Friday, October 30, 2009

The annual flood drill - Nov to Jan

The land that I farm is in the flood plain, the 100 year flood plain, to be specific.    That means that every 100 years the entire flood plain fills up with water.  But it doesn't mean that you're safe on any given year, because we've been having 100 year floods every 3 or 4 years recently. 

What it means to me is that I have to have on hand enough trailers and transportation to move all of my livestock off the island if the dike around the island fails, and I have to be able to do that in 4 to 6 hours.  The island fills in about 10 hours.  Once the island fills it's filled for 2 to 4 months, until they can pump the water out.  

So I spent part of the day today moving all of the implements that can't be underwater towards the road, and arranging them so that they'd be easily loaded, and then re-arranging the electric fences around the pig area so that I could more-easily herd the pigs. 

Next step is to make sure that all of the trailers are in working order, and that usually means a day or two of messing around with the lights and checking the tires and bearings for wear and tear. 

The long-range weather guesses for this year is that it'll be dryer than normal, but I've learned to be skeptical about long range forecasts. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Tractor travails

It all started pretty simply.  I was on my tractor last saturday.  I love my tractor, and it does a lot of stuff for me.  I end up spending an hour or so a day on the tractor.  But I digress. 

So I'm working on Saturday, and the fuel is a little low.  Normally I'd just load the big tank into the back of my truck and take it over and fill it up with off-road diesel.  It's dyed diesel, and about 30% cheaper than road diesel most of the time.  But the fuel place that I buy from is closed on Saturday.  what to do. 

I can get road diesel, but I hate paying the extra 30%.  Darn it, gotta go.  So I found a plastic diesel container that I have, and went off to buy 5 gallons of road diesel.  I'll put a little in the tank to tide me over the weekend, until I can get a full tank of offroad.  Problem solved, I spent the rest of the day doing tractor stuff. 

When I fill my tractor from a 5 gallon can, I can never get all of the diesel out of the container.  There's always a half-pint or so left.  So I didn't think much of it when I had a little sloshing around in the can when I left to buy the road diesel.  But diesel, in a can, left a long time, is EVIL.  PURE EVIL. 

My tractor was running just fine, and then started having problems when I was going up or down an incline.  Fading out, no power.  I thought at first I had run out of fuel, but the gauge showed half-full.  Eventually it just stalled out. 

I could not figure it out, so I started with the simple stuff -- is the air filter clogged?  No, almost new.  Is the battery low or dead?  Nope, checked fine.   Air and fire, check.  Now for fuel. 

Is the fuel filter full?  Yes.  But when I pulled it off I looked into the center hole and noticed something odd.  It looked like jello.  I poured it out, and it was sa gelatinous blob of something.  Algae maybe.  Evil.  Ok, off to the store for a new fuel filter. 

I get the new fuel filter in, and use the hand-operated lift pump to fill it.  But I crank it 50 times, and I'm not filling the filter.  I pull the filter off, and crank it. very little flow.  I should be getting a good squirt of diesel every time.  Weird.  Ok, back another step

tracing the fuel line back, I find this check valve between the pump and the tank.  I pull it off, and lower it below the level of the fuel in the tank.  no flow.  That's weird.  Ok, so I take a good suck off the tube to see if (blaaaaragggH!  big mouth of diesel.  Vomiting my lunch.  Yum, terryaki) ok, i can get a little out, but I can't get much flow.  So I blow into the tube this time, hear the bubbles in the tank.  But whatever was blocking the tube is still in the tank.   and the check valve itself is broken.  Off to the store for a new check valve and a can of starter fluid. 

So to save myself a few bucks, I've now spent 5 hours messing with my tractor, and none of the stuff I was going to do is getting done.  I ended up having to drain every bit of fuel from the tractor and then bleed/fill all of the tubes and pumps and valves. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The pig carrier for the tractor

One of the things that I've built that I've been really happy with is my pig carrier.  It's a 6'x6' metal box that hooks to the 3 point hitch on the back of the tractor.  When it's up it has about 18" of ground clearance, and will lower all the way to the ground.  The floor is expanded metal, and that's turned out to be really handy -- stuff drains through it, and when you put a pig or pigs into it, and lift it off the ground, the pigs stand still and stare at the ground.  "whoa!  I am floating!  wow!!" so they don't try to jump out. 

I've got one of the arms on my three point a little high here, which is why it looks a little off, but you can see the door.

What I'd change if I were to build another one
 If I were to change anything, I'd make the top rail about a foot higher (it's about 36" now) and I'd make it out of pipe instead of angle iron.  When I'm using this I'm standing at the side and leaning over many times, and some smooth round pipe would be better there.  I'd also make the top rail go all the way around.  It hasn't happened very often, but every now and then a pig will get motivated enough to jump out.  a 4' rail would make that more difficult.  I'd also change the latch.  The barrel bolt I've got is too difficult to close when you're using the door to move.  Some sort of flat stock that closes into a V shaped receiever, so that if the door is open the latch will help close it as it goes down into the V would be good.
A second thing that I'd do is to make the bottom of the cage on the tractor side a big piece of angle iron like the top rail is (see pic below)  I've found myself using this metal box to grade my road or smooth wood chips or whatever, and I've pushed in the expanded metal at the bottom a couple of times.  a piece of angle iron there would make it possible to do that and not damage the box.  It also makes sure that you don't damage it if you forget to lift it before you drive off.  

The top link hookup is a couple of pieces of flat stock, about 1.75" apart, with a hole drilled through them.  It's welded to the botton of the angle iron that runs across the top of the cage on the tractor side. 

The bottom links are a pair of 3pt bolts, bolted onto the angle iron frame of the box. 

This setup can lift 3 400lb hogs with ease.  So when I need to move sows from here to there I take the tractor out into the field with a couple of 36" high hog panels, herd the pigs into the carrier, lift them and drive away. 

Monday, October 26, 2009

Interesting chicken

I noticed this chicken today; he's a cross between a red leghorn and a barred rock.  I know the father of this chicken; it's the only one I have that has this sort of coloration, but what's interesting is that his thighs and legs are barred rock. 

You can see the barred rock a little more clearly here.  Here's the father: 

Couple of key differences.  Notice the color of the ears on this bird:  the ear color is the egg color that a hen of this breed will lay.  So this is a white egg-laying chicken breed.  His son has red ears -- brown egg laying breed.    The father weighs about 4lbs liveweight -- and the son weighs about 6lbs, so in addition to the brown egg laying trait the son has gained some size. 

The father is looking a little ragged.  This is year 2 for him, so he's due for a molt. 

Sunday, October 25, 2009

I notice this more since I started farming...

I took this picture about a week ago, on the highway 520 floating bridge.  I commuted over this bridge every day for close to 10 years, and I looked at this view each morning, and each evening.  It used to be that I'd see a scene like this and think "bad traffic.  wonder how long it'll take to get across", but my view has changed.  I had to run an errand over this bridge, and I found myself thinking "wow.  Wind is really blowing.  Wonder if the storm is coming or going?" 

What's odd about that is that I didn't really even think about the cars when I took the photo. I wanted a picture of the waves and the wind, and didn't really care about the cars. I was in no hurry, I'd get what I needed to get done that day, and that's what I noticed: My viewpoint has shifted. I feel a little distance from the day-to-day stuff that I used to do. My schedule now is related more to the wind and the rain and the season. That's a big change.

Life is a lot more visceral now.   I like that a lot. 

Saturday, October 24, 2009

I'm in the NY times today

It's interesting that the pictures that were chosen were in the middle of the butchery process, to my mind.  They show a pig that is dead, stuck and scraped already; that, for me, isn't the real point.   It's almost too clinical.  That's meat-cutting, not slaughter. 

I'm aiming my classes at folks who want to go from pasture to plate - the whole way, not just the last third.   I recognize that it's difficult to write about this for a mass audience, but part of the experience is the moment of death, the warmth of the body, the gush of hot blood, the permanance of it.   I'm not dwelling on that, but I am not ignoring it, either.  Of all the comments made in the article, the one that struck me the most was this one, from Jake Lahne: 

“Animals do not want to die,” he wrote. “They can feel pain and fear, and, just like us, will struggle to breathe for even one single more second. If you’re about to run 250 volts through a pig, do not look it in the eyes. It is not going to absolve you.”

That's the essence of meat for me.  Most of us are too far from our food.  Everyone should hold the knife at least once in their lives.  

Really liked this quote from Temple Grandin, who is an internationally-known slaughter consultant:

The method the Rusbys learned in Washington State is, in fact, a more humane alternative, she said. “The easiest way to kill an animal is to approach it as it eats out of a feed trough in its home pen and shoot it in the middle of the forehead — bang,” Ms. Grandin said. “There, there would be no stress at all.”

Thank you Alex Williams, for your coverage of this, and Ms. Grandin for your compliment on my farm kill method. 

Here's the NY Times article.
Here's Jake Lahne's ethicurean blog entry on slaughter (source of the quote, above)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Short entry today

Been a long day today.  Had a pig farrow, had some survey work done at the farm, and worked a bit on the USDA paperwork.  Oh yea -- I'm in the process of trying to buy another 40 acres to expand my farm into. 

More indepth entry tommorow. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Profitability and pigs: What do you feed them?

The largest single expense in raising pigs is the feed bill.  It takes about 1,000lbs of good quality feed to go from a 40lb weaner pig to a 300lb market pig, and feed current sells for $300/ton in this area.  So if I were to feed the pigs solely a prepared feed, I'd have a cost basis of the piglet cost + $150, or somewhere around $225.  Add to that payment for the land, tractor fuel, repairs, fencing and labor, and a small producer can end up with a hog that cost them $350-400 to produce.  Since a side of pork in this area sells for $240, for 6 months labor and expense, you only earn $50-80. 
That means that you'd have to produce something on the order of 300 pigs to make a meagre living of $24,000 a year.  And selling 300 pigs retail is a massive task.    If you can reduce your feed costs by half, you reduce the number of pigs you have to sell to make a living -- reducing the feed cost by half means your cost drops by as much as 30%, and that means that instead of $80 a pig, you're making $155 a pig, and the picture looks a little brighter.   If you sell 300 pigs at that margin, you're knocking down $46.5k a year -- which is a low, liveable salary. 

So here's the low-cost feed choices that I use:   

The pigs are on pasture.  They find stuff to eat all over.  Plants, animals, mushrooms, they spend quite a bit of their time rooting around looking for things to eat, even when they've got a full feeder.  They enjoy foraging. 

Spent grain, brewing byproduct
The picture above is spent grain from brewing beer.  To make beer they combine the grains they're going to use (wheat, barley, etc) and then boil them in a big kettle.  The liquid is then drained out of the kettle and used to make beer, and the solids, basically a calorie-reduced grain porridge, is part of what I feed to the pigs.  In this picture there's cans from two different batches of beer.  One of the batches they roast the wheat until it's a little burnt, and that's the darker band in the center. 

Juice and wine making byproducts
  I've talked about apples and wine pomace (leftovers from brewing wine and making apple cider here

Expired produce and dairy from a variety of sources

The cost with this is that it often comes packaged in a way that makes it a pain in the ass for the farm.  I have to unwrap the loaves of bread, pick the labels off the apples, take the bannas out of plastic bags, drain the milk containers and so on. 

and finally, I use formulated hog feed, which I talk about here

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Pastor Kila and the Ray of Hope Mission

I met Pappa Kila today, who together with his wife Irene operate the Ray of Hope mission at the corner of Hewitt and Maple, right next to I5 in downtown Everett.   2914 hewitt Avenue, unit C.  They're open from 8am to 11am every day serving hot food to the hungry.  

Pastor Kila has run this mission that feeds the hungry at this location for the last 14 years.  I met him because he came by my farm and asked if I could use food for my pigs.  When he has a surplus he doesn't have a place to store it, and I'm only 3/4 of a mile away, so it's a good fit. 

Their landlord is also helping in this endeavor.   John Eisman donates 50% of the rent of the space each month. 

The mission is doing a fundraiser on November 7th.  It's Chicken and shortribs, rice and macaroni salad & dessert for $10.  All proceeds to to support the mission or for relief for Somoan victims of the recent tsunami there.

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Pregnant Sows / Winter Farrowing

This is the black pig.  she's an experienced sow, and is really really pregnant at this point.  In fact, I'm expecting her to farrow (give birth to piglets) either today or tommorow.  She's laying like this because I've just rubbed her belly (which she really likes, by the way) and have done a visual and physical check of her nipples.   Everything looks in order, temperature is normal, breast is soft, no evidence of mastitis -- so we're good to go. 

What I'm looking for is any redness or swelling, or any discoloration.  As the pigs on pasture interact with other pigs or move around on the pasture they'll injure themselves from time to time.   When she's this pregnant the last thing she wants to do is move around much, so this is a good time to do the condition check. 

The quarter is on there for scale.  I'm using the amount she's bagged out (her breast material is swollen) as a primary indicator of being close to farrowing.  the other sign, which is a little hard to see, is if her belly almost touches the ground when she walks. 

Here's another pregnant sow, Tank, also an experienced mom.   Andrea is doing the condtion check here.  Notice that if she was standing her belly would only be a few inches above the ground.  I'm expecting her to farrow in 3 days or so. 

For winter farrowing I move the sows into a barn, and use an 8x16 farrowing pen.  This allows me to closely monitor the condition of the sow and piglets, and gives me better survival rates.   In the event that there's a complication, I can  asssess and respond appropriately.  In the summer I'll let the sow pig their own pasture location to farrow. 

I'm expecting 10 or more piglets from each of the three sows we've got in the barn right now. 

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Puppy pics

Group shot #4, all the boys

Group shot #3, all the boys

Group shot #1, all the girls

Group shot #2, all the girls

Pup #11, boy, 6lbs 11oz, 2 photos

#10 boy, no collar, 3lbs 13oz, 2 photos

Pup #9,  girl, purple collar, 6lbs 4oz, 2 pictures

Pup #8, boy, no collar, 7lbs.  Biggest puppy.  2 pics

Pup #7: girl, purple collar, 5lbs 1oz.  2 pics

#6: girl, red collar, 6lbs 2oz, 2 pics

#5: boy, blue collar, 3lbs 14oz, 2 pics

#4: girl, red collar, 6lbs, 4oz, 2 pics

#3: boy, no collar 5lbs 6 oz

#2: girl, red collar, 5lbs 12oz

Pup #1, girl, red collar, 3lbs 6oz

Pup medical: 
All pups in good health.  All pups vaccinated with first dose of canine distemper-adenovirus type 2 - parainfluenze-parvovirus modified live virus vaccine on 10-5-2009.  They're due the second shot around 10-25, and the third shot around 11-20.    I do these shots early because the dogs will be shipped and might be exposed prior to 16 weeks.  Consult your local vet about a followup vaccination just to be safe. 

Breachy cow

Weather:  Raining buckets, then some sun, then buckets of rain. 

This is my small herd of Holsteins.  The bane of my existence is peeking around the bigger cow, at the far right. 

This is my little holstein heifer.  I purchased her as part of a package with some steers, and I'm raising her alongside the steers with the idea that I'll breed her.  Well, I wish I had that sort of plan.  I'm basically seeing how it goes and playing it by ear.  Which isn't really a problem, as I've got a couple of years to figure it out. 

This little cow is the only cow that's figured out that if you're tall enough, you can step over the fence and get into stuff that you shouldn't.  Like the pig feed, or the chicken feed, or the garden, or... well, you get the picture. 

I'm hoping that she calms down as she gets a litttle older.  Right now she's being a challenge.  Every day I've got to fix some electric wire fence somewhere.   And if I put her into the hard-fenced paddock she chases the sheep around all day.  grrr.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Got the coyote (#5 for the year)

I set myself up on the stacked hay in the hay barn with a good field of view of the area that the coyotes enter/leave the property.  I was in place at 4:30.  At 7:01 (I looked at my phone) I saw this coyote. 

The pigs had done something that I've never seen them do before.  They were all sleeping in a circle, with the biggest pigs on the outside, and the smaller ones and piglets on the inside, right next to the big field feeders. 

When I first saw this coyote it was circling the feeders, trying to pick off a chicken.  The chickens were alert however, and whenever the coyote would get close they'd run back into the circle of pigs, or fly up onto the feeder.  The coyote was never more than about 10' from the pigs, circling, watching the chickens.  It would make rushes in when it thought it could get a chicken, and then go back to circling.  Eventually it would have gotten its chicken for the day. 

The pigs had been active since I got there at 4:30.  Banging their feeder, squealing, grunting, moving around.  None of this activity bothered the coyote at all. 

I waited until it stopped.  It happened to be facing me, but I don't think it saw me or smelled me.  The shot entered its chest and traversed the length of the coyote, exiting through its lower back.  After the shot I couldn't see the animal, but I believed I had hit it.  The long grass hid it.   I waited an hour before I went out to confirm the kill, hoping that another coyote would appear.  No more coyotes.  

When I approached the coyote big momma, one of my biggest sows, came over and investigated it with me.  I think she would have eaten it if I hadn't shooed her away. 

From the position of the coyote when I found it, it fell over dead.  It was still facing me, and didn't show any sign of movement after the shot. 

This particular animal was a female, in good form.  She weighed about 35lbs, had a very nice coat and good layer of fat.  I'm guessing she was enjoying my chickens a lot.  I skinned her and froze the pelt preparatory to sending it off to be tanned. 

I'll make some track traps where this coyote entered to see if there are other coyotes.  I do this by finding some soft dirt and then raking it smooth with a garden rake.  I'll look at the smoothed dirt every few days for tracks and watch for more feathers. 

When food is too cheap: Milk prices

I wrote a story about the plight of dairy farmers right now on my other blog, Farming Washington.   I have nothing but respect for dairy farmers, and I'm sorry to see them going. 

You'll find that story here

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Red sky at night...

I was working in the greenhouse, weeding and tilling.  When it got a little dark, I came out to go home, and noticed this really red sky.