This is our farm column from farmer Casey O’Neill. O’Neill is the owner operator of HappyDay Farms north of Laytonville, and a long time advocate for the cannabis community in Mendocino Co; more of his writing can be found here. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer. If you would like to submit a letter to the editor feel free to write to [email protected].
We got our first really hard frost last night, which is about as late in the season as I can remember it coming. Lots of years we make it till Thanksgiving, and once in a while to the first of December, but rarely more than a week in. It’s cold enough to freeze water, but I’m curious to see if the tomatoes and peppers in the hoop houses have managed to survive. I have a suspicion that they may make it through, although at this point I think I’m ready for them to be done.
With the heavy rain in the last few days I’m glad we’re starting to get animals into the barn and off of the pasture. The other night we moved the chicken coop with the Toyota, dragging it from the pasture through two gates (I had to drive it in a big circle to line up straight through each of the gates) and finally into the main bay of the barn where cows used to be fed. The chickens will have a dry-ish place to be for the winter, and we’ll harvest tubs of cover crop and other garden waste like big brassica leaves to keep them in greens.
The big bay on the barn is an “L” shape, and my plan was to tow the coop in, unhook, and cut the wheel hard left to pull out of the bottom of the “L”. As I drove in, I realized that I had miscalculated badly and for a moment I wondered how I was going to get the truck back out. To the right was the pigpen, delineated by a hog panel that we had installed and wired down. By moving the hog panel and making a give-or-take 75 point turn, I managed to ease the truck around the bend so I could back out of the narrow bay. It didn’t help that everything was off-camber and the wood chips and pig shit were so slick that I kept spinning the tires. All’s well that ends well, but it was a helluva scary moment for me.
With the hog panel re-secured and the pigs happily munching the grain that Amber put down to keep them out of the way during operation Toyota extraction, we began setting up the electric poultry netting around the chicken coop. The new run is much smaller than what they had out on the pasture, but we’ll throw in fresh straw and scratch to keep them busy along with the aforementioned greens during the winter. Chickens have to be moved when they’re in the coop, which means before daybreak or after dark, but at least this time of year we can be moving them by 5:30, instead of 9:30 in midsummer.
We learned some hard lessons about having animals scattered around in various enclosures during the brutal snow last spring, so this year we’re consolidating into the barn as much as possible so that when the deep snows come we aren’t fighting to get feed out to the animals. Last winter was our first year of having animals at the ranch, so going into our second year we’re trying to learn from our mistakes to make life easier.
With two sows separated because they’re on different rations, along with two boars who share an enclosure, and the space in the barn that houses the barrows, Boink and Doink, and the piglets Petunia, Hammy and Bill and Ted (the latter two being female despite their names), we have four pig enclosures. We’re planning to slaughter one of the sows and are hoping to offload one of the boars, so that Ms. Piggie can go into the remaining spot in the barn and we just have one boar in an enclosure outside.
The five sheep are still on pasture, as we have a couple of rotations left, but at the first hint of big snow we’ll be moving them into the stalls on the North side of the barn. We also learned that we should fill lots of buckets when it starts to get cold, so that we can always keep everyone in water if the lines are frozen. So long as we can keep everyone in water and feed without crazy effort (last year we used a sled to drag feed and water out to the enclosures), it won’t be too bad of a winter (fingers crossed).
Learning to work with a big old barn has been an amazing experience, one I couldn’t have dreamed of a few years ago. Like any other thing in farming, there’s a curve to it and I have a long way to go, but it feels good to be getting some of the animals settled in where their bedding stays dry and they aren’t mucking around in shit-mud.
It feels odd to step into a thing without understanding the history of animal management that created it. With a central hay mow open on the east and wings to the north, south and west, there is a huge amount of space to utilize. We’re still figuring out how it all works, but for this winter, the old horse gets the northeast corner, the pigs are in the west, the chickens are in the south, and the sheep will get the northwest corner when it’s time. I’m glad for the chance to work with such amazing infrastructure which has stood for more than a hundred years, and I hope to have the time to gain enough experience to use it well. As always, much love and great success to you on your journey!