The Semmis family’s chicken farm was a quarter mile up the hill from our orchard. We got our eggs from them. David Semmis was my best fourth and fifth grade friend. Mrs. Semmis was of sturdy Italian stock and had the voice to prove it. We got an opera performance whenever she was working in their two 600-foot-long hen houses. She was partial to Verdi, Rossini, and Puccini. The Barber of Seville and Aida were two of her favorites.
I thought of the Semmis family yesterday when I was reading about the bother over a new California law, Proposition 12, which will do away with chicken farms that keep hens in cages over the next few years. The first step is to make sure each hen gets one square foot of living space. Really.
The Semmis outfit had two long hen houses with dozens of nesting boxes, built sort of like apartments, at the end and along one side of each building. I remember the detail 72 years later because I often helped David collect eggs so he could get done and come out to play. I was Red Ryder, he was Little Beaver.
Anyway, the hens had plenty of room and there were a thousand of them, give or take.
As I have said before, we had to work off our place because the little operation would not support six kids, even in a good year. My Dad was a builder and did small construction jobs for a lot of the farms in the area. One day we got a call to build a chicken house. Turns out it was one of the first cage farms in California. Yes, I remember the measurements, 38 by 60 feet. We put four 38-foot trusses, made from two by 12 timbers, on top of some serious eight-inch uprights in four-foot concrete bases, sunk four feet into the ground. It was roofed with 12-gauge corrugated iron. It sounds over-engineered for a chick house, but it supported four rows of two by two-foot laying cages. The days of open hen houses were pretty much over after that 1955 episode.
If the California PETA crowd has their way, the roomy Semmis hen houses are on their way back, which may or may not be a good or bad thing. The new law also makes it a rule that a veal calf has 43 square feet of space and a piglet gets 24. I have been in a lot of chicken coops, cage barns, and such. Chickens seem unbothered by the cage thing. They have close neighbors on three sides, the food and water come in automatically and the poop goes out the same way. Watching the hens in the old Semmis coops, they did not move around all that much. If you have a vision of chickens flying around the coop or barn yard in a free manner, you must understand that the longest chicken flight ever recorded was 13 seconds and that was in 2014. And that is why we make fun of the laws in California.
No till might be the way to soil health
One of the main topics of conversation among soil gurus is, “no till farming.” Another buzz phrase is “cover crops.” Before we go on, let us define those phrases, for those of you who are not farm folk.
No till simply means that you farm your land by means other than tilling or plowing the soil. Tilling has been the general practice for crop and orchard famers for millennia. The main purpose of tilling or plowing is to turn up the soil to remove weeds and residue from the previous crop. Tilling also can combine nutrients, such as fertilizer like compost or manure, into the soil. Plowing also promotes drainage. That can be a bad thing.
One of the crimes of plowing is the promotion of erosion. Turning the soil, cutting furrows, and running water down the furrows tends to remove soil and send it out the other end of the field as muds or a very silty runoff.
Cover crops are planted not so much for harvesting purposes but to cover the soil and prevent, among other things, soil erosion by wind. Cover crops are not a new thing, farmers have been using them for a long time. But in this time of great attention being paid to soil development and conservation, cover crops are an important part of the mix. While not typically put in for harvest, covers are used as cattle feed. Some are actually harvested and sent to market.
Cover crops tend to add to the biodiversity of the soil, as well as soil fertility, soil quality, water, weeds, pests, diseases, and they add to the feed sources for wildlife.
In thinking about no-till farming, cover crops and soil conservation in general, I was moved to send my favorite NRSC guy, Jerry Allen a note to ask if anybody is trying no-till around these parts. I got back a thousand words and the schedule for the Western Slope Soil Health Conference, which is set for computer screens everywhere on February 11.
Jerry’s answer was, succinctly put, no-till is not something you can do with furrow irrigated farming, such as we have in the Uncompahgre River Valley. The exceptions to that rule would be some of the old grass farms that have not been plowed in 50 years. Some of those have been flood irrigated or the farmers have put in either pivot or moving line sprinkler systems.
Jerry says that we do have some farmers who have been experimenting with pivot irrigation for crops other than hay. Over the next couple of weeks, I will be tracking down some of those innovators to share some of their recently gleaned knowledge and the results of drill planting, watching the worms in your soil, and some more efficient ways of using water in our fields. Allen says there is some seriously creative work going on.
My personal thanks to everyone who helped with my work of telling the ag story this past year. I think the stories that are going to dominate these next few months are, of course, water and the management of it; CDOT’s plans for Highway 50 between here and Gunnison; solving some of the problems left behind by overzealous hemp promoters; more stories about the people of agriculture; soil conservation; the local meat processing business; and anything else that rears its head.
And, after one of my recent screeds on water, specifically taking land out of production, I got a note from Greg Bollig, a long time Coloradan, telling me about the ag death of Crowley County. He worked on an Arkansas River Valley family farm there as a kid. The area is now pretty much a dust bowl after too many farms sold their water rights to the Front Range cities. Greg still has relatives living there. We’ll get some testimony from them about what happens when farms go fallow for money, which could happen here if the demand management talks come to reality.
See you next year.