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Assembly line farms

Jethro Tull admired one of his neighbors who, not being able to afford horses or oxen or even a plow, took a shovel to the aisles of his cabbage field.  A small field well tilled produces more profit than a large field poorly tilled, and organizing your land - whether it is as small as a patio or as large as several hundred acres - so that you can do your work well is important.  This concept was inspirational to Henry Ford, the manufacturer, who made a new “mass production theory.”  This theory was quickly applied to farming, through the development of tractors and large feed lots. 

However, since Ford, a new “Assembly Line” theory has been developed by leaders such as Edward Demming.  One practical application of Assembly Line Theory may be made to the keeping of animals.  If animals are looked at as sources of manure for the fields (though they usually contribute more than that to the farm!), you would want to organize your fields to be as close to your pens as possible, organizing pens and fields against the same gate and against the same driveway.  Instead of having large pastures and large fields which are easily worked by an expensive tractor designed to easily convey the manure from the pastures to the fields, an alternative is to have numerous small pens (with a handful of animals) and numerous small fields, easily worked by hand.

A further advantage is in disease control.  If one pen gets an infection, it will not likely spread to another pen.  Because manure may so easily and quickly moved from the pen to the field and turned into the aisles, pens stay cleaner: the same farmer who would need to take a wheel barrow 500 feet will have, in the course of 10 pen cleanings, traveled over 3/4 mile further than a farmer who has to only carry the manure 50 feet, saving 3-5 hours of work, long enough to clean a small pen some 6-10 times.  While a farmer may need to make rounds to the animals over further distance, organizing the pens against a driveway in a line reduces this time: feed, water and other provisions are easily provided for along the line, and may even be stocked near to the area of manure production.

Tractors and other equipment are expensive, and while the costs don’t usually outweigh the benefits, the fields may be adapted to facilitate a tractor, with small pens located throughout a field and large connections between fields that can actually be cultivated as well, and if the farmer wishes to drive a truck to care for the animals, a dirt track can be maintained along the line of pens.  A disadvantage to the system is that it requires many more hundreds of feet in walls and fences, and numerous more shelters, but if the farmer is using recycled materials, this results in no actual increase in cost and the line may be built easily. 

A farm assembly line appears in many respects to resemble numerous microfarms, but coordinated to conserve waste.  In most cases, assembly lines are very efficient with labor, so much so that robotics and other mechanization popular with mass production are less efficient than human hands.  As Jethro Tull noticed, the cabbage farmer with the shovel was producing superior work and profit, but the shovel was not adapted to a large field.  We see today that a city garden is more fruitful than some of the best farmland in the exurbs and rural lands.  A farmer needs a large field, but organizing it to accommodate the shovel instead of the plow is smart work.

The system can be scaled back if labor is lacked, and when it is scaled up, a payrolled farm worker or a very used tractor, or an ox and plow may be acquired so that greater revenues are earned from their work than expended upon them.


Increasing tuber set in potatoes

Michael Glenn Hickey of the University of Texas studied various devices for increasing potato production in West Texas (THE EFFECT OF SOIL TYPE ON STOLON NUMBER,TUBER INITIATION, AND TUBER VOLUME IN IRISH POTATOES, 1977).  “Potatoes in West Texas are grown for an early retail market which requires harvesting prior to maturity. Early tuber set would allow more time prior to harvest for tuber bulking. An extended period of tuber bulking would result in higher numbers of marketable tubers, thus an increase in yield. A knowledge of some of the factors influencing tuber initiation would aid in the understanding of early tuber set.”

Early emergence, of course, helps.  “The percentage of plants emerging is shown to decrease with decreasing clay content in the soil. Plants in all three soils failed to show any marked differences in early emergence, up to 17 days after planting. From 17 to 31 days after planting the differences in plant emergence were more significant and the distinct textural difference appeared.”

But the friability of the soil is only part of the reason for early emergence: potatoes are strong enough to push their way through even hard clay.  “The textural differences can be attributed to the differing moisture relations in the three soil types. Increasing the clay content results in an increased moisture retention. Moisture that was held in the proximity of the seed piece would aid in increasing the percentage of emergence. The water retention capacity of the Patricia soil was extremely low. Water moved through the soil and little was retained around the seed piece. Thus a drying out effect between waterings existed in the Patricia fine sand that was not as evident in the Amarillo and Pullman soils. The drying out of the soil between waterings would affect any weak seed pieces. This would result in poor emergence of plants, especially during the later period of plant emergence.”

Raising temperatures in greenhouses are not necessarily a good idea, once summer temperatures have arrived: high temperatures can reduce iron uptake and also greenhouse effects can alter the moisture content in the soil: “Plants growing outside of the greenhouse exhibited a higher percent emergence than those inside the greenhouse. Better water relations outside the greenhouse could possibly account for the difference. Lower relative humidities outside of the greenhouse would permit a more uniform drying of the soil, this would compensate for the rapid water movement in the sandy soils and permit a more even moisture distribution for the three soils. High soil temperature, above 21 C, has been shown to inhibit plant growth of potatoes (Somnerfeldt and Knutson, 1968).”

All this goes to show the reasons why higher tuber production is achieved through mounds, and the grow towers that are typically used for the cultivation of potatoes: under such conditions, moisture is easily maintained neither high or low, and temperature is also regulated.  Other species that rely on similar constancy for their crops rely on mounds (such as ants farming fungi), and human farmers would do well to emulate them.


Nutrition increases wool production

Nourishment is important to many kinds of farm production, but also for wool production.  Texas A&M University has known through the efforts of James Addison Carey III (Effects of Range Management Practices on Wool Production, 1984) that even rotation of grazing pastures can result in a significant difference in fleece weights (3.35kg vs 3.04 kg) because undernourishment results in a temporary reduction in the number of active follicles which are associated with fiber shedding. 

Mr. Carey explains, “if the wool data for lactating ewes and non lactating ewes had been analyzed together, no significant differences would have been found between any of the grazing management treatments. When the physiological state of the ewes was considered, a reduction (P<.05) of 10% ingrease fleece weight was noted in the lactating ewes (3.14 kg) compared to non lactating ewes (3.52 kg). This agrees with the 10 to 14% reduction in annual grease fleece due to full cycle reproduction found by other studies (Doney, 1958; Brown et al., 1966; Seebeck and Tribe, 1963; Slen and Whiting, 1956). Brown et al. (1966) concluded that about one-third of the reduction in wool growth by Merinos during pregnancy and lactation stems from a decrease in fiber numbers and two-thirds from a decrease in fiber volume.  Observations on the number of fibers per unit area of skin by Brown et al. (1966) indicated there may be a greater decrease during pregnancy than during lactation, although this change was evident in both phases of reproduction in the study by Slen and Whiting (1956). These results indicate that ewes producing lambs are more sensitive to grazing treatments than non producing ewes. Therefore, when wool production is used for an endpoint and treatment differences are expected to be small, only ewes that wean lambs should be used as experimental units in grazing studies to detect these small differences.”

The reason, of course, is that ewes which are also producing milk or lambs have more need for food. 

Mr. Carey also explains that if you are maximizing fleece production, you should stock many sheep per hectare, but if you are trying to maximize lamb production, you should ensure each ewe has as much food as possible.  The reason is that fleece production responds less than lamb production to shortages of food.  “Stocking rates had no significant effect on grease fleece weights per ewe, and grease fleece weights per hectare increased with increased stocking rates. Fiber diameter decreased significantly (P<.05) as the stocking rate increased. These findings would suggest that a six ewe per hectare stocking rate would be optimal; however, lamb production data on these same ewes indicate that a stocking rate of six ewes per hectare severely depressed lamb production.  There was no difference (P>.17) in grease fleece weights between the two ewe, four ewe and six ewe stocking rates; however, there was a significant (P<.05) linear effect in fiber diameter (25.5, 24.5 and 24.1 microns, respectively), as stocking rate increased.  These results tend to agree with the findings of McManus et al., (1964) and George and Pearse (1978) that stocking rates had little influence on wool quality and that increased production per hectare would more than offset the decreased production per ewe. Wool production per hectare was higher as stocking rates increased; however, at the higher six ewe per hectare stocking rate, lamb production was severely depressed in the second year of the study. The percent of ewes weaning lambs in the six ewe per hectare treatment dropped from 90% in the first year to 29% in the second year, compared to 90% for the two ewe and four ewe per hectare stocking rates in the second year (Bryant et al., 1984).”

That said, an improvement of 10% in wool production is not only significant, but worthwhile.  Especially when lambs are brought into the equation: lambs are worth much more than fleeces.  Supplementing feed on small pastures makes sense.

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