July 8, 2017
Hard to Be Away
Blue Dasher has gone from being a alien-like responsibility fraught with challenges and insecurity to something that I frankly couldn’t see our lives without. I have largely sworn off of travel for the summer, trying to repeat as few of last summer’s mistakes as possible. Despite this, I committed to travel to Pierre to speak with the South Dakota Honey Producers for the day. I pulled in around noon, and literally couldn’t wait to walk the farm, checking for any changes or little projects that need being done. There has been a transformation in me and us over the past year. Our confidence is up, and we can relish in the incremental successes that we achieve.
Research. We have no fewer than 14 research projects going on at Ecdysis Foundation this summer; all of them are focused in their way on improving the diversity of cropland and making life easier for the innovative farmers and the bees. Indeed, the strong focus on hive health has really changed the dynamics of this summer from previous years, when we typically just monitored someone else’s hives. One of the more time consuming projects for this summer involves releasing predators into bee hives to eat the Varroa mite. I ran a preliminary trial of this system on a road trip to CA in March (which is another long story for another blog), as well as a substantial number of laboratory assays. This is the definitive study for Stratiolaelaps releases in the field, and then we will move on to the next predators (I have a list of a dozen or so putative options). Stratiolaelaps is a predatory mite that specializes on eating other mites. So the idea that has been put out there is that these predators will eat the Varroa and leave the bees alone. We should have a better idea on how this is working soon. Another promising avenue of non-chemical Varroa control has been essential oils. Last year, I ran a small preliminary trial on Citronella oil on a hive heavy with Varroa mites (this research idea was prompted by Bernie Hendricks, who knows one heckuva lot about bees). Treated hives that were on a downward spiral reversed their trajectory after one treatment. This year, working with Birds and the Bees Honey and Old Mill Honey in MN, we will be doing a more quantitative assessment of these oils, with the hope of giving beekeepers a Varroa control option that they can make themselves for cheap.
What if we could control pests without insecticides and feed the bees with one simple practice? Another major research area for us has been working out how to get non-crop vegetation into cropland. Mike is pursuing his PhD in developing intercropping schemes in corn that can reduce chemical fertilizer, herbicide, and insecticide input costs. We have been working with area farmers like Lyle Kruse, Bret Adee, and Roger Svec, who are big advocates for undersowing their corn with legumes and other pollinator-friendly plants. Predation on surrogate pests is through the roof in these interseeded cornfields compared to the cornfields with bare soil. A greenhouse experiment (yes, we converted one of our labs into a plant production room) that we were asked by farmers to run involves Brassica cover crops (things like radishes, collards, etc). Many anecdotal reports suggest that Brassica covers can reduce pests, including soybean cyst nematodes- a really bad soil pest of soybeans. There really hasn’t been a quantitative study of this in soybeans, nor does anyone really know how these covers might be suppressing pests. These sorts of questions are right in the wheelhouse for Ecdysis Foundation, and fertile ground that could help us continue to diversify agriculture. Following this theme of Brassicas and positive effects on biodiversity, we are working together with a team from SDSU (led by Charlie Fenster) and USDA to develop Brassica carinata (known commonly as black rape- an unsavory google search term, trust me; or better called Ethiopian kale) for our region. More specifically, we are interested in how adding a bee-friendly crop into the landscape affects the ecosystem services provided by that landscape and the overall resilience of a community (including farmers, beekeepers, etc.). Because everybody wins in a diversified food production system, or at least this is the hypothesis that we are testing. Well, that is science overload for now- I will explain our research on risk assessment of pesticides in an upcoming blog.
Cropland. Who convinced us that it makes sense to plant as early as possible? I am now convinced that- with few exceptions- it doesn’t. After a slow start, our crops look amazing right now. We sowed hubam sweet clover within the first few days of June directly into a warm season perennial grass mix. And it is as happy as I have seen. Gail Fuller and Lynette Miller were visiting and we walked the fields; Gail has a strong interest in pasture cropping, which he suggested is essentially what I am doing without really thinking about it. The first planting hubam in early May looked like hell and died following a cold wet period. Same story with the borage, which also really liked a late May/early June planting date into standing grasses. Our Phacelia crop did well with early planting, and is just starting to flower now.
I am always looking for ways to reduce or eliminate my input costs on our cropland. This year, the only costs with my cropland that I have is $700 in Canada wild rye seed, $200 in herbicides, a tank of diesel, and my time. But I think I can largely eliminate that herbicide bill for 2018. Roger Svec gave me a kit for a wicking bar that uses about 1/8 the herbicide rate relative to spraying herbicides- why did we stop using this back in the ‘80s? Probably because the herbicide companies weren’t selling enough product with those wicking bars, and Roundup Ready crops came in. All you do is drive over the crop (slowly) and wipe herbicide on the weeds that have exceeded the crop canopy. I will be testing this out as a follow up to intense weed grazing by our sheep (they are about to be released onto our Canada wild rye field tomorrow.
One of the biggest bottlenecks that we have encountered in our specialty seed operation is how to get the seed clean. This is made particularly true when the agronomy of the crop is unresolved, and my experience in farming leaves much to be desired. I have been stressing about seed cleaning for more than 2 years, thinking and researching it as I have time. The issue is that this truly is an art form, new seed cleaning is expensive, and there are seemingly few within my network with a lot of experience in cleaning these weird species of ours. Last December was an eye opener for us. We hired a mobile seed cleaner who got our clover seed partially cleaned (the seed was not dry enough for complete cleaning), and this left us with a $4,000 bill. I was convinced that we could buy our own equipment for this and avoid an annual charge. So we started looking for what we needed. I ended up taking out an advertisement in the Green Sheet (a regional ag newspaper), asking for a “Forsberg #2 scarifier”, the first in a line of equipment needed for cleaning our clover seed. After 10 days, a fellow called up and said he happened to have that exact machine, but it hadn’t been used in 32 years since his father passed away. Added to this good news, he also had a screen mill and a gravity table for cleaning the dehulled clover seed. For a very reasonable price, I travelled to southern SD to pick up our new seed cleaning machines. Last steps in this process will be to get a new small shed built and concrete pad laid for the new machinery, and 3-phase power added to run the suckers. I also need to find an old gravity wagon or bin and a few augers for drying and moving seed around the farm, but those should be pretty easy (holler if you have anything, please!).
Livestock. The chickens are getting braver, and are growing up quickly. We finally got around to deep cleaning the chicken barn, and are laying the groundwork for winter plans; namely, extending the coop to accommodate the 100 new layers. The Wyandottes from last year can be found ranging throughout the farm on any given day, but especially have taken to following the sheep as they make their way paddock to paddock through the shelter belt. The broilers are big and seem to get dumber by the day. A few of them have adopted the daily habit of walking under Jenna and my window at 4:45 AM and squawking to help us greet the day. Their end will taste sweet. We have had no escapes or problems with the sheep. Although Cedric and I agree that there is likely a special place in hell where inhabitants are forced to drag an electronet fence through a shelterbelt laden with sticks and branches. The sheep are about to move onto pasture ground, and I cannot wait to make unobscured square paddocks with those fences.
Honey bees. After last year, it is great to see our hives growing. Many of the splits we made in May are starting to move into the next box, but they are not jumping into 4 boxes like I see on other hives around the area. This is fine- I am not feeding them sugar water, and this probably slows them down a bit. Also, we are not treating them with anything, hoping to select for some strong genetic strains that can survive in the current matrix of heavy monoculture cropland and the unpredictable winters of the frigid north. Another factor that slows our bees down is that they have to build a lot of comb- our frames have foundation but are not drawn out yet. The phacelia is starting to bloom, and my hope is that this will change everything on the hives we kept on the farm. Forty of our hives have been dispersed throughout a few counties as part of an experiment, and one of a proud moment during the past week was seeing our hives buzzing away off of Blue Dasher Farm.
Horticultural crops. Our no-till garden looks absolutely fantastic right now- probably the best garden we have ever grown. Every crop plant is bookended by flowering annuals to provide habitat for predators and pollinators that we need to make our veggies grow. Jenna, Gabby, Mia, Savannah and Cedric all helped spread the chicken litter over the past two weekends to mulch the whole garden. This has largely smothered the weeds, and helps to retain moisture in the soil (which has become particularly important during the hot, dry, windy July we have been experiencing thus far). I arranged a trellis system to support the tomato plants, and plants are thriving. Our raspberries are starting to fruit, and we got our pumpkins, melons, cukes, and squash planted and mulched.
The ornamental and fruit trees and shrubs we got last year are starting to make their way to a permanent home around the farm. Several weeks ago, I sprayed out a 1 acre patch of lawn, in part to reduce mowing, but also to set the stage for our orchard that will be getting established this fall. Into the grass residue, we seeded 45 native prairie species. The idea is that these plants will provide forage for our sheep, chickens, and bees, all of which will graze under our orchard trees. Plants are finally germinating through the duff, but nearly all are pigweed and lambsquarters, with an occasional buffalo burr to add injury to insult. Perhaps a few prairie species are evident, but it will likely be next year that prairie species become more pronounced. Meanwhile, we planted 60 trees and flowering shrubs into the recently grazed (and remarkably clear) shelterbelt, trying to add some structure and diversity to an aging woodland. Oh, and we expect to provide some early season forage to boot. I am also getting a better picture of which of last year’s bare root trees survived. A majority of the trees we planted last summer survived, but not a great majority. It turns my stomach to see those beautiful trees go, especially after all the work we put into getting them established. What killed them? No hardening off in early winter (we went from 60-degree temps in late November, to -30 in December), the biting SD wind, and 60-degree temps in February that woke trees up, which then promptly froze in March. Wonder how changing climates will affect you? Well, there is one example. The remaining fruit and nut trees will be moved to permanent homes in October, after they have started into dormancy for the winter. Looking forward to having that huge project done!