Gene Logsdon and Friends

A Shortage of Straw? Oh Pshaw

In Gene's Weekly Posts on October 16, 2013 at 11:37 am

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From GENE LOGSDON

I sort of saw this coming and I sort of did not see it coming and now that it is here I’m not quite sure it really is. (I originally wrote that sentence to make fun of the crop reporters who get paid big money for supplying the gamblers on the Chicago Board of Trade with price forecasting gobbledegook.) When backyard chickens again became a cultural fact in America, anyone with a farm background could have predicted that chicken manure would become a cultural fact too. But not too many people in the digitalized present realize that having one’s own eggs for breakfast means dealing with the other stuff that comes out of the chicken very near to where the eggs come out. Straw bedding, the classic solution to that reality, is as foreign to the modern mind as thatched roofs. And so I sent my book, Holy Shit, galloping to the rescue.

But then…well, the most foreseeable fact about the future is that something unforeseeable is about to happen. Suddenly straw became almost as pricey as thatch. Farmers, at least in this part of the cornbelt, decided that growing oats and wheat, with straw as a byproduct, was no longer profitable. I will not try to bore you with the numbers they use to reach that conclusion because the truth is that they mostly quit growing these grains because a neighbor did. He or she must know something, the others figure, and so one by one they all quit. I have a close farmer acquaintance who is very successful and the other farmers watch him like a hawk. If he would decide to plant sugarcane here in northern Ohio, the next year the county will be full of sugarcane.

Now the wheat price is starting to strengthen because so many farmers quit growing it, so I imagine next year everyone will plant the stuff again. But I will save that for another column. Right now, the price of wheat straw is going through the un-thatched roof and about the only people who plant oats are the Amish who use the straw for their own cow and horse bedding. So if you go into a farm supply store right now, there will be a pile of straw bales on hand for the new backyard farmers, not to mention all those teenage horse owners. Mr. Backyarder might find himself paying ten dollars for a sixty pound bale, which is something like a 500% increase over the normal price of straw three years ago. Mr. Backyarder doesn’t mind because he will only need a few bales every year to bed down his few hens. And he will get some of that money back because the straw and manure make an excellent fertilizer. Remember, he is paying a dollar an ear for corn at the supply store to feed the squirrels which is like a 1000% increase over the normal per bushel price for corn. I have a hunch that what’s coming next is more stores for locavores.

In the absence of straw, another opportunity has presented itself at least in our neighborhood. Farmers in the hay business are out looking for old and abandoned pastures or land being held by investors to mow for mulch hay. For example, I had to sell my sheep because of old age (mine not the ewes) and I was not looking forward to mowing my eight acres of pasture just to keep the place looking neat. A young neighbor came calling only too glad to do the mowing if he could bale up the residue. I pointed out to him that it was not prime alfalfa or red clover anymore but a mix of all kinds of grasses, clovers and some weeds. His answer: “If my horses won’t eat it, I can always sell it for bedding.”

So the hay/straw business is thriving. Not even rainy weather is a factor. If the hay gets rained on, it gets sold for bedding or mulch because straw is at a premium. How does that old saying put it? There’s always some kind of straw in the wind? Or, it’s an ill wind that blows no straw?
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  1. Well consider that Masanobu Fukuoka of :”One Straw Revolution” fame used straw returned to the grain fields dressed with a bit of poultry manure and spread over a clover understory to grow amazing grain crops on his small farm in Japan. Eliot Coleman talks extensively in his books about using his tractor and mower as an: ” iron cow” to harvest fields that would be marginal for hay just to make compost for his productive produce farm. Therefore, it probably isn’t too surprising that the straw is selling for such a price. It could be argued that the price closer to its true value, but because it has been so abundant in the past it was not valued highly; as it ought to be. As the old Joni Mitchell song said : Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone? You take paradise and you put up a parking lot.”

    I wish to cite the following example of the power of straw and hay field residue, when coupled with chickens. In a normal city lot in Vancouver WA, my youngest daughter, who is a teacher and a caregiver for her grandmother, was able to haul home, (using her car trunk of all things), such field residue as you mention (With permission of course) after a City of Vancouver crew mowed a road right of way; which residue included vetch, clover grass and weeds. She placed the residue quite thickly on her small garden in town. She sowed some cover crop seeds and let the cover crop grow a while, then rotated her two Rhode Island Red hens over the residue in the garden. The two hens had been rotated in a small chicken house or/chicken tractor across the lawn while the cover crops were growing. The hens had a great time in the garden eating the cover crops, then scratching the residue for poultry goodies and in the process applied a lot of good manure and shredded the residue so it decomposed quite rapidly. Now her small garden plot in an ordinary city lot is very productive. So she now has eggs and vegetables and even fruit ranging from fantastic berries and a a good crop from a single apple tree, all fertilized from residue plus some straw for the hens (which bales of straw she purchased at a high price,) but as you indicated, she doesn’t use much straw with only two hens) and the manure they produce.

    Yet there is now so much vegetable residue from the garden such as: fallen fruit, over ripe cucumbers, cauliflower leaves, etc, that the hens are savoring the vegetable and fruit :”WASTE”, to the point they hardly touch their laying ration or corn.

    Whether it’s the Carbon in the straw and residue or the slow release NPK nutrients in organic form that create such bounty or a combination thereof, it seems clear that straw plus vegetative residue are both far more valuable than has been commonly recognized. I should mention that my daughter also has a compost bin, but she is generally finding it easier to let the chickens do the composting instead of using the bin, so she is spared all that heavy lifting. Yes I’m proud of that young lady; why do all that work if the chickens will do it for you? Note that I trained my daughter in these practices after I learned them myself quite a few years ago from Gene’s writings.

    So in the future I can hear the auctioneer yammering: ” $10/bale straw; can I get $12.50? Yes! now how about a $15.00?”.

  2. Here’s an idea. Offer to go around cleaning up all those lovely halloween and fall displays of mums, pumpkins and straw bales–free straw!

    • Thank you for this idea. Out town just had their Fall Festival and I already asked and received our first free straw bale.

  3. What the market bears……..

  4. Gene,
    You always make me laugh. Have a great day.

    • Jeannie, thanks. That’s almost my whole reason for writing, to make peope laugh in this crazy world. Gene .

  5. I have been hauling away Halloween straw for years. I try hard not to pay for my straw garden mulch. It is great after it sets out all winter. Of course I am also the nut that goes around gathering every leaf in sight during the fall.

  6. I’ve always used hay for mulch and bedding instead of straw and as you pointed out old hay is usually around just for the cutting and baling because it saves the landowner from having to hire someone to bush hog it off.I’ve even taken the hay thing to the next level I have about
    2 acres that I grow grass on just for the mulch that comes off of it.I fertilize with rock fertilizers,Planters II,Neptune’s Harvest and such.Then I cut it for much with a Matthews Flail Mower that cuts and then throws the clippings back into a hopper,its some of the best mulch
    in the garden one could ever hope for.Straw on the other hand is way over rated with no value as a fertilizer and it blows all over the place with just a light wind.

  7. Three weeks ago, I went to a nursery near where I live, to see if I could cop some bargain fall perennials. Along with the $7.00 pumpkins and gourds, they had miniature bales of straw; they couldn’t have weighed two pounds, and they were charging $4.00 each bale. It’s a damned shame there aren’t any government programs for this sort of thing. It wouldn’t surprise me if these places partnered up with the Amish and had them bind up 1/4 size corn shocks, with only ten stalks of corn, with the ears already husked. They’d probably go for $10. I hope my dogs never find out that black oil sunflower seeds are more expensive per pound than the dog food I buy them. These are strange times.

    • Roof, as a matter of fact I know a family who did exactly that: made corn bundles with about ten stalks per bundle and sold them for fall decoration, six dollar a bundle. Gene

  8. If it were not for transportation costs, I see I could make a fortune selling straw. Around here straw is plentiful and mostly chopped up by the combines and blown out onto the land. Some is baled for cattle bedding. I have 130 acres of flax straw that I will have to pile and burn before I can plant the field again next spring. No market for it around here.

  9. let my lawn grow to about 6 inches long,mow,rake,cure for a day,and put as loose hay,feed rabbits,chickens and pigs. got to think outside the box.

  10. My wife wanted to open a large new area of garden via sheet mulching. I called a hay dealer in the next valley and obtained for almost nothing two round bales of very spoiled hay. It actually was a breeze to deploy as it left the right thickness on the ground as it was unrolled. Much easier than trying to break apart square bales and level the hay.

    Our flock beds on pine planer shavings which end up in the garden as path mulch for a year or two until it is composted enough to rake onto the beds. Keeps the paths weed and grass free. We will continue to live straw free until my wife manages to slide a cow or two past me.

    P.S. I never imagined that we would still be processing tomatoes in the middle of October in Central Pennsylvania. I can’t wait for Gene’s post on growing mangos in the near future.

  11. Yeah maybe straw by itself doesn’t have much fertilizer value, but it has Carbon, which is really important and it soaks up manure and urine really well, which combines NPK with the carbon and will in fact compost in place in the barn if left long enough, as Gene points out in his writings.. I have to say that straw by itself or even manure by itself are not so exciting fertility wise, but when the two are combined and left to sit for a while— magic happens. E.g. Sweet Cylindra beets galore in which one beet easily fills a quart canning jar, strawy manure the only fertilizer. Use what you can get, old hay- great, new or old straw- great, woody material great, but use it as a manure pack if you can and watch the even greater magic happen.

  12. I end up with 2 or 3 stock trailers of loose straw every year because I clean up the easter candy scramble . I also find a fair amount of overlooked candy in the process! When that straw runs out I switch to paper shreddings from my place of employment. Both the straw and the shreddings end up in the compost pile with cow and horse manure along with fall leaves from town and household compost. Some ends up in the garden ,but most of it gets spread on hayfields and pastures for training teams of horses to drive. Nothing like pulling a spreader to finish out a teams training

  13. Personally, I think prairie hay (that is, hay made from rather random mixes of grass that grows mostly on its own, not high quality, high input stuff) makes better mulch than wheat straw. Even better is the hay that horses or cattle or sheep inevitably litter around the feeder in the wintertime. It gets a good helping of manure just by being there, and something about it being cut green seems to make it break down faster than straw, at least for me. Maybe the bacteria find it to be more palatable as well as the animals.

    • I agree John when I mulch things like tomatos with hay especially with hay that the livestock has been on the roots of the plants will be all thru the mulch getting the nutrients by the end of the season,plus hay holds moisture much better than straw in hot dry weather and is a great host for earthworms.

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