Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Holiday traditions, food, family (video)

At this time of year I host a variety of different groups of people for what is becoming an annual tradition for them.
 History shows us that the slaughter of an animal and the consumption of the meat was a celebratory event; neighbors and friends and family would gather together to make the work easier and pass the time joking and laughing as they all worked to prepare the main ingredient to the feast.

Removing hair from a pig with a propane torch from bruce king on Vimeo.

For many, a pig is the primary holiday celebration animal; from small pigs roasted whole to large pigs that are parceled out and prepared in many different ways.    I see a lot of immigrant families at my farm - the slaughter is the time when the parents talk about how it was in the old country, and how they remember doing this with their parents and grandparents; it's a time to share skills and experiences with the next generation, to connect again with their past.

The pictures and video are from a group of russians who come every year to process their own pig; and I'm happy to host them.  As they roast the pig with the propane torch they'll cut off bits of fat from it and sprinkle it with salt and eat it as a slaughter-time treat.  Bits of crispy ear, a little wine, good friends.

This year I've hosted Samoan, Marshall islanders, Russians from various parts of eastern Europe, Ukrainians, Chinese, Ukrainians and Koreans.  It's been interesting sharing their cultural history.  Makes my day, actually.

Happy holidays to you and yours; enjoy the season!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Sugar Mountain afraid of bein' regulated!

Walter Jefferies is over on his blog complaining about some regulations that the state of Vermont is considering implementing, with the goal of preserving water quality.

Since Mr. Jefferies is looking for feedback on the proposed regulations, I thought I'd help him out, and illustrate the impact of this sort of regulation on a farm by marking up the map of Walters farm.   These are estimates and rough speculation based on aerial photos.  They're my best estimate, but don't bet the farm on absolute correctness here.    This post represents my opinion only.

old photo/Farm map showing paddock names: Source: SMF
This picture showing paddock names is pretty old, but from it you can generally see the area of the farm we'll be talking about.  Here's roughly the same image, but a more recent picture.  I've added counter lines showing elevation gain/loss in 25' increments.    In doing so there are apparently large areas of walters farm that are more than 10% grade -- which means that with bare dirt there's an increased chance of erosion without plant cover.  that said, here's the pic:

More recent picture, with contour lines showing slopes.  Source:  Google maps
Here's the effect of the first proposed rule Vermont:  intermittent waters, ditches, diversions, swales and conveyances shall be buffered at 10' or 25' for surface waters.  Buffered means planted areas surrounding and filtering the water.  It looks like Walter has either been driving his tractor in the marsh areas, or livestock has worn trails in it, but either way these proposed rules would restrict access to those areas.  Yellow in the areas below are the areas that would require a buffer, either 10 or 25'
10' or 25' buffer around intermittent water or surface water.  Source:  Google maps
Here's the effect of the second rule:  livestock will have no access to surface water except at defined crossings or watering areas, unless there's 3" of vegetation cover maintained by a rotational grazing plan.  Blue areas are areas that appear to me to be either very wet or surface water.  These areas would require livestock to be excluded from them.
Livestock fenced off from surface water.  Source:  Google maps
The surface water thing has a provision:  If you use an approved rotational grazing plan, and keep 3" or more of vegetation, you don't have to exclude the livestock, but in my opinion what is showing around most of this water area is either bare dirt, or very sparse vegetation.  In my opinion much less than the required 3" cover.   Here's a shot of Walters south field:
Click on picture for bigger view.  SMF south field.   Source:  Google maps
Look at the area immediately to the right of the greenhouse (that black thing in the upper left corner); bare dirt, and that color of dirt shows through over the majority of that field, in my opinion.  It can be hard to tell, but it looks like there's basically no underbrush left, and very little in the way of grasses or other ground cover.  what remains are low, scrubby bushes.   This sort of bare earth also appears to show up in all grazed areas of Mr. Jefferies farm, in my opinion of course.  So Mr. Jefferies farm wouldn't qualify as maintaining 3" of vegetation, and whatever grazing plan he is using now, since it doesn't end up keeping that 3" minimum, probably wouldn't be approved.  He'd have to come up with a grazing plan to fix this, and then implement it.

I don't think that Mr. Jefferies land has an area that floods, except maybe the "marsh" and "north marsh" areas, but we'll skip that part of the proposed regulation.

Here's a big one:  Manure stacking.
200' manure exclusion zones.  Source:  Google maps

Now I've taken Walters cleared area as being his property line, and drawn the exclusion lines that way.  But he may not have a property line there, so it might not apply.  The two circles are around what I presume are his personal water supply, at the house and at a spring somewhere uphill.  I don't really know where is uphill spring is, so I just picked a spot.

Now the state of Vermont isn't done with manure.  They want you to test the soil, and not to apply manure to soils that can't absorb the material.  (over 10% slope without 100% vegetative cover 100' around surface waters, exceed phosphorus levels of 20ppm, are frozen or snow covered or saturated with water.

The 10% slope/100% vegetation cover may exclude the entire area of Mr. Jefferies farm from being used, or at least a big part of it.   In my opinion, from what I can tell about Mr. Jefferies farm from these photos, there doesn't appear to have 100% cover, and most of his farm appears to be more than 10% grade; he is in the mountains of vermont, after all.  Grazing animals spread manure.  So this could be construed as prohibiting grazing unless the ground has vegetation on it; and since there are apparently patches of bare ground all over the place, well...

By keeping his animals outdoors, manure is being deposited on top of snow, frozen or saturated ground for a portion of the year, and this would apply to Walters ENTIRE farm with the exception of the greenhouse.  And that's may be a violation of these proposed rules.  To comply with this portion of the regulation, Walter  would have to confine his pigs to the greenhouse for as long as the ground is frozen -- 4 or 5 months a year, maybe?  Probably December 15th to April 1st, which is 4.5 months.  Maybe October 15th to April 15th (6 months) - both date ranges are mentioned in the regulations.  Welcome to mucking out barns and owning a manure spreader, Walter!  and by the way:   you can't spread it in the manure exclusion zone.

 In addition, Mr.  Jefferies will have to either develop a nutrient management plan (NMP) that meets NRCS standards to be certified, or choose to be uncertified and do soil tests, manure analysis, and to keep records on manure application and spreading.

Now in truth, these water quality standards are probably based on federal standards, and honestly, they're pretty darn close to those standards that I am required to follow (and do follow) on my own farm.

I understand Mr. Jefferies squawking about these regulations, but there is a price to being a good neighbor and a good farm, and this sort of regulation is just that.

Welcome to the club, Sugar Mountain Farm.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Rat hunting gun, part 3!

I've written about different rat hunting rigs in the past.  Version 1 was a bb gun with a laser sight, version 2 was  a pellet gun with an infrared scope.

the basic problem that I've got is that I have dogs and pigs, both of which will eat dead rats.  So poisons are generally out of the question for my farm.  I've also tried a variety of rat traps, from traditional to electronic, and I haven't had much impact on the population.  this rifle has been completely effective at removing rats from my barns.   I chose a pellet gun to limit the amount of overpenetration, and for cost-effective shooting.  Pellets are a penny or so each, and the air for this rifle is $20 for 50 fill-ups, about a penny a shot.  at 2 cents a shot, this is pretty cheap.

This is version 3:

The basic rifle is a BSA scorpion SE, with a picatinny scope adapter and a 10x scope.  The scope and mounts are basically stock.  Clamped on top of the scope is an infrared spotlight that points in the direction of the barrel, and a 3.5" LCD screen that points back to the butt of the gun.  On the eyepiece of the scope is a small camera, so the effect is that you look at the screen and what you see is what the scope is seeing.    the infrared addition is manufactured by Nitesite, and it's the NiteSite Viper
 I'm outside after dark, pointing the rifle at the top rail of a fence about 50' away.  The lumber in that fence is pressure-treated - you can see the speckling where they injected the preservatives, and below that you can see the top of a livestock panel.  You can also see the crosshairs from the scope in that view.

this particular rifle is a .22 calibre pellet clip-fed rifle, which means that it's plenty big for rats, and can also work for larger game (possums, rabbits, raccoons) if you wish.  the nitesite unit can be moved to another rifle in about a minute, so if you'd like to make a larger calibre rifle night capable, you can.  You don't have to resight the scope and there's no tools involved.  You pull the camera off the eyepiece, remove the batteries velcro strap, and then open the clamp for the spotlight/screen.  Move it to the new gun, and 30 seconds later you've got a night vision rifle.

I can get between 40 and 50 shots out of this rifle before recharging its internal air tank, which takes a minute or two.

To hunt rats I just turn off all the lights in the barns, and then about half an hour later walk out with the rifle and start shooting.  the only visible light is the reflection of the screen off of my face, and I can hit a rats head at 150', so the rats really don't know what's going on, where the shot is coming from, or where to run.  So I'll walk out, find a few rats, and start shooting.  the first shot kills one rat, and the others freeze for a second or two, trying to figure out where it came from.  the next two or three shots kill a couple more, and then there's usually a mass exit.  So I go away for a half hour, and come back to the same spot, and I can usually get another rat or two.

I don't know how many rats I've killed over the last 6 months; at least 2500, maybe as many as 3500.  I have fired 4500 pellets through this gun, just looking at my ammunition purchases.   I thought I had a rat problem, but it wasn't until I had the night vision equipment that I realized how many rats there were in the old barns and sheds.  the first night with this rifle I killed 175 rats.

On a typical walkaround these days I'll shoot between 4 and 6 rats as I make my rounds checking the animals, and while that seems like a lot, given the population that I started with, I consider this a manageable level of pests.

the rats are particularly easy to target - their eyes glow in the infrared spotlight, so you can see them clearly from quite a distance away.

Video of nightsite scopes in action (but does have a lot of annoying talk before the shooting)
This video is pretty close to what it's like to hunt the rats on my farm.

Farming regulation: What price the environment?

My primary farm acreage is fronted on two sides by salmon streams, and I have a variety of wildlife that I host on my acres; I regularly see coyote, bobcat, every sort of bird (eagles, hawks, owls, ducks, geese, swans, hummingbirds and thousands of smaller bird) and the usual local deer and even the occasional sign of bears.  I even suspect there's a cougar around here somewhere, but I've never been sure.  

I like and encourage wildlife as much as i can; in that I've changed my tune from a few years ago when I was shooting coyotes to choosing management that is less or non-lethal.  For coyotes, electric fences instead of bullets, for instance.    I do shoot rats, though.  They're invasive, destructive, and if I don't I'm going to be overrun with them.

I do that because I'm clear that we, as humans, are only going to have the wildlife left that we choose to let exist.  Actually, it's a little stronger than that.  If we don't make serious efforts to maintain our current wildlife I believe we humans, as a species, have the ability to eradicate them.  So I'm doing my small part by managing my land in a way that allows the native animals to do what they do, and I'm also talking to and encouraging my neighbors to do the same.

Part of the wildlife that I share my farm with isn't on the list, and that's the fish and things that live in the river and the watercourses and bodies of water around my farm.  I'm talking about things like salmon and trout and other fish, as well as salamanders and frogs and every other species that needs good quality water to survive.  those species are what the current regulations regarding water quality are all about, and honestly, I do take great care to make sure that my property and my use of my property don't impact the neighboring properties in any way.

In that I'm fairly luck - I purchased a bankrupt dairy, and the previous owners of the dairy had made vast and very expensive improvements to my farm that made manure handling simple and easy.  I'm going to estimate that to re-create the facilities that I use now would cost me about a million and half dollars.

that kind of money is far outside what a small farm (or a medium farm, or even a large farm!) can afford to spend to comply with regulations.

But what they can do is set aside buffers, areas of clean vegetation between farm operations and water, so that any water flowing into ponds, lakes, streams or rivers is filtered and cleaned before it goes on its way.

But the cost of that, particularly for small landowners, is that they lose a portion of their land, potentially forever.  

I've had my run-ins with my local regulatory agencies, and I understand what they are after, and why, but on the other side I do have quite a bit of sympathy for landowners who have their land effectively taken from them.  

For me, buffer areas and setbacks aren't that big an issue.  I have enough land that 10' here or 20' there really doesn't make much of a difference.  But I would like to see more recognition and compensation to landowners for this sort of taking.  Because that is really what it is.

And yes, I know about the CRP program, and I think that it's a very good program, and fairer.  But it's difficult for small landowners to access, there's a finite budget, so not all properties interested can enroll, and for productive farmland, the payments aren't enough to offset the loss of profit from normal farm operations.  If you've got marginal land it's actually a pretty good way to go.

The CRP program doesn't cover one of the ways that most of the land is taken from landowners around here:  "natural growth protection areas" (NGPA) -- which I call blackberry and canary grass reserves, because that's often all that ends up growing there.

For people building houses it's not unusual for you to lose 20 to 80% of  your building lot for NGPA reserves, and you are both not compensated for that loss of use, and you are required to do that as a condition of the permitting process; you are charged for the privilege of losing your land.

Lets save the environment, but lets spread the cost farther than the poor guy who wants to build a house this year.  The houses built last year, and in the last 150 years, had just as much impact to the environment in their time as this new one, and, in my opinion, should shoulder a portion of these costs as well.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Who looks at your food: Chicken

In my last post I talked about inspecting food that you produce yourself - and I pointed out that you, as the farmer, should be looking carefully at it.  I'd say that same for food that you sell to others - why would you sell something that you wouldn't eat yourself?

From that perspective, my practice on my own farm is to send a percentage of my own production through the processing system that my customers use, and I consume it at the other end; it's a simple way to stay on top of the quality issues related to what's on my customers plates.

Who looks at commercial chicken:

For commercial chicken, the current standard is to process around 140 birds a minute; those birds flying by on the line are inspected by one USDA inspector, and at that rate, they have to inspect 2.33 birds EVERY SECOND.

There are requirements that the plants test the chickens for harmful bacteria, but they're given the choice whether to test for  campylobacter or salmonella. - but are not required to test for both.  

The internal organs, if they're supplied with your chicken, are virtually never the heart, liver and gizzard of the bird itself.  Birds are broken down on the line, and then re-packed with innards from other birds; the whole thing happens on a pretty large dis-assembly line, so most chickens come in contact with most of the equipment on their trip through the line.   

In my opinon that is an opportunity for cross-contamination on an industrial scale.  If anything goes wrong in the anti-bacterial work that they do anywhere in the plant, it's possible to be fairly widely spread.

And in fact, test of supermarket chicken show that nearly 75% of the chicken sold is probably contaminated by bacteria inside the package, and that even 7% of the OUTSIDE of the packages contained potentially harmful bacteria - which means when you put the chicken into your shopping cart at the store it can cross-contaminate your other food items before you even get home.

Salmonella can also cause illness and death, and it's also found on and in packages of chicken.  Most recently in October of 2015.

What is being done?

Even though companies are trying to solve this problem, they are apparently not succeeding.  Witness Foster farms 2014 announcement about progress with Salmonella followed by the 2015 recall of chicken for...salmonella

 In my opinion, the current inspection and testing of chicken as a safe food is both ineffective and unlikely to prevent outbreaks.  When you buy chicken, consider the outside of the packages probably contaminated, and the inside of the packages certainly contimated by bacteria that will be made safe by thorough cooking.  
  Since the chicken industry has consolidated considerably in the last 20 years, you will find roughly the same chicken (under different brand names) in different stores.  I don't know of any store or brand that is more safe than any other -- handle it carefully, cook it completely, and consider it contaminated at each step while its raw.

If you raise and process your own chicken you can take some simple steps to reduce contamination; keep your work areas clean, clean your utensils before and after each slaughter, and keep each bird to itself - don't mix birds organs, for instance.  Bleach, soap and heat all will help with the process.

Here's a useful link on safely home-processing poultry

Sunday, December 13, 2015

who looks at your food before you eat it?

This post is about a not-so-happy incident, but I'm talking about it here as a learning opportunity.

Farming means that sometimes things don't work out, even if you've tried your best.  I say this because I had a man who purchased some weaner pigs from me earlier this year call me and say that the farm kill guy he'd hired to process it had advised him discard one of the pigs he'd raised.   He'd called me to ask me for a second opinion, and I followed up on this.  

After talking to everyone involved, the basic issue seemed to be that this pig had a history of getting hurt, slow growth, and for the last few weeks of its life hadn't been able to move -- and that's a hard thing for someone new to livestock to deal with.   It's hard to make the decision that an animal has to be put down, and each of us wants to be optimistic that the animal will recover, and we can all imagine a good outcome, and none of us like the finality of culling, but it's part of the process.  

So I talked to the farm kill guy, and the customer, and we worked it out.  I told the customer that the farm kill guy was a professional - he's handled thousands of animals, and I've worked with him for 5 years personally, and I recommend him.  That his opinion, boots on the ground, was something I'd respect. 

The last thing a farm kill guy wants to do is condemn an animal - it's not a happy job, but it's an important part of the farming experience.  For home-raised meats, the customer may not be in a position to tell when things are going wrong, and even though this particular customer wasn't happy about the decision, I fully support the decision that was made.   It was the right decision, and even though the farmer/customer wasn't thrilled with it, he did the right thing for everyone involved.  

I talked to the customer at length, and talked through the various things that they'd done, and recommended that the next time they run into a pig that isn't thrifty or gets injured that they consider harvesting it earlier; as a BBQ pig, for instance.   His wife had hand-fed and watered the pig twice a day for the last two weeks, and that's heroic level effort.  I commend their intentions, but sometimes the best of intentions aren't enough -- and then the difference between farming and pets gets pretty clear. 

When you raise your own meat for your own consumption,  you may be the only inspection that the meat goes through before it hits  your families table - and this isn't just farm animals.  Wild game hunters should be looking at the game that they are processing, too.  

In my slaugher classes I talk about what people should look at, and what they should see; the liver should look like this, the meat should look like that, you should check here, and here, and here.  

For as much grief as the USDA gets about inspected slaughter, I do like the idea of a (possibly) neutral observer who is on the consumers side somewhere in the slaughter process.  Recently chicken producers have managed to get regulations passed to remove most USDA inspectors from their plants, and honestly, as a consumer, I think that's a step backwards.  

If you'd like to hear more about chicken and inspection, I would reccomend this PBS frontline special on this topic to give you an idea of what the issues are, even with inspected meats:  

Monday, December 7, 2015

The weather and work

I've harvested more of this corn, just haven't got a more recent picture
The weather plays a big part in harvesting.  For this corn, since i've got a grain dryer, it really doesn't matter if it's raining or not when I pick it up; the combine does a great job of separating the kernels from the rest of the plant, but when it rains enough the ground gets too soft for the combine, and it starts to sink.

I've been pulling in two or three combine-loads of corn each day (the combine holds 190 bushels of grain when full, a little over 5 tons worth) and a full combine is almost precisely what the grain dryer holds.

So I'd load the grain dryer in the morning from the night before, and while it's drying, go out and grab another load.  When I come back, the grain is dry,  unload and store, and then load the dryer again, and go back out and get another load.

Then I'd unload the 2nd batch, and load the grain dryer the next morning from the combine.  This allowed me to harvest/dry/store 10 tons of corn per day, and I could get other stuff done as well.

But it's been raining a lot recently; more than an inch a day for most days, and the ground is now soft enough that I'm getting stuck in the field, particularly when the combine is close to full.

The long-term forecast doesn't give me a lot of hope that it'll clear up soon
Summary?  Rain.  Build an arc

The last couple of times they underestimated the flood level
So today it's a rest day for the combine, but a work day for me.  for the combine, it's inspect the belts, grease everything that can be greased, check and replace the fluid levels, remove, inspect and clean the screens, and top off the fuel.  Everything ready to go when the weather clears up a little.

At this point it would be helpful if the ground froze.  It looks like we'll be freezing every night starting about a week from now, and it may be that I can get some combining done while the ground is frozen then.  In the meantime I'm going to run the propane heater in the barn, and put on the headphones and do the equipment maintenance.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Population, farms and wildlife

In the next 40 or so years we'll be adding another 2.5 billion people to the world.  That population growth won't happen around here - most developed nations are either just barely at replacement levels or are actually going to shrink in population, like Japan.
combining the corn while thinking about this.  gotta fix that windshield wiper
Our current agricultural system produces a surplus of everything that we need; we don't think about surplus or shortage in america because we're very used to every kind of food available at all times from all over the world, but in a very real sense even though we have a surplus now, there's some hints that the surplus might be getting smaller as time goes by.

Take the decline in global rice stocks as an example.  over the last 3 years we've had a deficit in rice production.  More rice has been consumed than produced.  Now rice, and corn, and beans and every other type of crop, has good seasons and bad -- we had a record corn harvest in the USA this year, for instance, so there's no worries that your corn chips will dissapear -- in fact, they might even get cheaper, but we have no where near the amount of food being produced today that will be required to feed another 2.5 billion mouths.

We'll need either crops that are much better than current varieties, or we'll need more acreage, or we'll need both.  The expected growth in standard-of-living of very large countries like china or india also will probably change their eating habits.  Meat is a popular food for people who can afford it, and more and more people can afford it.  A pound of pork is at least 5lbs of feed, and when people start moving up the dietary scale, the amount of grain required also increases.

I'd rather see us get more efficient per-acre than to choose to add more acres, to the detriment of what wildlife remains on the earth.  And that's a choice that we're going to have to conciously make worldwide, because I think that any arable land will be put into use in the next few decades, that being the easiest way to increase our production.

There's currently a debate about GMO and herbicides and pesticides and very large corporations that control things like seeds and fertilizers -- and while those issues are important, I think that they are a distraction from the real effort that must be made to be able to handle the people who are coming.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Raising pigs in Africa

I got a call on my cell phone the other day, and didn't recognize the number.  In fact, it didn't look like a phone number, but what the heck, I answered, and found myself talking to a farmer in Africa who'd been reading my blog and wanted to ask my opinion on some pasturing issues he had.    

ashanti black sow
The popular pig breed in his area is the Ashanti, and he sent several pictures of them.  They look smaller than a yorkshire, but the weaners look good.
ashanti weaners
Group shots are always nice to see breed characteristics
ashanti weaners
He explained that he liked the yorkshire breed, and had imported some yorkshires from the UK at great expense.  He sent several pictures of them.  I think he'll keep some purebred and crossbreed some with the ashanti.  I'm interested in seeing what they look like.
yorkshire weaners
he clearly takes good care of the pigs; they are in good weight for growers.  

the feed and the farmer!  Kofi Nti Boateng
batch of puppies - LGD?
yorkshire weaners
yorkshire weaners
yorkshire weaners
Brahma? calves?
In talking to him, his primary challenge is finding cheap enough feed for his pigs.  In the USA we have segregated our market, and people really don't compete much with animals for feed.  In africa, every bit of grain has a strong market, and it's sometimes difficult to find.  So he's working on growing more of his own feed; it's funny, but in a different way I'm doing the same exact thing on the other side of the planet.  

His climate is such that with water, he can grow corn in 3 seasons.  So he's looking to make a pig tractor and move the pigs over his acreage, planting corn as he moves the pigs.  in 90 days or so he crops that acreage (I'm not clear if he's going to let the pigs harvest it for him, or if he's going to pick the corn - either way, the pigs get it) and efficiently use his land.  

I talked to him about his tractor idea, and suggested an electric fence enclosure instead of a hard tractor, but then realized that I didn't know if his electricity was reliable enough to keep the pigs contained.  A durable tractor might be a good way to go, actually, if you can't depend on the power system.