Archive for July, 2009

Farm gates and fences

farm gate

The place might sit empty for awhile. 

I am in favor of this idea, because it’s my farmhouse when I’m there, several times a year, but not for leisure purposes:  I need a homebase to work hard out of, to be able to get up at the crack of dawn and be outside by 7 am, work until dark and stop to make dinner only after projects are buttoned up for the night. 

I do not want to camp out at some hotel room 12 miles away and have to wait until my late-sleeping travel partner gets rolling so we can drive to the farm, starting my workday before 10 am if I’m really lucky and with nowhere to take a break and prepare a meal to eat, while some stranger lives in our house.  Silly, impossible idea, that.  I tried the sock on several times and it never fit. 

(This is actually my mental image of how I approach the difficult task of choosing between possible scenarios like this, I see it like trying on a sock.  Pulled it on and the damned thing was too tight, and scratchy, and would have caused me unending distress.  No kidding.)

 So, a shift in project plans for the September working visit, from installing the wood stove to: 

1) Building good sturdy gates across both driveways (one to the shop, one to the house, separated by the creek).

2) Fencing the road boundary between and past the gates to prevent access to the buildings. 

3) Having a monitored alarm system installed in house and shop (I would want this when I move there by myself anyway, working up on the hill all day, out of earshot of the house by the road). 

4) Installing an inexpensive x10 lighting control system inside house, to turn lights and radio on and off, simulating occupancy. 

5) Installing solar-powered security lighting on house side of creek, and in back of shop. 

6) Putting deadbolts on all doors.

I contacted the realtor that sold us the place, who’s been working in the area for several decades and lives just a few miles down the road – wanted to know what her experience was with folks renting places out vs. leaving them buttoned up and whether there was any such thing as property management in the area.   She related a couple of horror stories about clients who ended up having to sell a secondary residence after getting tromped on by unsavory renters who trashed the place and were difficult to evict; just too few good people needing a place to live that will take care of it like you’d want them to.  

Her recommendation was to implement the above security measures and she even offered to make frequent checks on our place as she drives by there weekly, and call us if anything appeared amiss.

It’s a risk I think I’ll take.

There is a possibility that my sister in Colorado will move out to the farm and caretake the place, after the next ski season is over.  A fortuitous opportunity for her to change location and jobs and get something of a fresh start.  But nothing etched in stone yet, just a possibility.  So we’ll proceed with the security measures, plan for the worst and hope for the best.


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farmhouse front door

We’ve been very fortunate to have Bobby and Alene stay on and take care of the place after they sold the farm to us in January 2006.  They were comfortable in the little double-wide mobile home they’d put on a foundation down by the road; they liked the area and the climate and hadn’t decided if they would move back to Florida, where Bobby’s grown children live, or Oklahoma, where Alene’s daughters and their families have settled.  Bobby enjoyed working outside, mowing the yard area around the house and cutting the pastures, and keeping an eye out for fallen branches on fences and that sort of thing.

But he’s nearly 73, with arthritis and diabetes and now a newly-rebuilt knee, and the work has become too much.  Last winter when he wanted to cut those two hickory trees down for firewood, that he really didn’t need, I should have told him no.  I thought he knew his own limits and the work of it would make him happy.  But it was too much.

They’d made an offer on a little place just down the road, but the survey turned up a boundary snarl that couldn’t be resolved – the property line ran right through the living room and though the state road department said they’d transferred rights to the little slice long ago, no one could be certain, and the survey remains in dispute.  So that hope was dashed, a pity, since they were looking forward to fixing up the place a little at a time while living at the Farm.  They like their doctors there in Campbellsville and didn’t really want to leave, but time is running out for them to find a smaller place to build their last nest.

So the trip they made to Oklahoma to visit grandkids and great-grandchildren while we were working at the farm resulted in a change of plans for them.  They’ve decided to move in with her daughter there while they look for a place, but will stay on at the farm through September, when we were planning to return to install the wood stove, to give us time to make other arrangements.

We’re very grateful for the three years of caretaking they gave us.  Of course we covered all expenses and paid Bobby extra for the pasture mowing, and did everything we could to keep them comfortable and happy.  Installing the wood stove was to ease their worries about losing power in the winter; the place is all-electric and they had no way to heat or cook during long power outages.  They hadn’t had any yet, but it worried them.  And building the back porch took priority because of Alene’s falls.  Both improvements would have been done eventually anyway, but the point was to meet their immediate needs first. 

I’m a bit relieved to be able to postpone the wood stove installation this Fall.  I’ll focus my time on giving the pastures a final mowing, get the corral panels painted and stacked under cover, and the place ready for winter. 

We’re not sure what the plan will be now.  It was good to have someone living in the house, but we stay there on our frequent visits and renting it out would make that impossible.  Keeping the house and shop secure is the main concern; the yard area will need regular mowing next summer but I can hire that out.  And I can keep up with the pastures as well as Bobby has, we’ll plan our trips around that. 

This may be a good opportunity to see what kind of neighbors we have.  I’ll keep an open mind.

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all grass

Our 20 acres of hilltop pasture that Bobby reclaimed from the encroaching forest some fifteen years ago are doing well, despite the lack of grazing animals.  They were cleared and reshaped with a bulldozer back then, and seeded to orchardgrass and ryegrass, that he could remember.  The forage cover I observed our first year of ownership was mixed grasses and forbs – low value weeds, mainly – none of which I could yet identify with any precision, with an occasional easy-to-recognize clover volunteer and a goodly number of invasive black cherry seedlings gaining ground.   The forest always tries to come back.

 In many areas the cover was thin and enough bare ground showed on some of the slopes to merit beginning a pasture improvement program right away.  Since we bought the farm in 2006, the hay harvest has been mowed and mulched twice a growing season, returning as much of the organic matter as possible to the soil where it can build tilth and add nutrients.  I also disced and overseeded perennial ryegrass and red clover two years ago, to fill in thin spots and improve the nitrogen profile; the clover took well and should remain vigorous for another couple of years, and the ryegrass has added complexity to the mix of established grasses.   A pasture walk while I was there in early June confirmed the stand is thick, the bare areas have filled in, and the clover-sown areas look just right.  But a major problem remains.

The primary cool-season grasses found in our area pastures are orchardgrass, bluegrass, some timothy, a little ryegrass, and tall fescue.  Though there are good stands of orchardgrass at the pasture edges, and a wide variety of different grass varieties can be seen throughout, the tall fescue predominates.  It does this naturally, being a vigorous perennial bunchgrass that forms a tight sod, out-competing other species for sunlight and nutrients, and it has an unfair advantage, as well. 

Most tall fescue is infected with an endophyte, a fungus that lives inside the plant cell walls and enhances the fescue’s vigor and survivability, making it a highly-productive forage plant.  This was the characteristic that caught Dr. E.N. Fergus’s attention when he visited a farm in Menifee County, Kentucky in 1931 and observed an impressive tall fescue growing on a mountainside pasture.  Dr. Fergus took seed from that hillside back to the University of Kentucky and subsequently tested and released the ‘Kentucky 31’ variety of tall fescue in 1943, which was vigorously promoted by the University’s Extension Agronomist and widely accepted by Kentucky farmers.  During the next two decades there was great interest in and planting of ‘Kentucky 31’ throughout the lower Midwest and much of the South, as this new variety was more vigorous and better adapted than other cool-season grasses available.

It was not the great grass they thought it would be, however.  Palatability to livestock was disappointingly low, and performance of animals grazing it suffered, though no one knew why.  Cattle grazing fescue would sometimes go lame, referred to as “fescue foot,” and would also more often exhibit an unthrifty condition in the summertime, called “summer slump,” eating less and having difficulty staying cool.  In horses grazed on fescue, reproductive performance was especially affected:  pregnant mares often aborted, or carried too long and had difficult births; foals were sometimes stillborn, and milk production inadequate.  These toxic effects of fescue on horses and cattle were observed and recognized, but the cause was not known and remained a mystery for many years.

Research finally revealed in 1976 the source of the toxicity:  the fungus Acremonium coenophialum, an endophyte that grows inside the fescue plant and produces alkaloids that protect the grass from insects and nematodes, making the plant more tolerant to marginal soil environments and poor conditions.  What is good for the grass in this case is not good for the grazers:  the alkaloids are the cause of “fescue toxicosis,”  which negatively impacts feed intake and heat regulation for cattle and causes serious reproductive problems in horses.  

Nearly 80% of the fescue in Kentucky pastures is infected with this endophyte.  So most, but not all.  And new varieties have been developed that either have no endophyte, or have a less toxic one instead.  But the endophyte-infected fescue (E+ fescue) is persistent and vigorous and once established, is difficult to eradicate.  It can be done, but it usually involves chemically killing the entire forage stand, planting a smother crop, re-killing any remaining fescue, then re-seeding an alternate variety.

Or, the percentage of E+ fescue can be reduced and controlled by cultivating and overseeding/interplanting clovers and other grass varieties, suppressing the seed-producing stage by mowing (the endophyte propagates through the seed), and grazing at early stages when the endophyte is at lower levels (stems and seeds contain the highest levels of toxicity).  With careful management, a grazier can drastically lower the percentage of infected fescue, rebalancing the forage mix so other varieties predominate, and do much to minimize the negative effects of any remaining E+ plants.

Since I’ll be grazing and making hay for both horses and cattle, I’ve been especially concerned with determining how much fescue is in my pastures, not an easy task if you don’t know your grasses.  I’m learning them, slowly, and the fescue seedtruth has been disappointing, as it has become clear I have lots of fescue which means I have a lot of work to do before the mares will have adequate pasture.  Clicking on the picture in the previous post, those graceful side-bending seedheads you see, all fescue.  Yes there’s some ryegrass there as well as a nice clump of timothy in the right foreground, and at a different time of year other grasses are in growth and the fescue is not center stage.  And I haven’t had it tested yet to see what level of infection it has. 

But it is a beautiful, thick, healthy stand of mostly tall fescue I can safely assume is toxic enough to worry about.   Since I’d rather drink a gallon of Roundup than chemically burn the diversity and micro-life that is my pastures,  I have my work cut out for me.  Nothing done well and with care is quick and easy.

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