Friday, July 29, 2011

A New Salesperson

After being without anyone even remotely qualified for the position for some time, our local farmers Co-op recently hired a livestock feed specialist and yesterday he found my driveway, and, after a little hunting and some time he found me. He caught me at a good time; I was just finishing up feeding horses and I had a few minutes to spare for him before I geared up for the next job. He had my immediate empathy because I know how hard it is to turn up laneway after laneway when one is uninvited.

I was an agricultural sales rep for many years myself and when I started calling on farmers way back in the day, I quickly figured out that it was time to tread pretty carefully when calling on someone who a) used to BE a sales rep themselves, b) was successful enough at it that he went from selling things to farmers to being a full time farmer, and c) used to call on (and had a long history with) the company that I now worked for.

In this case, I am all three of these things and it became pretty clear very quickly that the new sales rep clearly hadn't been prepped on what to do about this before he turned in my driveway. However, in the interest of maintaining full disclosure, I came clean with him pretty quickly, and to his credit he stopped trying to sell me things I couldn't use and started asking some relevant and pertinent questions, which is honestly what he needed to be doing in the first place. He seems like a nice young lad; very earnest and very eager to please, and both these things will stand him in good stead in his current position and, later on, elsewhere.

Everybody has to start somewhere and I don't know of anyone who ever started a job that didn't find the learning curve to be pretty darn steep no matter how good or how long the pre-hire training program was. That said, there are a couple of things that agricultural firms could and should do to help ensure the success of their newly hired sales staff.

The first thing would be to give non-local new hires some basic training in what sort of agronomic problems one was likely to run in to in the local area before they hit the road. It's always been my opinion that farmers ought not to have to train sales people in addition to buying things from them, yet it's rare to find a sales rep who received the sort of training that might permit him to make a running start.

The second thing would be to insist that new reps attend a short course in sales psychology prior to hitting the road. Selling feed and farm supplies for a local company in a local market is not a one time sale. Instead, it's an ongoing process and it requires a fairly delicate application of relationship sales skills plus a servant's heart on the part of the salesperson if he is to be successful.

If a poor sales rep is an Achilles heel to both the company that he works for and the customers and prospects he serves, a good one is an invaluable asset to the company and to his clients. It'll be interesting to see which direction our Co-op's new hire travels over time.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Grandpa Webb

I've been communicating off and on today with a former colleague from East Tennessee who found herself in Elmira, NY on business today. Those of you who have followed this blog for awhile may remember reading that my paternal grandfather married a lady from Elmira and lived the remainder of his long life in that place. I've spent leagues of time talking about my maternal grandfather, but today I'm going to talk some about my dad's dad.

Grandpa Webb got his start in Bristol, England; he was born into a family of 16 children in the very early years of the 20th century. My great-grandfather ran a public house and some time shortly after my grandfather made his appearance, the pub ran on some hard times and those of his children who were still at home were placed in various sorts of foster care. I'm not sure how it happened exactly because Grandpa never wanted to talk about it in very much detail, but somehow he was declared an orphan and at the age of five he wound up a ward of one of the Thomas Barnardo orphanages.

As you might imagine, that wasn't very much fun but what came next was possibly worse. In those days there was no prohibition against child labour, and at the age of twelve my grandfather became one of hundreds of thousands of "home boys"; English orphans who were shipped to Canada by the Barnardo Homes to function more or less as agricultural indentured servants.

A lot of these boys were placed in various sorts of abusive situations and unfortunately, my grandfather found such a place a few miles north of where I was raised. For the next three years he worked seven days a week and slept in the barn with the animals until the dead of winter, when he was allowed a place in the unheated attic of the farmer's home until spring, when he was forced back outside again. There was no school, no church, and no trips to town during that time. Why he never ran away, or as he matured, why he never beat the living hell out of the farmer who did this to him I will never know. I certainly would have. At any rate, he was allowed to change his indenture when he was sixteen and finally found himself in a place where the people treated him with some decency.

When his indenture was up, he gained a little money and promptly sailed for England to re-unite with his family, some of whom he had maintained sporadic contact with. I have all the letters he received during this period of his life in a box in the other room and they are heartbreakingly sad to read. Unfortunately, many of his family had scattered in the interim, including his parents who had passed. He corresponded with one of his older brothers who by this time had become a pastor in the Church of England and who assumed something of a paternal role with my grandfather. This all happened in the early years of the Depression and there was no work to be had in England. On his brother's advice, he sailed again for Canada to make his way on his own.

On his arrival in Ontario, there was no permanent work to be had, so he took to the roads as a hobo and earned his keep by taking and doing odd jobs. One of my neighbours who farmed and worked as an engineer for the CPR hired him for day labour during harvest and took a liking to him. He went out of his way to get him a labourers position with the CPR laying track; a hard job but one he held till he took another labourer's position in the Bowmanville Foundry; a job he would keep for upwards of 35 years. He also managed to buy a house, which he promptly fixed up and resold at a profit; this was something he did several times during his working career.

Finally things began to go right for him and he met and married my grandmother, at which time he was more or less adopted into her huge extended family. Over time, he had three children with her, and they were happily married for thirty five years until her sudden and unexpected passing from a massive heart attack.

The winter after she died, grandpa took a trip to Florida with my newly-wed parents. While there, he became friends with a man from upstate NY who invited him to come and visit which he did later that spring. Unfortunately, his new friend was indisposed the weekend of his visit, so he got his recently divorced (and much younger) sister to step in and act as tour guide and entertainer in his absence. I'm told my step grandmother rolled her eyes when this was suggested to her; my grandfather was piously religious and she...uh....wasn' I readily believe this, but she stepped up to the plate nonetheless.

I'd say the tour must have gone rather well, although I am a hundred percent sure nothing amiss happened because according to my step grandma she couldn't even get him to unbend enough to kiss her on the cheek, and she said she tried HARD which I have no trouble believing ! But something sure must have clicked because grandpa suddenly started spending a lot more time in Elmira, and pretty soon wedding bells were ringing again ! When it came time to choose where to live they chose Elmira because although grandpa was retired my step grandmother still had quite a few years left to work at her factory job before she would be eligible for retirement.

I don't think anyone would argue that my grandad had a hard start in life, but he sure managed to land in clover when he found my step grandmother. From the day they married until the day they died they were never willingly more than a few steps apart; she could finish his sentences and he hers, and she doted on him and spoiled him...and through him, all of us..... like no one had ever done before.

Grandpa married for the second time late in his life, but he enjoyed thirty years of marriage to my step grandmother. The last year of their marriage they slept one room apart from one another at the nursing home but they spent each day together. Despite being fifteen years his junior, each morning my grandad came to her room where he would stay until bedtime. One morning my grandfather failed to come; his death literally broke my grandmother's heart. She passed two weeks later, and they are buried together in Jerusalem Hill, NY.

Grandpa and Grandma at their home on the occasion of his 80th Birthday

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Contemplating Vacation(s)

Finally a post that has nothing to do with HAY ! :)

For a whole host of reasons, I don't know that Melissa and I are going to manage any time away from the farm, at least together, in 2011. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't think about what we'd like to do if we could ! We're not trying to get away from our lives in the same way that people who punch a clock may be, but some time away is a good thing and there is more to life than farming and working. Our usual routine is to head for my in-laws large and lovely condo on the Alabama Gulf Coast. It's a six hour drive from here; far enough away to feel different but close enough to get back in case of a real emergency (thankfully this has never happened).

Locally, I'd love to get over to Asheville, NC and tour the grounds at the Biltmore. When I worked for Alltech I often spent time in that part of Western NC, but I never had time to check out the Biltmore. I've always been a fan of that part of the world and if there were more flat land available at any sort of a reasonable price, I'd move us and our horses over there in a heartbeat.

Now that I've been away for more than a year, I think I've changed my tune on Lexington, KY too. I once stated that I'd spent enough corporate time in Lexington that if I never visited the place again it wouldn't be too soon, but it's simply too nice a destination to follow through on that promise. Among other things, I'd love to revisit Keeneland, The Red Mile and the KY Horse Park as a visitor rather than as a frequent corporate attendee. Of all the Lexington hotels I've stayed at over time, I think my favourite in terms of location is the Hilton Suites at Lexington Green; right next door to one of the best independent booksellers I've ever been at AND an excellent seafood restaurant. I've also spent a lot of time at the Marriott Griffin Gate Resort; it would be a treat to check the many amenities out sans clients !

Regionally, I've always been a fan of the many charms of Charleston, Savannah and the SC and GA low country generally. While I've visited several times I can never seem to get enough of it and it wouldn't take much pleading to get me to go back.

As a new American, I think it'd be a good idea to have a look at Washington DC; it's a place I've been through or near several times, but I never have actually checked it out.

I'd love to get Melissa to Banff, Jasper, and Yoho National Parks in Alberta and British Columbia respectively, and I'd love to redo the drive...I've done it several times.....between Calgary, Alberta and Vancouver, British Columbia. If I ever get completely sick of it down here south of the border, and I decide to return to a place where the Maple Leaf flies, look for me near either Radium Hot Springs, BC or on one of the Gulf Islands between Vancouver and Victoria. Both places rank among the prettiest I've ever seen and I like them both very much, although it's true that if I lived there I'd have to learn to overlook some of the "cash" crops the hippies cultivate on the Gulf Islands !

Of course this is the curtailed version of my very long bucket list of places I'd like to see. If time and money permitted, where would you like to go ?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Second Cut is Done !

I'm sorry for all the posts this year about hay. Cutting it, fertilizing it, raking it, baling it, and storing it have taken an inordinate amount of our time this year, and when that's what you do from first morning light until the sky is too dark to work any more, well, that's what you write about ! At any rate, it's over with, at least until third cut comes along.

Too much hay and green grass is not a problem we're used to suffering in this part of the south, at least not in the height of summer, not since I moved here six years ago. History would suggest that in terms of hay, we make what we can and buy the rest. In the devastating drought of 2007, we had to buy it all, and we fed hay that year from mid-summer until the following spring. Since there was no hay to be had locally at any price, it all had to get shipped in from elsewhere. We paid as much as $ 80.00 per roll for stuff I wouldn't normally even bother to get off the field.

I can't say I'll miss the fifteen or more hour days I've been putting in for what seems like forever this summer. On the plus side we are sleeping like babies when we finally get in the bed at night. This is the first year we've had enough moisture to make all the hay we're going to feed and we'll have some to sell besides. Even when you make it yourself, it's sure not free, but it's satisfying to look at tarps and barns full of hay and know that barring disaster, we're in good shape for winter.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Making Hay Explained

RB; bear with me, this post is for you !

To all the extension professionals, forage industry folks and farmers who follow along, I'm sorry ! Please don't wince too hard at my inept and extremely over-simplified (but hopefully technically correct) explanations !

1. Grasses and legumes are mostly water when they are very young. For a few weeks in the early spring when the grass is green but not yet actively growing, it's quite possible for a group of animals to be turned out onto lush pasture and not be able to glean enough nutrients to maintain their body weight.

2. As grasses and legumes begin to add height, leaves and stems get added rapidly and nutrient content goes up very quickly. When I refer to nutrients, I'm referring to such things as vitamins and minerals, but also energy content (measured in calories or Megacalories) and protein content. In addition to being relatively copious, at this stage of growth nutrients are also readily available to an animal because the plant hasn't yet began to "harden" off in preparation for maturity.

3. Legumes and grasses reach maturity (defined here as setting seed) at different rates which are species specific (and seasonally dependent). As a general rule, C3 cool season grasses gain physiological maturity more rapidly than do most legumes and most C4 warm season grasses. Available nutrients in C3 grasses also tend to decline more precipitously than either legumes or C4 grasses, but this is offset somewhat because the nutrient content of C3 grasses tends to peak higher than C4 grasses, but still considerably lower than legumes.

4. When we cut forages, we effectively restart the clock and begin all over again. The clock is also influenced fairly heavily by available heat, available moisture, etc. While it may have taken forty or fifty days for grass to achieve physiological maturity in the spring, it may happen in half that much time in the middle of the summer if temperature and moisture are right. Lignification also happens much more quickly in the summer. Thus to achieve the same nutrient profile and availability as first cutting, second and third cuttings ought to be taken at a significantly earlier stage of maturity.

Cutting resets the clock. Providing there is available heat and moisture, grasses and legumes will begin to regrow.

4. Now that we have some understanding of when grasses and legumes offer the most nutrition (while they are still growing) and what we can do to influence nutritive quality (cut it !), we can begin to think a bit about the animals for whom we are cutting and storing this hay.

5. Growing calves/foals and lactating animals of all types require (and can utilize) the highest quality forage. For this type of animal, grass hay should be cut before heads are emerged and alfalfa ought to be cut at mid to late bud, before flowers appear. This might yield an ADF/NDF content of <30 and < 40 respectively, an energy content of 0.9 Mcal/lb or higher, mostly from sugars, and a crude protein content in excess of 20 %. For our purposes, assume ADF and NDF are measures of nutrient availability, and that the numbers I provided equate to very high levels of nutrient availability. That isn't the whole story, but close enough for this discussion.

This field of (mostly) bermuda grass (pic taken this morning) is knee high with no heads visible. If this were any kind of C3 grass, and if this was all I had in the barn, it'd be too rich to feed all winter at our operation. As it is, it's is at the top end of the quality scale in terms of what would be suitable for our retired horses.

6. Horses at maintenance (ie. our retirees) don't require particularly high levels of protein or energy. If I fed the sort of hay I described above, every horse on the place would be fat as a tick and would develop all the metabolic diseases that obesity and old age bring with them. I can't imagine what this stuff would do to an IR or Cushings horse ! As a consequence, I aim a little lower and cut a little later when I'm trying to make hay suitable for what we're doing around here. Especially with C4 grasses which mature and decline relatively slowly, this creates a relatively wide window for getting suitable hay in the barn. I'm aiming for a CP content of 10-12 %, an energy content of 0.65-0.8 Mcal/lb and an ADF/NDF profile of <40 and <60 (moderate availability) respectively.

This field of mixed grass (pic also taken this morning) is at or a little below the lower end of the suitable quality scale for our retired horses. This field will be sold to a farmer with beef cows once it's baled and we'll get another chance at it when it regrows.

Hopefully this will help clarify what we do. There is considerably more knowledge involved in putting up suitable quality hay than just running out to the field and cutting it down at the first available chance.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Big 2nd Cut

It's been 35 days since we finished our first cutting of hay. The first half of that was dry and very hot, but the skies opened up on us in Mid-June and it's rained every few days since. With the rain came heat and very high humidity. The cool season grasses have gone dormant but our tropical grasses are *really* fired up about this as you can see from the pictures below.

We're expecting in excess of 200 round bales from our second cut; normally we'd be very happy with half that much. With all the soil moisture I think it's likely that we'll also have a third cut. I'm tempted to call our local hay broker, Big Earl, and see if I can enlist his services to broker some of our excess hay to others less fortunate than us.

Forecast is for rain tomorrow and again on Saturday, followed by several days of sunny and hot weather. Anybody who needs us this weekend will sure know where to look ! :)

Seven feet tall and still growing with only a few heads visible. Unreal.

A second look....

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Good for the Goose ?

One of the recurring themes in this that I can't ever seem to get shut of for very speaking up when I see people in the ag industry....including farmers....doing things that either a) aren't good for the world generally or b) aren't good for the industry itself, or c) aren't good for the farmers they purportedly support. As a full time farmer I find the last one particularly galling, and "pro-ag" support groups are often the worst offenders about remembering that feet and mouths aren't meant to go together. I recently cancelled my membership in a "pro" farmer group when it's messages began by thanking American farmers for providing American consumers the cheapest food in the world. I guess that's nice, but I win out of supporting this sort of nonsense how, exactly ?

To be fair, we farmers are often our own worst enemies. I know of no other business that routinely spends so much time, effort and money enhancing production without bothering to see whether or not the market will actually buy the extra at a price that is profitable first. Incredibly, when somebody has the audacity to actually sell a product that the market will buy, often at a premium, this gets labelled as a threat. And if you don't believe me, read what the general farm press has to say about organics, or about grass fed meat or BST free milk just to cite a few examples. I've yet to figure out what is threatening about any of this, but believe me when I say there are a lot of folks who sure seem to think it is.

Unlike many farmers, I don't choose to vilify any of the many large multinationals that exist within agriculture. We are their consumers and they exist by producing what we want and will buy and they couldn't exist if we didn't. When somebody comes along with a better idea that makes what they do redundant, they will either adapt their business model to new realities or they will die. It's up to them to worry about their businesses just as it's up to me to worry about mine.

And with that, it's time to go check on some horses !

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Time to get out the hoe....

In the realm of bad decisions, I think one I just read about ranks right up there. I was stunned to read just a few minutes ago that the USDA is going to allow the unregulated sale of glyphosate tolerant bluegrass. That's GMO bluegrass, for those not in the know.

If what I read is correct, then the *minor* issue here is that this has the potential to exacerbate glyphosate resistant weeds in a very big way by encouraging consumers to overspray glyphosate.

Up till now, the major GMO crops have all been annuals. What issues do we create for ourselves when we choose to release an untested perennial GMO into the world. Bluegrass spreads. Rapidly. And in the northern US, it's extremely difficult to get rid of, especially in fields of oh....let's say....corn or soybeans, much of which is already GMO of itself, but some of which....especially that which is intended for direct human not. While I'm not saying this is environmental armageddon, isn't that what the USDA inspectors are supposed to prevent ?

Because we are about to release a spreading, naturalized perennial GMO grass, I think is a bigger deal than any previously released GMO. And I also think it has the potential to seriously derail a technology that with a little foresight had/has the potential to be a good thing for all of us.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Favourite Foods

One of the joys of farming, at least to me, is spending time out on the tractor doing various sorts of field work. Providing everything holds together there are no cell phones, no radio, no anything...and although I'm loathe to admit it in front of Melissa, it's where I get my best thinking done.

As I was working my way through summer spraying and pasture clipping, my mind got happily stuck on food, and in particular on favourite and memorable dishes, foods and meals. Of course I've got many stories about favourite meals that coincide with holiday rituals, but that isn't what this particular post is about. Rather this is more about the sort of serindipitous favourite food memory that can't be planned in advance.

Perhaps the most memorable meal I ever helped prepare was one that I served to city friends who had never eaten really fresh food before. They came with me to our huge family garden and helped me pick vegetables and when we were through we went to the fencerow and picked our dessert....two quarts of fresh blackberries laced with Jersey cream fresh from a neighbours tank. Our meat was filet steak from a freshly butchered steer. Although it wasn't odd to me at all, it completely blew our friends away that except for the condiments (and the cream) I had grown every single thing on our table that night.

Of course, fresh anything is pretty awesome all by itself; even bland old carrots and peas taste pretty awesome when they are picked fresh out of the garden and only semi-cleaned up before being eaten raw.

Speaking of berries, is there anything better than discovering a patch of raspberries, strawberries or blackberries growing in a fencerow or off in the woods ? When I was a kid our fencerows were full of berries of every type and I spent many pleasant hours hunting and picking various sweet wild treats, each in their season. My favourite pie remains strawberry rhubarb, mostly because I associate the taste with the warm, berry picking summer afternoons of my childhood.

Perhaps because I grew up in the north, any sort of spring green was a welcome (and favourite) addition to the diet. I wait for fresh asparagus every year and since we don't yet have our own patch down here in Tennessee I will pay nearly any price to source it. Lightly peppered watercress on toast remains a favourite too, though not one I've tasted since I left Ontario.

I don't know many rural folk from the northeastern US or central Canada who don't have stories associated with making maple syrup. I'll end my post by saying that IMO the best way to eat pancakes is with piping hot fresh syrup, preferably within sight and smell of the sugarhouse door on a warm late winter day. Mmmmm !