Saturday, January 31, 2009

Turkey breeding flock; farm calendar

Here's part of my breeding turkey flock. Click on the picture for a bigger version. There are blue slate, bourbon red, narragansett, eastern wild, sweetgrass and black spanish turkeys here. They're pretty fun to watch. At this time of year we're penning them by breed so we can get purebred poults. Turkeys can store semen for weeks, so it's important to have them separated for a while before you need purebred birds. In our case we collect the eggs as soon as we have them all penned and most of the (probably) crossbred poults produced will be our thanksgiving/Christmas birds. The purebred poults we'll sell to folks who want a particular type of heritage turkey, and some of those will go for the holidays, too.

I keep a large breeding flock because it's often impossible to find full-grown heritage turkeys in a timely fashion if you lose one. So having one tom is a mistake; you need at least 2. Having 3 hens is a mistake; you need at least 6 to make sure you have replacements in case of predators, accidents, or other mishaps.

I want all of my heritage birds for the holidays to be hatched by may; it takes 20 days to hatch a turkey, so the latest we'll set eggs for holiday birds will be the first week of April. Which means that we have Feb/Mar/April to collect eggs for this years Thanksgiving turkey crop.

The eggs that are layed from April to mid-may are the Christmas birds, and then the eggs that are layed in June are the replacement birds for the breeding flock. I keep a mixed-age breeding flock, with some first-year birds, some 2 year birds, and some 3 year birds.

I find that my survival rates for birds on pasture are better if there are some older birds to show the younger ones around.

The turkeys are bunched up like that because I'm working with the puppies on herding. Turkeys are a good practice animal for the pups because they can fly if they feel threatened but don't want to. Plus a turkey can, as a last resort, smack a dog pretty good with its wing. A smack or two and the pups learn to keep their distance -- the pups respect the turkeys, and the turkeys respect the dog.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Free wood chips

One of the bedding items that I use every day is wood chips; I get them for free from local tree service companies. Normally they'd pay $40 or so to dump them somewhere; for both of us its a pretty good deal. This is about 20 cubic yards of wood chips, delivered in two truck loads.

I usually give the tree service guys a dozen or two eggs, or a pound of bacon, or around thanksgiving, a turkey because I appreciate the chips over the course of the year so much.

Wood chips compost manure and slaughter byproducts nicely -- they have a huge amount of carbon which balances the nitrogen, and means that the resulting composted soil is about as good as it gets. Black and rich.

The consistency is pretty good, and the local trees are pretty much non-toxic. Well... maybe. I don't really know. I worried about it a bunch when I started raising chickens and turkeys on it. I was afraid that I'd lose them because they'd eat something bad, but so far so good. Most of this particular load is douglas fir and maple, which I can tell by the smell and look of the chips. It includes the leaves (in season) and needles, which the chickens actually appear to enjoy eating. They'll pick the needles out one by one and cackle about their find. Every now and then there will be a grub or beetle or some other sort of particularly delicious chicken treat -- and then there will be lots of running and squawking and a good time by all.
The wood chips, in quantity, are also a good solution for muddy spots. Throw a few yards of them into the hole and run over it with the tractor a few times, throw in some manure, and you've got a horizontal compost heap. Next summer it'll be ready.

Want wood chips?
I've had the best luck (read: most consistent loads) from local tree service companies. They care about the dollars spent, and the dump fees add up after a while. The municipal guys, who clear power lines and stuff, aren't nearly as concerned about cost, so they're harder motivate to dump for you. But I started this by chasing tree service trucks down the street that I saw working around the area, and its been a good partnership for both of us.

Any time you can get organic material delivered it's worth doing. That's how good soil is made.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Country Living & Cattlemens winterschool 2009

This is a one-day event sponsored by WSU agricultural extension that is pretty interesting to go to. The cost is $45. I just got reminded that it was happening on this Saturday (1-31-2009).

There are classes on beef, horses, ducks, llamas, goats, honeybees, poultry sheep and pigs. As well as management stuff like creating sacrifice areas for mud control and so on. Lots of good stuff.

To see a list of the sessions available, click here

To see the information booklet, click here

Online registration is closed, but you can register at the door, which is what I'm going to do.

STUDENTS CAN ATTEND FREE. Here's the link to the WSU website.

Heritage Turkey behavior

The breeding flock of turkeys that I keep are allowed to free range this time of year. They forage for stuff they like to eat, and seem to have better survival rates this way. At this age they're pretty tough birds; I do lose the occasional turkey to a coyote, but not often. One of the main reasons that I don't is that the turkeys like to roost high.

Turkeys would rather walk

The turkeys in this picture are climbing a ladder up to the roof of a farm building (that I'm STILL waiting for Snohomish county to approve the permit for; 90 days and counting...). They'd much rather hop and flap up the ladder than just fly up -- which they can do pretty well. Given a choice, they'd rather run or walk than fly. When they do fly, they only do a few hundred feet at most It's almost like there's a no-fly zone over my farm. They do fly from time to time, but usually with a running start. They'll start running in a direction, take about 20 steps, flap and glide 200 feet, and then land running. Total elevation during this is maybe 3 feet. But when pressed they can and do fly. They fly up to their preferred roost on the posts of the half-finished barns.

Turkey behavior

The turkeys are pretty firmly segregated into two flocks at this time of year. One flock is male, the other female. Both flocks are sorting out the pecking order -- male turkeys are jockeying for position in their flock, and so are females. The male goal is to be able to command a good piece of real-estate on demand, hopefully in view of the hens. The hens goal is to be able to eat first. Some of the turkeys are showing signs of wear-and-tear in their feathers. Usually those turkeys made their bid for supremacy a little early and will usually not end up the dominant bird even if they are now. The ones that are hanging back a little will be fresh and rested when their time comes. So it'll be one of those turkeys that makes the final jump to King or Queen of the flock.

Egg laying and turkey timing

The turkeys are producing a small quantity of eggs now, but I'm not hatching them. It's too tough to keep turkey poults alive right now outside. Plus you don't really want to feed too many full-sized turkeys at the end of the year. The goal is to have most of the thanksgiving turkeys hatch in March/April, and most of the Christmas turkeys hatch in May/June. The replacements for the breeding flock can hatch in July/August, and the cycle will begin again.

A turkey hen averages an egg every other day for 4 months.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Farmer-chef connection / slow food organizations

There's an event for farmers and chefs to attend in Seattle on February 9th. The goal is to introduce farmers and chefs. There's some folks speaking, a breakout session, food, and so on. It's $45 for the day. You can see the brochure here

Most everything I offer for sale is a slow food, and I'm glad to see so many people are also interested in knowing both their farmer and food.

Which slow food organization?
I'm not sure what connect this event has to the organization slow food usa, whos website you can find here or the slow food seattle whos website you can find here, or the slow food international you can find here

All of these websites list activities and events that you might find interesting. Book discussions, potlucks, farmers and producers presenting their wares or classes, and so on. There appears to be local chapters all over the country -- try a search for "slow foods" and see what you come up with in your area.

I'll be at the slow food event on Feb 9th. Maybe I'll see you there.

Kill your own thanksgiving turkey

Knox Gardner wrote up a pretty darned good summary of the kill your own thanksgiving turkey class I held in November, 2008. If you're interested in our turkey processing, the entire process is documented by Knox here . And yes, for Andrea fans, there's pictures of Andrea.

Thanks for the writeup!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Yes, I sell pigs

This is a call that I get every week or two. It starts out the same way.

"Hi. I saw your sign on the highway, the one that says weaner pigs. Do you sell weaner pigs?"

Yes, I do. I've got 20 to choose from right now. Want to come and look at them?

"Yes... but how big are they?"

They range in weight from about 20lbs to about 80lbs.

"what's the smallest one you've got?"

Um... well, i have some that are not weaned yet, those weigh about 6-7lbs now.

"how big do they get? We want one that won't get too big"

ah... I don't think I can help you. My pigs are supposed to get really big and delicious. In fact, if you buy one of them, and feed it what it wants, you'll have a 300lb pig in 6-7 months.

"that's too big. do you have a smaller one?"

Nope. you're right though about that being a big pig. The worst part is that they hog the couch.

Monday, January 26, 2009

C'mon baby

This is the boar sweet talking tank. A couple of deep grunts, some good nose pushing (he puts his nose under her just behind her front leg and lifts her up) and some chasing, and another litter of piglets is started. It's not spring, but there's romance in the air.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The boar tax

Since I work with the animals with a minimum fence, most of what I do with them I have to do with their consent. It's much simpler to be able to deal with the animal in a friendly way and have your interactions be something that the animal looks forward to.

This boar was purchased at 4 months of age, and I've worked with him every day since then. The "boar tax" in this case is a back scratching, which is my excuse for having him stand still so I can look at him and make sure that everything is good. If you establish a routine that mimics what you'll need to do when you treat them for illness or wound you won't have a struggle when it comes time to do that.

So what I suggest you do with whatever animal you care for, is to establish a routine that looks like what a vet will do. In the case of pigs, its come when you're called, follow me (we cheat here and use a bucket of food) stand still while I touch you and walk around you out of your sight, and allow me to handle your head, ears and underside.

I have other folks to the farm, and from time to time I ask a stranger to handle the boar -- literally to put their hands on the boar, with me right there. That's the final step of the vet visit... or the farm kill visit. You want the animal to be used to occasional strangers, and to know that as part of the routine.

I work with each of our sows in the same way, and make a point of touching then and talking to them on my daily welfare checks. That way, when i need to go out a dead piglet, or crawl into a shelter to check a pig they're used to my presence and accept it without complaint.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Farrowing crates and the red and black pig

This is the red-and-black pig. That's her name. She's about 18 months old, and was born on my farm. She's had one litter before, and weaned all of her live births. Well, I should back up and explain that.

Farrowing defined
When a pig gives birth, "farrows", there are three possible outcomes for each piglet. A live, healthy piglet is the most common, but sometimes the piglets die at birth or very soon after, which is the second possible outcome, or they died sometime prior to birth, which is the third.

Three possible piglet outcomes
So when a pig farrows, you usually only count the live births. The other two types get quietly disposed of. The sow will typically eat the afterbirth, but will not eat the piglets, so you have to go and get them and take them away. Even the most protective sows do not seem to notice when you take a dead piglet away.

"Birth Vs Weaned"
After birth, the next interesting time for a farmer is how many pigs a sow weans. That is, how many pigs survived until they're old enough to eat food and make a go of it on their own. That's "weaned". So when I talk to another farmer about my sow, I'll say "She had 13 and weaned 11", which may mean that she actually produced 16, only 13 of which lived, and that 2 more died at some point before they were weaned. But we don't talk about the 3. It's considered normal to lose a few. The two that were born live but died can be from a variety of causes. Predators, mom squashing them if she lays down too fast, someone stepped on them, some sort of birth defect that eventually kills them (like being born with no anus... happens.) or sometimes it's a result of the farmer (me) having some sort of accident. It happens. I try my best, but from time to time I kill a pig before its time.

Farrowing Crates
So this winter has been pretty tough. Its been wet, and very cold, and we flooded. We lost two complete litters of piglets. The main reason we lost them was to the cold, and I've been thinking about that a lot. I hate to lose the piglets, and so do the sows. So for the red-and-black pig I'm going to build and use a farrowing pen. It's a traditional pen that is used just prior to the sow giving birth. It allows the sow to stand up, and lay down, but not to turn around. I know, this sounds terrible, but it's only for one week, and it's to save the piglets lives.

Creep area
When the sow is kept in an area, her piglets can move around her with a much reduced chance of being stepped on, or squished. I can also improve their survival by putting in warm bedding (hay, in my case) and heat lamps so that they have warm spots to go to. I can't do that if mom can get to the heat lamps because she'll eat them. In the summer, mom's body heat is good enough, but in the winter, I think they need more help. The creep area is the area that is fenced off around the farrowing crate that is reserved for the piglets.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Mud. Deep Mud. Even Deeper Mud

People in traffic jams are an easy audience. In this picture you can see the freeway that forms the south property line of my farm, (look at the top right) It's elevated a good 20' above the land, so that cars on the highway get a good view of anything I happen to be doing.

So when I'm doing something interesting -- like digging my tractor out of the deep mud with a shovel -- I get phone calls (my phone number is listed on a big sign that faces the freeway) and people honk and wave.

That's me looking at my kubota 9580 4x4 tractor, stuck in the mud. The mud has completely filled all of the traction ribs on the tires making them smooth. The rear axle of the tractor is on the ground. This is the 3rd time this year I've stuck my tractor, so I'm getting pretty good at getting it out. This time it only took an hour or so of digging to do it.

The hardest part is that the mud sticks to the shovel, and my hands, and everything. I'm standing calf-deep in the mud, so I have to pull and pull and pull three times to get my foot up without pulling it out of the boot.

The ground is so soft right here that my bucket won't lift the front of the tractor. So I'm bringing this timber over to put under the bucket. You can see from the tracks here that I've passed over this area several times with the tractor, but that was before the flood, and the ground is even softer than usual now.
Here I've raised the front wheels from the mud, and I'll put 4x4 cribbing in under them to give them some lift.

So enjoy the show folks.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Pig colors

Click on the picture for a larger version
I like having a pig herd that is a variety of colors. While purebreds can be impressive, I prefer a hybrid vigor and even the Mendelian assortment. It turns out that the colors that pigs are probably the result of humans breeding for those colors.

This is a pretty typical pasture scene. The medium sized pig herd has decided that it (collectively) likes to lay on the cows hay. We feed the cows a local grass hay that has a lot of variability in its quality. Some of the bales are very straw-like. So when the cows and sheep have picked through the bale and eaten all they care to, the pigs take over and lay on the hay. They eat some of it, too, but mostly it's just a comfort think I think. We bed the pigs in this same hay... it cannot be lack of hay access for the pigs.

The article on pig color selection can be found here

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Drawings and plans for swine

One thing that people don't really realize is that raising small numbers of swine isn't new, or novel. It's only in the last 30 years that you started to see confinement hog barns and hog "units" that numbered their animals in the thousands.

So there's actually a really good body of plans and drawings for all sorts of hog related items. Feeders, waterers, farrowing crates and so on that are constructed of wood or metal or a mix of the two.

If you're interested in becoming more self sufficient, building your own equipment is one way to do that -- and for less dollars, too.

You'll find a link to a site with plans for all sorts of cool swine accessories here, courtesy of North Dakota State university.

I think I'll be building a feeder on skids and a farrowing crate from these plans.

If you know of similar resources somewhere, please do post a link.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Berkshire conformation

The berkshires I've got all look like this. Most of them have some white on their face, but some of them are more than 50% white -- they've got spots all over them. These guys were hanging out sleeping in their calf dome when I looked in the doorway to do a welfare check. They were kinda grumpy as they'd all be sleeping in a big pile, and were asleep again before I walked away after checking their feed and water.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Andrea goes swimming in the mud

We're hand-seeding an area that's turned into mud. I like to plant oats there -- the chickens like the plants, and they're not persistent. So I don't have a problem with having to take them out.

But the problem is that the area we're seeding is mud. Pretty sticky mud.

And when you walk through sticky mud, sometimes your boot comes off and you have to have a shovel handed to you to dig it out.

and you dig and dig and dig and eventually you get the boot back, but you're standing in your stocking feet in the mud, and now your other boot is stuck
and with both feet stuck, why, its probably a good idea to fall over. Mud is a good sunscreen. Don't want to get a sunburn

So you dig and dig and eventually free the other foot, too. But if you're laughing too hard it's really hard to dig.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Buying land next to a freeway does have some advantages. I sell most of my animals to people who drive by and see them and then come back and ask, and it's easy for people to find me. The drawbacks include bits of cars that fly off and land in my fields. The freeway is elevated 20' above my land.

The pigs grab stuff like hubcaps and bits of chrome trim and drag them all over the place. So now and then I go out and give them a real pig toy like a tire or an old tarp -- they really like tarps -- and take the metal stuff and recycle it.

This is a pretty typical scene. The pigs go out as a group and tend to root up the same area. I figure there's something really tasty there, or maybe it's easier to root when another pig has broken up the ground. But I'm glad to see them do that. This area of the field will be my cornfield next year, I'll plant it in April, so the more they break up and fertilize the soil, the better it is.
Here's a view of the field "before" pig, to the left, and "after pig" to the right. They've pretty much turned it over and plowed it with their noses. When you keep a pig in a large pasture they will root and turn over and maintain an area as mud, but by and large they don't' change the ground level. So I do a couple of passes with the disc and it's good to go as a seed bed if I want to keep it in pasture. Overseeding with a pasture mix is pretty effective. The original grass will predominate, but you'll see good amounts of your overseeding, too.

Pigs are the only tillers you'll ever own that get more valuable the older they get.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

I'm building an ark

The dike breaking a few weeks ago resulted in a few million (literally) gallons of water washing into the diked portion of the island.

This water has been sloshing around seeking its own level. My little patch of land is only 12 acres, and I use just about every bit of it, so having my pastures flooded makes life a little challenging.
The diking district has a big pump that they can use to move the water back into the river, but it's not on. I wonder why not? The dike has gates that open in very low tides to let water out -- one-way passage for water, but that's only during minus tides. So I may be stuck with this water until April or may.

Friday, January 16, 2009

"In defense of food", Micheal Pollan lecture, meat philosophy

I had two contacts with Micheal Pollan earlier this week; one on the radio, and one as a member of the audience for his lecture on 1-12-2009. The subject of the lecture was essentially the contents of his most recent book, "in defense of food".

I read and enjoyed two of his previous books, "the botany of desire" and "the omnivores dilemma", and attended the lecture without reading the latest, but I did buy a copy (signed, of course) at the lecture, and have just finished reading it.

Micheal was being interviewed on KUOW (the local NPR affiliate) and said a variety of things, one of which was that we should both build farmers market buildings in the center city areas that are "devoid of produce" and in addition to food stamps we should provide vouchers that can be used at farmers markets, my understanding of his reasoning being that if you provide a place, and a market, that the farmers will come.

I called in and made the point that if you have a limited budget, you'll probably buy the most calories you can for your money -- calories in your stomach are what make you feel full. So merely providing a voucher wouldn't do the job. You'd buy the pre-made pastries at the farmers market, not the lettuce.

Lecture was interesting, but...
Go to the lecture if you have not read "In defense of food". If you have, you'll have a distinct sense of deja vu -- much of the lecture is verbatim passages from the book, and he reads parts of the book as part of his lecture -- which begs the point of having a live speaker, in my opinion. Micheal, if you read this, I want to hear more than your book. I want you to talk about what you did put into the book, and what you did not, and the reasoning. "Inside in defense of food", not "the author reads in defense of food".

Having read his book there are several things that I agree with. He makes the point that fat, particularly animal fat, seems to be less harmful than artificially manipulated fat. Hydrogenated vegetable oils seem to be worse than butter. As a cook I've used butter, and cream, and lard, in my cooking for years. Not because I knew it to be "good", or "bad", but because I like the taste and texture (and in some cases) the challenge of using them.

Lard is truly wonderful
Lard in particular is one fat that has entered my diet since I've started raising pigs. It makes the best pie crust. It fries the tastiest potatoes. It does wonders for refried beans, and it, like any other food, can cause you to gain weight if you eat a lot of it.

Many different diets
Mr. Pollan makes the point that human societies have subsisted for tens of thousands of years on very different diets -- the Inuit on seal blubber and meat nearly alone -- the central american cultures on complex carbohydrates like corn and beans nearly alone -- and so on. So his point, and I agree, is that no particular diet is "worse" or "better" or "right" -- there are many choices.

Meat as a condiment
With meat, I've taken the stand that it's a condiment, or a flavor, not the main ingredient. So my tacos have transitioned from being mostly meat, to having more other things (tomatoes, onions, chiles, spices, cilantro, lettuce), and it seems to suit me better. I changed that because I now consider meat a fairly... precious? rare? hard-won? something to be treasured. Good meat is like good cheese. A little bit is a treat. enough so you know how it tastes and what it adds to your meal.

Cuisine as technology
Mr Pollan makes the point in his book that you shouldn't eat anything your grandmother wouldn't recognize as food. I think that's a good point, but I'll take it one step further. Your grandmother, and every generation before her, had a cuisine that worked for them; a set of dishes that were prepared, a method of preparation, and a way of eating foods that were common to them. Hot peppers, so prevalent in cuisines from warmer climates, both preserved the food and made it taste better. Herbs have a medicinal value in many cultures.

Your own cultural dish
So here's my challenge to you. Take some time and figure out what one of your ancestors ate; your mother, your grandmother, or as far back as you can. Learn the basics of making that particular dish. Ask questions, take some time. Make it 3 times in one day. Feed them all to the dog. I've done that. When you're done, and you can successfully create your own cultural dish there's a connection to your past, and to your future, and if you share it, to the people around you that cannot be reached in any other way.

I'd love people to list out their own cultural dishes here. I can be something simple or complex, and it can be connected to your ethnicity or not. I'm english/irish, but my personal culture is rooted in the american southwest because my father and grandfather operated mines in chihuahua and the copper canyon areas of Mexico and in the Tuscon area of Arizona.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Father and Daughter

Pigs grow an amazing amount. Here's our berkshire herd sire boar and a daughter of his. He's two years old, and the piglet is about 3 months. The piglet weighs about 60lbs, and the boar somewhere north of 500lbs.

The boar is surprisingly gentle with the piglets. When I first started raising piglets on pasture, I was concerned he'd step on the piglets, or crush them, but to date, I don't think I've lost a single piglet to him. When a sow has a litter he's very solicitous, and actually sleeps with the sow and piglets for a couple of days afterwards. It's behavior I wouldn't have expected from a pig.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Pig migration

Unlike sheep, pigs don't have a clear leader when they move around. They'll all look up, and then take a couple of steps, and the migration begins.

When they're small I keep them on a fairly loose leash. I have a good perimeter fence, and the pigs tend to wander 5 or 6 acres in an L shaped pattern. They're very much creatures of habit. I can't quite set my watch by them, but I pretty much know where they'll be at any point. And they stay so close to each other that if I find one pig I'll usually find all of the other pigs within 20 feet.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Pig sleeping arrangements

The pigs are pretty social critters. Even though they've got acres to roam, when you see them they're almost always hanging out with other pigs. This happens when they sleep, too.

Here four 400lb sows are sleeping with a smaller pig (look in the crack to the right of the photo) and two goats. I've been surprised at how close a relationship that the goats have with the sheep. they sleep with them, and spend most of the day out with the pig herd grazing with them. The boar is even a little protective about the goats. He clearly considers the goats to be part of his herd.

The smaller pigs fit themselves into the valleys between the sows. I've been really surprised that they don't get crushed. The two sows in this picture outweigh this little pig by at least 3-1. But I'm sure that it makes for warm, comfortable sleeping.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Pastured pork

I had a fellow drive up today and ask me if I had pastured pork. I was near the front driveway when he asked, and I didn't have to work hard to answer -- I just pointed.

Pastured Pork... what does "pastured" mean?

For my operation, it means and animal that spends the majority of its life on dirt. Foraging and rooting and discovering pig treats that only pigs can find and appreciate. My pigs spend quite a bit of time with their nose in the dirt. We give them full feed, and they can eat as much of it as they'd like, but while they do eat the pig feed, they really like going out and finding their own delicacies.
This handsome fellow is our berkshire herd sire. The first picture in this entry with Andrea is for scale. He's a big fellow, maybe 6 feet long and around 500lbs. As you can see behind him he's got quite a bit of space. He shares this pasture with 8 sows and is a pretty happy fellow most of the time.

Pastured pork taste

When I first started raising pigs I did my own taste test. I purchased the best bacon (read: most costly) from costco, the cheapest bacon I could (from safeway), and then bacon from two farmers at the local farmers market. I cooked strips of each bacon in separate pans, and then cut them into identical pieces. I had 10 people taste test the results.

The unanimous opinion was that the farmers market was better, more satisfying bacon, but one of the two farmers market bacon got nearly unanimous praise. So I contacted the farmer to see what breed of pig it was, and found out that they ran a berkshire/yorkshire cross herd -- so that's what I raise. They do great on pasture, and the bacon and hams and chops are the best I've had. And I'm a dedicated carnivore.

What the pigs eat

Our pigs have access to a pasture area and a wooded area. They seem to like eating the grass roots, and there are particular areas in the woods that they seem to like. I've been wondering if there are truffles there that they're rooting out.

Here the herd of medium sized pigs has chosen an area under the trees and is searching for something.
So that's part of what pasturing is for me. When you raise a pig entirely on feed you get a pig that really doesn't have any chance to have the richer, more interesting flavor of a pig that has been able to choose its diet. My pigs eat quite a bit of grass, and it makes them a bit sweeter and nicer.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Seasonal chickens

Year-round chicken is a relatively new invention. 60 years or more ago you'd see chicken, but mostly as a seasonal meat in the summer and fall.

Seasonal Chicken
This seasonal pattern was due to how the hens produce eggs. In the spring and early summer a heritage breed hen lays best. These excess spring eggs were retained by the farms and hatched, producing next years laying hens, and about an equal number of roosters. The roosters and surplus hens would be sold when they'd grown big enough to eat, and the cycle would begin again.

Year 'round chicken
You can get chicken year-round today because chickens are typically raised in huge barns that are temperature controlled and managed very efficiently. Well, efficiently in terms of cost, but the experience of the animal isn't particularly enriched.

Got a call today...
This post is inspired by a call I received today asking if I sold chickens, and during the course of the conversation she explained that she just couldn't eat the factory chickens any more, and had made that transition for ethical reasons. I completely understood what she was saying -- that's why I started my farm, and why I raise the type of chickens I do.

The chickens I raise for laying hens, and to eat
I raise both Cornish cross chickens (the type of chicken you're used to seeing in the grocery store) and heritage breed chickens. I hatch eggs from my own breeding flocks of chickens and turkeys, and I purchase day-old chickens from a variety of hatcheries. I purchase chicks from time to time to increase the genetic diversity of my flocks or from customer demand.

I raise both heritage and Cornish cross because I get asked for both. Both are treated identically and both go out on pasture, on grass and get fed a non-medicated feed to make sure that there's no antibiotics or other drugs.

Cornish cross
These chickens are basically bred to be eating machines. They convert the least amount of feed into the most meat, and in terms of efficiency they cannot be beaten. The cross breeding of Cornish chickens and white rock chickens has produced a chick that takes 8 weeks to mature, from hatch to slaughter. In terms of husbandry they're actually more work to produce than heritage breeds. The basic issue is that if you give them all the food they want they'll eat themselves to death. So you end up having to carefully restrict their food intake every day towards the end of their time here so that you don't lose too many. Since they're butchered so young you don't see the foot and leg problems, but they're there if you keep them longer than a couple of months. Since these chickens are so centered on food you have to move their pens to make sure that they eat as much grass and forage as possible. Otherwise these are the chickens that you'll find asleep in the food dish, waiting for the next food delivery. They are actually pretty friendly, goofy birds.

Heritage breeds
I've been raising batches of black australorp roosters as my primary meat bird, mostly because asian customers are reluctant to purchase white birds -- they'd much prefer red or black -- and because the mexican customers don't want a bird that looks like the "safeway" birds -- they want a bird that is longer and narrower than the birds you see in safeway. As far as husbandry, I'll raise a batch of a couple of hundred and keep them in mobile pens on grass. They do pretty well; and don't eat themselves to death, so they're easier to care for, for me, at least. I fill their feeder and check the waterer and walk away for a day or two. The drawback to these birds is that they take longer to mature -- instead of 8 weeks, we're talking 18-20 weeks. And the shape of the body puts off some Americans because most everyone now believes that a chicken should be shaped like a Cornish cross. It's very similar to the situation that you run across when you try to convince people that white eggs can be just as natural as brown eggs. The consumer has been taught that organic eggs are brown, and that's that.

Taste differences
You can raise a Cornish cross to taste about the same as a safeway bird by duplicating the environment they're typically raised in. Get yourself a small box, stuff a couple of chickens in there, and feed them a soybean meal until they're big enough to eat. No exercise, no variation in diet, and in close contact to their own manure.

When I raise a Cornish cross it lives its first weeks under heat lamps and on sawdust, and then goes out to a mobile pen on grass. The pen is moved every day or two, and the bird is given the opportunity to eat grass and bugs and scratch the ground and do all the things that birds like to do. It's also exposed to the weather -- they see sunshine and rain, and can chose where they spend their time. Most choose to roam around their pen and enjoy hunting for chicken treats. Nothing more fun to watch than a couple of birds fighting over a grasshopper.

Even though the pastured bird and the safeway bird are the same breed, and in some cases might even have come from the same breeding flock, my experience has been that the pastured birds have less fat, better color and a meat taste and texture that's superior. But if you're curious, try this experiment: Cook a safeway bird and a pastured Cornish cross in the same oven for the same time, and do a taste test. Once you've had a pastured bird you realize what you've been missing. What was there once.

Heritage bird taste
The heritage birds are much older -- nearly 3 times the age of Cornish crosses -- and have spent that time foraging and eating and so on. so their meat is firmer, and has a deeper taste than the pastured Cornish cross. For the younger roosters and hens they cannot be beaten as a pan-fried or roasted bird. Fried heritage chicken is a real treat. My favorite recipe for the slightly older birds is Coq Au Vin, a traditional french recipe developed to eat the older roosters that are a little tougher than a young, tender bird.

Bird cost
Here's the hard part. I'm interested in making good, natural food available for a price that makes it accessible for most people. We've all seen great food that is priced so that few people can enjoy it. But on the other hand, I need to make a fair profit so that I'll be around next year, and the year after, to produce more birds. For the Cornish cross birds, oven ready (that is, plucked, head and entrails removed) I charge $3/lb. For the heritage birds, that take so much longer to produce, I charge $4/lb.

Lower cost birds
But if you're interested in a lower cost bird, I'll sell birds live at the farm gate for $18 for a rooster, or $22 for a laying hen. If you're not sure what to do, I offer classes two or three times a year on how to process your own chickens or turkeys.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Flood event wrapup

Looks like a combination of minus tides and effective work on the part of the diking district plugged the hole in the dike. The hole flooded a thousand acres of farmland and got close to a couple of houses, but appears to be over for this flood event. This is the second major flood event we've had in the last 2 months, both times ended up being nearly record breaking floods.

I've put the animals back on pasture and everyone looks good. Hoping things go back to normal for the rest of this year.

You know it's a good time when you make the paper

The kindness of strangers

Looks like they've plugged the hole in the dike, i'll be looking at it in person this morning and releasing the animmals from the trailers if I think that it's safe. This has been a major flood event; there are hundreds of houses under water and thousands of miles of road closed and damaged.

One of the really nice things about this sort of event is that people who don't know each other really go the extra mile to help each other. Here's an ad that appeared on the local craigslist.

pasture available for flooding in Monroe (Monroe)

Reply to: [?]Date: 2009-01-09, 6:31PM PST

We have 10 acres of pasture at our farm. Let us know if you need help~

Juliane 206-250-6168

Thank you, Juliane, for going the extra mile to help other farms and farmers. It's people like Juliane that make a community so much better.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Dike failed

the dike around the island failed around 8pm on 1-8-2009. The county advised all residents of the island to evacuate.

Ebey island is 2 or 3 square miles in size, and it takes a while to fill. The diking district is trying to plug the hole by pouring rock into it, and they've been working on it all day today. They're optimistic that they will be able to plug the hole tonight, 1-9, but as with any endeavor there's a chance that they will not be able to get the job done.

My farm is on the "higher" end of the island -- it'll take another day or so for the waters to start inundating my farm, but I spent the day loading animals on trailers and getting vehicles started and warmed up and ready to move if neccesary.

The island can fill up faster if more of the dike fails, or if there are multiple dike failures. The river peaked within an inch of a record height, and continues with very high flows. It's forecasted to return to normal seasonal flow by 1-11.

Quite a bit of activity around us though. A huge coast guard helicopter flew over at less than 100' -- quite impressive. Animal rescue organizations came by and asked if I needed help with turkeys and chickens. I talked to another farmer, Won, whos property is completely under water with only his barns and house out, and gave him a ride into town after he walked the 3 miles to my farm in hip waders. Won, if you needed a ride, just call me next time!

Was interviewed by the Everett Herald and the local channel 7 took pictures of my truck driving across the floodwater flow.

Heres to hoping that they plug that hole in time.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Floods and other disasters

My farm is located on river bottom land, surrounded by a dike. The area was diked off from the main river channel around 1900, and since it was diked the area inside the dike has subsided about 5 feet.

That means that now, if the dike fails, the water will be 8-10 feet deep over my farm, and probably for a period of three to four months.

The usual flood season is November, with 8 out of the last 10 major flood events happening then. This year however we've had two major flood events. One in November, with a peak level of 30', and this one.

The river is forecast to peak at 33-34', which could potentially be bad for me. At 32-33 feet the river may overtop the levee.

Once the river overtops the levee it takes 8-12 hours to flood the area to 8-10', but once it's deeper than about a foot you can't move vehicles in or out. So I'm watching the river level today, and may have to evacuate the farm.

Here's a link to the gauge for the area of the river nearest me.
Snohomish river at Snohomish, WA

And my dog monster was hit by a car yesterday, apparently trying to cross the road to get to the dog park. His hip was dislocated, and it looks like to fix it will be expensive. Joy.

The animals are all doing fine; the fields are soggy, but they've got plenty of feed and shelter. Will update as the potential flood situation unfolds.

Monday, January 5, 2009

How many pigs should I keep?

If you're new to pig farming, it's best to start slow,but for me, slow is 2 pigs. Pigs are social animals, and you'll have less trouble with your pig trying to get out of the pen and generally being content if it has a buddy. It's really not any more trouble to raise 2 pigs than one, and a family of 4 can easily eat 2 pigs a year, so you could just keep them both for yourself -- or make your neighbors, friends and family happy by selling them a half or whole.

Yes, there are people on the internet who say that raising one pig is just fine, but I know from my herd that pigs have friends and buddies, and social groups, and given the choice, are almost never by themselves. They're always in a group on the pasture, doing something with some other pig or pigs. So my vote and strong recommendation is that you consider two pigs to be your minimum number.

How much space?

The real issue is smell. The more space you give your pigs, the less the pen will smell. two pigs will do very well in a 20x20 pen with a plywood shack or calf dome for shelter. In the winter it'll be pretty muddy, and if you allow them, in the summer it'll be muddy, too. Pigs use mud for sunscreen and temperature control and insect repellent and as a sauce for whatever it is they're eating. My pigs seem to think that everything tastes better with a coating of mud.

Raising pigs with the least amount of work

Your biggest daily issue is food and water. So arrange it so that your bulk food supplies (see "cost of raising pig" in this blog) are very close to your pen. So putting your pen next to a driveway or road or other easy vehicle accessible location is a good idea. With water, it's worth spending the time to buy a nipple (check with your local feed stores). A nipple allows you to put a hose to the edge of their pen, and the pigs can get clean water whenever they want. Pretty soon they'll learn to run the water through their mouths so that they can make the mud that is so necessary to their happiness, and that's a good thing. Summary: Spend some time thinking about food and water supplies, and put your pen and food storage close together.

With respect to food, it's worth considering buying a grain feeder. Local prices are about $200 in western Washington, but they last forever, keep the food in good condition, and mean that you only have to feed your pigs every third or fourth day instead of every day.

Zoning and land use regulations

Check with your local county agriculture folks to see what the zoning is. In King County, Washington you are required to locate pig pens more than 90' from all property boundaries. In Snohomish county it's 20'. So check your local county regs for any restrictions.

How much shelter?

Pigs need shade in the summer, and protection from wet and wind. A simple plywood roof will work great. If you enclose it on three sides it makes a great winter shelter. A few bales of hay and they'll be comfortable (and they'll eat some of the hay, too, making their meat sweeter in the process!) You can buy a pig shelter if you want, but for your first pigs, even the simplest shelter will work. Plan on them eating the shelter at some point. they'll chew on anything.

How much time?

If you put your pigs on full-feed -- allow them to eat as much as they want. you can expect to slaughter them 5-6 months after you take them home.

Next Post: 4 pen designs

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The S word - slaughter

My experience with slaughter

I'm relatively new to raising animals for food, and before I started I had to make sure that I could actually go through with the slaughter of the animals. It's all fine and good to have a theory, but when you have the knife or gun in your hand, that's when it really hits you that this is it.

"Very nice rooster"

When I decided that I wanted to start farming, I wasn't sure that I could actually go through with it. I've fished all my life, and I've killed thousands of fish, and cleaned them, and I've hunted a bit, and killed wild animals, but its different with an animal that knows you, and that you know. So one Saturday morning I went down to the Enumclaw sales pavilion, one of the local livestock auction houses, and purchased 3 roosters. You really don't get much of a chance to look at the birds prior to the sale, and so i got a glimpse of each bird as they were held up, and then put back into the cardboard boxes they were packed in. I paid $8 each for the roosters, and put them into the back of my truck and took them home.

Internet didn't help

When you search the internet for information on slaughtering you get all sorts of crazy answers. Everyone has a theory on how best to kill the animal, and each culture has their own practices. Some folks hang their chickens for a few days before cleaning them. others kill and gut, but refrigerate for a day or two. In another post I recommended a book that I found helpful, "basic butchering of livestock and game". If you're going to do this yourself, I recommend that book.

It's just the roosters and me

So in my back yard, I did the slaughter setup, and went to get the first rooster out of the box. Someone had written on that box "Very nice rooster, very gentle". This did not help at all. I would have much preferred "nasty, mean rooster" or "dangerous rooster". But I had the very nice rooster.

"I could never do that"

When you are raising food it actually helps if you name them after a meat product. "brisket". "nugget", "cutlet"... Its easier if you remind yourself that this animal has a date, and that it's not a sad thing. In fact, slaughter is often a time of feasting and partying in many cultures. We all have to go sometime. For your animal, you're just picking the time.

Coq Au Vin

Later that night, I reflected on the rooster that I was eating, and I appreciated his sacrifice. Killing my own animals has changed my cooking habits; nowaways I treat meat as a fairly precious commodity, and waste as little as possible. That's part of why I encourage people to eat the entire animal. And coq au vin really is better when made with a rooster.

How I feel when I kill an animal

I know that the animal had the best life that I could provide. I know that its end will be as quick and painless as I can possibly make it. I'm sad that it has to go, and I appreciate it for the sacrifice it's making. And the most difficult part is the actual kill - pulling the trigger. After that, the farther into the slaughter process I go, the less it is an animal to me, and the more it looks like food. I posted this picture of a piglet that was to be roasted at a tongan wedding because it's still "an animal" to me. Its death was for a celebration, and really that's what food is, and what I philosophically appreciate. I celebrate this little pig by honoring it for every day of its life.

Some things that make this easier for me

It helps if you don't name your animals. Or if you do name them, name them "bacon" or "brisket" or "cutlet" or "veal". It really does help to remind you where this animal is going.

When you get your animal, grab your calendar and set the date of its demise. This allows you to schedule in the farm kill and other activities, and more importantly, becomes a date certain. Because you'll want to put it off, and that's not why you're raising this animal.

Appreciate its contribution to you, and your family and friends. Recognize that this animal is a partner, and value it for what it provides. Sounds corny, but I do really appreciate the animals.

Take the time to observe your animal and take joy in its joy. If things are right, you'll see joy. Be current -- the future will come. Enjoy today.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

How much work is it to keep a pig?

This has been a good week for email. John asks

"I own a couple of acres, and I've been thinking about keeping pigs. How much space do I need, and what's involved?"

I think it's worthwhile to talk a minute about why raising your own animals is a good idea

Food Security and purity:

One reason that I raise my own is for food security. I know exactly what my pig ate, and how it lived, and how it died, and I can make sure that the whole process is wholesome and humane. I cannot tell you how many times I've seen food recalled (the latest scare is chinese honey laced with banned pesticides - before that it was powdered mik that wasn't even milk- or the recall of millions of pounds of "natural beef" from one of those expensive food stores... ). I've never recalled my own meat. You have complete control over the use of antibiotics or other drugs.

Humane conditions

I love a bargain. I really do. I shop as smart as I can, and the local wholesale store that I frequent has huge meat cases with cheap meats. But having been to several pork units - what a confinement pig farm is called - and seen what cheap pork costs the animals, I'd much rather eat one of mine that's had a good life, and one bad day.


Raising your own meat animals is the lowest cost way to get excellent quality meat. Your own pig is comparable to the farmers market pork that sells for $8-12/lb. Your final cost will vary, but you can figure about $3/lb. I've written up a complete list of the costs and calculations in another post on this blog

Pigs are easy to raise; easier than turkeys

I consider pigs to be easier to raise than turkeys. I say this because when you get a weaner pig (a pig that is just weaned off the sow) it's 6-8 weeks old, and is a pretty sturdy little animal. with a decent pen, feeder and water, you really won't have any problems. In fact, I think raising a pig is a pretty good chore for an 8-12 year old child. It's something that you can easily do in a few minutes before and after work each day.

But there is a trick

The single best thing you can do to make your pig raising experience easier is to have a secure pen. Any space that a pig can fit its head through will allow the whole pig through. Electric fences are good for later, but for the first few days, you need to have a hard physical barrier to prevent the piglet from escaping. See my post on pinball pens in this blog here:

Next post: The S word

Friday, January 2, 2009

Farm Direct buying: How much meat is half a hog?

I received this email earlier today, and since I've been asked this four times in the last month, I thought it worth writing up.

"How big is half a pig, and how much freezer space will I need? What cuts do I get, and what choices do I have about the way it's cut? Are there any cuts that you think I should ask for?"

I usually slaughter my animals at 280-350lbs. The 280 are for folks who are interested in the fresh pork meat, the larger animals for folks that want some of the other items, like back fat, for their own use, either as a cultural thing, or because they'd like to experiment with making their own charcuterie.

A 280lb pig will result in two halves, each weighing 110 or so lbs. Each of those 110lb halves will result in approximately 75lbs of cut-and-wrapped meat. If you ask the meat shop to do it, they'll also cut and bag the back fat. Otherwise they'll dispose of it (probably into other peoples sausage. Why not eat it yourself? ) There is nothing like lard to make pie crusts flaky and for deep frying and so on. More on lard later.

So the 75lbs of meat from each half will be:
2lb ham hock
13lbs pork chops*
7lbs of bacon
10lbs ribs
20lbs shoulder or sausage**
11bs sausage***
12lb ham****

Stuff you can ask for that's worth eating for someone:
The jowl. Makes great bacon or pancetta, easy for you to home-cure
The backfat and other fat. Easy to render into lard, which freezes beautifully
The ears, and various bones. If you have a dog, there's nothing they like better than 1lb frozen servings of fresh pork bones. my dogs eat the whole thing.
The skin. If your pig was skinned, the skin wasn't scraped, so it still has hair on it. If you know someone with a big dog, the 80lb pig skin can be cut into paperback book sized pieces and frozen. Dogs love pig skin. Heck, i love pig skin if its been scraped.

* The bone in a lion pork chop is also the bone that appears as "baby back ribs". So when you have your pig wrapped, you can choose to have the pork lion cut off and the back ribs packaged as a tasty alternative, or you can have pork chops. But you can't have both pork chops and back ribs.

**Shoulder or sausage: Pork shoulder is the top of the front leg. It is a working muscle, which means that it has connective tissue and can be a little tougher than other cuts -- so you cook it a little longer, or use a moist cooking method like braising. The shoulder also contains pretty much the perfect mix of meat and fat for sausages. So you can either have roasts or sausages. I usually have roasts -- because I can turn it into sausages pretty easily but I can't easily produce another roast.

*** Sausage. You'll get some amount of sausage anytime you have an animal wrapped. It's all the trim from the carcass, with a little bit of the back fat. It usually includes meat cut from all parts of the pigs body. Most butchers have a couple of sausage options. Breakfast sausage is a perennial favorite at my house.

**** if you don't do hams as a holiday meal, consider having them cure the ham, and then cut it into 1/2" thick ham steaks. They work great for breakfast or for a quick dinner with some scalloped potatoes. Having the ham sliced shouldn't be any additional cost.

If you'd like to see what the meat yields are for pigs or other animals per university research, look here