is an entire segment of the egg industry called ‘breakers’ that does just that and 32% of all the eggs produced in the US are handled this way by machines that can break 145,000 eggs an hour.

A hen can lay around 250 eggs in a year, some more (300 or better), some less. The industry has a different measurement: of the 292 million layers in the US, Rate of lay per day on March 1, 2013 averaged 74.3 eggs per 100 layers. (The American Egg Board has a great website:aeb.org where I got most of the numbers.)

Nutrition and age are the keys to production but at some point even nutrition can’t keep the eggs rolling and we cull the under-performers and get stewing hens. Raising laying hens has a major conceptual and practical distinction from raising meat birds. Your broiler or fryer is a terminal bird: its value is in its death. But hens - the value is in keeping them healthy and alive because the value is in the product: the egg.

So, what’s in the egg? 

A 50 gram egg (typical serving size or Large Egg) = 6 grams of protein, 70 calories (45 of them from fat) and a total fat level of 5 grams and 1.5 grams are saturated. And, of course, cholesterol - 185 mg. If you choose to eat just the whites of the egg you lose about half the protein, all the fat, most of the energy, all the vitamins and, except for sodium and potassium, the trace elements as well.

It is commonly reported that eggs are the ‘perfect protein’ and that they rank extremely high on ‘satiety’ indices - how full you feel after eating. I’m not sure just how that relates to the food choices we make either at the store or at the refrigerator, but I think a better marker is consumption. Mexico has led the world in per capita egg consumption for many years, and they are currently at 335 eggs per person. The US and Argentina are at 248 and 244 respectively, but Peru is at only 167.  Interestingly, the consumption of ‘processed eggs’   - eggs from the ‘breakers’  that go into processed foods - has grown at a faster clip than shell eggs. 

Globally, China produces somewhat over 33% of total eggs, outlaying the US by almost 5:1. In the US the leading egg producing state (ranked by total number of laying hens) is Iowa, almost double that of Ohio and Indiana. With corn and soybean meal being the basics of layer diets, this isn’t too surprising.

  • U.S. egg production during August 2013 was 6.95 billion table eggs.        
  • Presently, there are approximately 59 egg producing companies with 1 million-plus layers that represents approximately 87 percent of total production and 16 companies with greater than 5 million layers.
  • Only about 3% were certified organic.
  • Our second most important export market is Hong Kong.

The eggs laid here at TFI or in your backyard  are about 65% water - which indicates what single nutrient they need most reliably if you want egg production. And they need the usual nutrients on a daily basis as well  - proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.  They also need grit - literally. Without some pebbles or shells or small stones their gizzards won’t work. The gizzard, properly the ventriculus, is a muscular organ that needs something hard to help grind the food, and pass it to the true stomach. Alligators have gizzards as well, but the food industry seems to have overlooked this, focusing mostly on cooking poultry gizzards which are specialty treats around the world, although perhaps not here. Almost any commercially available diet will produce eggs, and yes, your hens can produce eggs in the summer without supplementation IF they are allowed to run free and scratch/forage/ on their own, but the production will be, understandably, lower.

Now, about the color of the yolk. It’s not quite the robust standard for judging an egg’s source or quality as is conventionally promoted. In fact the color of the yolk is easily manipulated by diet changes, both naturally occurring or through deliberate inclusion of specific ingredients or additives  - pigmenting agents to be accurate. Natural pigmenting agents are obtained from flowers  (marigold and paprika), which then go through a lot of processing before they are added to the feed. By varying the amounts in the feed the color of the yolk can be changed, just as the transition from winter to summer can deepen the yolk color as natural xanthophylls are ingested. There is an actual color wheel for yolks (I have one) just like a paint color wheel. (Actually, it’s a fan not a wheel, but…) In fact, the skin color of broilers can be tinted this way as well, as different markets prefer a more or less ‘golden’  skin. It takes about 5 days for the diet changes to show. These pigment agents all have trademark names - Orogold, Nutrigold, etc. -  and, if they are included in the laying hen feed, have to be on the label.

Feedstuffs generally used in the US all have differing levels of naturally occurring xanthophylls, with wheat having barely any (2mg/kg) in comparison to alfalfa meal (160mg/kg). When chickens are allowed to scratch and roam on pasture - grasses, clovers, alfalfa - the egg yolk coloration changes in response. During the winter, adding good quality alfalfa hay to their diets works well, as would adding alfalfa pellets or alfalfa meal. For commercial use this is pretty vague and too inconsistent, so they use available pigments, if desired.

Another difference between small farm/backyard eggs  and commercially produced eggs is sonar. Yup, sonar. Commercial operations use sonar to detect cracked eggs by tapping the egg and listening for the sound it makes. Apparently an egg without an cracks makes a "high pitch and a sustained ring" whereas a thud noise indicates a cracked, no good egg.

For all the technology and efficiency, there is still nothing like a farm fresh egg, fried or scrambled, in an omelet or being whipped for baking. I even made breaded and deep-fried whole eggs awhile ago and they were great! Our 400 hens are from various breeds, have different attitudes, make different sounds, run from the hawks, peck at our egg-stealing hands, give us bounty. Come by and visit, they’re busy all the time.

Tags: eggs
Posted 4/20/2014 9:21am by Elana.

Spring is finally here! The cows are excited by the green flush that is spreading through our pastures. These two St. Patty's day calves are starting to nibble grass and bouncing in the sunshine.

Spring Easter calf! Halo gave birth to a girl this morning that looks just like her - spotted eye and skunk markings, except baby has a pink nose. New baby took a long nap in the spring sunshine after having her first meal, an important start to a calf's life.

Posted 3/30/2014 3:51pm by Elana.

All of our lambs have been born leaving us with a grand total of 58! Here are two of our orphan lambs, one Katahdin and one Cotswold, having a post-lunch nap. They're fed a milk replacer three times a day and have access to hay which lambs start to nibble on at just a week old. 

Posted 3/16/2014 4:14pm by Elana.

Our Barred Rock chickens have just started to lay eggs and they are averaging 10 dozen a day! Since they are our youngest laying hens and under a year old, they are technically called 'pullets' and lay eggs about half the size of a normal chicken egg - pullet eggs. These mini eggs are fun fried and boiled.

The rest of our chickens have started laying eggs again too after their winter break. Our Buff Orpingtons, Black Australorps, and Rhode Island Reds enjoyed the sunshine today on the windy Katama plains. 

Posted 3/2/2014 12:10pm by Elana.

Even with all our new lambs, we can't forget about our cows and their calves from this summer and fall. In fact, we're expecting new calves within the next month! This British-American White Park calf was born this summer but still nurses. Since we raise cows for beef, we don't ever milk them; instead, we let their calves drink mom's milk to grow big and strong. On a dairy farm the calves would be taken from their moms at birth so that humans could milk them instead. Below is a Belted Galloway calf from this fall also nursing on mom. 

 

Posted 2/24/2014 3:38pm by Elana.


Please welcome our newest addition to The Farm Institute: Fern the dairy goat who gave birth to triplets on Saturday! Keep an eye out for her and her kids in the Katama barn on your next visit. 

Posted 2/16/2014 9:49am by Elana.

With two new lambs born this morning, we're now at 43 lambs! This mamma, Irene, and her two babies, Squeak and Isaac, are still my favorites though. Irene is super friendly, and her son Isaac has inherited her calm, inquisitive demeanor. Squeak, however, is Irene's adoptive daughter; another successful lamb grafting! These two siblings are some of the bigger lambs and have been leading the ever-growing pack in playful romps: running circles around moms and doing figure-eight loops through the nursery pen. People who braved the snow yesterday afternoon to come to our lamb viewing time got to see first-hand how playful the lambs have become. 

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