Monday, October 31, 2011

Deep litter pig house: Another cold, wet winter forecast

Last winter and spring was really rough on the animals, and the farmers, too.   We had huge amounts of rain and mud to deal with, and it was a constant struggle to keep the animals bedding dry.  I'd like to do a better job of it this year, mostly for the animals, but for the farmer (me!) too. 

The basic design that I'm going to use is influenced by this study of pig housing in finland.  They have to deal with a lot colder climate than in Washington State, but I think it'll work well here. 

Summary of the study: 
  Housing for pigs is filled with a layer of litter -- usually sawdust or wood chips, but it could be straw or any other carbon-rich material like corn stalks.

  Adequate space must be supplied for each pig, so that there's enough litter to absorb the manure and urine and any uneaten food.   This study suggest 1.5 square meters per pig, which works out to 16 square feet per pig. 

  The bedding area is assumed to be inside a building -- you can't have rain or outside moisture hitting the bedding.  In fact, as the bedding composts, moisture will evaporate from it. 

  The composing of the bedding is helped by turning it once a week or so mechanically.  This is in addition to the normal rooting behavior of the pigs.

  The litter has to be pretty deep for this to work. They suggest starting with a 50cm (19") deep litter and adding more if it becomes wet.

  The study also mentions that the time spent on the pigs is much less if you can drive through the building with your equipment instead of having to turn around. 

  So here's what I'm thinking: 

  1) Each housing area has to be tall enough and wide enough that my big tractor can drive through it when it's full of litter.   I want to minimize the amount of hand-work required to clean and rebed these pens. 

  2)  It has to be as cheap as possible and constructed of materials that are either indestructible (ecology blocks, for instance) or easily locally replaced.  Think a trip to the local hardware store vs special order territory.   Ideally I'd like the cost of housing to be on the order of $60 per unit (1,000lbs) of pig or less. 

  3) It has to provide good housing for all ages of pigs. 

  4) It has to be easily cleaned, particularly the area we feed the pigs in, given that what we feed the pigs is pretty messy at times. 

  5)  Automatic waterers with a trough for backup during freezing weather. 

I'll post my design later this week.  Hope to get the first couple constructed pretty quickly. 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Concord grapes

Absolutely love concord grapes.  Brought 100lbs back from eastern washington (was there to pick up a trailer, which I'll write about later). 

Juice, jelly, and fresh.  Concord grapes are super special.  And at $0.50/lb, a bargain!

I'll write up the processing as we do it.  Right now I'm kinda bushed.  lots of driving today.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Environmental regulations: It's bad when...

The border patrol has decided that the a whole bunch of laws (that the rest of us have to comply with) make their life too difficult. 

The laws that they'd like to ignore are the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Solid Waste Disposal Act and 32 other federal laws, including various wetland regulations. 

They'd like to be able to ignore all of those laws within 100 miles of the border. 

If the goverment can't even respect its own set of laws, why is it a reasonable expecation that the rest of us do so? 

My favorite comment on this post: 

"The same government that put those environmental laws in place now finds them too inconvenient to allow them to do what they think is necessary.

Of course everyone else already knew the environmental regulations were too burdensome, but they were stuck following them, wasting piles of money going through review after environmental review before being able to do even small things.

The government doesn't want to follow its own rules. They just make an exception for one agency to ignore some other agency, and they go about their business without a care in the world.

I say that if these environmental regulations aren't necessary for the Border Patrol, they should be scrapped. If they are necessary, then the Border Patrol must follow them. More realisitcally, recognize the pain points of existing environmetnal law and amend it, not just for the Border Patrol, for everyone. But none of this insider favoritism crap.

October 25, 2011 at 11:20 PM
Sandy C. "

Here, here!
You'll find the story that inspired this post here

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Not my favorite farm chore

Sean learning how to clear a drain

This is a Super Vee drain cleaner, also referred to as a snake.  When I built my small barn I put in floor drains, which work most of the time, but get clogged.  This little beauty allows us to clear the drain, but I have got to say that it's not my favorite thing to do. 

 Its basically a drill with a special fitting on the front that contains a flexible metal hose with a special tip.  You put it down the drain, 4" at a time, and spin it, and it clears whatevers down there.  Most of what gets into the drain is a fine sediment, mostly dirt.  I rented this thing from the local hardware store a few times, and then finally decided to buy one.  They work great. 

Next time I put in floor drains for a barn, however, I'm going to do something other than a 2" line.  Maybe a full-on 3" or 4" line would work better. 

Monday, October 24, 2011

Fine tuning the pasture

Rain is the final test of how flat i got the pasture; and it's pretty darned flat.  A few puddles here or there, none deeper than 2".  So I spent part of today connecting the dots to make sure that the water drained. 

To do this I've got a middle buster plow that's designed to go down a row of potatoes and turn them over for harvesting - but it works well for temporary ditches.    I only have to go down an inch or two, but it's no trouble to do a deeper trench. 
We seeded the majority of it by hand today; took 3 people about 90 minutes to spread 350lb of grass seed.  I'll go over it with a roller to tamp the grass seed down, and then that's it until next spring. 
Whew.  Glad to get that done and over with. 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Part of the fun

 On a nice fall day it's pretty fun to watch a sow take her piglets out for a stroll.  She's pretty protective of them -- she knows me, and I know her, but they are her piglets, after all.  So a little close scrutiny from mom and she decides that I'm the same fellow she's known all her life, not some suspicious stranger, and relaxes a little. 
 She's a 14 nipple sow, picked when she was a piglet for that reason, and everything seems in order.  The most engorged nipples are being used by the pig, the ones that aren't so engorged are not.  Pigs will pick one nipple and pretty much stick with that nipple as their private one.  They're not adverse to raiding some other nipple if they're given the chance. 
 She wanders around, snuffling at grass and shrubs, a mouthful of grass here or there, until the piglets squeal her down.  They're pretty demanding.  "lay down!  lay down!  "
And she lays down, and they all line up, and it's dinnertime.  She's closing her eyes and grunting contently while they nurse.  Pretty soon, around dusk, she'll go back to her shelter and all of the little pigs will follow her in a line. 

These piglets are 3 days old. 

Foreclosure purchase update

I purchased a property at a foreclosure auction in December of 2010.  I wrote about the initial purchase here, and another entry about it where I talked about my being puzzled by the banks handling of the matter here

And when I got a call from the bank asking if they could buy it back, I wrote about that here

I never did hear back from the bank regarding repurchasing the house, but I did get a notice posted on the door about a month later -- they were starting foreclosure proceedings against it. 

So I called the attorney and had him take care of it, and that was about it until Friday. 

The auction scene.  Imagine 4 other groups like this.

This building is two townhouses that share a wall.  The other half of the townhouse got auctioned off on Friday, and I was the 2nd bidder on it.  I bid it to $102k, and then stopped; the winning (and only other bidder) got it for $104k.  Turns out that its a Canadian investment firm, buying houses down here. 

The courthouse steps foreclosure auction is a little hectic.  All of the trustees handle multiple accounts, and all of the auctions are simultaneous -- so I had a bit of a scramble to figure out which guy was handling my auction, allow him to verify that I had funds (certified checks or cash only, please) and wait until my property came up.   

I'd guess that more than half of the properties had zero bidders and reverted to the mortgage holder, but the other half had bidders.  At this auction there were 5 active bidders and I'm going to guess that they spent something on the order of $3 million at this particular auction.   I can't say what they were bidding on -- I didn't do the research on the various other properties being auctioned.  Some properties had multiple bidders, some only 1. 

These Canadians purchased this townhouse sight-unseen.  They had never been inside it.  Now I'd been inside because I was there when the bank crew secured it, but when I met them later in the day they were expecting much worse than they found.   "We've seen some bad ones.  All the appliances are here, walls and floors in good shape, no damage!" said one of the guys. 

So I pitched them on the idea of buying my unit so that they'd own both halves of the building. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The winners write history.

I wrote a post last week about Rebecca Thistlewaite and the big bad meat company.  Apparently she's had second thoughts about publishing it.   You'll find a google cache of her original post here

This is actually a problem when you look at blog archives.  Most blogging software allows the author to go back and retroactively change what they wrote, and there's no easy way for the public to know that. 

This is different than posting an update; I've had the experience of having someone completely rewrite what they wrote and then claim that it's the original. 

As always, measure your blog by your own experience, and take any blog and any claim on the blog, with a grain of salt.  Not everything written is accurate or true, and some folks won't stand behind what they've written, even if they appear to invite discussion.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Tractor travails

 I've been having problems with my big orange tractor for the last 2 or 3 weeks.  It would work fine for a random period of time, and then stop.   Since there are multiple people using the tractor, and it seemed to be out of fuel each time this happened, I chalked it up to operator error -- the guy driving the tractor not watching the fuel gauge. 

The problem with that is that a diesel engine out of fuel is not as simple as a gas engine is when you go to restart it.  So I trained all of the people on the farm to restart  a fuel-out situation, but we kept having problems. 

So I'm working on this problem, and I fill the fuel tank to the brim.  I get the service manual, and I"m working through the steps to restart the engine, and I end up doing this 6 times, because the book says that if the engine does not start to repeat the steps.  Each time I can get 10-15 minutes of work out of it before the engine dies. 

This is really frustrating. The maintenance manual has the fuel priming sequence starting from the fuel filter forward, and so I started replacing the fuel filters, figuring that maybe the fuel had something in it causing this problem or blockage.  Same behavior.  10 minutes and then it dies. 

So I read the maintenance manual, and they talk about a fuel solenoid that is only open when powered, so I figure out a way to get a voltmeter in there, and it is powered, and the power doesn't flicker, so that's not the problem. 

So after 8 days of this, I'm staring at the tractor, and finally start looking at the diesel fuel tank in suspicion.  I disconnect the fuel line from the tank, and see if I can suck some diesel out.  I cannot.  So I try blowing into the tank; and it will accept air -- and suddenly the fuel starts to flow out the tube. 

That's very weird. Ok, I'm going with it.  maybe it's the tanks.  So a jury-rigged 5 gallon diesel jug and a bit of copper tubing, and... no more problems.   No problems for days.  As long as I don't run off the tractor tanks it all works.  Weird. 

So off come the diesel tanks.  Maybe it's algae, or... I don't know what.  The picture below is what was found in the tanks. 
 It's a latex glove.  it's been in there a while.  So this darned thing was floating around in the tank, and would get caught in the fuel intake hose now and then.  So blowing into the tank just got it off the tub, and allowed fuel to flow.  When it was covering the tube, the engine would die. 

We don't use these gloves at our farm at all, and the once-white glove is pretty discolored.  I'm guessing that this is a factory-original glove that floated around in the tank.   Mystery solved, problem solved. 

My smaller tractor has had some flexing going on in the front end, and it caused the fan belt to wear a hole in the radiator tub.   After fixing the rear bracket  I was using the little guy to spread lime and noticed that the front loader was doing odd things.  It was moving when it shouldn't.  Closer inspection showed the frame of the tractor had broken.  A quick look on the other side showed a similar break.  Calling the tractor dealer got me a quote on the price for this part:  $1300 and a week or 10 days for the part to get here.  And labor costs and a few days to take it out and put it back in, for a total of maybe $1800 at shop rates.  

For $1800 I don't think I'm going to replacing this part.  I'll have it taken out and welded and then put the thing back together;  I think I can get that done in a few days, and hopefully for less than $400. 

The break on the small tractor isn't new; there's rust on the edges.  What I think was happening is that over time the bolts that were holding things together snapped off, and as they did the fit got looser and looser. 

I use the tractors a lot on the farm; having one out is a headache, but having both out is a big deal.  

I'm hoping that the small tractor comes back in time to take the load from the big tractor, which needs to have a new clutch put in. 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Messing with the pasture: inputs

 This is about the last time of year I can work my ground before the serious rains and mud set in, so I was out spreading lime on the pasture.  The lime I'm using is in the picture above, it's been pelleted for easier application.    This lime is pretty expensive; about $0.16/pound (for comparison purposes that'd make a 50lb bag about $8) and the recommended application was pretty thick.  So I purchased it in 1 ton totes. 
We use the big tractor (out of the picture, but you can see the chain holding the bag up that's attached to the loader) and then fill the spreader on the back of the little blue tractor, which does a pretty good job of cruising around and spreading the material.  You have to keep this stuff pretty dry; any wet and it'll cake up and prevent the spreading.  Spreading 1 ton takes about 20 minutes; driving it back and forth, using the tire tracts as your row markers.   I ended up with 4 passes to get all 6 tones of this spread. 

It sounds like a lot, but a ton over an acre is roughly what pepper looks like on an egg.   I'm sweetening the soil here to help different types of grass thrive.  This pasture will be the pastured-poultry area next year, and I'd like the grass to be as healthy as possible. 

Tomorrow I'll spread the seed.  We're applying the seed at 110lbs/acre. 

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Fixing the tractor

I do a lot of my own work on my equipment, for economic reasons. Shop rates for tractor repairs are in the $100/hour range around here, and I'd rather pay myself that wage. When I buy a tractor, I make a point of buying the service manual for it as well. The service manuals are usually pretty comprehensive, and contain a step-by-step description of how to do things, and a troubleshooting guide.

Even if I don't do the work, the troubleshooting guide allows me to narrow it down on my own time, and if it's something that I dont' want to fix, well, I can hire it done. 
  Today's repair is the top link of the 3 point hitch. This is the new holland tc33d, and it's a 30hp tractor with a small backhoe that mounts to the rear. this happened at some point, but I didn't see the damage until I took the backhoe off. On closer inspection, this isn't the factory part. Maybe softer steel than factory specs? 
It's an easy fix; 4 bolts... wait a second. Two of these are studs, two are bolts. And there's a 4 washers... hate that.

A lot of time when people do repair on equipment, they kinda use whatever is laying around. Which is fine when you're doing a chicken coop, but if you're dealing with load items like this, it's worth doing it correctly. I check the new holland service manual for bolt torques and the whether it specifies a particular grade for the stud, and I'm off to Champion Bolts in Everett.

So a quick trip to the bolt store comes up with the appropriate length and grade of stud, and a little fiddling, and it's back to factory spec.

Champion bolts in Everett has been a real resource for me, as both of my tractors are metric, and the local hardware stores, even the big box ones, have a limited selection, and it fits with my trying to steer as much of my business local as I can. Sure, I can get the bolts on the internet if I wait a day or two, but I'd much rather have the local bolt store.

My struggles with buying local

For the supplies that I use on my farm I try my best to buy local. I do pay a little more than I would otherwise, but that money both boosts the local economy, and it also is a good sales tool. Having a relationship with a feed store means that when I want to put up an advertisement for my weaner pigs they're all for it, and my name comes to mind.

What I prefer to do is to patronize the most-local retailer, recognizing that there are local branches of chain stores that are almost as good... well, not really. I'd really like local ownership if I can help it.

So I do a lot of business with a local feedmill. They're kind of old-school; they don't even have a web page, and I'm ok with their facilities, which are old, and feedmillish. Think big groups of galvanized tanks sitting next to railroad tracks. You know, feedmillish.

I've been selling a larger number of weaner pigs every year, and I've been doing my best to steer this business to this local mill -- pointing out that they can buy their feed at $600 a ton in 50lb bags, or $400 a tone in a bulk bag -- and so it's been a win-win. People keep their costs down, local business does some more business, everyones happy.

So for pig food I'm pretty happy most of the time, but recently, in the last 6 months, I've changed my buying from them, reducing my feed order from 6 tons a month to around 1.25 ton a month -- a small enough amount that they won't deliver it, so I have to pick it up. This is because most of what my pigs are eating is produce -- I only use the feed for sows that are farrowing and for the occasional pig that we're treating. Like one of my boars that got a foot infection a few weeks ago.

These guys keep shooting themselves in the foot with my order. I order 6,000lbs of food, and ask them to put it into 4 sacks of 1500lbs each. (I have room for 4 sacks). They can't do it. I never did figure out why they couldn't, but after being on the phone with them for an hour I got 3 sacks of 1000lbs and 1.5 ton of 50lb sacks. grrrr. Ok, so I can put the three sacks on pallets and stack the bags on top of them, but that also means I've got to load and unload the bags by hand, not by tractor. They did sell me at bulk price, which I thought was nice.

Ok, so today I call up and I ask if they have a 1,500lb sack that I can buy. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't, sometimes it's a 1,000lb... so I get the news. They are out of feed.

Out. Of. Feed.

There's a whole list of reasons why they're out, but the point is that they're out. I can't get feed from them. Well, I can, in 50lb sacks. So I drive over there, and they've sold ALL of the 50lb sacks of feed they have to some other pig person -- matter of fact, it's to a guy I sold 10 weaners to earlier this year. "we're sorry! We'll be back in operation next week..."

So I call the multinational conglomerate that operates a mill a little north. Would they have some feed I can buy? Sure do. When do you want to pick it up? Matter of fact, can we have a crack at your feed order? I'd love to make you a deal on feed. And Jennifer, the saleswoman, is a knockout.
Yea, that shouldn't matter, but I'm just giving you my experiential view of this process. Super easy.  Ready today, on my schedule.  Go get what I want.  Yep. 
And $100 more a ton. And that money goes to a company that has a history of doing bad things to producers. Talk about cognitive dissonance.

I really do try to buy local. It is such a struggle though.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Land, land, land. Buying land. Farms are made of land.

It's approaching flood season for me, and for my farm, surrounded by a dike, and on an island, this is the time of year when my workload increases. 

Well... maybe not the workload.  Lets say the working time.  I have to be on call on an hour or so notice for the next 3-4 months, while the flood season is in progress.  We've had a lot of rain this last year, and the weathermen are predicting another wet year.    I could REALLY use 5-10 acres off the flood plain to put my stock in the event of a flood.

This is a particular problem for me -- pig farms are not popular as your neighbor.

I've been wanting to add some more land to my operation, and I usually look for land in foreclosure auctions.  I'm interested in land for the bottom dollar; farming is a game of pennies, and land is a big expense. 

My north property is an example of that.  I purchased it at a foreclosure auction, fenced it, and I send the cattle up there to graze every year, between march and October.   Here's how the math works out:

Purchased the calves for an average of $300 each.  Put out to good pasture and provided with minerals, they put on weight pretty well.  At the end of this they're worth about $1,000, so I've made about $650 gain per cow, or $4550.00.  After transport costs to auction and other misc stuff - like the corral construction expenses and fencing expense, I'll net about $3k.   I could make a little more by USDA slaughter and selling cuts, or I can take them directly to a packer and sell them wholesale.  This quoted net profit is the wholesale price. 

So at $3k, that pays for about 10% of the purchase price of the land.  Put another way,  land purchased at the right price will pay for itself in 11 years with a few cows on it, and cows are pretty easy if you have good fencing. 

The problem a few years ago is that land was going for astronomical amounts.  1 acre of nice pasture for $100,000, for instance, as a building lot.   No way to make any agricultural profit with that sort of math. 

So I'm back to my usual habits looking for land, and I did the research for this Decembers foreclosure auction. 

What I do is this:  First, I check the list, and for each property I look up the county records; last sale, size of parcel, taxes due, etc.  Then I check with the local planning department to see if there are other things -- violations of building codes, complaints, fines and so on.  And finally I look at the satellite views of the property, and if everything checks out, I'll drive out to look at it. 

After all of that checking, if it still looks good, THEN I'll go to the real estate sites to figure out what similar parcels are selling for.   I do that because I want to buy either at or below the minimum retail price I can find for a comparable parcel.   My rule of thumb is to always buy the cheapest house (land) on the block.  My experience is that if you do that, it's very difficult to get into trouble. 

I've narrowed my original list of 220 properties down to something like 10, and I start working up the comparable parcels, and as I look at real estate for sale sites, I notice something that I haven't seen in many years.   I'm seeing properties that have been on the market for 2, 3, 4 years. 

The last time I saw that sort of thing was in 1987, when I purchased my first house.  I wrote 30 lowball offers to people selling houses before one guy agreed.    I paid $500 to the previous owner to move out, and assumed a $40,000 mortgage from the guy.  He really, really wanted to move.    I sold that same house in 2002 for $400k. 

I think it's time to write some low offers to these multiyear listings.  Not short sales;  it's difficult in this area to get financing on raw land, so most of these parcels are owned outright. 

I wonder how many offers I'll have to write this time. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What a confinement pig farm looks like

When I talk about pastured operations I think it's useful to look at what the industry looks like.  This is the other side of the market -- and in fact, this is how most of the pork consumed in this country is raised.   Having the pigs kept near where the food is produced also keeps the costs at a minimum. 

This particular video was produced by industry -- in this case pfizer -- and is great because it shows the interior of a particular hog unit.  As far as hog units go, this is a good one. 

You'll find the referenced video here

Overview:  Most pigs are raised in buildings, and each building is usually for a particular stage in a pigs life.  As they grow they're moved from building to building in batches. 

00:39  You can see an outside shot of a hog barn.  The four silos on the side are for the feed, which is a mix of corn and soybeans and various other supplements, carefully formulated to produce the greatest amount of lean growth possible. 

00:44  You're looking at the interior of a farrowing barn.  Each sow is in a crate that prevents the crushing of the piglets and by doing so decreases mortality.  There's an automatic feed and water system.  this is where pigs are born and kept with their mothers for the first 2-3 weeks of their life.

00:56 this is an outside shot of two other hog buildings.   These are all over Iowa and Minnesota.  there are thousands of these. 

1:56  This is an early wean room.  After the pigs are separated from their mothers they're put on a high-protein food for a few weeks and given additional heat  (notice the lamps hanging from the ceiling).  This high-protein feed is relatively expensive. 

02:40 is a hog finishing unit.  these hogs are raised on a slatted floor with some sort of manure pickup system underneath -- usually concrete troughs that are sluiced with water.  What this video doesn't show you is the smell of this house.  It's usually very intense. 

There is no bedding in this sort of environment.  The pigs stand on a slatted floor their entire lives.   If the ventilators go off in this sort of system the hogs can die from the ammonia emitted by the waste underneath the slatted floors. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Pastured pigs: SARE grant

My friend Sabra reminds me from time to time that the government does a lot of stuff that is valuable and useful, and one of those things that they do that I find particularly good is the SARE grant program. 

Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) is a program where farmers can get money to help them experiment with different practices to figure out what works the best for them, and for others.  The grant is given with the condition that the results are shared with the public, and there has been quite a bit of work done with these grants that most small farmers find interesting. 

You'll find more information on the SARE program here

The video that I'm going to talk about today is the product of one of those sare grants,
you'll find that video here.    You'll find the farms website here

Pigs are kept on grass or on fields planted with barley and peas, and the feed they're given is carefully measured out to see how effective the pasture mix is.   These pigs are on what I'd consider good pasture, and are what I would visualize when someone says "pastured pork"

00:10 : what pigs eat on a field in this farmers experience. 

00:38:  Why pasture -- less feed costs

00:56:  As with most pasture operations, this one is also feeding a prepared feed.  I'm guessing that this is a corn-soybean mix. 

01:00  They use cows to move their feed around.  No tractors. 

01:20:  We want to use the pigs to till the soil so that we could plant things that pigs eat. 

01:28:  Note that the pen that the pigs are kept in is bare dirt with rocks.  They feed the pigs by pouring the feed on the ground. 

01:30  Pigs on pasture, rooting up the grass.  this is pretty typical pig damage.  Left to their own devices they will turn over all of the sod. 

01:40  The experiment:  Take some pigs, divide them randomly, put half on grass and half on stuff they planted for the pigs to eat.  Weigh the pigs every week, and weigh the food that they gave the pigs. 

02:10  Notice that the pigs are in greenery up to their shoulders, and they're eating it.  This is what I'd consider pastured pork. 

03:26  The pigs are getting 6.4lbs of feed per day plus what they can forage

03:53  Again the feed is poured on the ground

Monday, October 10, 2011

Joel Salatin and his pigs: Pastured?

Joel and pigs "on pasture" (courtesy of Jessica Reeder)

Pastured pork is a popular topic these days; and there are a lot of people who are saying a lot of things about raising pork on pasture.  Over the next few days I'm going to talk about some of the videos that are out there from various farmers. 

The first video I'm going to talk about is from Joel Salatin, who is a very famous farmer over in Virginia.  He's outspoken and has spent years talking about agriculture.   You can see the polyface farms website here. 

Executive summary:  Joels pigs are fed a pretty standard corn-and-soybean feed mix that Joel purchases off the farm.   Joel also purchase the pigs themselves off his farm.  His involvement in pigs is to raise raise them from wean to finish.   While they do have access to green stuff at some point during their lives, they spend a big part of their lives in small pens on dirt.  Even when they are on "pasture" they are provided free-choice feed at all times.  The amount of feed value the pigs get on pasture is not clear.  Joel does not use the word "pastured" on his website, preferring "pigerator pork".   

The first video is Polyface:  Piggies

00:00  These are 40-50 pound pigs, with a few 60-70lb pigs in there as well. 

00:05:  Notice the large grain feeder in the left corner of the pen, and the floor of the pen.  This pen is providing no nutrition for the pigs at all; all of their food is coming in the form of some sort of feed put in the feeder. 

00:06:  The intern mentions that they'll be put out to pasture "when they get bigger" -- not clear when that is.

Looking at the panels, this pen is 20x16, and there are approximately 30 pigs in that space.  Each pig is given approximately 10 square feet of space. 

01:38 you can see a second pig pen, with another large feeder, again on dirt.   That pen is smaller; 10x20 or so, and the stocking rate is similar. 

Now this guy is famous for his pastured poultry and as a proponent of pastured livestock.  He talks a lot about it, but these pigs in this video aren't what I'd consider pastured.

Summary:  Pigs are in pens, 10 square feet or so per pen, and fed some sort of prepared feed.  Joel has talked about the feed in other areas, it's a standard corn-and-soybean based feed that he purchases from off his farm. 

You can get a feel for his "pastured poultry" and another view of his pigs in this video

00:00  The chicken houses are greenhouse frames with plastic.  From his clothes I'm going to assume that this is during cold weather.  In warmer weather those hoophouses can get hot enough to kill chickens. 

02:54:  this is basically what industry calls a "cage free" or "barn raised" chicken egg operation.  It's actually pretty similar to how most industry chickens are raised -- here's a picture of what a "factory farm" operation looks like.   The factory birds are meat birds, but the basic layout is the same.  Feeders and waterers, birds have some floor area they move around on.  In the factory farm they're using solid buildings, so it's dark, or maybe it's night.

03:29:  You can see a pen of pigs in there.  I'm going to guess that the stocking rate is again about 10 square feet of space per pig, there's a big grain feeder.  In fact, the more I look at Joel Salatins pig operations, the less pasturing I see. 

Here's a video of his pigs "on pasture"
00:06:  I count 17 pigs laying along the fenceline next to the feeder.  I'd guess these pigs are 150lbs average. 

00:10:  Note that the ground is bare dirt under the pigs and around the feeder. 

00:13:  They explain that the pig paddock is 2 acres split into 8 sections, for a 1/4 acre per paddock. 

00:27:  "they are in here just as long as it takes them to eat that feeder" -- they're not managing the forage, they're filling the feeder.  This is contrary to what most people who pasture animals do -- watch the forage available and move the pigs when the forage is exhausted. 

A quarter acre is 10,890 square feet, and assuming 17 pigs, that's about 640 square feet per pig.  . 

summary:  The pigs are given a chance to root and forage, but the vast majority of what puts weight on these hogs is in the feeders.  It's the standard corn and soybean feed mix Joel has mentioned in the past. 

You can see a video of his "eggmobiles" here.  This is apparently in the summer.  But the take home lesson is that for some portion of the year, even the animals that he's famous for pasturing -- chickens -- are kept in fixed locations under cover. 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Farms & Animal rights activists

In my area I seem to have a larger-than-normal number of fairly militant animal rights proponents.  For me, that means that I get contacted by the snohomish county animal control about once a month about some darned thing.

They actually get a lot more calls than that, but resolve them by coming to the farm gate and looking at whatever the complaint is.   Here's some of the most recent complaints: 
  pigs don't have water (I have installed two types of automatic waterers.  Here's one, and here's the other)
  Sheep are standing in the rain. 
  Pigs are standing in the rain. 
  Pigs are in mud
  Dogs are unlicensed (my three farm dogs, that is)
  Dogs are in the stock trailer
  Sheep can't reach the water (water is popular, see above)

I don't fault snohomish county animal control at all - they're required by law to respond to every complaint,and they do actually check out whatever it is.  When they can't see what they need to from my fenceline I will take them over and let them look at whatever it is, but this takes time out of the day.  They're nice enough about it, but it's annoying. 
  In addition I get a variety of notes left on the farm gate.  Most of the folks are looking to buy something, but I get the occasional angry note from someone about something. 

I'm not the only one.  Michelle, over at the collie farm blog, has had various issues with people about her livestock guardian dogs.  Here's one example, and another, and another

This has reached a new height in this area.  A local woman had her dog stolen from her fenced yard a few days ago, and the police have made an arrest in the case.   surprise, surprise:  A dog rescue group is apparently involved. 

What's been surprising about this latest case is that people are saying things in the comments of various articles that dog kennels are inhumane and electric fences are inhumane, which should come as a surprise to anyone who raises animals on pasture.   I had no idea.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Rebecca and the big bad meat company

[Disclosure:  I don't think that Rebecca Thistlewaite over at  likes me one little bit.  In fact, I'm pretty sure she hates me.  But I sure do love her.  ]

I read Rebeccas blog from time to time because she talks about stuff that I'm interested in.  She has a completely different point of view from mine on many subjects. 

So I'm reading her most recent entry, about a new farm operation that is starting in northern California, by the name of belcampo meats.   

So the basic facts about Belcampo: 

They're claiming to have purchased 10,000 acres of farmland
They're showing up in farmers markets and gatherings
They claim to be building their own processing plant (which they also say will be available to other farmers to process their product)
 And they plan on doing a variety of products, beef, pork, chicken, lamb.  

Rebbecca goes on a rant about the evils of rich people, and how the sky will fall if...  well, go read it for yourself.  But here's my take: 

One of the biggest barriers to entry for a farmer is finding the land to farm on.  you've got to have land to farm, and there's no way around that.  And land, particularly land near population centers, is going to cost a lot. 

So this company purchased 10,000 acres, and looks to be getting into business producing food.   Someone sold them those acres, presumably at market prices.  That's a nice exit strategy for folks who own land - I'm sure they were happy to sell. 

But the point is that belcampo now has to come up with a business model and plan to make money after paying retail prices for land, and here's how that helps small farmers: 

If they can make a profit after paying retail for the land, so can any other entity -- corporation, family or individual.    If they can do that using good practices, even better. 

I think that the "multigenerational farms" that rebecca quoted are one of the things that make farming particularly hard to enter.  If they're using land that they own outright it's a HUGE competitive advantage over someone who has a mortgage.   And often that translates into production that is actually below the true cost.  And those lower prices in turn mean that folks with mortgages have an even harder time. 

Rebeccas own experience on leased land shows that land ownership is one of the key elements that makes a farm stable.  Don't know why she's pitching a fit about someone who's going the other way -- buying the land first. 

UPDATE:   Rebecca is claiming that farmers are losing "thousands of dollars of sales" to belcampo -- but they're apparently not.  See the comments in this thread.   

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The spring chickens

New Hampshire rooster

I spent part of today ordering the chickens that we'll be selling next spring as started laying hens.  We try to raise a small quantity -- 500 or so -- laying hens each year, and a similar quantity of roosters.    
Part of my farming is to do my best to guess what consumption will be next year, and to buy and raise an appropriate number of animals to meet that demand.  I have to think about how many I can carry, what the feed costs are likely to be, where I'll house them (because in the winter, baby chicks are especially hard to care for) and basically work through the logistics. 

For retail purposes I have to make some guesses as to what people will be interested in buying.   The market here for laying hens is driven by the city folks -- many of the cities around my farm allow people to keep small numbers of chickens in their yards, and people tend to like a colorful, varied flock.  So when they come to the farm to pick out their chicken, it's nice to have a variety of colors to choose from. 

Why raise chickens in the winter? 
Raising chicks in the fall and winter is harder than it is in the spring and summer.  But the retail customers around here don't think too far ahead -- which is good for me.  In March and April, when the chicks arrive in the feed stores, these chickens will be at point of lay.  So my basic pitch to the backyard chicken folks, is yes, you buy chicks now, and in 4 to 5 months you'll get your first egg...  or you can buy one of these hens, and start enjoying the eggs right away.  People will pay for convenience, and this is pretty darn easy.   So the reason is to have the birds ready to go during the high season for chicken sales. 

My favorite breed of hens:
My favorite chickens aren't the barred rock.  Barred rock are my 2nd favorite.  They have long been a favorite of the American barnyard, and for good reason.  Properly cared for, a barred rock hen will produce more than 200 eggs for at least 2 years, and then provide a meaty carcass for the table afterwards.  The roosters are larger, and eaten young (3lbs live weight) provide excellent table fare.  They lay a large brown egg. 
Barred rock rooster

My favorites are actually the White leghorn chicken.  This is the breed that produces the quantities of white eggs you see in the stores, and they really do quite well on pasture.  They are active, intelligent, flighty birds.  I like them because I like an animal that approaches life with gusto, and these birds do that.  They are also the smartest chicken in your flock.  If there is some trouble that chickens can get into , you can be sure that the white leghorns will be right there.  Leghorns lay more eggs than any other breed of chicken, hands down.  That's why industry has focused on them. 
  The one drawback to leghorns is that their carcass is very small framed, and there's not much meat on them.   

I round out my hen order with some buff orpingtons.  They're very calm, and very pretty, and people seem to like them.  They also work well as  dual-purpose bird. 

Hen order: 
  150 barred rock hen chicks
  150  buff orpington hen chicks
  50 white leghorn chicks

The meat birds 

I have a special market in this area, and I was sure glad to find it.   I'm able to sell live chickens at the farm gate for $20 each.  No processing, not slaughtering, and in fact, not any trouble at all.  The people who buy these are usually recent immigrants, and they're after the taste and texture of a bird that's been running around and doing chicken things. 

To match this demand we raise a few hundred roosters.  We generally let the chickens roam around, and they do a very good job of sucking up any spillage from feeders or fruits or vegetables that get dropped as we move it around, and people start buying them at 3lbs live weight, which we'll hit around march, and all through the summer. 

 As far as roosters go, I prefer to have the roosters be a different breed than the laying hens, and this year we'll be raising rhode island red roosters.  We've raised quantities of Black Australorps in the past, and they're perfectly satisfactory as a table bird, but we're going to over-winter some  black austarlorp  hens this year to collect and hatch their eggs.  Having the roosters be a different color than the hens means that when we're looking for a rooster they're easy to spot. 

Rooster order: 
400 rhode island red rooster chicks
40 cornish cross straight-run (my personal 1 year chicken supply)

Cornish Cross
Most of the people who are doing pastured birds commercially, and most of the chickens that you see in the grocery store are a breed of chicken commonly referred to as cornish cross.  I've written about their growth pattern, and measured by conversion of grain into chicken, they cannot be beat.  They are hands-down the fastest growing chicken you can buy. 

I do raise a small number of cornish cross chickens, but for my own personal consumption.  The folks that we sell our chickens to will not buy a white chicken from us.  I just like the efficiency, but as with every other meat in my freezer, I prefer to have an active part in its production. 

And our feed situation is pretty novel.  More than half what the chickens eat is the produce that we also feed to the pigs, or forage that they turn up themselves, including grass and bugs and everything else that a chicken finds tasty.   (Chickens are not vegetarians by choice).   Given that, I don't have to worry about the cost of feed during the longer grow-out of a heritage rooster, and the hatcheries sell heritage roosters at about half or less the cost of the meat birds -- which means that my outlay of cash to purchase them is smaller than if I purchased cornish cross birds. 

Supplementing this chicken order is our own production of eggs and chicks.  We'll hatch 100 or so chicks a month of each breed, starting in November, to provide continuing supply of maturing chickens throughout the rest of the year.  We stop hatching eggs in June -- the market for chickens starts to dwindle in October -- I like to sell out of all of the adult birds that we're not going to over-winter by the 2nd week in october.