Sunday, August 10, 2014

So you want to be a farmer... august edition

For a contrast, here's the winter version of this post.

Caring for pregnant pigs

A reader named Dan asked me a question about sows, and I think it's worth talking about:

"Bruce do you ever have two sows farrow together in the same shed? We have met some people locally who say that they do but when we have tried it we ended up with a lot of squashed babies..." 

I've honestly tried just about every different style of farrowing housing.  All the way from individual pens to group housing, farrowing crates to pasture.  I've tried domes, huts, straw bale structures and sheds.  

After 8 years of experience, here's what I've found:  

Sows naturally want to be separate from the herd when they give birth.  If they are allowed the space, they will separate themselves from the herd a day or two before giving birth, and stay away from the herd for 3 or 4 days after birth, returning only to eat if they can't find enough to eat where they chose to give birth.  

So I don't feel bad about separating a sow that is near giving birth --  that's what they do naturally.  

Once separated, I'll do one of three things; depending on the sow and the time of year, and where the herd is housed.  
Sows napping together in the shade of the barn.  It's 90 degrees today.   

A little background:  

We run our boars with our sows in group housing.  all of the pigs are fed in one area, and all of them have several areas they can choose to be in; an area with mud, one with dry bedding, one with shade, one with sun.  If they're in a barn, that's pretty easy.  On pasture we use portable shelters and feeders and waterers to give them the same choices.  The pigs choose how they spend their day.  Most of them like being physically close to the other pigs, so you'll often find a raft of pigs sleeping shoulder to shoulder.  
The piglets are napping also, but off in another area of the barn.  They sleep apart from the sows mostly. 

We check the pigs twice or more a day, and watch for sows that are going to give birth.  When we see one, we look at our experience with that sow and move her out of group housing into birthing quarters.  That could be a section of a field that is fenced off from the other pigs, a mobile shelter that is also fenced off, or a different barn or pen.   This varies based on summer, winter, spring, etc.  

Some of the sows aren't very good with piglets; and this usually is because they feel the need to stand up and "defend" their piglets from other pigs.  These sows we take note of and either put into private stalls that are visually blocked from other pigs, or into a farrowing crate, depending on the particular sow.  
A sow in a farrowing crate.  We do this to save the pigs when the sow isn't a good mother.  

Private stalls and farrowing crates are higher-maintenance than group housing.  We separate the pigs because we get a higher survival of piglets to weaning, not because it's easier.   

After the sow gives birth, we'll keep her separate from the herd for 2-3 weeks, allowing her piglets to get big enough to recognize (and dodge!) mom and then we'll move the sow into group housing for nursing sows.  
Sow and piglets in individual housing; she's about ready to go to group

The risk here is that larger pigs in the same group housing will steal the milk from the other sows, and basically stunt the growth of the smaller litter.  In extreme cases the smaller pigs will get no milk and die.  We don't mix pigs that are more than 7 days apart at this early stage.  '
a group of piglets of different sizes from group housed sows.   
So to recap:  

  We separate sows who are going to give birth to individua housing
  We keep them separate for 2 to 3 weeks, giving the piglets exclusive access to their mother
     Separate can mean an individual stall, a farrowing crate, or a shed or stall.  
  We move the mother into group housing after that, and wean the piglets at 6 to 7 weeks of age.  
  The sow is rebred when she moves into group housing by the boars housed with those sows.  



Sunday, August 3, 2014

All hays are the same, right? Nope

What's inside?
 Jeff commented yesterday on hay prices in this area:
. "Washington alfalfa hay does go for $18-20 bale around here, but those are usually 125 lb bales or so. My old landlord bought them and I know how heavy they are! A guy near you is selling E. Washington alfalfa for $330/ton delivered in 125 lb bales. You can get cheaper if you want to buy round or big squares. "

Jeff is making the assumption that basically all hay is the same, and that the primary, maybe only, criteria for hay is the price per ton.  In the example he gives, the $330 a ton hay, there's a number of people who own semi-trucks or gooseneck trailers, and they get an order for hay, and go over to eastern washington, a couple of hundred miles away, pick it up, and then deliver it.  Some of them stack as part of the deal, some don't.  Some will give you some time to unload, with an hourly fee for time over that.  So even though you know the price per ton, your total cost when you get it into your barn may be different.    In fact, if you go look on the eastern washington craigslist, you can find alfalfa hay for a lot less than $330 a ton.  Take a look.

One word of caution though:  my grass/alfalfa is organic and it's in small square bales.  None of the other stuff is. and most of the cheaper tonnage is in big square bales.  Here's the market report for washington hay.
 I mention the truck because the guy who puts that advertisement out isn't the guy who grew that hay,  and in fact, you probably won't know where the hay comes from -- mostly because the guy may be concerned that you'll go buy it from them directly and cut him out of the deal.  In talking with these guys, it's pretty common for them to have a list of farms they've purchased from before, but they're always looking for a low cost supplier -- and that's because a lot of the people they sell to only make their hay buying decision based on price.  

Now that's not true of professional hay consumers -- dairies, for instance, want the feed value tested and get that from large brokers.  But if you're not buying semi-loads of alfalfa at $15k a load, you're not getting that kind of service.  

I've purchased good hay, and I've purchased poor hay.  The price per ton isnt' really a reflection on whether it will work for you, or is palatable to your animals, or is even a good fit for your animals.  

The hay that my cows liked best - read ate fastest, and showed a distinct preference for - was produced by an organic dairy farmer who makes hay for his dairy herd, and clearly does a great job of it.  I think that Dennis has some hay for sale this year; 425-754-6847.  He does mostly round bales, but it's good stuff.  
Blackberries in this field
 The very best quality hay grown in eastern washington is usually sent for export.  We have an odd market here -- we get millions of shipping containers full of all sorts of stuff from the far east, and they have to ship them back to the far east to fill them with more stuff.  So we have very cheap transport from here to japan and china and so the containers get filled with all sorts of stuff that wouldn't normally be shipped.  So containers of hay, logs, sawdust and other items get shipped all the time.  And the japanese pay a good price for our hay; and keep the local market high as a result.

The price is high for the best-quality stuff.  There's plenty of smaller producers who don't produce enough quantity or consistent quality for export, and that's whats typically available on the local market.  

So the guy who wants to sell a truckload over here goes down his list, and who you get your hay from is not random, but pretty close.  Some people do a great job.  Some people don't.  Some of it got rained on. Some of it didn't.  You never know; and the guy with the truck may not know either.  In fact, the guy that the truck driver purchased from may not be a farmer, but may be a broker themselves, which adds one more layer.

The point I'm making is that you're going to get all sorts of different quality levels and when it comes off the truck is the first time you'll get to see that hay.    
what percent weed?
What I like to see when I buy hay is that the person producing the hay is using it for their own operation, and ideally, for the same sort of animal  you're feeding.  So If I'm after cow hay, I'm going to seek out a dairy or a beef operator and buy from them.  If I'm feeding horses, a horse place that puts up their own.  Because they know what their animals like, and because it's their own stock on the line, they have some money on the table, some skin in the game.

Too many times I've seen wrapped bales that contain very low quality hay  The bales in the picture at the top of this post are probably fine; the weeds and blackberries in the field that they were cut from probably won't hurt anything; but you're paying for the weeds with your hay dollars.

Even hay that is less weed challenged can be nutritionally weak -- watching the commercial guy manage his hay field across the road from me, he's on it fertilizing it the day after haying; in fact, andrews hay does a pretty good job managing the land that they rent overall.  Knowing your hay guy is a big part of a hay purchase for me

In my case, I took 40 tons of dry matter, organic material, from my field in my hay cutting.  And I'm putting it back with manure from my lagoon.  But too many hay producers around here just cut, and cut, and cut and don't put the value back into the soil they took out.

So what I'm after with my hay is to vertically integrate my forage capacity with my farm operations.  Sure, I may be able to get hay cheaper this year, but my crystal ball isn't that good for next year, and I've seen forage prices both up and down.   With this haying experience in hand, and the expectation of lower costs for the coming years, I'd say that this was good and I'll do it again.