Cow Peas

Our deal with our children is they can watch as many movies as they like, as long as they she’ll peas at the same time!

1490529136380-735930926

Here are the results:

1490529179182-897716342

We planted about one hectare of cow peas this year, and they did quite nicely with all of the rain. We are harvesting enough peas to keep us in bean soups and so on through the winter.

Our boer goats will eat the rest probably next month, before the plants dry too much. It will make a good, high protein green feed before they lamb in July.

We will also combine the peas with our tomato crop and make ‘baked beans’ as a preserve.

Winter. Endings and beginnings..

Our summer garden has come to an end. All of the tomatoes and aubergines, pumpkins and squashes, broccoli and cauliflower have been eaten, preserved or given away.

Some of our boer goat ewes are heavily pregnant and so the task of clearing the leftovers falls to them. Here they are making short work of some cauliflower plants.

20160703_082105

It’s now a few weeks since I took that pic. It is now midwinter and they are now eating their way through the lucerne and sericea I baled. The grey is last year’s mulch, and the yellow, this year’s contribution. The goats sort through the bale and eat all of the tasty bits, and spit out the stems and other unpalatable bits. I estimate about a quarter of the bale is turned to mulch, but that is simply a function of the amount of grass growing in the lucerne field when baled.mulchgoats

I will soon start making seedlings again for spring, and hopefully we should be producing abundant tomatoes again before long like last season.

20160313_100056

Some new lambs for the new season:

lambs

So this completes a cycle where goats, lucerne, vegetables and the by products of all of them, add to the fertility of the soil, the goats, and us humans even get some benefit!

Building a vegetable tunnel

I haven’t posted much lately due to general busyness, but we have baled our lucerne, weaned our lambs and been busy with a number of other projects.

One of which has been building a tunnel over our Tilapia dam before winter arrives and freezes them, and to try and keep our tomatoes going for as long as possible into the winter.

Our winter at 1600m is generally quite temperate during the day, but can drop below zero at night. The fish dam inside the tunnel will provide the thermal mass ro prevent our seedlings freezing overnight.

Some pics (our old seedling greenhouse in the background):

20160527_160559

20160530_121511

20160530_121458

Tying Up Tomatoes

2016-03-14_16.07.01

This year we will have our best tomato crop ever! We spent the weekend tying up the plants to lift the fruit off of the ground. We actually left it too late as we managed to break quite a few branches off as they were alreafy too heavy with green tomatoes. I always use sisal string in the garden as it is biodegradable, and next season will be gone. (Rather than plastic string and wire everywhere).

Looking forward to harvesting fresh red tomatoes every day!

These we’re grown as seedlings and then planted out into out thick straw mulch bed. They survived the scorching temperatures over December and January and are now thriving in the recent rain we have had.

20160313_100056

 

Boiling a Kettle with Goat Poop!

I would like to use biogas for cooking in the house, so I built a pilot project to check if and how it works. We have the feedstock, being goat manure so I decided to give it a try.

I wasn’t going to spend any money on the project, so I built a crude digester out of junk lying around on the farm. It comprises a 220 litre drum filled with goat manure slurry, a 100 litre drum upended in the larger drum with a valve and a rock on top, and a piece of gas pipe, wedged into the valve with a plastic bag. Behold its precision engineered glory!

bg1.jpg

I filled the big drum about one third full with goat manure, topped up the drum with water and mixed it up into a nice slurry. I then put the small drum upside down inside, covered it with black plastic and waited.

For a week nothing happened.

In the next week the smaller drum started to lift a little, but the gas produced did not ignite.

In the following week a foul stench was noted.

And after about 3 weeks the contraption was producing gas every day, and I could make flares of gas flame out of the pipe.

Apparently the bacteria first ferment the mixture to produce CO2, then H2S is produced and finally methane production commences as the methane producing bugs establish themselves.

The next test was to see if anything useful could be done with the gas, so I connected up a camping gas cooker, but it wouldn’t light. It took a lot more google research to figure out that biogas (being mainly methane and carbon dioxide), behaves quite differently to your normal propane or butane gas that you buy in cylinders.

An important difference is that propane and butane liquify under pressure, so they occupy a lot less space as a liquid than as a gas. You can’t compress methane into a liquid, so you need relatively large storage volumes. Methane’s burning characteristics are different so you can’t just use a normal gas burner, it needs some tweaking.

I then bought a small one ring cooker that I could modify. What needs to be done is the jet needs to be opened up to much larger than for normal gas, and the amount of air restricted. I opened up the jet in the stove from about 0.5mm to 1.5mm, and blocked up the air intake with a piece of plastic with one 6mm hole drilled in it.

bg2

So, I opened up the gas, applied a match and hey presto! It works!

Next thing is to boil a kettle, which I duly did (OK, only 1cm of water in it, but it boiled nonetheless). You can’t see the flame or the steam in the pic, but it is boiling, trust me….

bg3.jpg

So I’m quite pleased that the experiment worked. The digester is probably making about 30 litres of gas per day, probably quite a lot is lost due to the small drum not filling nicely in the big drum.

My next step will be to make a 1000 liter digester so that we can use the single ring burner in the kitchen to make a cup of coffee in the morning. I am going to use the design from this website and see how it goes : Solar Cities IBC Digester

I will keep this digester bubbling as the bacteria are established in this system, so you can take this material to quick start the new system, without waiting for the whole process to establish from scratch again. Seeing as IBCs are fairly cheap, I will probably be able to get a small working system going for less than $50, hopefully enough to do some of our cooking on, but we’ll keep our normal gas stove as well. Based on the experience of this pilot system I would anticipate about 100 litres of gas per day from the 1000 liter system.

There are many variables that dictate how much gas a biogas system will produce, like type of feedstock, ambient temperature, water hardness and so on, which is why I wanted to see it work on a small scale first, but I am very pleased with the results!

I found these websites quite helpful in this process :

ATTRA – Sustainable Agriculture

DIY Methane Generator

Biogas Plant in a Plastic Drum

Biogas Start Up

Backyard Biogas

Biogas from Kitchen Waste

Modifying a Gas burner for Biogas

 

 

Goat Fodder from Sweet Thorn Trees

Do goats like trees? Of course they do! And in particular they like Sweet Thorn (acacia karroo). Fresh leaves contain 12% protein and a lot of calcium and phosphorus, and the pods are even more protein rich.

I am establishing Sweet Thorn all over the farm as part of my Silvopasture project. The pictures below are of goats devouring the leaves from branches pruned from Sweet Thorn trees growing in our garden.

I prune off all of the bottom branches so the trees grow tall and spread to become shady, and the cuttings are fed to the goats.The tree below is about 5 years old. If the goats were allowed to graze the trees, they would clean off the bottom branches without my help, but there are fruit trees in the same area which would be equally pruned. The trees are full of pods after the drought a few months earlier, so I will have plenty of seeds to make seedlings from.

sil4

The pruned branches cause a feeding frenzy amongst the adults. How they manage to nibble between the thorns is quite a talent.

sil3

And the kids nibble off everything that is left.

sil2

 

sil1

Once the branches are dry I will use them for firewood, or use them to keep chickens out of vegetables (the thorns help).

More Information

Acacia Karroo – A sweet and thorny thing

Sweet Thorn Leaves Nutritional Value

Sprout selection and performance of goats fed Acacia karroo coppices in the False Thornveld of the Eastern Cape, South Africa

Long-Term Impacts of Goat Browsing on Bush-Clump Dynamics in a Semi-Arid Subtropical Savanna

Muscovy Ducklings

After the drought broke in January, our ducks decided it was time to breed, and one month later here are the results:

duck1

Three nests have bred out so far, with about 12 ducklings each. The ducklings like to swim, but from our unfortunate experience of drowning a few ducklings, we keep the water shallow so they can walk on the bottom and climb out of the water easily.

In late summer we have a lot of pumpkins and squash, and these make excellent duck food. We just chop them into small pieces and they are promptly devoured. Apparently the pumpkins are full of lysine which is an amino acid required for protein formation.

duck4.jpg

The males grow to about fifty percent heavier than the females. Once the males are about three to four months old, they are ready for sale or slaughter. We either take them to an abbatoir if we have enough to warrant the trip, sell them live at a livestock auction, or slaughter a few ourselves.

A slaughter ready male:

duck2

Muscovy ducks do not need water, and can be kept pretty much anywhere, as long as there is shade and drinking water. They are good lawn mowers, and are particularly adept at trimming verges. They are however partial to fruit trees and can jump up and pick off leaves and fruit to about 60-70cm high.

duck3

These ducklings are about 3-4 weeks old and are just about to start getting their proper feathers. You can see how quickly they grow, when comparing them to to the newborns!

duck6.jpg

 More Information

Muscovy Duck Central

Duck Nutrition

Some Thoughts on the Economics of Small Farming

I think everyone would like to be in a position to make a living from their farming efforts, or at least live in a sustainable way at little or no cost. I have been trying to achieve this over the past few years, with varying degrees of success, but from watching my efforts and other’s, I would like to offer the following observations.

Before you start, you should consider that trying to compete with large farms, growing the same products is a non-starter. There are economies of scale that you will never be able to achieve if you are trying to produce a similar bulk product. So growing maize, wheat, broiler chickens, carrots and cabbages, soya beans and sunflowers which can be done on a huge scale, on an industrial farm, is not going to be profitable, if you are selling into the same market.

So if you won’t be profitable by producing volumes of a bulk product, what can be profitable?

I would say there are a few aspects to this.

Firstly you need to sell directly to the end user, thereby cutting out all of the middle men (or women). This can be selling directly to people within your community, or to interested groups, or finding a specific niche in your local, or even the international market that you can occupy.

Secondly you need to differentiate your product. You can be any or all of the following: Organic, pesticide free, ethically farmed, non-GMO, sustainable, hormone implant free, free range and so on. Your products can also be natural, preservative free, additive free, colorant free and just plain tastier! For all of these attributes you can charge a premium over the normal supermarket freezer fare. Also, large farming enterprises produce essentially a factory feed stock that can be processed,  squashed into square boxes, given a healthy dose of MSG and then called food (!). If you can convince people of the difference, they will happily pay for the better product. Most things you find in a supermarket in those square boxes with colourful logos of smiling farm animals are made from maize, soya, deboned chicken and a bunch of chemicals and that is about it.

Thirdly, you need to look at your strengths in terms of costs. If you are not buying chemical fertilisers, patent seeds and buckets of insecticides, this should be an advantage, surely? Permaculture involves feeding the waste of one process into the next,  So that must give you a cost advantage? Your crop yields may be less (or maybe not), but your input costs and labour costs should be much less than a commercial farm (you work for free remember!).

Fourthly,  you need to sell a value added product. If you are growing fruit, you need to sell a jar of organic pesticide and preservative free jam, ethically farmed, and bottled using an old family recipe, handed down for generations etc, rather than a box or sack of fruit. Your branding as well should tell a story and give your product more value than the generic mass produced quasi-equivalent. In business it is called ‘owning the value chain’, so if you can go from a heirloom seed that you kept from last season, grown in your mulch and manure, to a healthy nutricious fruit/veg/fish/poultry/animal, home processed into something even more delicious, and then sold for what it is, people will see the value in that, and a hopefully be prepared to pay for it.

If a product is to produce a profit, the value of the end product needs to be more than the cost and effort to produce it. Your own labour is free, but that doesn’t mean you need to consume all of your energy for little or no gain. Fortunately you have nature on your side, so let nature do its thing, just help it along in the right direction where necessary.

I have also thought about the scale of your small farm operation, you can get too big and then find yourself in the wholesale space, rather than the niche retail space where you have the most value to add to your home grown and processed products.

For example if you grow a lettuce and eat it yourself, you have essentially displaced the cost of what you would have paid in the shop, and saved yourself $1 (for instance), while your input cost was probably a few cents or less. If you can sell your lettuce within your community for 80c or 50c even (or trade it for something of equivalent value), you are still profitable, so with 100 lettuce you can feed yourself, sell a few locally, trade some,  and give some away for goodwill, which you may well receive in return later (when other people have excess). A penny saved is a penny earned, so they say.

If now you have grown 1000 lettuce, and you have saturated (and sated) your local market, you will then have to sell those lettuce for about 10c each to a retailer, and instead of making $50-$100 for 100 lettuces, you have now made $100 for 1000 lettuces, with a lot more work. so there is little advantage in growing bigger than your immediate retail market, unless you get really big and are able to produce 10 000 lettuces (or more) where you will start to see a profit as a wholesaler.

So it is probably better to have a variety of niche seasonal products, so you have a continuity of supply throughout the year, rather than put too much effort into a single crop, where all of your eggs are in the basket of the success or failure of that one crop.

Some examples of what people are doing or producing in our area are things like: Honey, goats milk cheese, goats milk soap, jams, preserves and other processed foods, grass fed beef, retreats of various kinds from religious to spiritual, courses and other learning opportunities, horse riding lessons and out rides, farm stays and other accommodation, various handcrafts like weaving or carpentry and so on. All of these are products and services you won’t find in the city, and are sold directly to the consumer.

Anyways, these are just my musings, I would appreciate comments, and I will probably update this post later,once I have ruminated on this a bit more!

 

The Fruits of Summer

Its now late summer and delicious things are coming out of the garden. I will be using these to make a pasta sauce, just fry them all up with some coconut oil: We have not quite ripe tomatoes (as the monkeys and birds make off with the ripe ones), Jalepeno peppers, sweet peppers, baby squash (called pattipans), black eyed peas and basil. Yum!

fs.jpg