Sunday, November 8, 2009

Farm blogs -- drinking the koolaide

Farm blogs are fiction

I've been farming for going on 4 years now, and during that time I've looked around for resources on how to do various things, and I've offered a lot of what I've learned and experienced in this blog. 

When you read someones blog it's often what they'd like to believe about farming, or what they think should be happening.

There's this blog that I read, written by a guy who raises pigs.  He says he has 10 acres of pasture, and on those 10 acres of pasture he raises 200 or so pigs.  His soil is thin and not very rich, and the vegetation that I can see in the pictures on his blog is pretty darned minimal.  We're talking about 50% brush and 2" tall grass.  There might be clover or alfalfa or something more nutritious, but I just don't see it in the pictures. 

a 40lb weaner pig will take about 4lbs of prepared food to add 1 pound of weight.  So if we do the math, and figure that the grow-out is 6 months from weaning to market that pig will need to add 260lbs of weight, for a total of 1,040lbs of food per pig.  Divide that by 6 months and you come up with 173lbs of feed per month per pig. 

So if he's got 50 weaner pigs, he's going to have to come up with 8,666 pounds of food PER MONTH to get the weight gain. 

I'm sorry, but no matter how good your pasture is, 10 acres just isn't going to produce that much food, and I've ignored the other 150 pigs he's got on that same acreage.  and he's in the mountains, with a shorter growing season than most places. 

Yea, he feeds them hay, but just on the numbers, I'm guessing that something like 80-90% of the calories his pigs eat isn't forage.  But in a recent posting he's claiming just that -- that 90% of the calories his pigs eat comes from forage.   It just doesn't pencil out. 

So my point here is that when you read a blog about someones farming results, you should take their claims with a bit of salt and a little skepticism.  Just because it's written doesn't mean it's true. 

That applies to farrowing survival rates, feed consumption and cost, and just about any other aspect of farm life.  My experience has been that it's pretty hard to write about the stuff that isn't positive, and there have been times that I've skipped that myself, but if you're going to propose a particular way or method of raising animals that you not skip the details. 

So here's my numbers (which aren't fiction, but you don't have any way to know that for sure!)

I have 78 pigs; a mix of ages.  27 of those pigs are sows, and 3 are boars.  Those 78 pigs eat 6 tons of prepared feed every month -- 1.5 tons a week.  They are on rich, black, deep, soil.  River bottom soil.  I also have 10 acres of mixed pasture -- about 3 acres wooded, 2 acres of scrub, and the rest in high-protein grass.  In addition to the prepared feed I also feed them spent grain from brewing, expired dairy and use hay for both bedding and fodder for the pigs.  I also run across other food sources, like 6 tons of pureed pumpkin that showed up in email yesterday. 

So you folks who are trying to do numbers for your own farming ventures need to take note:  my farm, with fewer pigs and better acreage, has completely different results than his.  I'm skeptical.


Anonymous said...

It isn't just blogs.

People write books on how to farm. Although the author knows farm, he'll tell people to do things that he knows is likely to cost them money.

If I wanted to learn how to raise pigs, I'd want to go work on a farm that's been in existence for at least a decade, raising undifferentiated (aka "comodity") pigs and selling them on the regular market.

The reason is that anyone who can survive in a competitive market is probably doing things correctly. Someone who survives for other reasons - e.g. credence-oriented premiums like "free range" or "certified humane" or "biodynamic" may not know how to farm profitably without that premium.

Brian12566 said...

Do you think Walter is destined for failure?

Anonymous said...

Have you missed they whey and other suplus food W brings in?
Big trucks come up the mtn.

Bruce King said...

I'm sure that he has food of various sorts delivered, and that's the bulk of the pigs diet. But the statement on the blog is "90% of the calories is forage", which is a nice concept, but in my experience and opinion, cannot be true.

That's what I mean. There's what is written, and what really goes on, and there's often a big gap between the two.

I don't mind fiction, but a lot of why people read the blogs is for ideas on how they can do something similar. If I spin a fairy tale about how to do something, I'd feel terrible if someone bet the farm on that fantasy, so to speak.

So counting on forage to provide 90% or more of the calories your pigs eat is a fantasy. Don't base your farm on that concept. You can't fly, either, and there is no easter bunny.

Anonymous said...

I think he's main caloric is the whey. I tested this for 4 months and saw pretty huge weight gain on my growers but then I switched to barley and alfalfa to finish.

Bruce King said...

here's the statement I was reacting to:

"About 90% of our pig's diet is pasture. ~7% is waste dairy. Almost all of their remaining food (~3%) is veggies we grow on our farm."

I'm going to guess that in terms of calories, 50% or more is the dairy. The rest is just roughage.

Anonymous said...

His blog says, "Sugar Mountain Farm - Stories from a small farm in Vermont's mountains raising pigs, sheep, chickens, ducks, dogs and kids naturally on pasture."

I guess saying, "Stories from a small farm in Vermont's mountains raising pigs, sheep, chickens, ducks, dogs and kids naturally on pasture," sounds a lot better than "Stories from a small farm in Vermont's mountains raising pigs, sheep, chickens, ducks, dogs and kids naturally on dirt lots, feeding them dairy waste."

Bruce King said...

I think he does a great job of popularizing small farms, and I don't fault him for any of his husbandry in any way; and as anyone who runs a small business does, he's adaptable and evolving. I'd just hate people to go into a farming venture with (any) blog as their bible. I've had my fair share of setbacks, and part of the reason I write about them is to give people an idea of what it's really like to start and operate a small farm.

brian12566 said...

Are you saying Walter is lying? You know he is incorrect based on what? Your four years of experience? Or because it did not "pencil out"? If I were to start a farm today, I would hire Walter with his 20+ years in farming over say..someone with just 4 years.

brian12566 said...

Are you suggesting Mr. Jefferies is writing about his experiences in the hopes to mislead young budding farmers that are using his blog as their main source? Perhaps you missed something in your penciling out? Why is it impossible that 90% of caloric intake is forage? You say that can not be true..well..why not?

Bruce King said...

If you stock 10 pigs with an average weight of 100 lbs per acre you'll have bare dirt long before they reach market weight, even on rich soil. On marginal land with a short growing season, I think you'll have it even quicker. I don't need to do that experiment; I see it every day on my farm.

Let me put it another way: A single cow, which can process grass and forage much more efficiently than a pig can, doesn't have enough forage on 1 acre to live a year.

Pigs, who don't have the digestive tract to extract as many calories as cows do from forage, would need either more acreage or to be fed.

Nothing wrong with feeding hogs -- that's what we all do. What I am singling out is the statement that 90% of the calories come from forage. As described, it just doesn't pencil out.

Walter Jeffries said...

Bruce, there's one small problem with what you say. I wrote diet and you keep writing calories. You've changed the fundamental elements of the equation and are misrepresenting me. In fact, I've said almost exactly the opposite of what you are claiming - most of our pigs calories come from dairy. Try not fixating so badly, maybe you won't make such mistakes. Instead read more carefully so you understand what people are writing.

I am amused that you are so pissy and upset. You act as if I'm trying to sell you something. I'm not. I have no vested interest in how you do things. I sell pastured pork locally. I don't ship and you're on the other side of the country. Besides, you raise your own pork - good for you. You're welcome to do it however works for you. I've never said everyone has to do it my way. Rather I've said just the opposite - figure out what works for you and do it that way.

By the way, we have successfully raised three different batches of pigs 100% on pasture with no whey, no grain, no hog feed, nothing else, just pasture. It works but they are much leaner having little back fat and much less marbling. They also take a few extra months to reach market weight as compared with grain fed or pasture/hay/dairy diets. But then your penciling doesn't allow for the reality that animals lived for millions of years before you were there to feed them grain.

My recommendation for you would be to rely less on your penciling since you don't understand or even know of all the variables and instead observe more. Also rely less on your book learning but instead get more years of experience. Penciling and books are good to do. Heck, it's a fun pass time for these long winter nights. But there is a whole world beyond them that you need to observe which will teach you new and different things if you are open to them. Don't limit yourself so much.

Oh, and since your writing a "farm blog", based on your opening line I take it yours is all a fiction. Interesting to note.


Sugar Mountain Farm
in the mountains of Vermont

Anonymous said...

Walter has a post where he shows a semi unloading a bunch of dairy waste.It is impossible to conceive that his forage provides 9x as many calories (or nutrition), considering how small his place is - which is what it would have to do in order for his 90% claim to be true.

I don't think Walter lies. Rather, I think he's self-deluded.

There's a trivial way he could check whether or not his animals get 90% of their calories from the forage: just don't feed them any supplemental feed, and see how they finish. The point being, if they can get 90% of their nutrition from the forage (as he claims), they can finish on 100% forage. That would pretty much prove it for me.

I'm guessing that if he stopped feeding them supplemental feed, the pigs would starve.

Anonymous said...

"About 90% of our pig's diet is pasture. ~7% is waste dairy. Almost all of their remaining food (~3%) is veggies we grow on our farm."

Bruce, I think you need to revisit the quote you are basing your argument on. The quote says diet and you say calories or caloric value. The quote says pasture and you say forage. I think there is a difference of definition in your arguments terms and the quote's terms.

When the quote says pasture, I *think* that it is including the hay that gets imported to the 10 acres. I don't have a quote from the SMF blog, but a large number, hundreds of round bales, sticks in my memory.

The quote talks about diet, not calories. It may be that the caloric value is not 90% from pasture, but the quote is not incorrect if it is 90% of the volume from pasture or any other measurement aside from caloric. I don't think you can assume caloric intake when diet is spoken. Diet is the sum total of what is consumed, not a single constituent like calories.

I have taken an interest in this discussion because I don't live far from SMF and I have witnessed in person the practices there. I can't attest to the veracity of the numbers, I haven't measured them, but I am pretty sure SMF does use the acreage for the number of pigs quoted, SMF doesn't feed the pigs any prepared feed, that SMF pigs are on pasture, that hay and forage from the pasture are the majority of what the pigs eat and that SMF has a thriving business based on repeat customers for those pigs. From my eye witness point of view, SMF is living up to what I have read on their blog.

This does seem to be a lopsided discussion, though. You call out farm bloggers in general, but all of your examples come from a single blog. In your original post, you don't link to the blog to allow your reader to investigate what you are talking about and you don't talk about having contacted the blogger to discuss what you think are inaccuracies. It does seem backhanded to call someone out as aggressively as you have without including them in the discussion. This sounds like a typical internet flame job and quite frankly, I thought you were a better man than that.

Anonymous said...

I'm confused. I can understand "90% of the calories" - but if you say, "90% of the diet," what does that mean?

90% of the dry matter? 90% of the volume? 90% of the pounds? It doesn't make sense to me.

In any case, if pasture isn't providing 90% of the nutrition or 90% of the calories, why even talk about it? It just sounds misleading to me. People say "90% of the XYZ comes from pasture" in order to sound like "grass farmers" versus "normal farmers".

Its like a guy saying, "my chickens eat some organic feed" - when 1% (or less) of their diet is organic. It is a true but misleading statement.

Also, other anonymous guy, who wrote, "It does seem backhanded to call someone out as aggressively as you have without including them in the discussion." -- Bruce didn't aggressively call the guy out. Bruce didn't mention him by name. Its his readers who figured it was Walter and started digging. Bruce is a live and let live sort of guy - he just takes issue with people he thinks are liars.

Bruce King said...

anonymous: I think that liar has been used a bunch in this conversation, and I don't think that's appropriate. Let's keep the discourse more civil, please.

Bruce King said...

Walter -- if you have successfully raised pigs without any supplemental feed at all, why did you stop doing that? Why bother with tons of cheese and milk and whey and hay and so on and all of the infrastructure required to handle all that extra food?

Regarding calories, forage and diet, you've used those words interchangeably over the past couple of years. You've had people call you out on it in the past -- most recently in your post about feeding hay.

90% of your pigs diet, by weight, pounds, calories or any other measure is not forage. There's just not enough forage to support the number of pigs that you're producing.

Feeding pigs isn't the problem. The issue I've got is that you say one thing and do another. Here's the quote that kinda makes my point for me:

"...Somewhere my facts are flawed, and I'm hoping you can clarify this so that I can plan a feed budget."

This guy is using your blog to try to do a farm plan to raise pigs, and I feel that you're leading him down the garden (forage) path.

It's from a comment made on oct 13, 8:22pm on your blog post here:

So this fellow is looking at you as a trusted source for farming information, and I think that giving him the impression that he can raise hogs on 90% forage is misleading.

Bruce King said...

Can the anonymous folks make up a name so that I can respond to that name? I don't care what name you use, just make it possible so that people can respond to you directly.

that said, to the anon nov 10, 12:57pm: You are correct and make a good point. I really didn't mean to single out any particular blog, but I had a good example and impulsively wrote about the latest one that I'd seen, but the general concept is that farm blogs are works of fiction -- mine included -- and you shouldn't bet the farm on what someone says.

So from that perspective, I'll apologize to Walter for singling him out, but it's a general topic that I still believe to be true of many blogs.

Walter Jeffries said...

Bruce, you really need to learn to read the whole statement that someone makes and not just fixate on a few words.

I already told you, above, the reason why although we have successfully raised pigs on just pasture that we feed more than just pasture, why we add dairy and it is widely explained on my blog. Rather than looking for real answers you misquote things. Here it is again since you choose to not do your research: Pasture/hay is low in lysine (a protein) and calories. With the combination of pasture/hay plus dairy these things are brought into balance and we get about the same growth rates as we could with commercial grain. The advantage we find is that the meat from pigs raised on pasture/hay+dairy is higher quality and better tasting as well as avoiding the various issues that have cropped up over the years in the industry such as the melamine poisoning (like from China), mold toxins in corn ( an issue this year) of animal feeds. On top of that, there are other things, including dirt, that the pigs eat out on pasture and get such as apples, pumpkins, etc.

As to that quote you are referencing and distorting, what I said was:

"The 0.8 lbs/cwt is based on a herd average, so all ages and stages. As noted, bigger animals digest the hay and pasture better although even the little pigs eat it too."

That is 100% true and explained in more detail but again you choose to focus on distorting rather than looking at the whole.

It is rather puzzling why you insist on confusing diet with calories. Calories do not equal diet. Calories are one component of diet. That you should think calories equals diet shows that you don't understand diet at all. Calories are energy, one small part of diet. There is also minerals, vitamins, many proteins and other things to consider. You desperately need to learn these things before you get yourself too deep in the mud. You look like you're drowning and it isn't clear why you purposefully choose to do so.

As I've said before, I have no vested interest in you doing your farming in any particular way. You are free to use farrowing crates, run a confinement feeding animal operation, feed antibiotics, castrate, dock tails, clip teeth or what ever strikes your fancy. Your farm blog is a fiction as you admit. Mine is not. I report what works and doesn't work for us, sharing ideas in the hope that others can benefit from that experience.

Since you seem so bent on providing disinformation and calling names I will refrain from bothering to reply to you in the future. This means you'll likely post something nasty to follow this. I won't see it. You do owe me a major apology for misrepresenting what I have said. Do be careful of libel laws. It is sad that you have reduced yourself to the level of a school yard bully.

Bruce King said...

You cannot raise pigs without supplemental feeding that are suitable for your market. Got it.

The supplemental feeding is composed primarily of dairy, by calories. Got it.

You also feed other stuff that isn't forage. That makes up less than 3% of their diet. Got it.

I'll leave it to the readers to decide whether your statement about 90% forage is true or not.

All that other stuff about name calling and libel and so on is just so much noise. The point I'm making is that the primary source of fat and proteins and lysine and all of the other nutrients isn't forage. I think we agree on that.

Anonymous said...

mathematical asshole

Walter's numbers don't make sense. Fine - diet isn't calories. What is diet? According to Walter, "There is also minerals, vitamins, many proteins and other things to consider."

Given how nutrient rich dairy is, it is hard to imagine that it provides 10% or less of the minerals, vitamins or "many proteins and other things to consider," - which is how it would have to be to satisfy his "90% of the diet comes from pasture" statement.

Also, let's great technical here: pasture isn't hay. Pasture includes plants grown for the feeding of animals, or land.

When Walter imports hay to his farm, he isn't importing plants, so he can't call it pasture. He's importing feed, in the form of hay.

His pigs aren't pasture-fed or forage-fed - because obviously his land can't support his animals to any real degree. His pigs are fed dairy waste and hay - from other farmers, who happen to live on good land that can really produce hay.

When I look at Walter's response to this - vague handwaving and a refusal to provide specific information, and his urging Bruce to not focus on things like numbers and nutrition, I conclude that Walter Jeffries knows that what he has said about what he is doing, and what he is actually doing, can't be reconciled.

If I was actually running a pastured-pig operation - which one can do in highly productive places like Iowa or Missouri (but not the mountains of Vermont), I'd be pretty irritated at Walter, for implying that he was doing the same thing - when he simply isn't, and more importantly, can't possibly do it, even if he tried.

If a guy fed his cows hay in a feedlot, and said they were "pastured", the real grass-fed cowboys would call bullshit on him a lot harder than anyone here has. Walter is lucky that pig producers and eaters aren't like that.

Karen said...

While the headline of Walter's farm page says "Vermont Pastured Pigs" it also says right in the very first sentence below the photo that his pigs are raised on "pasture, hay, whey and other good foods." I believe the "pastured" term is also meant to say that the animals are on dirt and grass acreage with plenty of room to roam, as opposed to squished tightly in pens on concrete pads as in confinement operations.

One mistake some people here are making is that "forage" and "pasture" are not synonyms. Forage means any plant material that animals eat... grasses, legumes, fallen fruit and nuts, even shrubs. (Feel free to look it up in Wikipedia.) Whether they're eating it green, dried, hayed or silaged, searching it out themselves or having it carried to them, it's all forage. Pasture OTOH means actively green and growing plants that the animals are grazing upon.

I live in a similar climate to Walter's though I'm on the other side of the country and it's a very good year if I have three months of green, usable pasture. It's frozen and snow covered through March, then so wet if the animals were on it it would be churned into a sea of mud until early to mid May, then no later than the end of July it's dead and brown. I'm happy that there are other folks in the area who have more land and the equipment needed to turn all their grass at its growing peak into hay that I can buy for my animals to eat. IMO it's still "grass"... just cut, dried and baled grass.

Bruce King said...

I don't think that there's any doubt that he feeds his animals, or that dairy and hay are good feeds. I'm glad that he's able to utilize otherwise wasted products.

I'm skeptical about the 90% forage claim, or the claim that he's raised batches of pigs with no supplemental feeding at a stocking rate of 20 pigs per acre, which is what he's described on his blog.

If pig farmers could raise pigs on pasture, you'd see huge herds of them out there, as you do with sheep and cattle, which can be raised quite handily on pasture without supplemental feeding.

Remember that the premise of my blog entry was that the generally farm blogs do not accurately describe the actual practices at the farm being blogged about. In my opinion this is a good example of what I'm talking about.

They're entertaining, and they contain good information, but take it all with a grain of salt -- particularly if the results described are contrary to the published industry literature, practices or customs. Lots of smart people have worked in agriculture over the centuries, and their practices and customs usually have a good basis.

Brian12566 said...

Is this like an East Coast Vs. West Coast thing? Crips Vs. Bloods? Calorics Vs. Pastures?

Bruce King said...

Something like that. All pigs raised commercially that I know about are fed supplemental food. The claim that you can raise pigs without supplemental food is just false, in my opinion, and to say that a diet which consists of cottage cheese, cheese, milk, cream, whey and hay is "90% forage" seems misleading, also in my opinion.

Bruce King said...

As an aside, Walter accuses me of personal attacks here. Take a look at what I wrote and see if agree with him.

Then look at Walters posts, and decide whether he's made personal attacks on me.

I think it's pretty obvious what's going on here.

Steve Romero said...

Man! I've never gotten that many comments on a post before! Maybe I should critique some farm blogs more often to generate some more traffic for our blog!


I like reading your blog, and I like reading WJ's blog. Keep up the good work guys!

Bruce King said...

WJ writes an interesting blog, and most of it is true, too.