Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The farm calendar - what I've found useful as a new farmer

I'm a relatively new farmer. Most of my adult life has been as an engineer or teaching engineers, and that background works pretty well for analyzing and breaking down situations.

When I was looking at farming, what I didn't really get a handle on is that each crop or animal or activity like plowing, fencing or clearing, had its own time. That is, each task required a certain amount of work, and that time really was related to the date more than anything else.

Turkeys as a crop
For example, turkeys. When you first get turkeys you spend quite a bit of time making sure they thrive. My experience is that turkeys are very delicate for the first two weeks, and then suicidal for the next 2 months, and then they settle down to adult life. At the end of their span there's a bit of work related to marketing them and processing them and then getting them into the customers. So a turkey calendar looks like this for me:

Early Feb: Order poults or put eggs in to hatch
Early Feb: Prepare brooding areas, check lights and equipment, water, and order feed
March: Hatch poults or receive poults.
April/May/June: 2-3 hours a day tending to turkeys. 7 days a week.
July-early November: 10 minute a day feeding turkeys
November 1: Count turkeys, confirm orders, set delivery days/places
Early November: Select breeding stock from this years birds
mid-November: Process & deliver turkeys

When I started thinking about my activities this way, I found that I got a better handle on what the workload would be for me. I could look at the calendar and figure out if I needed to bring in extra help, or for a time that I could do things that can be deferred until sometime when I'm less busy.

Adding more crops
With a calendar, I can then choose crops or activities that fit in well with my current schedule. So for instance, if turkeys are consuming 4 hours a day, I have another 4 or so hours that day I could be doing other things. I can then choose crops or animals that fit in well and don't overload me for a particular day or week or month. Load averaging by date.

Chickens and turkeys
For me, chickens and turkeys are two very similar crops. I can grow out batches of chickens at the same time as my turkeys for not much more labor, so that's a crop mix that works for me.

Timing animal breeding for minimum work and best price.
Another thing a calendar allows me to do is time the breeding and birth of my other animals, particularly the sheep and cows. By controlling when they're bred I can have a better idea of when they'll lamb or calve, and do it at a time that allows me to schedule some time for them.
Piglet prices are pretty seasonal. If I can get a sow pregnant in November, for instance, her litter will wean at pretty much peak market.

So on my farm calendar for January:
Look at turkey breeding flocks, cull any birds that aren't perfect
Look at chicken breeding flocks, cull.
Order chickens from hatcheries for delivery in Feb, March, April, May, June
Order turkeys from hatcheries for delivery in march.
Pregtone all sows, cull as appropriate
Inspect and repair fencing
Make salami

Monday, December 29, 2008

Current costs of raising a pig

If you're considering raising your own pigs for food I thought you might find a breakdown of the costs of raising a pig. This is based on my own experience and current market prices (as of December 2008). The market prices of feed and piglets has been rising for the last 3 years, and despite other commodities lowering in price, piglets and feed really haven't gone down in price much, if at all. These costs are all the consumables; I'm not covering labor cost, the cost of the pig pen itself, and any other costs like a pig feeder or a trough.

Piglet prices this year & best time to buy
First, piglet prices in 2008 have varied from a high of $125 to a low of $50, with the median sale price of $85. The highest prices are in the spring (march, April, may) and the lowest prices in fall/winter (November, December, January).

Piglet sources
In western Washington the farm and garden section of craigslist has been a good source of piglets. You can also find them in the little nickel (a weekly classified ad paper) and by looking for local signs or farms. Zoning and land use laws in western Washington are hostile to small farms, and so there are fewer and fewer each year, but the ones that remain do appreciate your business. Please buy as local as you can. Generally speaking, for a price difference of $10 a piglet or less, it's usually not worth driving an hour each way, so choose your pig source with that in mind.

Feed prices this year & best way to buy
Prepared pig feed in bulk bags (1,000lbs or more) is $330/ton. That works out to $8.25 for every 50lbs. If you buy that same feed in 50lb bags, you'll pay between $10 and $15 per bag, or between $400 and $600 a ton. Because of this difference in price, it's worth renting a pickup truck for $20/hour to pick up a supersack at the feed mill and drive it home. If you don't have a tractor to pick the feed out, get an empty supersack and use a 5 gallon bucket to move the feed off the truck into the empty supersack, and then throw a tarp over it and call it good.

Other consumables - bedding
Hay and straw and most other things you can use as bedding have gone up. Current prices for 800lb round wrapped bales of hay are $50 if you pick them up, and more if you get them delivered. Small square bales of local grass hay are $6-8, horse quality hay is $12-15/bale. At $6/bale you're paying roughly 300/ton, at 15/bale you're paying roughly 600 a ton, assuming 60lb bales. The large round bales are $150/ton.

To keep the pigs comfortable in winter you'll need 500-700lbs of hay. Best way to buy it is a single large round bale that you tarp and use as needed.

Time of year variable cost
The better your shelter for your pigs the less you'll spend on feed to keep them warm. It pays to bed them well, and it means a shorter time to slaughter as well. So for economic and moral reasons both, a happy, warm pig will be the best deal for you. Figure 2-3lbs of feed per pound of pig in the summer, and 3-4lbs of feed per pound of pig in the winter.

Summary of costs per pig, assuming slaughter at 280lbs live weight.

Piglet: $60
Feed: $185
Bedding: $50
Total winter cost: $295

Piglet: $110
Feed: $148
Bedding: $25
Total summer cost: $283

Current market price, western washington
Pork is selling for $2.25/lb hanging weight, exclusive of farm kill and cut-and-wrap fees.
So a 280lb live weight pig will sell for approximately $450 (200lb sides * 2.25/lb).
A full pig, cut-and-wrapped, will easily fit into a marine cooler or medium sized freezer.

Costs of raising a heavier pig (baconer vs porker)
I prefer to eat a heavier pig. I like the wider bacon, I like the back fat for lard and sausage, and in general I think the meat tastes better. A porker is a pig that is slaughtered young primarily for use as fresh pork. A baconer is raised a little heavier to provide more back fat (for lard or sausage or whatever) and more pounds of bacon. Baconers are more expensive to produce because the last 50 to 100lbs gain, from 250 to 350, is mostly fat, and is slower than the initial growth rate. So it takes your growout from 8 months to between 10 and 11 months. Figure another 400lbs of feed at $70 or so to produce a baconer.

Farm kill rates and how to save some money on cut-and-wrap fees
Farm kill here is $45. For this price they come to your farm, shoot the animal, bleed it, skin it, gut it and cut it into halfs and then transport to the cutting shop. There are two ways you can save some money here if you're so inclined. First, if you're not a fan of eating the head of your hog or things on the head, like the jowls or tongue, you can have the farm kill guy cut the head off the pig. This removes roughly 25lbs per side of weight. At typical cut-and-wrap costs of $0.50/lb, you can save $25. The jowls make great bacon, and the tongue is good too, but both of those can be something you can remove yourself for free after the sides are off to the meat shop. The second is to ask the farm kill guy to remove and leave the internal fat, the caul fat and other internal fat. this only saves you a few pounds, but every dollar counts. The caul fat and other internal fat, is actually the highest quality fat on the pig, so if you're inclined to render fat for lard, or experiment with making sausage or salami, this would be a good place to start.

Worldwide pork prices rising
Feed prices here really haven't been reflected in pork prices. Higher animal prices for sows and finished pigs are showing up around the world, however.

record sow prices

Pork commodity prices not going down

US pork prices lower than worldwide prices

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Bedding pigs

That's shortie snoozing on a comfy bed of hay even though the air temperature is 20 degrees. We've experimented quite a bit with bedding pigs on our pasture, even in winter. Notice the snow on the field to the right.

For pig shelters we use portable calf domes that we get used from dairy farms. They show up on craigslist from time to time, and if they're in good condition with no cracks they work great. Market price around here for a 7' (that's the larger size calf dome) is $190. I've bought about 20 of them, and in the three years I've been using them, I've only cracked one. So I use that one mostly as a "tarp" over the top of supersacks of pig food.

Pigs love to sleep together, so even though this sow (her name is tank) seems to fill the entire dome, when night falls there will be her, her sister, and a couple of smaller pigs fit into the cracks, or sleeping on top in the grooves between the sows. Goats get in there, too. I'm guessing that everyone appreciates the extra warmth.

Whole litters of piglets love this, too.

So here's what we do to make this work.

First, you want the animals to have a good amount of insulation under them. In fact, the insulation between the ground and the animal is more important than the cover on the animal. So we actually cover the entire bottom of each pen with 8 60lb bales of hay. This means that there's 18-24" of compressed hay below the animals. You can cut the strings or not. We do cut them.

After you've got the bottom covered, break up another bale and stuff every hole.

The pigs will go into this, and if they're cold, they'll burrow into the hay. This picture shows a mature sows head buried in the hay. The snout of the pig is at the center bottom of the picture, her ear is near the top of the picture. This is a happy, warm pig.

We watch the hay, and when it gets wet or muddy we'll toss another bale of hay in. If it's too messy we toss a handful of food into the hay pile and flip the dome over and rebed it. I buy local grass hay for $2/bale for this, and usually spend about $100 a year on bedding these domes. Figure it saves me at least that amount of feed that the animals would otherwise shiver off. Plus it's fun to see a bunch of pigs sleeping in.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Perils of urban farming: Petty theft

One of the things about having a farm near an urban area, at least for me, is a constant level of petty theft. Yesterday they stole 1 large plastic garbage can, 2 smaller (30 gallon) garbage cans, and a large pet carrier.

I've lost shoves, picks, axes, poultry nets and livestock, as well. Most of my animals are pretty tame, and will come right up to you if you carry a bucket. So I've been moving most of my livestock away from the fence, and every day I've been going through a cleanup ritual.

But I mean, c'mon! garbage cans? how much meth can you get for a used garbage can? If you want $7, come and work an hour. I'll figure out something for you to do, and you don't run the risk of me catching you. Because if I do I'll be pretty darned mad.

My farm is far enough from town that people have to drive to get to me. If you have enough money for gas, or a car, leave my shovel alone!

Chickens and turkeys don't have brands, and they're pretty good, easy sales downtown, off the back of a truck.

Looks like I get to have a surveillance system now. Oh Joy. That's what I had in mind when I started farming.


Friday, December 26, 2008

The best mashed potatoes

Potatoes are a staple of my diet, and I've found my favorite mashed potato recipe is garlic mashed potatoes.
I mix three types of potatoes. Each type adds a different texture and flavor. it's worth trying if you haven't already.

The russet potato (on right) adds a creamy texture. The white and red both add a waxy texture, and a "lumpy" mouth feel that I find appealing.

Peel the russet but don't peel the red or white potatoes.

cut them into roughly equal sized chunks so that they cook at the same rate, and toss into a pot of boiling water with 4 or 5 whole cloves of garlic.

Remove them when they're soft, and mash in a bowl with a quarter cup of milk, or if you're feeling extravagant, cream or half-and-half. Just mash the garlic in with the rest of it. It'll have a mild garlic flavor.


Thursday, December 25, 2008

pigs and chickens and dogs

I keep a few chickens around each of the pig pens. They clean up the crumbs from the feeders, and are interesting to watch. They tend to hang around in the shelters at night, roosting on top of pigs, or on the top of the shelter itself if the weather allows

One of the reasons I can have chickens is this guy. He, and the other four, keep the raccoons and possums and weasels and coyotes and other predators away.

The problem with him, and his mate and offspring, is that they can jump.

These are the two halves of the steer I slaughtered a week or so ago. Notice that the halves are looking a little ragged on the bottom? Today I found all of the dogs doing their best vertical leaps trying to eat the steer.

So we had a little talk about the order of eating on the farm, and their position in that order, and all was well again. I'll have to trim off a few pounds. The entire pack was unanimous in the opinion that the beef was tasty. I agree with them.

Oh well. Merry Christmas, dogs!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The herd of tiny pigs

I'm always interested in adding new genetics to my herd, particulary berkshires. So when I ran across a litter of berkshire piglets, I bought them all. Some of them were a little small. So the problem is when you're introducing a new animal to your system, how do you teach it?

Here's my solution. Take a couple of medium sized pigs and put them into the pen with the small ones. Yes, the bigger pigs do get to eat first, and drink first, but they also show the little guys how to eat and drink.

There's a pretty dramatic size difference between pigs, and they grow fast. In a month or so the little guy in the center will be the size of the pig on the left, and in another month the size of the pink pig. The little guys spend a lot of time trying unsucessfully to push the bigger pigs around. Mostly the bigger pigs ignore them. Within this little herd the pigs will form friendships and hang around with each other. When I move them out to the pasture they'll continue to socialize mostly with their friends that they met when they were little.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The medium sized pig herd

Well, this is the herd of medium sized pigs. I'm carrying about 60 feeder pigs right now, aiming to sell them at farmers markets next spring and summer. My experience this year is that I sold every pig I had, and in fact sold so many i didn't get to eat any of my own pork, which was a little silly. So for 2009 I'm stocking up.

Theyr'e quite a colorful lot. I like having a variety of colors in my herd. Some of these are hampshire, yorkshire, berkshire, duroc and crossbreeds of all of those. When I'm working with them I'm looking at their temprament, and overall disposition. I prefer to work with calmer animals that respond well to kind treatment, so traits that don't work well with this operation will probably be noted for early sale.

This pig is earning high marks for being curious and coming over to see what I'm doing. I take a note of what she looks like (literally, I note the markings and that I liked her) and keep watching.

The whole time I was working with the medium sized pigs the boar was standing abosolutely still watching. He's about 200 feet away. He is much bigger than my dog. He's just much farther away.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Piglet terrorism - they hate the electric fence

Click for a larger version.

I run a pretty minimal electric fence. The basic theory i operate on is that if they've got everything they need in their pen they don't really try to get out. Every now and then you get a determined pig, but usually as they grow and mellow out a bit even the trouble makers fall into line.

The exception to that is the piglets. In this case, a small band of renegade piglets slipped under the fence and attacked and destroyed the electric fence. These piglet freedom fighters actually removed the caps from the batteries acid compartments. Each cap. Every cap. And then chewed them up so that they couldn't be reused. And then they tore the fence charger off its post, and chewed off the clips used to connect it to the batteries, and carried the charger away about 100'.

The grey pig in the picture is likely an innocent bystander. I found the culprits; this tight-knit unit.

Who, us? No way. We were [eating, drinking, sleeping, playing] when the fence was destroyed. We didn't have nuttin do do with the fence thing. We're good piglets.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Snow and airedales

I was walking the 9 acres that I purchased, and the dogs were having a great time.

This is my fifth generation of airedales. All of them, without exception, are thrilled by snow. It smells good, it is fun to run in, you can dig in it easily... what's not to love? That's monster with the snow on his nose. he's the dad.

Cat, the mom, is on the right. Her three pups are growing fast. They weigh about 30lbs now. they'll mature at 55lbs or so.

Airedales are a large, active breed. They like to run. They are terriers, and love to hunt. Rats, mice, shrews -- grizzly bears that time in Bella Coola... just about anything. My life with the airedales got easier when I trained them all to run on a treadmill. 6 miles of good running once a week, and they're good.

Woosh! they're by me, in search of something good to chase, or smell, or investigate, or pee on.

These three are littermates, but they're not identical. Tiny is the runt of the litter, and he's a little tentative, still. he's coming back to me. The other two are thinking about coming back, but they're torn between coming back, or continuing on to see what dad is digging up (in the distance on the top left of the photo)

having fully investigated, they return at a gallop

This is the greatest dog adventure EVER! THANK YOU MASTER!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Pig handling for first responders

It'd never occured to me that police and ambulance and so on will need to handle pigs from time to time. I deal with farm pigs, so the advice given is pretty good. Here it is:

Market pigs generally weigh in at 250 pounds or so, but those kept for breeding stock may tip the scales at 500 to 600 pounds. They eat commercial pig rations. They need fresh drinking water at all times. They are susceptible to heat, cold, and stress.
Best way to move them is with canes or panels; hog snares may be used for restraint. Remember that they pull back against a loop around their snout, so don't expect to lead them with one!

What I'd add to this is: Pigs consider anything that they cannot see through to be solid, at least until pressed or cornered. So a tarp or sheet will work well to guide or steer the pig.

A medium sized pig (100-300lbs) can be handled by putting a 5 gallon bucket over the head and putting the handle behind its ears to help hold the bucket there. They will instinctively try to back out of the bucket, so handling this pig is a matter of steering the pig backwards to where you want it to go. The bucket will also eliminate the possibility of being bitten while it's in place. Always a good thing with a pig you don't know.

If the animal is relatively calm, or sometimes even if its not, you can typically bribe a pig. Marshmellows work great, or any food item. It doesn't have to be something the pig has eaten before, but if the pig has never seen an apple you might have to do some work getting it to recognize it as food. let the pig smell it, but watch your hands. The pig doesn't make too much difference between your apple and your hand, and probably wouldn't mind a bit of both to chew on. never feed a pig with your hand. throw the food on the ground, or hold it in a bucket.

Most farm pigs are friendly, curious, and not terribly agressive -- particularly the sows or barrows (castrated males). If you are handling a boar you can have a little more aggressive animal. Look for testicles the size of medium oranges on the back of the animal,and if it's an uncastrated boar take extra care.

Personally, if in the course of of a major disaster of some sort I ran across a pig, I'd be thanking my lucky stars. One pig can feed 80-100 people.

original link here:

moose bacon cheeseburgers

I was over talking to Matt at PlumTree piggery, and he gave me a couple of pounds of ground moose from his hunt earlier this year. Moose is a rare treat for me; it's pretty darned tasty. So dinner tonight was garlic mashed potatoes and moose cheeseburgers with tillamook cheddar and pastured bacon.

Moose, as with most game meats, is very lean. When Matt had his moose processed they added 10% beef fat to the burger so it would be tastier. I actually prefer adding pig fat, or a mix of beef and pig fat, but this was pretty tasty.

The moose meat came packed in a chub, and is a rich, dark red. It's a mild game meat, and quite tasty. As with any hunted meat, I cook it well-done to be on the safe side -- the handling of hunted meat varies quite a bit, and there's a bigger chance of some sort of contamination. Luckily the bacon keeps things from drying out.

I lay the bacon out on the pan and set the moose patties on it. The fat from the bacon adds some flavor to the edge but doesn't cover the moose flavor itself. If you're gonna eat moose you want to taste moose, not other things.

I fry on high until I get some color on this side, then reduce the heat to cook. Takes 4-5 minutes at medium-low heat. Don't press -- you want to keep the liquid in the burger. yes, it's satisfying to press a burger, nice hiss... but don't do it. Once done I flip the burgers but leave the bacon between the pan and the burger. This bacon is a little bit lean for this application. A fattier bacon would have worked better.

When it's all done I put a slice of cheese on and cover the pan to allow the cheese to melt onto the patty. Yum!

I used dinner rolls for a bun, toasting them on a cast-iron frypan after lighting coating them with olive oil. The crispy bun makes it extra tasty. Mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard and salad greens complete the burger.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Local goverment and farms

King county Washington spends a fair bit of time talking about encouraging farming. They seem bewildered when the total farmed acreage in king county decreases every year.

King county is a very urban area. It is the most populous county in the state. Seattle dominates King county, and Seattle voters basically ignore the rural areas. Well, ignore isn't strictly true. Seattle would prefer that people who live outside Seattle pay the taxes on the property, and keep it green and pretty so that people from Seattle can see it when they drive by. Green and open space, paid for by someone else. That's a great goal.

Most of the farms in King county are operated by people who have at least one other income off the farm, if not two. This means that the farm is a second job for most people -- so people who are farming are working 80-90 hours a week between their full-time job and the chores required for a farm. When you add a regulatory burden -- even one that is supposed to "help" or "encourage" farming, you're dealing with the farmers sleep time, or free time, which they consider precious. No wonder people stop farming.

I'll be speaking at a public comment forum coming up, but meanwhile I answered a survey that they put out asking about farming in the future. The public comment forum i'll speak at is being held on Jan. 8, 7 p.m., in the Madrona Room of the Carol Edwards Center, 17401 133rd Ave. NE in Woodinville.

From the short survey, their questions and my answers.

What do you need to support your farm?
I need a customer base that can afford to purchase relatively expensive products. I need to be able to have buildings to support my farm activities. I need to be able to change my operations to suit the market -- different animals, different practices, different crops. I need to be able to live on or near my operation, or to grow my operation large enough to hire someone to live on or near my operation. I need a small slaughterhouse that will allow me slaughter animals that are USDA inspected within a 2 hour drive of my operation.

How is your operation changing?
I am a new farmer. I have been doing this for 3 years. My operation is growing.

What trends do you see in local agriculture?
Land is being cut into increasingly smaller chunks. No one will ever put together large parcels for agriculture, so the trend will be to have smaller and smaller chunks of land and smaller and smaller farms in the western Washington region, and king county in particular. In eastern Washington it is popular when land is subdivided to add CC&Rs (covenants, conditions and restrictions) that basically outlaw certain agricultural activities in land otherwise zoned agricultural. I need land that has reasonably clear boundaries on its use -- the base county zoning, for instance -- and I need my neighbors to not be able to control what I do on my land. I will respond to the market, but I need the flexibility to to do things that are common/good/best practice without fear of neighbors being able to block or interfere. King counties current setback requirements for pigs to be 90' from property lines means that you cannot keep pigs on lots less than an acre wide, or smaller than an acre in general. Remember that farms will be getting smaller and smaller as time goes by. Setbacks will gradually eliminate pigs from the possible farms in king county. Pigs in particular are known as "mortgage lifters" -- they are livestock that are a proven winner for urban markets. King county is hostile to small pig farmers.
what are your plans for your farm property in the future?

I am buying land in counties other than king to sell to consumers based mostly in king county. I would much rather operate and sell in the same county, but the current king county land use regime makes this impossible.

If you'd like to participate in the survey you'll find it here:

Tax foreclosure auction

Snohomish county held its tax foreclosure auction today in the auditorium of the local utility. It was lightly attended, maybe 100 people. After watching the property list for weeks only one parcel remained that I was interested in; the rest were either redeemed or withdrawn. Not sure what it means when it's withdrawn.

I purchased 9 acres of good bottomland for $2700 an acre, which i considered a good deal. I walked the property today but will have to wait until it thaws to see the lay of the land. It was formerly used as a dairy farm, so chances are good its got canary grass planted on it; a good, hardy forage grass, suitable for my farming.

Lots of the parcels sold were fractional ownership shares of private roads or bits and pieces of lots that were trimmed off for reasons unknown. four or five small lots with vacation cabins, couple of lots that were listed as "currently underwater" -- but still sold.

The terms of the auction were payment at time of bid, so I had a handful of cashiers checks in various denominations. All in all a pretty good day.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Eating the steer - vegetable beef soup

I slaughtered the steer yesterday, skinned it and let it cool overnight. Temperatures here are pretty good for this sort of thing. The steer firmed up overnight, and I separated the halves with a sawsall today. A metal-cutting blade works pretty well to split the carcass.
While I was at it I sawed off the rear legs below the hocks, and the front legs and hocks. The hocks aren't really much improved by hanging -- plus i wanted to eat some of the steer today, so I cut them into 1.5" disks and brought them home to make vegetable beef soup.

one or two front hocks sliced into 1.5" sections
1/2 large onion, diced
7 large carrots cut into 1/8" pieces
3 celery stalks, diced
1 medium leek, diced
1 small can tomato paste
generous handful of green beans cut into 1" sections
loaf of french bread for dipping
In a large pot brown the hocks in a little vegetable oil. After you've got a little color on all of the hocks, add enough water to cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the meat falls off the bones, 45 minutes to an hour usually.
Strain the soup through a colander to separate the hocks and the liquid. Return the liquid to the pot. Pick the meat off the bones and the marrow, mince to bit sized bits, and return the meat to the soup. Discard bones and gelatin. (your dog will love you)
Add all other ingredients. simmer until carrots are tender. Serve with the french bread. Just the thing for a cold winter day.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Calf liver and onions

Calf liver and onions

3/4 lb fresh calf liver sliced 1/2 inch thick
1/2 cup flour
1 large onion
4 or so tablespoons of olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Slice the onion in half, and then into wedges about 1/4" thick at the outer edge
In a large frying pan, cook the oniions. Don't add any oil; you want the onions to char a little and wilt.
Season the flour with salt and pepper to taste. A tablepoon of salt and a teaspoon of pepper are a starting point.
add olive oil to the frying pan.
Dredge the liver in the seasoned flour and add it to the frying pan
Cook liver to taste -- but if it's really fresh, a little rarer is often very good. Flip ONCE only

You can also add bacon and use the bacon fat as your frying fat if you choose. I'll probably do that tommorow.

Beef for dinner

Sometimes you have to roll with the punches. The steer wasn't any better this morning, and was going into shock -- eyes rolling back, gums pale, etc. The goal of my farm is to grow food for people, and if I let the cow go any longer there's a good chance I'll lose it as human food, so it has to go now.

These are the parts I used to assemble a singletree. This is some tackle that allows you to hoist a large animal in the air to make the slaughtering process easier. I guessed at the measurements from pictures in "basic butchering of livestock and game", link below, and assembled it on a 4x4 doug fir timber that I milled last year.

I measured between the legs of the steer that I'm butchering today, and got a basic measurement of 24". The parts cost a total of $70 -- $17 each for the S hooks (they rotate in the center so that they're easier to attach to the animal) and I chose stainless steel eye bolts as well, to make sure that the metal touching the meat doesn't discolor or add a taste to it. Stainless steel is a pretty standard meat handling material. The four eye bolts are 3/8" stainless, the main eye bolt is 3/4" galvanized steel.

Here the singletree is hanging from the chain hook on the tractor. Now that it's ready, it's time for the steer to go.

I'm going to skip shooting the cow with a .22, cutting the throat, and go directly to the hoist. the singletree works as it should. For this cow I used the inner set of hooks. For a bigger animal I might use the outer set. The 4x4 is 40" long, the center eye bolt is set at 20", the inner eye bolt is 12" from the center, and the outer eye bolt is 18" from the center. To insert the hooks into the steer I used a knife to make a hole, and then hooked it, and pulled the hook over to the single tree to attach it. With S hooks I was a bit worried about the cow bouncing off as we moved it with the tractor, but it wasn't a problem.

Sorry about the picture. it was snowing a whole bunch at the time, and it was cold, and I was lazy.

After the cow has been killed the basic butchering begins. Because I was limited on daylight I tied off the bung, skinned the animal and field-dressed it -- removed the internal organs and then propped it open to cool. I blocked the front loader so the beef wouldn't hit the ground during the night, and called it a day. Total elapsed time from the shot to here is 2 hours. An hour of that was my very slow skinning of the animal. This is the first cow I've ever butchered, so I was extra careful to take the hide off in one piece. There's a tannery local to me that will tan the hide with the hair on. I think I'll try that.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Bad day at the farm - part 1

Pasture farrowing is new to me; it works pretty well in the summer; it's warmer and a little drier. Some folks seem to be able to farrow pigs in the winter -- like Walter Jefferies at sugar mountain.

So this is my first winter farrowing on pasture. I have been following the sow for the last week, making sure that she was bedded with clean, dry hay... and I lost all 9 of her piglets today.

Some of these didn't make it out of their unbilical sacks, others did, but were found dead around the sow. The scientist part of me says that negative results are results, but it sucks when you're carrying a bucket of piglets.

I took pictures of the piglets, but after contemplating this, I've decided not to post them. There's nothing you'd learn from them, and for me, I'd like to forget today happened as quickly as possible.

I think in winter, I'll be switching to a farrowing pen for the first week or so of the piglets life, in a barn. After being cited, threatened, fined and paying various fees to snohomish county, they haven't granted me the permit that they required me to get, or told me that they will not grant it, so I cannot finish my barn that I started last year, and that sucks as well.

Snohomish county says they want to preserve and enhance farming, but my experience as the only new farmer in several miles in any direction is that they are hostile to any farming or any other activity. If my barn were complete I'd have someplace to put my steer, and someplace to put my other pregnant pigs. As it is, I'm stuck with a bucket of dead piglets and a steer that's likely to die, too.

bad day at the farm - part 2.

When I started this blog, I thought about whether I'd write about days that didn't go as planned. The day you wish you could just write off, or forget about. Today is one of those days.

My decision then was to write about the experiences because that's what I'd like to read. Farming isn't a disney picture; you take what you are given and do the best you can with it.

Today when I drove up, I noticed a cow down on the field. There's a patch of ice that formed, and in the recent cold weather (daytime highs of 20 degrees F, lows of 9 degrees F). Cows down are sometimes ok, but this cow was the middle of the patch of ice. It's not a very big patch of ice, but big enough, apparently.

The cow weighs between 300 and 400lbs, and is one of the largest of my $5 calves. I don't know how long it was laying on the ice, or what state its legs are in. I was able to move it to the side of the ice pretty easiily, pulling it over the smooth surface, but I couldn't get the animal to stand.

And I tried for an hour or so, pulling, lifting, tugging. This sucks a lot.

I finally brought the tractor over and rigged a sling with a load strap and the chain hook on the bucket.

Having lifted it it didnt' want to stand; the front legs look ok, but the rear legs aren't functioning. They may have been sprained, or maybe just frozen. Not sure.

I finally rigged a full-body sling for the steer out of a couple of supersacks, and suspended this little guy from the ground. he's about 18" above the ground and being held upright. He's eating and drinking, and has food and water in reach, but I fully expect to find him dead tommorow. really makes me want to spring out of bed, ya know?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Turkeys and pigs in snow

Sometimes you have to wonder if the turkeys can feel their feet at all. These heritage birds are standing in the snow -- there's bare earth all around, but the snow is apparently where it's at for a turkey. The center bird facing us is a bourbon red hen; the grey birds to the right and left are blue slate hens, and the bird in the center behind the bourbon red is a narragansett hen.

The turkeys at this time of year have split into two main flocks -- the toms and the hens. They spend a little time together, but for the biggest part of the day they're hanging out with their own gender.

The birds in the front here are narragansett, the rear birds are either black spanish or eastern wild. I keep a breeding flock of each type.
This is big mamma, she's one of my oldest sows and is currently pregnant; shes due around february. She's out for a stroll in the pasture.

This is her sister, Tank. She's still not farrowing, but any minute. Here she's moved the portable shelter we put out for her and is building a nest in the dry hay we provided. This means that we'll have to wait until she starts giving birth and then move the shelter on top of her, and give her another 4 or 6 bales of hay.

This is shorty; she's decided that she likes this shelter, and is making a nest of her own. My farm is bordered by a freeway -- that's the raised road you can see in the background. I have the most inspected farm in Snohomish county, Washington. 55,000 cars a day pass by, and during traffic jams, people spend a lot of time looking at my animals and operations. The most frequent question I get is how I get the pigs to respect the minimal electric fences I maintain.