Sunday, April 24, 2011

On An Aging Parent

Melissa and I were talking out loud today about one of the concerns that has begun to be on my mind of late; specifically what to do about aging parents when their desires and abilities....and I mean ALL their abilities, are no longer in sync with one another. I've always maintained that farms were a great place to grow old, and that can be true when sons and grandsons step in and manage the business successfully. Retirement often means doing less work and doing more things that you want to do but it doesn't mean stopping and I think that's great. That was exactly the sort of set-up I envisioned and put in place for my mom shortly after my dad's passing. But when something changes in that picture; when divorce or the economy turns a viable business upside down and aging parents are left in the family homeplace alone with no sons or daughters nearby I can attest from experience that retirement can become a lot less fun in a real big hurry.

Of course mom is welcome here with me or, I'm sure, with my brother, but after having spent seven decades within eyesight of where she was born I'm pretty sure she has no desire to relocate and I don't blame her for that. When I lived next door she'd most likely never have had to think about it, and she's far from alone up there even now. But she lives in a big old drafty farmhouse that takes a lot of dollars and effort just to keep in some semblance of repair and since my uncle's passing her being there worries me, doubly so when a storm blows up and shuts the roads down in the winter.

Fortunately, none of our discussion today is of pressing concern; mom is still well capable of looking out for herself in spite of my worries. But longevity runs in her family and her health is very good. She could easily have another twenty or more good, productive years ahead of her and these sorts of decisions are of the type that ought to be figured out before necessity demands it. One day soon we're going to have to get together...all of us...and have a conversation about what needs to happen so we can begin to get plans in place before they are needed.

Getting older, whether as parent or child, sometimes isn't very much fun.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Ontario Things

One of our employees at the new farm is an Englishman and prior to his most recent trip across the pond he told me he was looking forward to doing "English things". Although Canada is about 98% similar to the US, I understand completely because on my short upcoming jaunt to Ontario to celebrate a big "O" birthday for my mom I am looking forward to doing Canadian things ! Actually, since Canada is such a big place, it'd be more accurate to say I'm looking forward to doing Ontario things ! Given the parties and visitors I already know about, I'd say this list might be a stretch but I am sure going to try to fit some of it in !

1. Coffee Time coffee. Yes, I like Timmie's too, and I promise I'll be visiting more than once (for their donuts if nothing else), but Coffee Time has better coffee, IMO and I'm looking forward to it, as I do on every trip north !

2. Fresh curds made that morning from one of the many local Central Ontario cheese factories. Balderson, Frankford, Empire...don't really care where they come from...they are ALL fantastic.

3. Arrowroot Cookies - Really they aren't for babies ! Or maybe they are ! My mom still buys a box every time she hears I'm coming home. :)

4. Aero Bars - Love the Bubbles !

5. Heinz ketchup made with sugar rather than HFCS !

6. Chips and vinegar from any one the local chip trucks.

7. I am *really* hoping for some Yorkshire Pudding to go with my Sunday roast beef ! Mom this is a BIG HINT if you are reading this right now !

8. Being near water ! If I get a few spare minutes you will find me at one of the Lake Ontario beaches....Newcastle, Pt. Hope or Cobourg are the best ones.... listening to the waves, even if it's cold.

9 Sitting on the porch and watching the Maple Leaf fly out in the yard as it has done for as long as I can remember !

10. Reading the Saturday Star ! Our big newspapers are published on Saturday rather than Sunday and the Saturday Star is a monster that takes hours to get through properly. It's basically Canada's version of the New York Times !

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Two Tramps in Mud Time

In visiting with friends and family the past few weeks, the capricious north country early spring weather this year (EVERY year) put me in mind of the following verse from,"Two Tramps in Mud Time" by Robert Frost.

"The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March."


And as Noel Perrin noted in his book First Person Rural, it takes an optimist to plant peas into an April snow, but I've done it and to make good peas that's really when they ought to be planted. Same with oats and barley if the ground is fit ! So SmartAlex take note and have faith. Your "snow peas" will make sweet eatin' come Memorial Day in spite of their frigid Sunday planting ! ;)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Spring View

For those that have never visited our home, my desk and computer sit immediately in front of two large windows on one side of our living room. The other morning just after sunrise I found myself typing away furiously at something very important and when I paused for a minute to collect my thoughts.....everything stopped.

The hot, bright early morning late spring sunlight coming through the window in front of me was so pretty that it demanded I pay attention. So I obliged, and took a picture while I was at it.

I am a tiller of God's good earth and I live my life, every day of every season, in the middle of that picture. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sunday Stories

In revisiting our married life with some old friends over the weekend I was reminded...several times actually....of various incidents where the situation demanded that I do something, and what I actually did should have wound up in it's own Far Side cartoon. My recent bout with the On/Off switch on the pump is actually just a pretty tame primer. In reviewing the years prior to being married to Melissa, I think I've actually improved with age.

How about the time when I got so enthralled talking to a girl, I leaned back into the sliding glass doors at our neighbourhood Wal-Mart. Except the doors were open at the time. At least the girl (and the twenty or more people entering the store) thought it was funny !

Or another time when I got to talking and put my truck in drive just before rocketing backward with unlikely speed (all the while screaming, "Holy Shit ! in horrified amazement") into a neighbours parked car. This was more than a touch embarrassing because the neighbour was....riding in my passenger seat at the time.

Or applying the parking brake when I parked on a steep hill before exiting the same truck to attend a wedding and witnessing the horrified look on all the folks standing outside the church as I turned around and watched my driverless truck careen across the road through traffic and into a very crooked fence post which erupted in a cloud of steam as it punctured my radiator and stopped the truck. And everyone outside applauded.

Or the time when I was driving down a deserted dirt road and stopped to answer nature's call when from out of nowhere (and in mid stream) a tour bus full of lost leaf peepers pulled up beside me to ask directions while a puddle formed at my feet. I'm thinking the seniors on board got more of a show than they bargained for that day !

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Grazing Psychology and Management, Horses vs. Cows

The premise behind management intensive grazing (MIG) is to move a large group of animals across a pasture in such a way as to maintain the grass sward in a semi-stressed vegetative stage of growth all season long. This is accomplished by initiating heavy grazing pressure for a short period of time (hours or at most a few days) followed by a long period (weeks) of total rest. Maintaining grasses in a semi-stressed state results in improving and thickening the overall sward because all grasses grow and reproduce like crazy....and also add root volume like crazy...when they are semi-stressed (ie cut) and then rested on a regular basis.

As you'll learn, cows lend themselves to MIG a lot more readily than horses do for a whole variety of reasons related to natural behaviours and attitude combined with psyiology. In comparison to horses, and especially to the warmbloods and thoroughbred crosses that we tend to board, cows are wonderfully docile animals with low personal space requirements and a very limited desire to act in "spirited" ways. It's natural and normal for cows to crave closeness with other cows; if you put a large herd of cows in a big pasture they will naturally eat their way across it as a tight group. More or less they'll lie down as a group, rise as a group, and move to and from water sources as a group without any human intervention at all. To enact MIG, all we really need to do is add some portable electric fence to control where and when the group moves. Additionally, cows have no top teeth which means they can only eat grass down so far before they're forced to move and find some taller plants on which to munch.

Except in short term turnout situations, true MIG and horses really don't mix very well unless the group is very small and paddocks are large relative to the acreage in question. Horses don't behave like cows in any respect at all. First, unlike cows, horses DO have top teeth and they are spot grazers in the extreme. If they find an area containing some plants they like to eat they will literally graze until the plants are eaten into the ground and they'll keep eating them until they've all dead. Nature abhors bare ground so inevitably weeds take the place of good grass and the weeds will eventually need to be controlled before they take over completely.

Compared to cows, horses need a lot of personal space and if they don't get it they tend to get very snarky with one another as they bite at, kick and chase one another around. This behaviour is kind of fun to watch from a distance but it is HELL on pastures; two or more horses being snarky with one another can tear up a huge areas of grass in an extremely short period of time. Because of their space requirements and their much hotter nature (relative to cows), confining horses to small areas of a pasture for extended periods with either electric wire or tape as is done in true MIG will almost certainly result in injury to the horses and extreme injury to the pasture, even if they are moved frequently.

So instead of true MIG which is practiced with cows and which is designed to enhance the quality of the pasture over time, the idea with horses is to practice a modified form of MIG designed to limit the damage a group of horses can achieve on a given piece of land. The principles of modified MIG can be summarized as follows.

1. Thou shalt confine horses to drylots or put them in the barn during freeze-thaw cycles and during the worst periods of muddy ground in the winter and early spring.

2. We try to keep horses off new seeding and off pastures in the spring time until the grasses have become established. This is a struggle for most pasture based operations and it's easier written or said than actually done. Feeding good quality hay in the early spring can be a big help in accomplishing this.

3. Thou shalt make every effort to control weed infestations while they are still small, and if it's necessary to spray to achieve adequate control thou shalt spray when only a sniff of spray is required to do so. All weeds are most easily controlled at the seedling stage.

4. If it's possible to do so, rotating horses through a few large paddocks allows the grass at least some time to recover with minimal grazing pressure and it'll greatly enhance the life of your pasture while reducing the maintenance required to achieve and maintain a decent grass sward. It's been our experience that horses respond best to paddocks that are considerably longer than they are wide. Perhaps this allows each horse to feel like it has more space than it actually does ??

5. Since horses are very much spot grazers, we use mechanical grazing (mowing with a bush hog) several times a season to encourage the grass to remain in a vegetative state and to encourage horses to graze in a different spot. This gets mixed results but it's a bunch better than nothing which is what most folks around here do.

6. We also incorporate manure with a chain harrow as soon as the ground is fit to work in the spring. Usually we do this at the same time we seed and fertilize, accomplishing three things with one pass of the tractor. In addition to breaking down clumps of manure into usuable organic matter more quickly than would happen naturally, it aerates and dethatches the pasture at the same time, promoting vigourous grass growth.

For those that practice modified MIG at home, I'd sure be interested in learning where your approach differs from ours and in what results you are able to achieve by doing so !

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Starting With One and Working Up

Melissa and I get contacted several times a week from folks that are interested in replicating what we do. This is especially true on the horse side of our business for some reason. Primarily because we don't have time to answer every request for this sort of information in detail, some while ago we added a summary under "Run the Numbers" on our Paradigm Farms website. But maybe that doesn't do a very good job of sharing how we got started !

Just like every other business out there, we started with a website and some print advertising which was heavily supplemented by the cheapest advertising of all...telling everyone we knew that we were now in the horse retirement business !

And then came the biggest challenge.

Oh-my-God-what-to-charge !

We guessed at our costs and then added lots of room for error plus some extra for a profit. It may not be very scientific but it does work; six years later this is still how we arrive at what we charge.

I think our sort of boarding operation works best from a labour and financial standpoint when it's either small enough that you can do nearly everything yourself or when it's large enough that it requires considerable help. We can attest that being between those two extremes...when there is more work to be done than your "free" labour can reasonably accomplish but not really enough to justify an uncomfortable place to be.

Everybody asks for numbers here, but really that depends more on the circumstances of the person asking than it does on my answer ! Some people could probably do an excellent job and be very comfortable taking care of twenty or more horses with little to no additional help while others might be completely overwhelmed taking care of four. Similarly, some folks would think they were making a mint charging $ 150 per horse per month while others would feel like they were barely covering their costs while charging $ 1000 per horse per month. And they might both be right !

Here are a few additional truths we can share.

1. Don't quit that day job too soon ! Both Melissa and I had other sources of income for nearly five years while our business grew into itself. There are days I wish we STILL had additonal income to cover our living expenses. New businesses are capital sinks. Until your new business achieves a certain size, asking it to do more than finance itself is much like playing with fire. You are going to work a LOT of hours and not have very much time off during this phase.

2. Don't be in too much of a hurry to borrow. Just because you can doesn't mean you should. Most new businesses are shaky financially for a period of time and most people are equally shaky about the direction in which their new business might go. If there is ever a time to borrow money, it's after these two things have been fully figured out. We could have, and I am SO GLAD we didn't !

3. In any horse business I've ever heard of, you will never go wrong by budgeting more time and labour than you think possible toward look after your clients as well as their horses. Tending the people side of the business, with particular attention put toward minimizing drama while communicating openly and clearly with horse clients, is every bit as important as excellence in tending the horses.

Hope folks find this interesting and I hope my writing is at least somewhat coherent. Unlike Melissa, at least I got some sleep last night. We had a shipper arrive at 2:30 am so by the time the horse settled in enough to come in the house and turn out the lights we honestly might as well have stayed up. Yawn.