The Grovestead

Farm, Family, Fun.

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How much to grow?

How much do I grow?One of the most common questions I get asked about gardening is “How much should I grow?” Another question that goes along with it is “How  big of a garden do I need to feed my family?”

These are good questions and ones that I haven’t had a good answer for. Until now.

I just plant more of the things I like to eat and less of the things I don’t and hope it all works out in the end. But after doing this for several years, that system is not working. It’s a lot of work to plant crops you won’t end up harvesting and there’s a limited amount of time and storage when harvest season comes around.

Corn and potatoes

Planning the harvest to your specific needs is the only way to ensure you aren’t wasting precious time, money or labor. There are various “rules of thumb” on the Internet, such as “grow 5 celery plants per person”. But everyone has different preferences when it comes to diet. It makes a lot more sense to figure out plantings based on how much food you actually eat rather than vague per-person estimates.

So over the holiday weekend I created a spreadsheet that lists every vegetable we grow. Next to each vegetable I enter the serving size for each meal and the number of meals we consume that vegetable each month. For example, 1/2 cup of corn once a week or 3/4 cup of potatoes 3 times a month. Then it calculates the number of plantings needed to produce that much harvest for the whole year. For example, 78 stalks of corn and 17 potato plants.

Spreadsheet used to figure out planting calculations based on food we actually eat

Spreadsheet I used to figure out number of plantings based on food we actually eat

I also added fields for Family Size and Sufficiency Goal so it is easy to change the calculations as our family and goals change. This year our goal is to grow 50% of our own produce.

Lastly, I converted the spreadsheet into an online calculator and published it on this site so I could share it with others. It’s been a tremendously helpful tool already. Besides knowing we need to plant 177 onion bulbs, I also know how much area is required for each vegetable, so I know how big to size the garden plot.

I used the area calculations for each vegetable to lay out the garden plot

I used the area calculations for each vegetable to lay out the garden plot

At 50% sufficiency for our family, we need a garden plot with just over 600 square feet, which is about 25′ x 25′. But if we wanted to produce all our own produce, we’d need a garden double that size.

Click here to see the How Much To Grow Calculator or find it under the “Gardening” tab in the  menu bar. Let me know your thoughts to improve it and any other vegetables you’d like me to list.

 


Managed Intensive Rotational Grazing for Sheep

Managed Intensive Rotational Grazing

Managed Intensive Rotational Grazing. That’s a mouthful. MIRG for short.

MIRG is a system of pasturing animals to maximize pasture growth. Proponents call it shepherding grass.

Two sheep grazing

Rotational grazing is nothing new. Dividing up a pasture into paddocks to prevent overgrazing goes back to the earliest agrarian societies. What is fairly recent is intensive rotational grazing. Instead of pasturing animals in a large paddock for a month or two, then moving them to the next paddock, MIRG is pasturing animals in very small paddocks for just a few days at a time, or in some cases hours.

The heart of the idea stems from giving pasture the optimum amount of time to re-grow before being grazed again. Short grazing periods stimulate growth, long grazing periods destroy pasture.

Colorado State University

Colorado State University

There are many benefits to the animals as well:

  • Animals are exposed to more varieties of forage because they cannot simply return to their favorite alfalfa patch every day
  • Animals are forced to move and exercise more
  • Fewer parasites build up in the soil and affect the animals
  • Manure is more evenly spread

Finally, perhaps the biggest benefit of all is soil health. MIRG and techniques like it build up far larger amounts of topsoil than any other known method. Rather than continually depleting the soil and subsidizing with chemical fertilizers, MIRG allows me to build healthier pastures that are self-sustaining.

Contrary to what it may seem, grazing is necessary to healthy pastures. If pastures are not grazed they turn into deserts. This was brought to my attention by the compelling TED talk by Allan Savory, a pioneer in the field of holistic land management.

Since acquiring our sheep last Summer I have had this nagging desire to figure out MIRG and apply it to our farm.

Tonight, I finally figured it out.

My first question was, can MIRG be used with a small scale of animals? We have 3 ewes and 1 ram currently, expecting lambs this Spring. The answer appears to be yes; I have found no literature saying there is a minimum amount of animals required. As long as the space requirements are met, the benefits of rotational grazing applies to 4 sheep just as much as 40,000.

My second question was, how do I size the paddocks for the number of sheep I have? The numbers are all over the map on this, and “stocking density” isn’t a terribly popular subject online. Thanks to a University of Minnesota Extension presentation, I was able to get some hard numbers and convert them for our farm.

The calculations use “Animal Units” or AU’s which are a livestock standard based on a mature 1,000 pound cow. The MIRG approach assumes 33 AUs per acre per day. So that’s 33 cows, or about 33,000 pounds. Keep in mind, this is dependent on the pasture productivity. It could be as low as 25 AUs or high as 80 AUs. But for the purposes of getting started, I am going with the 33 AU number.

My last question was, how big do I need to make the paddocks and how many of them do I need? If MIRG requires 33 cows per acre, that equates to 1,320 square feet per cow. Since our mature sheep are approximately 200 lbs, they will need 1/5th the space, or 264 sq ft.

The grazing periods should be as frequent as you can handle, no more than 5 days per paddock. Once per day seems to be a desirable number in most of the literature. But I have a day job, so I’m settling for twice per week. That means I will increase the spacing by 3.5, which is ~900 sq ft per sheep. Multiply by 4 sheep and we get to 3,600 square feet per paddock.

Square paddocks are recommended as opposed to rectangular or wedge-shaped which do not tend to get evenly grazed. So that means I’ll be making 60’x60′ paddocks (out of electric fencing) in addition to lanes for the sheep to follow to get to each paddock.

Drawing of paddocks for MIRG approach

Finally, I calculated out how many times I would have to move the sheep to allow the paddocks 30 days of rest between grazing. It’s 10.

To recap, modified MIRG for 4 sheep:

  • 33 Cows (AUs) / Acre = 165 Sheep / Acre (Using 0.2 AU)
  • 1,320 sq ft / cow = 264 sq ft / sheep
  • 3-4 day rotation = ~900 sq ft per animal
  • 4 sheep = 3,600 sq ft total
  • 3,600′ = 60’x60′ paddocks
  • Requires 10 paddocks to achieve 29-day rest period

This is subject to change depending on the number of lambs born this Spring, and the productivity of our pasture. The rule of thumb was to graze the animals when the grass reaches 9-inches and to move them when its down to 2″ or 3″.

Managed Intensive Rotational Grazing: Sheep enjoying pasture at sunset


Potato & Corn Chowder

Potato Corn Chowder recipe

I’ve been inspired recently to start making my own soups. Simple soups that are made from simple ingredients you can grow in your own garden. The plan is to make a variety of soups in bulk over the winter while our woodstove is burning, so we’ll have delicious homemade soups on hand all year long. I’m also going to start posting the recipes as I experiment and discover ones I like (see the new ‘Cooking’ section on the menu).

I’m calling these “Homestead Recipes”. They taste best if you use homegrown vegetables and cook them on a wood-fired stove. ;-)

Potato & Corn Chowder

This is my new favorite chowder. It will ruin you for store-bought soups. Very simple but loaded with flavor.

Ingredients

  • 4-5 yellow potatoes (eg, Yukon Gold), cubed
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 medium white onion, diced
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 1 cup cream (half & half)
  • 2 cups sweet corn
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 bay leaf
  • (optional) 3 strips bacon

Toppings

  • Bacon bits
  • Shredded cheddar
  • Sour Cream

Directions

  1. Cut bacon into bits. Fry up bacon and set aside. (skip this step for vegetarian)
  2. Saute onions and garlic in bacon grease (or olive oil)
  3. Combine onions, garlic, potatoes and chicken stock in stock pot. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes on wood-burning stove.
  4. Add corn, salt, cream, and bay leaf. Continue simmering uncovered 20-30 minutes or until potatoes reach desired consistency.
  5. Add toppings and serve.

Makes 2 quarts.

Potato corn chowder with toppings


Sheep & Apples

Sheep grazing in the background with apples in the foreground

The story of our getting sheep started with a hunt for hay baling equipment. Every year we lose one-third to one-half of our hay crop to delays. We rely on a neighboring farmer to cut and bale our hay, and being one of the smallest acreages on their list, we often miss the best weather for cutting and drying. Needless to say, this has been a source of much aggravation each Spring.

Every year as the farmer comes to chop and haul away the wet, rotting hay I resolve once more get my own baling equipment and start making my own hay. Just a few problems. Baling implements are expensive and my tractor isn’t powerful enough to run them. By the time I’d finished making all the upgrades I’d be $15,000 in the hole. That’s a lot of debt for 3 acres of hay.

So I did what I always do when faced with an unsolvable problem. I prayed about it. The Lord told me I hadn’t done enough research. There were creative alternatives I hadn’t considered yet. That’s when the hints about sheep started appearing. “Little Lambs” started appearing everywhere, starting with Harriet’s shower gifts. She received three lamb stuffed animals from three different people. Then a friend asked if I would consider raising sheep this year because he wanted to buy locally grown lamb. I finally got it.  The creative alternative: Don’t bring the hay to the animals, bring the animals to the hay.

Two sheep grazing

Three sheep grazing

The sheep have been wonderful to keep. They baaa incessantly every time I enter the barn to let them out or shut them up. Although its more of a maaa, as in “maaa! give me more hay!”

They are more skittish than the goats, who are as friendly as dogs. But they are getting more tame over time. Their propensity to waddle through cockleburs, those velcro-like seed pods that stick to everything, means we won’t be getting much usable wool out of them.

Sheep grazing among the apple trees

It has taken most of the summer, training the sheep into various fencing configurations, but I finally was able to fence them into the alfalfa field surrounding my apple trees, which are planted in the corner of our hay field. Its the perfect setup. The sheep get fed mowing the grass around my trees. It had to be sheep, because goats or cows would certainly eat the trees as well!

Sheep's pasture

 


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