Saturday, February 28, 2009

Ancient pig breeding and modern pig breeding

There's been a lot of talk about heritage breeds, and the importance of preserving genetic diversity. It turns out that we've choosing some breeds of animals, and their popularity wiped out the older breed.

This article says that recent work with DNA seems to say that Europe was colonized from the middle east, and that middle-eastern pigs were brought in as part of that migration. But when the local pigs got domesticated, within 500 years the original middle eastern pigs had been completely replaced by the European hogs, and that the European hogs even managed to go back into the middle east and completely replace the original hogs.

Something similar has happened with the American food chain. The Duroc breed of pig is the most efficient at turning feed into lean pork, and for the most part has completely replaced every other breed of pig in commercial pig farms, in the same way that Cornish cross chickens have replaced the majority of other breeds in commercial meat chicken farms.

It turns out that pigs weren't the only things that got replaced. Early European settlers got replaced by later Immigrants, too.

Friday, February 27, 2009


I've written a lot about swine in the last week or so because that's the current crop. Later in the year I'll write about the bees, plowing and tilling, soil tests and so on. So bear with me - this is a seasonal blog, just like the farm. It happens to be pig season.

I've been working on my farrowing skills, trying to cut down the number of pigs that I lose. My current success rate is relatively low. From live births to weaned I'm averaging somewhere around 60%. In the interest of improving, I've been looking at other peoples numbers.

Here's an interesting set of observations from Ron Plain, who is a professor at the University of Missouri.

"In 2007, swine herds that had one to 99 head averaged 7.53 pigs per litter; herds of 100-499 averaged 8.03 pigs per litter; herds of 500 to 999 averaged 8.43 pigs per litter; herds of 1,000 to 1,999 had 8.85 pigs per litter; herds of 2,000-4,999 averaged 9.10 pigs per litter; and herds of 5,000 and up averaged 9.28 pigs per litter. "

So red n blacks likely 6 weaned pigs is below average, but only 30%. If I had managed to save her 2 or 3 of her other live births we would have had a better than average, for this herd size, result.

The bigger the swine herd the more likely that the people doing the care have chosen this as a profession, and that they're using specialized equipment and breeding intensively for higher litter sizes.

Some other hog facts from Professor Plain:

"The smallest 75 percent of U.S. hog farms produce 1 percent of the hogs.
The largest 1 percent of U.S. hog farms produce 75 percent of the hogs.

Most pork is intensively raised, at least 75% of it. Some of the smaller facilities might be intensive as well. You can run a small factory farm, too. Pasturing is a very small part of the overall pork market.

"Since 1930, the U.S. has reduced sow inventory by 42 percent and increased annual pork production by 221 percent. "

So we're producing more piglets from fewer sows than we were in 1930, due to both increases in litter size and better survival of the piglets.

The article that I found these statistics in is here.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Turkey the cat and the Lettuce disaster

One thing that people do rural areas is dump animals that they no longer want as pets; I have animals and couches and other stuff show up on the side of the road. It's an unfortunate part of being close to the city. The animals usually starve to death, get hit by cars trying to run somewhere, get eaten by a coyote, or a farmer kills it because it's preying on livestock. Feral cats are deadly to small poultry.

I caught turkey the cat killing my little turkey poults. The big turkeys were too big for her, but she killed 2 or 3 before I finally lured her over with some food. She'd been someones cat and was tame and friendly, but was obviously nursing kittens and was starving. So I didn't begrudge her the turkeys, but I did have her spayed. Notice that the tip of her right ear is missing. That tipping is how you indicate that a feral cat has been spayed. She seemed friendly, and I was ok with her being a barn cat. I took her home to tame her a little more, and ended up keeping her at the house.

Turkey the cat is in robust good health. Spayed and with a full set of vaccinations ($11 at the feed store) she's one of the few animals that survive being dumped. We managed to trap one of her kittens as well, a little white spitfire that is not at all tame. the kitten has been living in a dog carrier in our living room for a month or so now, so that we can tame it down enough to allow us to handle it and get it spayed or neutered when we figure out what sex it is. It still hisses and spits and claws, but it's getting a little calmer every day.

So tonight turkey decided to jump up on the light table and managed to knock over a tray of lettuce sprouts.
it takes about 2 hours to replant 288 lettuce seedlings. Curious to see how many survive.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Farrowing pen experiment -- 50% success

well, that's another way to say 50% failure. Here's the story

The temporary stall I built with tall hog panels and plywood didn't really hold the sow in. The day before red n black farrowed, she was very anxious and basically broke out. So I tried a second attempt at a temporary pen. Pigs will go down, under the panel and lift up, and they have a huge amount of muscle behind that lift. So I laid down two 5' hog panels flat on the ground.

This is actually my hay barn that I built to be able to run the tractor in and out of. The round pillars are actually 12" columns with rebar and a 6x6 post mounting bracket on top. The concrete runs up about 6', and then the 6x6 post is bolted on, and the wood post goes up another 12 or 14 feet. Each of these posts is supported on a 4'x4'x6" footing. I farm on the flood plain, so to be sure that the building is there after a flood I make sure that there's plenty of concrete to hold it in place, and big footings to make sure that it doesn't sink in soft ground.

But it turns out that this is pretty handy for making a temporary farrowing stall. So I've put down the two big hog panels, and then using the concrete pillars to anchor the corners I've got a good start. I then used baling twine to lash the "walls" to the "floor", and covered the floor with a good layer of hay. Now when the sow puts her nose down she's lifting her body weight and cannot push the wall up.

Then I put another hog panel down the center to provide two stalls, as big mamma was due to farrow.
Red n black had 10 pigs. 2 were stillborn, 4 died on the first night. I hate picking up dead baby animals, but the dogs really treasure their piglet treats, so it's not a total loss. Dogs are pretty simple creatures of the moment.

To move a sow with piglets, what you usually do is go and quietly and calmly pick up the pickets and put them into a bucket or a milk crate. If the sow trusts you you can usually do this without the piglets squealing. You then RUN AWAY with the bucket of piglets, leaving one suckling on mom. You see, if the piglets start squealing, even the calmest mom will probably respond, and red n black pig was very protective of her last litter.

So after that Andrea grabs the last piglet and slowly draws it away from mom, trying to get it to squeal a little, and it does, and mom doesn't budge. hmmmm...

so we put all the piglets into the cab of the truck with the heater blasting to keep them warm, and got another livestock panel, and a piece of the electric fence rope. You see, the pigs fear the electric fence rope when it's off the ground. So you put the panel around the sow in a C shape open in the direction you're wanting her to go, and then show her the electric fence rope (which isn't attached to anything). She gets up to avoid it, the panel is there to keep her walking, and we walk her across the pasture to the hay barn. We make a big V shaped funnel, that's 60' wide at the opening, and narrows into the pen with sheets of plywood, and she walks into the funnel, and then straight into her pen. Then we give her back her piglets and make sure she settles down before we go get big mamma.
Ok. both pigs in, plywood around the edge to provide a wind block, nice bedding of hay, food, water... all done.

Except that the 34" hog panels aren't tall enough. After doing this, big mamma climbed out over the 34" hog panel, broke a sheet of plywood and bent 2 of the T posts doing so, along with cutting one of her nipples and gashing herself in the front right armpit. I'm not sure that the nipple is going to stay attached. we're still waiting to see.

Red n black is peacefully nursing her litter there, and her remaining 6 piglets are doing well. They're still shivering, but they're protected and we can monitor their progress. In a few days we'll set mom and babies free in the pasture. later i put a piece of plywood over the top of one end of the stall to make a more "cavelike" area. She liked that and moved into it to lay down and be with her piglets. The other pigs come and visit her every day, and they all grunt at each other through the panels.

Summary: For big pigs, you need tall hog panels. 3' hog panels just aren't tall enough. 4' plywood walls aren't tall enough.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

sow giving birth

The piglets come out a little wet, with their umbilical cord still attached. It tears pretty easily, so usually gets torn off by the piglet moving around after birth. Here a little piglet is about 10 seconds old.

They come out with their eyes closed and their ears flat against their heads. They rest a few seconds, open their eyes, and look around. It's an amazing thing that this little piglet is oriented and aware seconds after birth.
A little wiggling and the piglet starts to make its determined way around to the rows of teats. they're actually pretty agile at this point -- 2 minutes after birth.

Here the piglet finds its own personal nipple. As I've mentioned before -- this nipple will only be used by this piglet for the entire time it's nursing on the sow.

Another pig is born...
She's had 7 piglets so far, but we haven't seen the afterbirth yet, so there's probably a couple more to come. After she's all done we'll move her back into the hay barn where it's a little dryer and more sheltered and we've got some heat lamps set up for the piglets.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Red n black jailbreak and piglets

My goal is to keep as many piglets alive as possible in the winter. I've tried what worked in the summer; farrowing in portable shelters, but lost two litters that way. So with red n black, I made a stall in my hay barn out of hog panels, plywood and hay.
Here Andrea scratches behind her ears. She was pretty agitated all day, and made many attempts to get out of the pen. The ground is very soft there, so even though I put in T posts and tied the hog panels together, she could easily lift the whole side of the pen with her snout. Pigs are amazingly strong.

Andrea and I worked with her until after dark, and left when she'd settled down to sleep.

When we checked on her the next morning, she'd gotten out, and we scouted around until we found her on top of her favorite lump of debris in the pasture.

She's still in labor at this point, and short of scooping her up with the front loader or using a crane, there's no safe way to move her. She's not going to move voluntarily. Here four piglets are all working on their own nipple. Once they've chosen a nipple it is their own personal nipple for the entire time until they're weaned. So right now there's a lot of jockeying around as they decide who gets this nipple or that one. There are 14 nipples to choose from on red n black.
The fourth piglet is laying against mom underneath these three. The air temperature is in the 50s, and these guys are laying on the damp ground. So while moms giving birth I'm carrying a couple of bales of hay up to get some dry hay underneath these little guys. We'll move them into shelter when the sow is able to move, tomorrow.

This piglet decided that Andrea was pretty comfortable, and walked over and cuddled up to her. She dried it off with her shirt and then held it for a couple of minutes, and then put it back with the others. Remember, this piglet is less than 20 minutes old. They are amazingly complete at the moment of birth.
Here's that piglet back with its littermates. At this point we've got some dry hay under the mom, and dry hay under the piglets, and all of the piglets born so far have been wiped dry and are actively nursing. All is well.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The red-and-black pig pregnancy

The red n black pig falling asleep on a pile of hay

I talked about possibly putting red n black in a farrowing crate to see if I got better piglet survival, but realized there was a step that I could try before a farrowing crate. What I did was construct a stall out of T posts and hog panels under the roof of my hay barn. It's not heated, but does give her protection from rain. I bedded the stall with hay, and built it around a half of a supersack of food. The pigs like playing with fabric, tarps being a particular favorite, so I figured that the supersack of food would provide her with some entertainment as well as allowing her to eat as much as possible.

When a sow farrows, each piglet is the size of a 12 oz can of coke, and weighs about the same. The more piglets the sow has, the less each piglet weighs. Sometimes when you get a litter, you'll get 5 big piglets, and 7 smaller ones. The bigger ones tend to survive better. I don't know why there's a variation in size -- different mating, maybe? The boar will mount a sow several times to impregnate her.

She's laying with her rear legs tucked in under her, and her front legs out in front. Sort of a how a dog will lay down. This is the position that they give birth in -- I'm figuring its close, but I've been thinking that for a week now.

After a sow gives birth, she delivers a large afterbirth, which she'll usually eat, so I don't have to deal with it. Just the birth alone will cause her to lose 50-75lbs of weight, both tissue and fluid. After that, as the piglets suckle on her, she'll lose another 100lbs. Talk about diet plans!

To reduce stress on her, and to give her some shelter from breezes, I've put plywood up outside the hog panels. If I put it inside she'll chew it up. I've left small openings on all four sides so she can look out if she chooses to, but she's not really interested in what's going on outside. Her friends have all come to visit. The white faced pig, and a little black and white pig from a previous litter come and look at her and grunt at her, and she grunts back. The boar has also been over a couple of times, and yesterday morning when I looked in on her, the boar was sleeping beside her, having pushed the hog panel in so that he was touching her through it.
You can flip a sow over with one finger, which is what I did to get this photo. All you have to do is gently rub her nipples. She'll groan and wiggle and eventually turn over to allow you to pet both rows of nipples. Notice where her feet are. If she were to walk her belly would be brushing the ground. At this very late stage in pregnancy you can see the piglets moving around inside her belly.
Here you can see the cleavage between the two rows of teats. They're not producing milk today, which is a pretty reliable indicator of less than 24 hours left to go, but I can't imagine her getting any bigger. She's HUGE.
Here's big mamma, who's' the next sow that's going to give birth. She's a bigger pig in all respects, so even though she's pretty pregnant she's still got good ground clearance. Big mamma is about a foot longer and 6" taller than red n black. Both are adults.

She's "bagged out", which means her breasts are engorged and getting ready to produce milk, but she's still a week or more out before she gives birth.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Last summer...

I've been a whitewater guide for many years; I began when I was working at an engineering company at a job that basically meant I didn't ever get outdoors, as a reason for getting out.

That's Taylor in the straw hat.

So here's some pictures and narrative from the 2008 trip.

Each trip begins by rigging the boats at the put in. It's a bit of a yard sale as the gear is sorted, placed and rigged.

Christopher on left, and Michael on right

I've taken guide training courses, rescue course, first aid courses and CPR courses and am current in all of my certifications. That means that for folks who have waited a long time for a grand canyon permit to come up I'm a great choice to row their friends, family or gear down the river for them. I'm safe, have been down the canyon 7 times, and REALLY enjoy baking in Arizona for a month. It's a big change from Seattle, and especially Seattle in February.

Michael was kind enough to invite me to row with him. Thanks again Micheal!

Susanna getting browner by the minute

This is my brother Bryan, who's never been on any sort of vacation in his life. I was glad he could come along; this is one of the finest places on earth.

The trip is 3 weeks long. So I'm skipping idyllic days of floating down a huge canyon, some of the best views on earth, beautiful desert scenery, ancient ruins... all sorts of stuff. One of the places we stopped at was redwall canyon. The first picture is from the front looking in, and the 2nd from the back looking out. It's HUGE.

Here's Andrea at the nankoweap granaries. This is about 1500 feet above river level. Quite a bit of comment from Andrea after this hike. I wasn't sure exactly what she was saying, but she seemed to mean it a lot.

Camps are pretty informal. Any sandbar will do. This was a small trip, so there were plenty of choices each night. We'd figure it out roughly how many miles we wanted to cover and then settle in for the night.
No matter where we camped the scenery and views were spectacular.

(I'm skipping several more days of Class II,III, IV rapids, great rainbow trout fishing and so on) This is the Little Colorado river, a tributary to the Colorado river. The blue, warm waters make a nice change from the main Colorado's intermittent mud and cold. We hit it perfect on a blue day. Can't beat this. Well, yes you can. You can swim in it. It's WONDERFUL.

Or body surf the little rapids. Great fun. Here's Andrea.

The side hikes are one of the best parts of a river trip down the canyon. This is a little slot canyon with a cool waterfall.

There are HUNDREDS of cool rapids to run. Every day you'll run several, and on some days you'll run 10 or more. Click on the picture for a bigger version. This is Micheal disappearing into a wave in Hermit rapid.
halfway through that particular wave
This is thunder river. An entire good sized creek flows out of a hole in the sandstone and pours down hundreds of feet making an impossible oasis in the middle of the desert. It's well worth the hike...


Susanna, happy to have made it. I'll leave you with this picture of the thunder river waterfall. The trip was another 2 weeks past here, and each day is another adventure. If you've ever wanted to take a wilderness trip, the Colorado river through the grand canyon is one I highly recommend.

Andrea at the base of the first cascade of thunder river

Friday, February 20, 2009

Cornish cross and buff orpington chicks at 10 days

Here's a picture of a buff orpington chick and a bantam. Notice the graphic on the box for relative height.

Here's a cornish cross next to the same bantam and box graphic
10 days later, here's a picture of a buff orpington chick and a cornish cross chick. Click on the picture for a bigger version. Notice the foot size on the cornish.

Both chicks are fed the same chick starter/grower, and both are kept in the same conditions. The cornish cross weighs 4x what the buff orpington does at this age.

We raise both cornish cross and heritage breeds. As far as eating, I prefer the heritage breeds, but some of our customers want the cornish, so we raise a few batches of them over the course of the year. They do pretty well to supply the demand while the heritage are growing out. This particular chick will be processed in 40 days, at about 6lbs live weight.

In a mixed brooder, you can tell which chickens are the cornish from the first day. They're the chicks that fall asleep with their head stuck in the feeder. The leghorns are the ones that run screaming from you when you feed them. The buff orpington chicks are calmer.