Friday, May 20, 2011

The Alfalfa Ethanol Connection

My sheep like to eat.  During the Spring, Summer and Fall, they graze the grass growing on roughly 30 acres of our property.  And in the winter, they chow down on grass hay (made from one of our pastures) as well as on alfalfa.

Alfalfa is the name of a small leafy plant from the pea family that is grown for the nutritional value of its leaves.  Horses, sheep, cattle - they all love this stuff - it's like candy to them and it is an invaluable source of protein and calcium, which is why we feed it during the winter months.

 Over thousands of years, humans have bred sheep to produce twins and grow fleece at the same time.  This creates quite a draw on the body's resources and alfalfa helps to provide the additional nutrition during the last trimester of pregnancy and during the first 12 weeks of lactation.  Feeding alfalfa and grass hay to sheep during the winter months are considered an acceptable part of a grass fed program.

Unfortunately, the price of alfalfa has been sky rocketing this year.  At first glance, one might think that the higher cost of fuel is the culprit.  However this is only a small part of the equation.  Much more sinister forces are at work, namely the subsidization of ethanol.  Corn prices are sky high and so more acreage is being devoted to corn production.  This means that the demand for other grains is also increasing (the substitution effect) and those in turn are becoming more scarce and hence more expensive.  All this has trickled down to the hay and alfalfa markets.  2 years ago, I could get good alfalfa for $140/ton and this year it is heading north of $200/ton.  Raising livestock is not for the faint of heart!

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Trouble with Varmints

Raising grass fed lamb means trying to be a good shepherd and doing what's best for the grass in my pastures.  The two are inextricably linked - one can't have one without the other.  The sheep are good for the grass because they promote growth through healthy grazing and fertilizing.  And the grass gives the sheep almost all of the important nutrients they need to grow and thrive.  Note that I say "almost all" because the sheep still need a salt/mineral mixture that includes selenium - the Pacific Northwest is selenium deficient.  Lambs born lacking selenium suffer from white muscle disease which can be lethal.  And in the winter, when the ewes are pregnant or in the first 8 weeks of lactation, they get the extra protein and calcium they need from alfalfa (more on that in another post.)

Part of what keeps me busy at this time of year is trapping gophers.  Gophers are smallish rodents that live underground and eat the root systems of the grass sward.  The grass that has been targeted by these varmints dies and the result is (1) less grass in the pasture (2) nasty holes large enough for a sheep to break a leg in and (3) bare spots that encourage the growth of undesirable weeds that aren't eaten by sheep and detract from the value of hay.  To me, gophers look a little bit like guinea pigs from hell - tiny eyes and ears, a short naked tail and teeth that rival a beaver's in size.  Think naked mole rat with fur and you are half way there.  Here are some photos I took out in the pasture that show how gophers damage the field:

Note the Canada thistle that has taken root in the bare spot in the photo on the right - this is a prime example of how invasive weeds can take advantage of gopher damage.  Canada thistle has to be spot sprayed in order to kill it - it not only produces seeds that spread the plants but also creates an underground system of roots that can generate new plants in the immediate area.

"To catch a varmint, you have to think like a varmint."  Sound familiar?  This means figuring out where to place the traps.  They look like this:

Despite the fact that there is a lot of gopher activity in the field, it helps to discern between where the varmints are eating and where they build their exit runs.  The exit run is the best place to place the trap because gophers happen to be tidy little critters and periodically clean excess earth out of the back door.  This is an exit run (notice that there is no "horse shoe" of earth around the hole) and in the next photo I have placed the set trap.

I know that it is not nice to think of killing creatures out in the field, but if it were your house and the mice were having a field day in the pantry you would clear them out of there in a hurry.  If I were to let the gopher population go unchecked, it would have serious consequences to the functioning of the farm.  So I turn into Bill Murray every Spring and wage an endless battle.  Keep in mind that my traps catch gophers less than 50% of the time which means that I am routinely outsmarted by an animal with a brain the size of a lentil............