21 January 2009

The importance of keeping records

Why keep records:
I began keeping milking records in the summer of 2005, when we bought our first Jersey cow. A few home dairying books had recommended keeping milk yield records, along with heat cycles and breeding dates, as an important aspect of keeping a cow. So I started to note twice-daily milking records on a calendar, and within a few months I began to see the lactation curve of my own cow, and could compare it with the yields of other Jersey cows, making it obvious to me that we had a good milker. That is an evaluation I would not have been able to conclude without having kept records.

Mr. Fritillary, with his own farming experience, encouraged me to continue keeping records, especially around feeding and health in the barnyard, and diseases or pests in the garden, as a way to apply myself to the study of animal husbandry and gardening. As I began to take more responsibility for our own health, along with the health of our flocks and soils, I began to treat my daily activities as a Masters course in homesteading. I began to apply myself to my own education, and kept records as an objective way to evaluate my own progress, and correct my mistakes. These records have also become a valuable tool for planning and setting goals.

Not knowing what information would be valuable, I began a habit of recording all kinds of information: daily temperature highs and lows, precipitation, sun, wind. Along with these daily records, I also kept close records on single events, like my first experience diagnosing and treating mastitis, writing down details about the symptoms as well as our homeopathic treatments, so that I could look back and evaluate what worked well, and what could have been done better or sooner.

Keeping records is like planting a tree, the best time to begin is always ten years ago. The value of keeping records grows with time, because they begin to reveal patterns within the circular events of revolving seasons of weather and birth/death. And by going over the data, looking for these patterns, I have been able to hone and develop important homesteading skills like observation, attention to detail, organization, and the ability to see a few steps ahead. Paying attention to our micro-climate, and the way our plants and animals respond to these conditions, will be a valuable tool in preparing for an otherwise unpredictable changing climate.

I now keep records in these categories: climate, ecology, garden, husbandry, and home economy. At the end of a month or a year I can evaluate how well we have done, and make adjustments to where we focus our efforts, and even adjust our long-term goals. Our "big plan" has changed dramatically over the three years that we have truly been homesteading. When we set out, we thought we needed 100 acres, including woods, to live by our own means, but we now know that we can do quite well on 10. The kind of intensive record keeping may sound a bit over-kill for urban gardens, or small homesteads, but I believe it is the opposite. The more limited your space, the more attention to detail you need, in order to make good use of everything you've got.

What to record, and how to use the data:
CLIMATE: I record the daily high and low temperature, precipitation, and weather events like hurricanes, hail, damaging wind. I also record the amount of sun we see each day, and days when the wind blows consistently over 15mph. This is valuable if you are looking at investing in solar or wind power. It was easy for us to discover that we do not have a reliable source of wind power here, and that solar power is only moderate, and is the kind of investment that would only just pay for itself, if at all. By comparison, every book and website on alternative energy said that our area is one of the best for wind, and over-estimates the amount of solar energy, but these numbers are based on averages over a large area, and cannot reveal the variety of micro-climates. These general observations also do not take into account climate change and airplane flight paths *link*. In recording our own data, I don't worry about exact numbers, I just mark whether we have full sun, half sun or part sun/cloud, days with less than 2 hours of sunlight I consider to be no sun. The way that I interpret the data at the end of the month is to add it up: 1 for full sun, 1/2 for half sun, 1/4 for part sun/cloud, usually adding up to between 8-14 cumulative days of sun in a month. For the solar panel, I would then calculate the number of hours of sunlight by looking in an almanac for the length of daylight, i.e. if there are 12 hours of daylight in April, and 10 cumulative days of sun, then we got 120 hours of sunlight. You can then multiply that number by the power output of a solar panel (using 50% of the continuous amperage output has been the most accurate number), and calculate how much power you would actually get out of a solar panel. With these kinds of specific numbers, you would be able to make an informed decision about whether it is a worthwhile investment, or whether you should look into other sources of power, including purchasing green power. I still keep records on the length of sunshine because it has proved valuable data for the garden and egg production.

I also work out the weekly and monthly averages for temperature, and monthly and yearly precipitation data. In this way I have been able to see our own weather patterns, I know to expect a melt in the first week of January, and to expect a deep-freeze in the third week of January. I can look back at March temperatures when planning a greenhouse for starting seeds, or building kidding pens. I also start to learn the extreme ends of the temperature and precipitation scale, which helps us select seed varieties or breeds.

ECOLOGY: I keep records of frost dates, the day the leaves bud, and the week they turn color, the day all the dandelions bloom, the day all the red clover blooms (these bloom dates would prove valuable for beekeeping), I record bird migrations, and the day the mosquitoes come out in clouds, the night the peepers start singing, and the day I see the first wild bees. Some of these records help me to keep an eye on how climate change is affecting our local area. But the migrating birds and bats also play a role in our gardens and fields, as predators for our main insect pests. Mosquitoes, blackflies and horseflies can be a major hindrance to outside work, and grazing animals. By keeping these records, we can be sure to have certain outside jobs done, avoiding the few weeks of intensive breeding and feeding for each insect species. For two years straight, the blackflies have come out in full force on a Wednesday, in the third week of May, not the same date, but exactly the same day of the year. The mosquitoes as well, are fully out on a Friday, either the last of May or the first one of June. I did not expect that kind of precision in the insect world, but now that I know, I try to get the garden planted before the blackflies come out, and we finish fencing and spring firewood before the mosquitoes come out. I also keep track of wild crops that I like to harvest, fiddleheads, red clover, hops, pin cherries, apples, blueberries so that I know when and where to look for them.

GARDEN: I keep close records of planting dates for each crop, as well as the date of emergence so that I can evaluate the germination vigor of my seed. Fruiting dates, meaning the first mature peas or beans, etc, or the first green tomatoes, cross referenced with the temperature averages can reveal whether we are starting our tomatoes early or late. Crop harvests cross referenced with planted row feet, will give you an indication of yield, in order to be efficient with garden space and compost, and be more precise in meeting your needs. Generic yield numbers can be found in gardening books, but they can vary widely, it is more valuable to know specifically how a certain variety produces in your soil and climate. In this way, from year to year, you can evaluate gardening techniques, soil amendments and varieties, whether they improve your crops or invite pests and disease. I record not only the frost date, but the exact temperature, and how each type of crop was affected, so that I know the frost hardiness of each crop. Pests and diseases also arrive with clockwork regularity, I know when to expect potato beetles and cucumber beetles, and that larvae begin hatching 21 days from the day I see the first adult beetle, this gives me time to prepare, and to watch for beneficials. I am also getting to know when soil diseases like potato blight appear, and when root maggots begin to damage carrots, in this way, I can adjust planting dates, and I know when to harvest the crop for root cellaring, instead of just leaving it in the ground as long as possible. I also record the appearance of any beneficials in the garden: toads, insect-eating snakes, bats, birds, insect-eating voles, and predatory insects. In this way I am becoming familiar with my garden ecology and how to encourage the beneficials. I also keep close records on seed saving. Cross-referencing the garden data with the climate data gives me a lot of important information on how to use the local climate as an advantage in the garden, for example, if I know the hottest week of the year, and the days to maturity of each crop, I can plant the cold crops like peas and lettuce to finish by that week, and I can start the peppers and tomatoes to take the best advantage of that heat. The most valuable tool I am building with this garden data is a planning calendar, organizing each job in the season, and allowing me to see at a glance what needs to be done each week.

ANIMAL HUSBANDRY: Records on yields, whether milk, eggs, or meat, helps us choose breeds for our specific conditions, and evaluate the performance of individual animals, which is necessary for making decisions about which animals to breed or cull. Notes describing the growth, health and condition of our animals, in different seasons or stages in pregnancy and lactation, are especially important in selecting animals for breeding. And keeping records on the amount, variety, and protein of feeds, cross referenced with production and health records, reveals performance, along with helping us plan the amount and type of grain and fodder crops to plant. I also make note of the first day our animals are on pasture, and likewise in the fall, the first day we begin supplementing fading pastures with hay. Recording as well, how much hay we feed out in a year, for each type of animal. Illness and disease, especially in breeding or dairy animals, must be closely attended and recorded. We use homeopathics and herbal remedies, with much success, but these methods are dependent on close observation and catching symptoms early, which is aided by records on appetite and production yields during a state of health. Any deviation from the norm alerts me to the possibility of illness.

HOME ECONOMY: This category includes basic budgeting information, income and expenses. I have found it to be valuable to categorize our expenses, so that I can see where we are spending our money, and therefore, where and how to focus our efforts to reduce our expenses. But it also includes a close account of our pantry. When we get the final harvest numbers, I write out a food budget. I work out how long we need a certain food to last, and then I can see how much we can use in a month. That way I can plan my meals in a way that takes best advantage of the seasonal food, and make sure that we do not run out of an important food group like green vegetables or tomatoes (a good source of Vitamin C in the winter). In this way, I have also learned how much food of each type of food we need to put away each year, so that we can plan the next garden in a way that nourishes us well. Likewise I record storage qualities of varieties in the root cellar.

Homesteading is, in part, an art of living well, within limits, and finding a balance of scale that does not put too much stress on any one part, at the cost of other aspects. Recording this kind of data I've described is a simple chore, one that becomes routine by habit. But the true value of this data has to be brought out, like polishing it to a shine. By intelligently interpreting the simple data, any gardener or homesteader can create their own "how to" book that applies specifically to their own conditions. As you begin to keep records, you will be able to see for yourself what kinds of records are useful for your home, barn and garden. It removes the guess work, under-estimations, and costly surpluses that can discourage, or even defeat, the good intention of growing your own food.


jengod said...


Country Girl said...

EXCELLENT post! Do you tack it on-line or in a notebook. I should keep a better record of what goes on here. I was especially interested in your comment on the wind as we are interested in wind power. Do you go by exacts, if so how do you measure? Or by reported (news, etc). Thanks, Kim

Freija and Beringian Fritillary said...

jengod, thanks!

Country Girl, I keep these notes on paper, I find it more convenient for making quick notes. But I have begun to compile some things on the computer for reference in future.

To get an idea of your wind potential, you can purchase a simple wind-meter, the kind they put up on sailing boats. We put one up on the roof, on a long pole, and would go up to read it when the wind was blowing. This was enough for us to see that we have intermittent and turbulent wind, we are surrounded by trees. But there are special wind meters, digital, that can be put up on a 60-100 ft pole. It will record the wind speed and duration. If you think you have a good potential wind site, it is probably worth the investment to pick the best site for the wind generator.

Reported weather data is not very reliable, and not site specific. But it does give you an idea of trends, and is at the least, a place to start.

Thanks for the questions!