The Grass is always Greener...In the Basement?

Growing grass in the basement seemed a logical progression into our lives as true Mainers. Everyone does it, winter is long. OK. So not everyone, in fact not anyone that we know grows our kind of grass. Fodder that is. But there is truth to the long winter statement. The first fall we were in Maine, I was listening to the audiobook Game of Thrones. Throughout the whole book, the mantra “but winter is coming” is repeated often by the Northerners. It spoke to me on many levels as we faced our first Maine winter. We survived, as did our animals, however, things were difficult. In Pennsylvania, we had an organic grain business and excellent local hay farmers, and if you ran out there was plenty of hay for sale at the auction every week, with alfalfa and second cuttings in huge bales, available year round. In Maine, no such luck in our area, alfalfa is non-existent, organic grain hours away and very pricey, local hay is grown in acidic soil and is great roughage, but lacking in nutrition. Our animals were all back on Nutrena (Cargill) gmo feeds, eating nearly twice what they had ever eaten before, pound for pound, and experiencing muscle loss, colic and nutritional imbalance that had caused us to leave the commercial grain hamster wheel long ago.

A welcome change came in the summer as a local farmer and retired railroad worker, Charlie, invited us to hay with him. He is a tinkerer of great knowledge and character who, coupled with his aged equipment, have schooled Frank in-depth on the workings of all things huge and tractor as well as cantankerous and baler. Frank can now change shear pins, fix knotting fingers, start giant “ether whore” tractors and toss and throw bales with the best of them. We were a step ahead of winter number one in which our hay supply was inconsistent and expensive. We had more than half a year’s hay, but the grain they needed was lacking in quality and basically horse twinkies processed pellets. An improvement in the house-heating situation, moving our woodstove to the basement, led to an golden, or rather, green opportunity:  a fodder system that would be large enough to provide fresh green oat or barley grass to every animal on the property, year-round. Quite a feat in the frozen North. Fodder is the result of growing seed grain for 5-9 days to create a living mat of sprouts, think wheat sprouts, on a 250 pound a day level. All that living matter and chlorophyll and live enzymes!

The research began. Ahh, if you can’t learn it on Youtube, you didn’t need that surgery anyway. We read extensively, there is an excellent and helpful group “Fodder” on Facebook, where you can talk with other enthusiastic growers and find nutritional information (for the scientifically minded). There are videos, many videos. There are also several commercial systems available (we're not going to link to those, because, really, you don't want to buy one - but okay, just for a laugh, here's one and another for only $36,000 These are widespread throughout Australia, where drought is common, and often followed by flood, making our hay situation seem simple. There are areas of Australia that are farmed currently with a recommended stocking rate of one sheep per 10 acres, and they have 10,000 sheep. Farmers and innovators came together to create fodder systems that are in trailers, roll off the truck, plug into water and power and in 6 days pump out over a thousand pounds of feed a day. Feed that is 89% utilizable, as opposed to the 18-30% percent of available nutrition in standard dry grain. Without these fodder systems many ranchers are out of business in the outback.

Fodder systems are gaining popularity in arid areas of the US and have just begun to break ground in the east, not so much as a water savings, but as a way to keep live food in front of grazing animals for more than 6 months of the year. With systems starting around $5,000 for a micro system to feed a couple of horses and some chickens, to $10,000 for the size of the system we needed, people are starting to apply some old time ingenuity. Online you will see fodder grown in greenhouses, gutters in basements, 1020 growing trays in kitchen windows, even in cupcake tins for guinea pig treats. For us, the bottom line was 250 pounds a day to feed our 12 horses, 3 cows, alpaca, 3 goats, 3 sheep, 4 adult pigs, 12 growing pigs, 5 rabbits and 30 chickens, 2 turkeys and 12 ducks. And do it with ⅓ of the total weight grain input. It sounded fantastic, and easy. Mother Earth News said so!

Reality bites.

We decided to start with a system that used 1020 trays. I ordered 200. No sooner did I do that, that we finally found the system of our dreams online in a video from Michigan. It used metal roofing to hold and grow the fodder. A large problem with the trays was breakage - I was not happy with the idea of trashing plastic trays all the time; that whole environmental aspect. So, we have a lot of trays now - no biggie, we have greenhouses, they will be used. I did some bad math to discover how many square feet of growing space we would need to meet 250 pounds a day, using averages posted online. Five pounds per square foot seemed like a middle of the road number.

Frank began designing the racks.

Fodder rack

The seeds need water, but drainage is just as important, so the racks have to be on a slight tilt. They also need to drain into something, in our case, 5 gallon buckets. He designed the racks to hold metal roofing, bent to contain seeds but with drilled holes to release water, on a slight tilt that drains them into a central gutter which runs into a bucket.

Gutter drains water into bucket

Each large rack has 5 levels of trays. Fluorescent lights were added to the basement, although the system does not require grow lighting; there is enough energy in the seed to produce the top growth we are feeding, but ambient light accelerates growth and gives a greener finished product with more chlorophyll.

We started our trials, and errors in the darkest, coldest of January. Lots of trials. Lots of errors... Nighttime lows were in the single digits, but the basement hovered at 55-60 degrees and according to our reading that was just fine. We started with the locally available feed barley. I soaked some for 8 hours, some for 12, some for 24, rinsed, did not rinse, washed before soaking, soaked in bleach, soaked in food grade peroxide. I watered once a day, flooded, misted, watered or misted 3-5 times a day. We ended up with fermented barley and very happy pigs, moldy barley, soaked non-sprouting barley, a few measly grass stems here and there, but not much feedable to speak of. Just tray after tray to throw to pigs or chickens, nothing of quality.

I started to focus, take notes, label, and try other grain. We tried oats of different varieties and finally started to see very good germination rates with Nutrena Oats, with a 2-hour soak, and a small amount of food grade hydrogen peroxide. But growth was still spotty and poor and we had considerable starchy slime on the mats; no amount of water or lack of water seemed to solve the issue. After about 3 weeks of this, I was starting to dream of nothing but sprouting and the cost of the system (a little over a thousand dollars) was seeming a fool’s expense mid-winter with more hay to buy.

Frank and I had a pow-wow and decided the only variable we had not manipulated was temperature. Frank and our wonderful new assistant Brian set up a plastic sheeting curtain to wall off the racks, and we added a small oil radiator space heater. We were now able to keep the temperature above 60 and the oats took off immediately.


sprouting grain


Rack of fodder growing in many trays

 Within a week we had beautiful fodder mats and are now coming into full production, having taken 10 days to transition the animals from commercial grain to green, live food. We only use the space heater when we are 15 degrees or cooler out, or need to let the fire go low at night. If the outside temp is above 20 degrees, the stove keeps the basement an even 63 or above. In addition to the occasional heater use, we do keep a box fan running on low for air circulation. I do believe that the small amount of extra electrical input with not have a significant effect on the overall ongoing cost of the fodder production. We are using well water to give the fodder a thorough rinse twice a day. Most of the rinse water is given to the pigs as a sugary oat tea.

Fodder looking like sod

 We have given up the notion of growing barley fodder, by far the most popular grain in this type of system, until we can source some seed quality that is locally grown. I have contacted a Maine Seed Company and they have assured us we will have our first ton soon. We very much look forward to that, but for the time being the oats are performing phenomenally and we and the animals are thrilled. With the exception of the ducks, all of the animals are very happy to see the fodder in their feed dish with the sheep and alpaca topping the enthusiasm chart. The ducks need to deal and eat their salad, end of story.

Fodder close up


Bright green fodder


fodder growing in trays

We will be sprouting extra grain - more than will fit on the racks daily - as three- to four-day-old sprouts are supposed to be excellent for pigs and chickens. They will receive those as well as green fodder. We are experimenting right now with adding a probiotic to the fodder: Jackpot, by Bio SI. We have seen great success with this probiotic in our water troughs. With our water quite cold most of the year, we are hoping to be able to deliver it more consistently as a topical application to the fodder. We have noticed the fodder when sprayed with Bio SI Jackpot at day 2 has far better germination and growth. We will be trying another formula from the same company over the next 2 weeks and will update with progress. I am also trying to put together a regional topdressing that will allow me to spray nutritive balancer on the fodder right before feeding, making sure that it is a complete meal.

Fodder at different stages

In the meantime, it's fun to see the green, green grass of home... in the basement.

Winter, Yes, But Still Busy on the Farm

We've all been busy, even though it's very much still winter on the farm. Snow, rain, ice and cloudy days don't stop the progress, and animals still need to be fed. snowy pastures

  Which is why Frank and Maddrey have been busy refining a new fodder system, where we are sprouting barley and oats.  We will write in great detail soon if you'd like to create one of your own, and we'll share all of our experiments and discoveries. We expect to reduce our feed costs by 60%, I hear. But for me, it's just fun to see racks of green grass in the basement while there's snow in the pasture. We have three of the racks in the second photo, and once we're at full capacity, we should be able to feed all the horses, pigs, sheep and goats a nice "biscuit" or two every day.

green fodder

rack of fodder

Meanwhile, our chickens (and turkeys) are happy and toasty warm in their "chicken solarium." They have plenty of room to play during the day and a cozy trailer to roost in safely at night. We're finally starting to get the occasional egg as the days grow slightly longer and we get a bit of sun.

Chickens, turkeys, guinea hen

Frank was busy in the woods today - since we finally had a sunny day for him to work a bit. He's beginning to clear a path for fencing, plus harvesting a little timber for firewood and other projects. We plan to fence the entire property, with a second fence inside the first to create a lane. Once that's done, we will temporary fence various parts for horses, cows, pigs, sheep and goats to do their various duties clearing scrub, brush, uprooting small (and large) trees and tree trunks, and healing the soil. But it all starts with getting the perimeter fence up.  And that process started today.  Yay.

snowy woods

Just When You Think You're Out of the Pig Business...

20130914-132109.jpg  So we were JUST having a conversation the other day about our pigs - specifically how our boar, Tim, had been declared "ineffective" during his visit to a neighbor's sow.  Still, we thought possibly one or maybe two of our girls was looking a little "baggy" but maybe we were just being hopeful.  Tim had spent a great deal more time with the neighbor's sow than with our girls and if he couldn't get it done there, what chance did our girls have really?  But, alas, it appeared that we simply weren't going to be in the pig business this year.  We briefly considered keeping one sow, because they are such a nice heritage breed (Duroc-Berkshire cross), but finally decided that Tim and the girls would go to the Great Beyond (the freezer), allowing Frank to hone his butchering skills. We'd start over next year and, hey, won't winter be a little easier for us without four pigs to feed and care for?  Great plan.

Then we met up with that same neighbor the next evening at a fabulous party celebrating a group of women who all turned 60 this year.  He said, "Hey, I meant to tell you, I was about to load our sow up onto the trailer to go to the butcher and I looked at her and thought, 'Wouldn't it be stupid if I put a pregnant sow on that trailer?' So I decided to wait a little longer.  She had eleven piglets the other day.  Turns out I wasn't giving Tim enough credit."  Well, I should say so! Of course, we had doubted him, too, and had to apologize...

Turns out we had three pregnant sows.  (Thank you, Tim. Job well done.) There was discussion about where the sows would farrow, and when, but other big chores took precedence over building another pig house right away. Of course, as soon as a huge storm was headed our way Cinnamon chose to farrow with a litter of seven perfect little piglets.  Those are her little red piglets above and the exciting story of dropping a house on her is here.

Two days later, Eunice began pacing and by the time Frank was doing his evening chores, she was delivering piglet number two.  Frank and Maddrey hurriedly prepared the existing pig house for her, and separated Tim and Lucy into another area.  By the time dinner was cooked, Eunice farrowed eight little piglets.  The hard lesson of farming was restated this morning, however, when I went to see the piglets myself for the first time.  Seven little piglets were happily climbing over one another while one little piglet lay lifeless in the straw near the entrance.  I picked her up quickly, hoping maybe she was still warm and Maddrey could work some miracle, but that would not happen.  She had clearly died shortly after being born; her tiny body unable to handle anything more than her delivery into this world.

So we're up fourteen piglets in four days and watching Lucy for signs of another litter.  Frank is tearing apart an old shed for spare parts to create another wonderful pig house, while Maddrey gives tours to friends and neighbors who want a little piglet cuddle time.  Fortunately, all of our pigs are friendly, affectionate and don't mind people one bit as long as somebody gives them a butt scratch or a bucket of goodies.

The lesson here, of course, is that with farming, the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.  And just when you think something isn't going to happen, it just might...

 Eunice's seven little piglets - they look just like her!


 Aerial view of Cinnamon's piglets.


Oran wanted to see the piglets as well, so he got a ride on Mama's back.




 This is our little herd (also a group of pigs can be a drove or a sounder.  I rather like sounder, and Frank insists that's the only term that is correct)... Eunice, Tim, Cinnamon and Lucy.

Oh, and the reason they're in a muddy enclosure is that we're using them to tear up old roots and thatch in our pasture, and it's been raining a lot lately.  We move their electric fence every couple of days to a fresh spot, and they dig in - literally - using their snouts to shovel up the soil, tear up the thatch and clean up our pasture to allow the grasses to return in the spring.





Someone Might Drop a House on You

Our wonderful boar, Tim (the good-looking fellow on the left), had gone to "do his duty" with a neighbor for a few months this last spring, and had been sent home with a gentle complaint that it was unlikely anything had "been accomplished" and no piglets were expected for their sow. Three heritage breed pigs

 We recently heard from that same neighbor that Tim was a daddy to ELEVEN piglets, all perfect. So we started looking harder at our own sows, which we had noticed were looking like they might have biscuits in the oven. Yep, we had two pregnant sows, possibly three, but we weren't sure when they were due exactly. Although swine gestation is typically 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days, we knew we were close.

Turns out, Cinnamon was the first to farrow yesterday morning, presenting us with seven beautiful little piglets. We had roughly planned to house the sows and piglets in one side of the first horse barn, but upon consideration, Frank and Maddrey decided that another pig house needed to be built. Now, that would take a day or so, but the weather forecast said serious thunderstorms and hard rain were headed our way in the early morning hours. So Maddrey and I ran into town to get parts and Frank got to work.

Many hours later, in the blackness of an overcast, seriously dark night, Frank and Maddrey dragged the new pig house down into the field - through the mud from previous rains, over the roots and rocks and ruts, and into the pig fence. While Frank kept Mama Cinnamon occupied, Maddrey quickly made a deep bed of straw, bringing the piglets up into it, so they didn't really move. Then Frank literally dropped the house on them - tipping it carefully over the hay bed and piglets. Mama Cinnamon hurried inside to check her babies just as the rain began to pour. And pour hard. But Mama and her new babies were safe and warm in their new house. A much better outcome than the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz!

Frank temporarily roofed the pig house with a tarp, but will be adding tougher plastic and wiggle wire (which we love for building our hoop houses!) as time allows.






By the way, in order to obtain these photos, I needed to climb across the electric pig fence.  I've been moving so much better since breaking my hip last year, I was confident I could get across.  And I did.  Except when my second foot landed, I slipped and fell face first into the pig pen and ONTO our giant boar Tim. Visions of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz flashed in my head. Fortunately, our boar is a lovely fellow and only snorted a little, then looked back at me to ask if I was okay.  And if I was, would I be willing to scratch his butt?


Putting in fence posts

What to do when the ground is wet and muddy still, but you really need to get the fence up? Enter the Sledge-O-Matic.

20130416-193333.jpg Sharpen the fence post with your chain saw...

20130416-193451.jpg And then start pounding.

20130416-193537.jpg This method requires a big, strong guy, and sometimes you have to make one or two Sledge-O-Matics because they split, but these posts are sunk in good and tight, don't require digging and tamping, and you can get 'er done when everything is still a muddy mess. BEFORE

20130416-193914.jpg AFTER


Timber-frame Construction - Shed Number Two

One of the early major projects that had to be handled was the construction of two large sheds as cover for the horses, alpaca, llama and cows.  Frank has experience with timber-framing construction - yes, he cuts the joints with a chisel and ax, and makes the wooden pegs by hand! So into the woods he went, chainsaw in hand, and after several days of chopping, hacking and shaving, here's how it went.  He used the tractor to help hoist the framed pieces, but basically he got it all done completely by himself!  This is Shed Number Two -  I'll show you Shed Number One and how he hoisted those crazy-heavy beams in another post.

Timber framed shed under construction

timber-framed shed under construction

Horse shed under construction

Timber framed shed under construction

#2 Shed Construction