Let’s celebrate the 125th issue of Hobby Farms and a brand-new year with 125 handy farming tips for use around your farm!
Whether you’ve just bought your first acreage or have plenty of experience, we hope you’ll find some useful ideas that will make your farm life productive, safe, efficient and even fun.
Not all tips will apply to your own situation, of course. But we hope there are a few that really hit home and make you think, “Hmm, that’s interesting. I’ll try it!”
1. When planting fruit trees, consider the expected mature size of each tree. Space them so they won’t crowd each other or nearby buildings when they’re fully grown.
2. For the most part, fruit and nut trees require at least 6 to 8 hours of full sun to produce to their full potential.
3. Rows of windbreak trees can shelter an orchard from cold or drying winds and protect blossoms during the spring, increasing pollinator activity and fruit/nut yields.
4. In the United States, prevailing winds come from the west and northwest. Windbreaks should be planted along the west and north borders of areas you aim to protect.
5. Don’t plant windbreaks too close to protected areas. Back them up by at least 50 if not 100 feet. And make sure each windbreak line extends 50 feet farther than the protected area at each end.
6. When planting trees, dig a hole two to three times wider than the roots and a few inches deeper. Backfill those few extra inches with some loose soil so the roots have an easier time growing.
7. Plastic trunk guards help protect young tree trunks from girdling (by hungry critters) and injury (from a careless slip with a string trimmer mower).
8. In addition to trunk guards, white cloth wraps can protect young trunks and branches from sunscald, a cracking of the bark when bright winter sun causes wood to expand and contract with extreme temperature fluctuations.
9. To protect your orchard from deer, construct either a single perimeter fence at least 8 feet tall or a pair of shorter fences spaced 5 to 6 feet apart.
10. Putting down a 3- to 4-inch layer of mulch around trees can help eliminate weeds, improve water retention and protect roots during cold weather. Wood chips, gravel, shredded leaves or bark and grass clippings can all make suitable mulches.
11. Nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) are three critical nutrients trees need to thrive. A soil test can reveal if you’re short on one or more. And chemical or organic NPK fertilizers can alleviate the issue (or simply give your trees an extra boost).
12. Walnut trees offer valuable lumber and nuts. But juglone (a reddish yellow crystalline compound) released by the roots can be toxic to other plants, including apple and pear trees.
13. Planting cold-sensitive trees on north-facing slopes can delay their spring awakening and help prevent them from being damaged by late frosts.
14. After planting, potted trees require daily watering for at least the first few weeks, followed by a weekly watering for the first year or two. The commitment is large. But on the upside, potted trees can be purchased in large sizes and kept in their pots until you’re ready to plant.
15. Bare-root trees aren’t as needy after planting. A weekly watering for the first year will likely suffice. But they must be planted right away so their roots don’t dry out, and summer plantings aren’t recommended. You’re limited to spring and fall.
16. R1 agricultural tires have deep, widely spaced lugs designed to aggressively generate traction over challenging terrain. Because good traction is a key to maximizing tractor performance, R1 tires are a great choice for heavy-duty fieldwork.
17. R3 turf tires are wide with shallow, closely spaced lugs. They’re kind to lawns and are commonly found on riding mowers since they reduce soil compaction and are less likely to put ruts in soft ground. The downside is reduced traction.
18. R4 industrial tires are good all-around tires with sturdy sidewalls capable of supporting heavy loads. They hold up well over hard surfaces (including concrete and gravel) and are suitable for use with forklifts and front-end loaders.
19. Tire chains can provide a significant traction boost in snow and ice. But they shouldn’t be used at high speeds or on dry pavement.
20. Liquid tire ballast can increase traction and lower your tractor’s center of gravity by adding weight to the drive wheels. Beet juice is a favorable choice.
21. Calcium chloride has long been used for liquid tire ballast because it weighs more than water and resists freezing at temperatures well below zero. But it can be hazardous to handle and has a reputation for corroding wheel rims. Use it with an inner tube if at all.
22. Radial tires have treads that flex independently of the sidewall, improving traction and fuel economy while reducing soil compaction. But they’re more expensive, a little less suitable on slopes and not quite as ruggedly tough as old-fashioned bias tires.
23. Inflating tires to the recommended pounds per square inch can increase fuel economy, prolong the lives of the tires and improve performance and safety.
24. ATVs and UTVs have off-road tires and high centers of gravity, making them unstable and difficult to control when operating on pavement. Pavement can also wear down tires, so limit ATV and UTV use to your farm and designated ATV trails, even if local laws allow operation on paved roads.
25. Check tire pressure in cold weather. When that first winter cold snap hits, the PSI in your tires tends to drop suddenly. Keep an eye on the pressure in early winter so you’re not moving heavy equipment on underinflated tires.
26. Keep spare tires and rims on hand. While impractical for every situation, keep a spare tire and rim on hand for mission-critical equipment. This way, in the event of a flat, all you have to do is swap a few lug nuts and keep moving.
27. In a pinch and need something to block a wheel? Grab a triangular wedge of split firewood. It fits right up against the wheel like it was made for it.
Farm Life Tips
28. Attract fireflies to your farm by providing their ideal habitat: tall grasses, logs, leaves, brush, damp areas, darkness (switch off your outdoor lights) and a pesticide/chemical-free environment.
29. Discourage mice from taking up residence in your barn by blocking easy entrances and immediately sweeping up any spilled grain or feed. Use rodent-proof containers for added protection in case any intrepid mice arrive uninvited.
30. Keep paper towels handy. You might not think of them as a must-have farm tool, but you’ll use them for a million and one tasks.
31. Remember this: Farming can be hard. Remember this as well: It’s worth it!
32. Always have extra 5-gallon buckets on hand. You never know when you need them, and when you need them, you need them now.
33. Stop and smell the roses, the freshly mown grass, the tomato leaves, the homemade bread, the dill, the lilacs and the apple blossoms. It only takes a moment, but it will set a lovely tone for your day.
34. Try not to stop and smell the wet farm dogs.
35. Check your boots before putting them on. It’s not unheard of to have a small critter or wasp take up temporary residence while you’re away.
36. Farm dogs need specific jobs, or they’ll invent their own (and you might not like what they choose to oversee!).
37. In many regions, mud is a season, so prepare accordingly. Struggling with inadequate gear during mud season is the No. 1 reason people give up farming. (OK, maybe not, but mud season is tough if you’re not prepared!)
38. Harvest maple sap when the temperatures begin reaching the 40s (degrees Fahrenheit) during the day and dropping back into the 20s at night.
39. Never stop learning. Explore the basics of solar power. Pursue Master Gardener certification. Teach yourself to crochet. Learn to make sourdough bread. Take riding lessons. Read, read, read. Also, learn to identify local poisonous plants for you and your livestock.
40. If you have some DIY skills, you can save money by building your own beekeeping or gardening equipment. You can learn to craft your own raised beds, cold frames, trellises, potting benches, beehives and more.
41. Never underestimate the importance of a good pair of work gloves and the value of good rubber boots.
42. Don’t forget these three must-have items for putting up hay: water, sunscreen and patience.
43. On a farm, you can never have too many brooms. You’ll want them in the house, in the garage, in the barn and any place you move hay/store hay/feed animals.
44. Try new things. It’s easy to fall into a rhythmic routine of farm life with regular chores and tasks pertaining to each season. But always keep an eye out for simple ways to streamline so you can work smarter, not harder. If possible, invest in some tools or equipment that will make routine tasks easier.
Equipment Fluids & Maintenance Tips
45. Fuel stabilizers slow the degradation of stored fuel. Instead of draining the tanks of seasonal equipment, add a fuel stabilizer so the tanks can stay full, reducing the risk of condensation corroding the fuel system.
46. Properly lubricating farm machinery (check the manuals for instructions) can reduce wear and prolong their lifespans.
47. Try premixed coolant. If you’re draining and refreshing the coolant system on multiple tractors, you probably mix your own coolant to save a little money. But for quick top-offs during the height of working season, prediluted 50/50 coolant is a super timesaver.
48. An engine block heater or oil pan heater can help engines (particularly diesel engines) start readily in cold weather.
49. A multigrade oil like 5W-30 also helps engines start in cold temperatures while still providing protection and performance when the engine warms up to operating temperature.
Tractor, Machinery & Tool Tips
50. The bucket on a front-end loader can accomplish a lot. But exchanging the bucket with other attachments (such as a grapple, fork or a hay bale spear) significantly expands the range of projects you can tackle.
51. Hydrostatic transmissions provide an infinite number of increments in their range of speed and can also shift instantly from forward to reverse, making them convenient for working with a front-end loader.
52. A tractor with 60 horsepower can handle more tasks and use larger implements than a tractor with 20 horsepower, expanding your farming capabilities and saving you time on large-scale field work. But the 20-horsepower tractor is likely smaller, lighter weight, and more maneuverable, reducing soil compaction and turf damage when operating in a yard or garden.
53. Engine horsepower and power take-off horsepower aren’t the same rating. PTO horsepower can be meaningfully lower. When pairing a tractor with PTO-powered implements, pay extra attention to the PTO-horsepower rating to make sure your tractor has enough power.
54. Four-wheel drive tractors offer superior traction (especially over challenging terrain such as snow and ice) with decreased wheel slippage, which reduces wear and tear while improving fuel economy.
55. If your tractor or machinery has a handy toolbox, use it wisely! Clean it out and restock it with simple things like a hammer, adjustable wrench, utility knife, multiscrewdriver, flashlight and pliers. Having a range of useful tools on hand can save a lot of time in the field. You might also wear or keep handy a multitool. It’ll save trips to the shed or garage.
56. Maintain UTV drive belts. Unlike your vehicle, UTVs generally transfer power from the engine to the drive wheels via a belt. Keep this critical element in top order through regular inspections. You don’t want to get stranded far from the home place from a minor equipment failure! The ATV equivalent to this is regular drive chain lubrication.
57. Three-point hitches and their accompanying implements come in a wide variety of sizes, ranging from category 0 (the smallest) to category 4. Make sure you purchase implements that match the hitch of your tractor.
58. The lifting power of a three-point hitch can be used to remove fence posts and move rocks, provided the load isn’t heavy enough to tip the front of the tractor off the ground.
59. Suitcase weights, wheel weights, a ballast box, etc. are often necessary to counterbalance heavy loads at the front or rear of a tractor, whether you’re moving rocks with a front-end loader or using a large implement on the three-point hitch.
60. Keep extra batteries handy when using electric tools and machines so you don’t run out of power in the middle of a farm job. Recharging a battery isn’t as quick as refilling a gasoline engine.
61. A zero-turn lawn mower is fast and highly maneuverable because steering is based on operating drive wheels at different speeds or opposite directions. But both wheels need good traction in order to steer.
62. Lawn mower blades should be sharp and balanced to cut cleanly and reduce strain on the engine.
63. String trimmer mowers are useful for mowing areas where you might encounter hidden rocks or forgotten objects, because the cutting string is readily replaceable and striking an object won’t damage blades.
64. Electric tools and machines offer the benefits of reduced noise, less maintenance, no emissions and easier starting compared to gasoline and diesel engines, though in many cases the tradeoff is reduced power.
Fruit-Tree Pruning Tips
65. When pruning plants and shrubs, use bypass shears or loppers—which cut cleanly—for delicate live growth and anvil shears or loppers—which cut with a crushing force for dead wood.
66. Apple and pear trees should be pruned during late winter while the trees are dormant. But stone fruit trees—such as plums—should be pruned around or after spring blossoms have opened.
67. Removing crisscrossing branches and branches that grow inward toward the trunk helps generate an open crown in fruit trees, improving air circulation and sunlight penetration to reduce disease and promote the growth of fruit lower in the crown.
68. In an exception to the previous pruning tips, dead branches can be removed at any time of year.
69. Summer is a good time to prune overly vigorous new growth on fruit trees. But pruning in the fall should be avoided, because it can trigger another round of tender growth that won’t harden off in time for winter.
70. A heading cut shortens a branch back to a leaf bud, encouraging additional branches to develop. A thinning cut removes a branch entirely.
71. When pruning large branches, make a small cut on the underside before cutting the rest from above. This prevents the branch from tearing bark away from the tree trunk when it gives way.
72. Waterspouts (vigorous vertical shoots emerging from odd places) and suckers (new shoots sprouting from the roots) should be pruned off whenever they appear, regardless of season.
73. Will you be ordering a new package of honeybees soon? Ask for a marked queen. You’ll have a much easier time spotting her when doing regular hive checks.
74. To discourage bees from swarming, expand the hive as needed to provide them with enough space. If the hive begins to feel crowded, bees tend to swarm.
75. Keep good records for your beehives. Include the date you installed the bees, dates of your regular hive checks, amount of honey harvested, etc.
76. Plant flowers your bees will love and in return, they’ll be(e) excellent pollinators for your garden. Favorite plants include bee balm, hyssop, sunflowers, catmint, sedum and many others.
77. Before extracting honey, assemble all the necessary tools and equipment. You don’t want to be in the middle of extraction and then realize you don’t have everything you need.
78. If you want to attract mason bees as pollinators for your gardens, provide them with a mud source. Mason bees need mud when they lay eggs, and you’ll encourage them to take up residence near your gardens if you provide the mud.
Cooking & Pantry Tips
79. A well-stocked pantry should contain as much variety as you will regularly use, but don’t waste valuable space on ingredients you really don’t use or your family doesn’t like.
80. Eat what’s in season. There’s nothing as fresh and flavorful as peas and strawberries in spring, tomatoes and raspberries in summer, or pumpkins and apples in autumn. Celebrate the seasons by highlighting the special foods associated with them.
81. When you’re preparing vegetables for drying or dehydrating, pieces should be consistent in size so they’ll dry at a uniform rate.
82. Get kids excited about gardening with a pizza garden. Plant tomatoes, oregano, basil, onions and peppers and watch as your pizza ingredients grow throughout the summer. Then enjoy homemade pizzas at the end of summer!
83. Grow what you like to eat on your farm. Don’t fill an entire garden bed with broccoli if no one in your family will eat it. Save the space for the foods you truly enjoy.
84. When cooking with green tomatoes, choose tomatoes that have reached their mature size and are nearly ripe (but still green, of course).
85. Choose chickens as your first livestock. Along with beekeeping, chickens are among the easiest and least expensive types of livestock to get into. If you’re a beginner ready to move past the garden and into raising animals, chickens are a great option, and a huge community is out there to turn to for advice.
86. Look at dual-purpose birds. There is a chicken breed out there to suit just about any preference, but hobby farmers with limited space might do well to explore chicken breeds suitable for both eggs and meat—breeds such as Plymouth Rocks.
87. Keep those hens laying. As fall approaches and the hours of daylight decrease, you may notice your hens laying fewer eggs. Encourage them to keep producing by adding a supplemental light source to their coop.
88. Avoid chicken wire for fencing. Chicken wire, with its classic lightweight hexagonal design, is fine for directing hens around the run or inside a large coop to partition birds. But it’s much too thin to act as predator protection. For that you’re better off with a large-gauge 1⁄2-inch hardware cloth.
89. Retain older hens if you’d like. Some poultry-keepers might cull older hens when they stop producing eggs. But senior hens still contribute valuable compost and help keep certain weeds under control. They also help rear youngsters in the flock.
90. Explore chick brooder plates. Heat lamps have their uses, but you can forgo the fire concerns by rearing your chicks with a brooder plate instead. Plus, they use less wattage.
91. Offer a calcium supplement. Hens need plenty of calcium to create proper eggshells, and you can offer a free-choice oyster shell supplement or similar product to meet this need.
92. Consider a heritage breed. Once you have a bit of chicken experience, you might be interested in raising a rare heritage chicken breed and help dwindling numbers recover.
93. Use an automatic coop door timer. Don’t ever worry about “Did I shut the coop door?” after you’ve gone to bed. This simple device will do the job for you.
94. You don’t have to limit your poultry flock to chickens: Explore the benefits of keeping other species to diversify your flock. Eggs from quail, ducks, turkeys, geese and even emus or ostrich provide alternative flavors and different nutritional choices from the classic chicken egg.
95. Enjoy your birds. Don’t become so focused on the eggs that you miss the subtle joys that come from merely stopping to watch the fascinating behavior of your chickens. They’re amazing birds!
96. Get a scoop shovel. If you don’t already own one of these oversized, short-handled shovels, get three! Useful in the barn and farmyard, they also double as awesome snow shovels.
97. Keep a hand saw handy. For small tasks around the farm or woodlot, a handsaw can often complete the job faster than it takes to get a chainsaw ready to roll. Plus, you get a quick workout.
98. Be careful with the locking pliers. For grabbing and holding tasks, it’s hard to beat locking pliers, and you should have a couple pairs around the farm. But they’re so strong that they can actually cause damage to the item you’re gripping. So for stuck nuts you might be better off with a properly fitting wrench.
99. Try a farm jack. Farm jacks are a fast and nonhydraulic means of quickly lifting heavy loads or machinery. Throw one in the back of the pickup when you head out.
100. Use that pitchfork. Sure, the days of harvesting loose hay, straw and other crops are all but gone in the U.S. But that trusty pitchfork is still invaluable for cleaning up hay chaff, compost or deep livestock bedding.
101. Try an electric chainsaw. While not necessarily the right tool for major tree felling and log work, a lithium battery-powered electric chainsaw is a quiet and fast tool for branch work and handling small logs.
102. Experiment with an Alaskan sawmill. Curious about milling your own lumber but don’t have the space or budget for a home sawmill? Simple and inexpensive guide jigs can be used with a large chainsaw to mill lumber on a small scale.
103. Embrace the birch. Birch are awesomely versatile trees. Besides their attractive appearance, birch trees make decent firewood, especially in northern regions where other hardwoods might be rare. Plus, they can be tapped for syrup purposes!
104. Choose the right wood for outdoor projects. Pressure treated lumber is ideal for many outdoor building projects. But don’t overlook the natural rot-resistant properties of woods like cedar or tamarack.
105. Manage carefully. You might seek some advice for the long-term goals and sustainability of your small woodlot. Selecting dead or weak standing trees for firewood and refilling the area with new plantings can help keep the forest producing in the future.
106. Keep a pointed shovel handy in winter—not for digging soil, but for removing compressed snow and ice from around doors and walkways.
107. Store batteries in a warm location. Cold weather is hard on batteries. If you keep a machine outdoors with no block heater, try moving the battery to a heated outbuilding for easier starting.
108. Clear paths early! Try to do it before everyone has a chance to compact the snow down.
109. Use the downtime. Why not change oil and other fluids in nonactive machines during the quieter winter months? Use a heated garage if you have one and enjoy a pleasant afternoon.
110. Keep extra buckets on hand. Horses are notoriously hard on equipment, and it’s worth having additional buckets in the barn for quick replacements during chore time if needed.
111. Use horses for other farm work. Many folks use draft horses for farm or logging work for the sheer enjoyment of it. But you could also consider using horses for cattle work or herding of other livestock. Maybe you’ll be a cowboy yet.
112. Trim hooves about every eight weeks. Some horse owners forgo hoof trimming during the winter months, but your equine really does need routine hoof care all year long.
113. Train foals early. That newborn foal is small now, but he’s going to grow quickly. Take advantage of the earliest weeks to teach the foal how to lead. He’ll naturally want to follow his mother, and you can gently introduce him to the concept of a human walking alongside him.
114. Use fat to add calories. Is your horse looking a little thin coming out of winter? Too much pasture too fast can cause health issues, but a simple fat source like corn oil or a commercial weight-building supplement can help add calories safely.
115. Use a stain remover for winter grooming. Bathing your horse with water may be out of the question in some regions during the winter, but you can help clean unsightly coat stains with a simple spot cleaner.
116. Try a hay bag. Feeding horses hay in a hay bag has a few advantages: It can help prevent waste, it can limit the ingestion of sand or other fine debris, and it can help alleviate horse boredom.
117. Consider square bales. While many horse owners feed round bales, horses tend to be somewhat picky eaters and may trample a great deal of hay on the ground when fed this way. For cost savings, you might want to stick to small squares.
118. Ground your electric fence well. Adding more ground rods to your electric fence system can help it work better. But in the arid or rocky regions of the American west, you may want a hot/ground system, with some of the wires carrying a ground charge to overcome the lack of moisture in the soil.
119. Look at small horses, too! Large horses have their place for sure, but don’t overlook the possibility of getting into a pony breed or even miniature horses. There are many wonderful examples of sub–1,000-pound equines that can be less expensive to own and possibly less intimidating for beginners.
120. Make trails. Try to make your farm a fun place to be by weaving walking trails through the trees or woods surrounding your fields.
121. Learn to plant by the stars. Ancient cultures relied heavily on the night sky to dictate planting and harvesting times. You can do the same thing with a bit of research. It may not be necessary, but it’s very interesting.
122. Have a farm party. Invite friends and family to a fall farm party to enjoy apple picking, a quick hayride, and croquet in the yard.
123. Identify everything you can. Get a good guidebook, and try to identify as many local plants, mushrooms, birds, animals, and insects on your own land as possible. There are so many you’ll likely never learn them all.
124. Research your farm’s history and see what you can learn from old photos, records and documents. It’s fascinating to learn these tidbits of information, and they can truly deepen your appreciation for your property.
125. Stop and enjoy the view. You put a lot of effort and time into this land. Don’t always be in such a hurry that you can’t stop and enjoy the sight of it. Congratulations, nice work!
Daniel Johnson, J. Keeler Johnson and Samantha Johnson are siblings who frequently write about farming, livestock, gardening and orchards. They live and farm in northern Wisconsin.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2022 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.