Sunday, November 29, 2009

Stripe takes her piglets for a walk

Stripe is a mostly-hampsire sow that's new to my farm; she's been here about 6 months.  When I first got her she'd never seen dirt -- she'd been born on concrete and was there until she was sold to me.  I bring in new pigs and new genetics from time to time, and the hampshire breed of pig is one that I think does pretty well.  I'm going for a hampshire/berkshire cross herd, mostly. 
Her 7 piglets are actually under and around her.  Behind her you can see the rear end of a brown-and-black piglet and over the top you can see a black piglet. 

Stripe is actually the brave one that is leading her piglets and the other pigs out of the hay barn and onto the field.  She'll take a few steps, and then pause as everyone catches up, and then repeat.  They're a few acres from the barn, making a wide leisurely tour of the pasture.  Eventually they'll end up back at the barn and go to sleep for the night. 

She's teaching them to forage; that's one nice thing about breeding your own pigs.  Each generation introduces the next generation to your system, and there's really not much I have to do, other than make sure that the feed and water are there, and the fencing is in good shape.  It's kinda peaceful, actually.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Gate latch design

I have learned that you cannot have too many gates, and that you can't have a gate that is too big.  For my own operation, I've found that a 14' gate is a good size.  Even though my tractor is only 7' wide, I'm often going through the gate at an angle, or carrying something big, or dragging something, and the extra space makes life so much better. 

A good source of relatively cheap gates for me is when there's an auction of a dairy farm.  They'll often put all of the gates up as one lot, and yes, it's a lot of work to take down 50 gates, but they're often very nice gates, and come complete with hinges and latches.  So that's what this post is about. 

The picture above is the latch from a 14' wide dairy gate that I bought; I think I paid $5 for this particular gate.  It's a cool latch.  You work the lever, and it inserts the two flat pieces into the end post, about 4".  That's plenty sturdy.  It also has a lock on it, and you can see the entire thing, so if something goes wrong you can fix it. 

Here's a closeup of the lock.  This is in the "locked" position.  To unlock it you flip that piece of round stock up. 

Here's the latch in the "open" position.  I don't know who made this design -- this gate is probably 50 years old -- but whomever it was was pretty clever.  I'll be glad to add another decade or two to its useful life. 

The hinges are pretty beefy, too.  They're made out of 1/8" stock.  Big, tough gate.  If I were to buy the gate and hinges new I'd be out something like $200.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Driving T posts with a tractor

You might have noticed that the order I construct my fencing is 1) fenceline prep, 2) braces and gates, 3) stretch wire, 4) T posts.  I do it that way becuase I get a better looking fence.  Once you've stretched the fence, driving the T posts in becomes easy. 

I've found that the front loader on my tractor does a fairly good job of driving T posts into my river-bottom soil.  Not many rocks, and heavy-duty T posts are pretty tough, so you can just push them in.  To do that I'll go and tap each T post in by hand, so that they stand up.  In this case I want the T post to stick out about a foot above the level of the fence so that I can put a hot wire there if I chose.   The white painted area is easy to see so I'll drive these down with the bucket until the white area is about level with the top of the fence. 

Here's the veiw from the cab of the tractor as I prepare to push this post in. 

The biggest challenge is to make sure that the teeth on the t post don't hook into and cut the wire of the fence.  If you're working with someone, you can have them pull the fence down, but I'm workig alone today.  So what I do is orient the tractor so that the front tire of the tractor pushes on the fence a little.  Not much, but an inch or two.  This pushes it out of the way so that I can drive the t post. 

Here the taut fence is about an inch from the posts. 

Doing it this way I can drive 150-175 T posts per day.  Manually setting them, and then moving from post to post with the tractor to drive them.  The one problem is when you run across some tough ground, and it gives way all at once.  So I'm careful to slowly increase the pressure.  I've had to pull a couple of posts up and out so that I have a nice pretty fence with all of the posts in a line. 

Yea, the animals won't care about it, but I like seeing nice, straight fences that have a uniform appearance.  And not just for my ego -- it's easier to tell if they've been moved or damaged, so you spot problems sooner.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Stretching fencing with a tractor and a log

Once the braces are in I roll out the fencing.  I'm using no climb horse fence here because it's pretty resilient and will stand up well to abuse.  It's pricey, though.  $169/100' roll.  I roll out about 10' more than I need so that I have some slack.    This end is fixed. 

I cut the strands of the fence out, and using those ends wrap them around the post at the end of this stretch of fencing.  More details on this farther down. 

I'm pretty skeptical about tools, but this crescent tool has been really nice for this job.  It's a 2-1 strength cutter, constructed a little like a minature bolt cutter.  It's got a spring in the handle to open it back up again after the cut, and it really makes the wire trimming easier.  I have no connection to Crescent, I just like it when a tool works well.  Search the part number in the photo to find someone who sells 'em near you. 

First thing I do is lay a small log down.  It's helpful if this log is at least 3' longer than the height of your fence.  You want some to stick out from the top and bottom. 

Then I  cut the "vertical" wire out, leaving a bunch of ends hanging.

Then I make a loop about 2' in diameter by folding the wire back on itself and hooking it, as shown here. 

The log is placed in the center of this loop. 

You can see the log inside its loop of fencing here.  when I'm' pulling on this fencing, I want the pull to be equal.  It's hard to get to the center link of the chain, and you can spend a lot of time fussing with it, or you can do this.  On the right is the bucket of my tractor, with a chain hook welded in the center.  On that chain hook is a small loop of chain.  On the log is a longer piece of chain that is attached to the log, just above and below the fencing. 
I run the longer chain through the shorter chain attached to the bucket.  This allows the longer chain to "load balance"-- as I pull back, the two chains will automatically find the place where the pull is equal.  So I can do one smooth pull. 

So here it is in action.  the smaller chain has moved on the longer chain, actually attached to the log, and found the center.  Magic.  Nice, even pull. You could do this with a clevis or a steel carabiner, too.  DO NOT, i repeat DO NOT use a climbing carabiner for this sort of work.  You'll break it, and the pieces are dangerous.  Use steel. 

I back the tractor up until I get it taught, being careful to line up my chain hook with the brace posts.  Right now there's about 500lbs of pull on the fence.  Once I get that all lined up, I use the bucket curl to put as much tension on the fence as I can.  Now I don't want to break the fence, but I want there to be a good TWANG! when I pluck it.  To finish this I walk over, lift the log, and then tack the fence to the post.

I repeat this whole thing the other direction. 

Now here I can't get the tractor into a straight line with the fence.  Look at the front wheels of the tractor, and you can see what I did.  I was driving forward slowly to stretch this fence here.  Notice the load-balancing rig here, too.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Sacrifice paddock -- fencing

For this particular project I'm making a gate opening that will allow me to enter and exit with the bucket on the tractor all the way up.  If I do that, I cannot have an accident in the future, unless I get a larger tractor, which is unlikely. 

The problem becomes how to mount the top-bar on the fence.  It's a little taller than the bucket on the tractor, but not much.  So where's what I do: 

Lift the buck up and rotate it, so that it gets within about a foot, and then put a ladder up on each side to lift the top bar up.  Now I want to notch the top bar, and spike it into place.  So I do that by using the bucket as a work platform. 

I then stand on the flat bucket surface and can use the chainsaw and sledgehammer with relative safety.  Repeat for the other side. 

To prepare for the fence I take the bucket of the tractor and level the area under where the fence will be, and then run some baling twine along the proposed fenceline.  Once I've got it the way I want it, I dig and cement in the braces.  This all takes about a day.  The cement takes a couple of days to cure. 

Tommorow I'll start stretching the fence. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Pigs on pasture

I've talked a lot about pigs on pasture, and my skepticism that you can raise pigs on a diet that is primarily what they find on the land.  "90% pasture" is just not reality for all of the pork producers I know of. 

John Schneider who writes in his blog Golden forest grains wrote an article in 2006 for Small Farm Canada magazine.  In that article he describes a feed mix that he prepares for his pigs that is pretty credible -- that is, I think he's got the science down, tracks what the overall protein of the feed mix is, and knows how many calories and a ration size.   It does include a large percentage of forage -- in the form of alfalfa hay -- and it's backed by research he found that studied how effectively pigs take up this sort of feed. 

In short, it sounds pretty real to me.  Here's his article.

Note:  Wild pigs grow great without being fed -- but they have acres per pig, not pigs per acre, and the growth rate (= return on investment) is much slower than a fed, domestic pig.   No commercial pig producer that I know of is producing pigs with a diet that is primarily pasture, despite many loud claims. 

Monday, November 23, 2009

Managing my pastures - sacrifice paddock

If you're going to have animals out on pasture, you have to be aware that for a part of the year the grass isn't going to be growing, and will in fact be damaged by the hooves/feet of the animals.  So in the non-growing season, which we've entered now, the reccomended way to deal with this is to designate a smaller pasture or pen and put your animals into that area for the winter.

There's quite a few folks who blog about "management intensive grazing", but I don't really think that they do that particular process.   Management intensive grazing is where you define an area that is just big enough for your animals to deplete in a day or so, and then rest for a period of months afterwards to allow for complete regrowth.   While the animals are in this small area, anything tasty is consumed, and all of the weeds are stomped, and the basic idea is that same sort of grazing that buffalo did in their migrations.

What most of the bloggers do is continuously graze their pastures, which isn't the same sort of thing at all.   You put a perimeter fence around the edge, put the animals in it, and off you go.  This is popular because it involves basically  no daily management.  You can see a list of other grazing styles here.     

If you're curious about examples from folks who are actually doing management intensive grazing, you'll find excellent entries about it with respect to cows here, and with respect to sheep here

With any system of managing your pastures, in the winter there's no growth happening, and the sod gets damaged by the hooves/feet of your animals.  So if you're serious about having a quality pasture for forage, what you should consider is having a sacrifice paddock. 

A sacrifice paddock is a small area that will probably be turned into dirt over the course of the winter.  "sacrifice" because it's consumed, and will probably have to be reseeded in the spring, but it allows you to move your stock off their main pasture so that it doesn't get damaged and will be in good shape when spring returns. 

So what I'm doing now is making a small, hard-fenced area that I'll put my pig herd into for the winter. 

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Chips and chips and chips

I've been accumulating my chip pile for a few months now; every now and then I sell a few loads to someone.  I wouldn't have thought that it would be valuable, but then again, the value of having land next to a major highway is showing itself.  I sell a truckload of these chips for $30 + a delivery fee based on the mileage, and I think I've sold 60 truckloads this year.  I should probably raise the price, but I'm selling mostly to other farmers, and this stuff isn't going to make them money -- they're using it to control mud in their pastures or mulch or amend soil, and so I feel kinda guilty about charging them $2.50/yard delivered, but it pays for the truck license and diesel, so I guess it's fair. 
  It's funny -- as much as I agitate for fair farm pricing, I have the same qualms about prices as everyone else. 

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Gifts from the highway

My land is pretty close to the city; about 3 minutes by car, and it's got a big freeway that runs down one side of it, elevated 20' above.  As with any freeway, I get donations of all sorts of stuff that flies off the freeway and lands on my property, so every few weeks I go and pick up whatever it is. 

I use the pig carrier that I made to collect it.  Todays collection has some bits of plywood -- the sides of someones truck bed, i think, 8 2x4s (that must have been dangerous to have on the roadway.  Sometimes the state patrol will toss hazards off the roadway if they can't get it off safely) and some bits of metal. 

The metal is interesting.  It's not car parts -- you can see a bit of it in the pig carrier.  It's the big gray thing.  It's sheet metal, galvanized, but it looks like it was torn.  Maybe sheet metal off a trailer.  Odd. 

There's a little bit of fencing; nothing that I can use.  I've considered applying for one of those highway cleanup signs, "this highway sponsored by", since I"m the one who's primarily cleaning up the litter, but I've already got enough chores, so I don't think I will.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Feeding the sheep and not thinking

I'm trained as an engineer, and that training went both deep and early.  It means that I approach things analytically, and I spend some time thinking about something before I do it. 

So for me, getting out of my head from time to time is good.  Today was like that.  A blustery, cold day with threatening clouds.  YOu can see the hay barn in the distance, just above the top of the nearest bale.  This hay is for the sheep.  My goal is to keep the sheep on pasture and hay, but it's difficult to judge how much nutrition there is in this hay.  I'm not thinking about that today.  Lift the bale, put it into the front loader.  Stack the next bale.  Repeat. 

The sheep are always excited when they get a new bale of hay; they like to nose into it to find the best little bits of whatever it is that sheep like in the hay.  This hay smells good; it's got a nice green color in the center; the outside is a little bleached -- I put it it up 5 months ago, in June.   The smell of the hay brings back the heat of that day, and the rows of bales.  I hired my nephew Alex and a friend of his, Jay, and my girlfriend andrea drove the truck as the three guys threw the bales on the trailer.  That was a good day.  You felt the sun on your skin and the water was so good because it felt like every bale sucked a quart out of you.  It's nice when plain water becomes a treat.   Physical labor is under-rated. 

Alex joined the Air Force about a month after that.  He was 18, and he didn't tell his dad.  He went to the recruitment office, signed the papers, did the physical and told my brother Ken that he was leaving the day before he did.  I'd hired Alex and Jay last year, too, and I got a litany of complaints about  how hard the work was from both of them.  This year I noticed that Alex just worked.  I think he grew up in the last year, and it was time for him to go. 

I'm hoping to see Alex this thanksgiving; I'd like to hear the boot camp stories that every soldier has, that are all different but all the same.  Alex is in Missisippi now, and will probably deploy to Afghanistan next year. 

Thursday, November 19, 2009

$10,000 sugar mountain farm challenge

Walter Jefferies from Sugar Mountain Farm and I have been discussing feeding and raising pigs.  We have a disagreement.  He believes, and has stated publically many times that he has raised pigs on pasture without supplemental feeding.  That you can do this, and the result is a pig that gains weight only 10% slower than usual.

Walter has also suggested that you can do this with a stocking level of 20 pigs per acre. 

Each of the rules of this challenge are based on public messages Mr. Jefferies has posted in various locations promoting this idea that you can raise pigs on forage alone, at 20 per acre.

The $10,000 Sugar Mountain Farm Challenge

1) Sugar Mountain farms will supply 4 weaner pigs of his choice, each pig an average weight of 40lbs or less

2)  Sugar Mountain farms will supply hay of his choice to feed those pigs. 

3)  We put those pigs into a pen that is 1/5th of an acre in size and provide them shelter and water.  Has to be pasture -- not a sugar beet field.  Grass.    Similar in nature and fertility to the dirt at walters farm.  This size pasture per Sugar Mountain's reccomendations to other farmers about pen size and apparently his current practices. 

4)   That we feed those pigs .8 (8 tenths) of a pound of hay per day per cwt per Sugar mountain farms many published reccomendations and stated current practice and NO OTHER FOOD OF ANY SORT.   The pigs can forage whatever nutrition they want from the ground they are on - "pasture"

5)   That the pigs finish on a schedule that is 10% or less different than 4H guidelines for finished pigs or any other grow-out length as agreed to by both parties. 

6)  That the average finished weight of the four pigs be between 250 and 280lbs live weight at the end of this time. 

7)  Sugar Mountain farms can pick the start date of this challenge so that he can pick the most beneficial time of the year but at a time less than 1 year from the date of this post. 

8) That the pigs be kept at some other farm, agreeable to both Sugar Mountain and I.

9) That the pigs be weighed each month, and in the event of weight loss or lack of weight gain we deem the challenge to be over and Sugar mountain to have lost.   Each weighing to be published on the web. 

10)  I will put $10,000 into an escrow account held by an attorney at the commencement of this challenge, and will direct that attorney to award that money to Sugar Mountain farms in the event that he fufills all of these conditions.

11)  In the event that Sugar Mountain accepts this challenge and cannot meet all of these conditions, Sugar mountain agrees to host a banner at the top of each and every one of his websites for one year in legible text that states "I lost the sugar mountain challenge and the results can be seen here", and linked to any page I choose.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The business of small farming

I was reading another blog that I follow, and there was a posting about a seminar.  In the pitch for the seminar,  Rebecca Thistlewaite made two statements that caught my attention. 
"...Our business has grown by an astonishing 3,500% in 5 years — ridiculous, I know! — but somehow we have yet to see a net profit at the end of the year."
[of course your business is growing -- you're selling goods at a price lower than the cost of production.  Freebies are really popular!]


"...Am I in the wrong line of work, or do we just need to learn how to get better? Since we are not ready to give up yet, I vote for getting better at what we are doing: that is, more profitable and fewer-than-80-hour work weeks."
[the solution for not making a profit is to get bigger, work harder and longer and lose even more?]

I'm going to skip over the seminar, if you want to read the pitch, you can here, but I want to focus on those statements.

First, at some level, farming isn't different than any other business.  You have costs, goods you produce, challenges in producing those goods, inventories, taxes and books.  There's a misperception that somehow farming businesses aren't really businesses.  That by virtue of being a farm somehow you're immune (or should be immune) from the normal challenges that any business faces.  I just don't get the view, but it's' mostly folks who seem to want some sort of magic solution.   Maybe having a seminar will help us produce the magic solution.  I like a party, too!

My suggestion?  Enlist the help and viewpoint of someone who understands business and can, from that viewpoint, analyze and suggest different ways to do things, and often for free.  I suggested SCORE. 

Rebecca responded: 

 "...Now, I doubt a SCORE retired businessman who doesn’t understand agriculture would be able to reverse these trends that even expert agriculture economists can’t figure out. But I do think we can learn from each other and from the handful of farm businesses that are thriving and making a profit. "
Wait a sec -- someone with training and experience in business cannot understand agriculture?      Only people in agriculture can have any possible, useful input into a business which happens to be in agriculture?

 That's a pretty standard sort of response.  Dismiss data or input that doesn't match your own viewpoint.  Even if it's free.   Why can't people experienced in business understand agriculture?  Aren't most of the farms by sales volume run by people with business experience and expertise?    

What I see is that people who get into farming after having the experience of running some other small business tend to be more successful at making their business a going concern than those who don't have that body of experience.  Selling products you produce is a business, whether it's trucks or turnips.  If you cannot make a profit, which is a standard business problem, and you've run out of ideas, getting someone to take a look with a fresh viewpoint might be just the ticket to solve your problem. 

Rebecca also made the point that farmers income averaged $15,603 a year.  I don't know where she got her numbers from, there's no attribution, but when I looked it up here I didn't see that number, but I did notice that farm households, on average, earn 108, 110 or 113% of the household wage average.  Farmers earn more than the average income, probably mostly because they work two jobs. 

Which, by the way, is what Rebecca does.  Her second job is apparently to put on seminars.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

My "stupid chicken-eating dog"-progress report.

I had a fellow remind me about my Red, the airedale that decided he liked to eat chickens.  I wrote about him being too interested in chickens here, and then about my use of a chicken necklace to try to get him to not eat chickens here

So 4 months later, where are we? 

Red is the best herding dog I've got out of the airedales.  He understands balance points and flight zones, and he's very helpful when moving pigs, cows and sheep.  He does take the occasional nip at the animals he's herding, but he follows directions and can be called off.  That's a clear win. 

He's still interested in poultry.  He's ok if he's left alone with them for an hour or two, but if he's bored or left too long with them, there's a fair chance that he'll catch one and kill it.  So I have to make sure that he's in his kennel if I'm going ot leave him at the farm for any length of time.  We have a large flock of free-ranging chickens, and they think that his dog food, in the kennel, is tasty.  So they've been jumping into his mouth, and I finally solved that by moving his feed dish into his dog house so that the chickens couldn't see it from outside the pen. 

That said, his interest in poultry is less than it was, and as he gets more sure of his role and job herding, I think it'll be better yet. 

I'm pretty stubborn with animals, and particularly with dogs.  I'll go to great lengths to work out an issue with a dog, and I make the commitment when I undertake an animal that it will be with me for life.   Red is a challenge, but it's one that seems to be resolved to both of our satisfaction now. 

Thanks to Jed, the country bumpkin, who reminded me about red in a comment he made on this post. 

Monday, November 16, 2009

Pigs, hay and free food

Farmers who produce animals on pasture aren't really a homogenous group.  Each farmer makes their own choice as to what sort of farm they'd like to have, and how much work they can devote to it. 

Raising pigs on pasture means that the animals have a much wider area to roam, and are usually in a larger social group.  the pictures above show a cohort of 110lb grower pigs at my farm.  The animals in these groups will tend to hang around each other, and seem to move around the pasture by  consensus.  These pigs are after the water, and a little bit of the green grass that hasn't been killed by frosts. 

While they do eat the green grass, and when that's not available, small amounts of hay -- a pound or two a day for a larger animal -- that forage doesn't provide anywhere near the amount of calories to promote pig growth.  I'm not even sure that a pig could maintain weight on a diet based entirely on grass or hay. 

But experience has shown that given a choice, they'd prefer a little grass or hay, and seek it out.  That's part of the reason I use hay for bedding the pigs instead of straw.  The pigs seem to prefer it, and every pound of hay they eat is probably a little less feed they'll eat.  I'm buying hay for $120/ton, and pig feed for $300/ton, so pound-for-pound the hay is cheaper, and the volume of hay is much bigger as well. 

There's a lot of discussion about raising pigs on "forage".  The term describes both what an animal might find on its own, out in the pasture, or so-called "forage feeds", which are gathered and then transported to the animal -- like baled hay, or silage.  I don't know of any farmers that are successfully raising pigs on a diet that is primarily forage.   Every farmer I know is feeding their pigs something additional. 

Free food
If you're thinking about buying a pig from a farmer to eat, it's perfectly OK to ask that farmer what they're feeding the animal, and in fact, that's the first question that I'd ask.  The second would probably be breed of pig, and the third is price. 

My biggest single cost in raising pigs is the feed.  I happen to be located next to a highway, and get offers of food from time to time.  Food banks that get a donation they can't use, people who ship food for a living who have a spill, accident or fire that prevents them from using the food for humans, or cold-storage facilities that have to dispose of food for various reasons.  The cold storage facilities are actually a good place to look for food because they deal with food in industrial quantities -- nothing sucks more than to have to pull 1,000 loaves of bread out of individual wrappers, for instance.  A tote or supersack of bread dough is a lot easier to deal with.   I've got no connection to that packaging company, they just have nice pictures of various bulk packages. 

You need to be very careful that the food you are offered is not the product of some sort of recall, or if it is, that the recall is for reasons unrelated to the wholesomeness of the food -- improper packaging, for instance.  We live in a time when millions of pounds of food is recalled and has to be disposed of on a regular basis, and you don't want to get stuck with food that will make your animals sick. 

The key element of all of those is that none of the feed can be gathered after it's been exposed to people.  The simple reason for this is that pigs can catch human diseases, and if you're feeding your pigs post-consumer food, you're going to have to heat it to kill any pathogens that might be contained in it. 

This typically doesn't apply if you're feeding your pig scraps from your own table -- whatever your family has probably won't hurt your pig, and the risk is fairly low.  But if you're dealing with plate scrapings from the general public, the odds increase. 

I'm not going to go into how to heat food because I don't do that, and I'm not an expert in it, but I am going to encourage you if you're looking for free food to be aware of the pre-consumer and post-consumer food issue. 

So here's some stuff that you might find; these have all been offered to me in the last month or two, do any of these have a disease issue? 

1) Expired cottage cheese from the dairy case
2) Wilted produce from a produce stand
3) 600lb barrels of condensed milk
4) Food scraps from a restaurant
5) Donated food that couldn't be used at a soup kitchen
6) one-ton totes of pureed pumpkin
7) Pressed soybeans from a tofu factory
8) buffet line food
9) spent grain from a brewery (byproduct of brewing beer)

When you're offered food, it's a good practice to ask why they can't use it.  The pureed pumpkin in the above examples was caused by a forklift driver who speared one of them, smearing the outside of all of the other totes with pumpkin, and the recipient of the shipment refused to accept it.  The contents were good, it was just messy. 

Rejected food: 
Examples 4 and 8 are both sources of food that I would likely not accept.  I can't trust the restaurant to have successfuly managed to keep plate scrapings out of the food containers, and I can't even say that the containers they put it into aren't contaminated with food. 

Suspect food: 
Examples 3 and 6 you're going to need to ask why they have to get rid of it.  #3 I've already explained; that was fine.  #6 is suspect though.  Dairy is a super food for pigs, but why are they getting rid of it?  Sometimes it's as innocent as a poorly mixed batch; in other cases there's some sort of contaminant that makes it unfit for human (and in my opinion, pig) consumption.  So ask, and use your best judgement as to whether you can trust the answer. 

Spent grain, also known as distillers grain, is an interesting feed.  It's essientially a low-calorie porridge of barley and wheat and cows, pigs, sheep and poultry all eat it.  At times breweries will even pay you to take it away.  So if you can find a microbrewery in your area, this is often a good source.

None of these feeds I've described are complete feeds.  You'll probably have to either add or allow the animal to select, various trace minerals and vitamins that might be lacking from a particular source, and I really can't tell you how to do that efficiently.  I look at my animals every day, and watch how they take their feed, how much, and what their poo looks like to evaluate their condition.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Farrowing crates in the NY times

I've written several times about farrowing crates in my blog.  In cost and husbandry I wrote about a bucket of dead piglets and how much that sucked.  In Farrowing pen experiment I wrote about making a pen in my hay barn so that the sow would be more protected and the piglets warmer, with mixed results.  and I've written a number of entries about having to move sows that chose a bad place to farrow, or various difficulties.  Search for the word "farrow" in my blog for a list of entries. 

The NY times, in an op-ed piece by James McWilliams,  he explores the basic issues regarding farrowing pens.  It's a pretty balanced view of the whole process, and on the whole is pretty close to my own views on this subject.  But it was one of the comments that really helped me frame what I've been thinking about, and I'll reproduce it here, in its entirety. 

[comment #]25. November 12, 2009

12:20 pm

So, let’s conduct a little thought experiment. Consider an example of certain human situation which is analogous to sows and their litters and which involves ‘humanistic values and concerns’ (the definition of humane, by the way).

Suppose a pregnant woman is having complications and has to be confined to bed rest for the last month of her pregnancy in order to protect her unborn child. Bed rest is quite common, with nearly one in five pregnant women being prescribed bed rest, and even more common for women who are carrying multiple babies. Many medical providers prescribe bed rest, despite dubious evidence about its effectiveness, because it is perceived to be worth the “effort” and not harmful to the pregnant woman.

For many women confined to bed rest for extended periods of time, the novelty of lounging in their pajamas with a stack of movies or a good book fades quickly. The realities of confinement and isolation begin to set in. A woman under bed rest rarely gets to move far from her bed, if at all, and she likely has little more than a few feet of space which available to her. Most women undergo significant hormonal changes and likely feel nesting instincts which cannot be acted on. For many women, bed rest causes muscles to lose tone and make joints ache painfully, while lying down for long periods of time reduces blood circulation. She also likely feels isolated, unable to visit her friends, go about her daily routines, or engage in hobbies and activities. Emotions run the gamut from shock to anger and from fear to hopefulness.

Sound familiar?

If a woman disobeyed her doctor and chose not to partake in bed rest, society would be appalled. It would seek compel that woman to bed rest for the sake of her unborn child, even if it meant all of the detrimental effects to the woman mentioned above. However, almost all women do listen to their doctor, and accept bed rest and the detrimental effects it often poses for themselves. This is, simply put, one of the humane ways of dealing with the complications of pregnancy.

So why do we expect to treat animals so differently, especially when there is lots of evidence on how sows (among many other female farm animals) do accidentally lie down on their offspring and crush them to death, and limited evidence on how bed rest actually prevents pregnancy complications and protects unborn children?

That's about the best argument I've heard for using a farrowing crate, at least for the first week of the pigs life.  After a week, the pigs are big enough and fast enough to get out of the way of momma. 

You'll find the ny times op-ed piece here.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Notes on sheep, and status of my sheep

One thing that I do on this blog is to write about those things that take the time.  So I write a bunch about the pigs, because I'm carrying a large number of pigs, and they take a bit of time to care for.   Same with the turkeys when I have them, and not so much about the ducks, geese and chickens because as a crop, they're pretty much painless. 

In another discussion we talked a lot about supplemental feed for animals in the comments.  Sheep are a meat animal that can subsist primarily on grass and pasture, and do quite well.   That's one reason that I like sheep as a crop, particularly in the river bottom.  They stand a good chance of having as close to zero input cost (farmer talk for stuff you gotta buy from someone else or something additional you have to add, like labor) as any animal raised for meat, and I've got to say that's pretty attractive to me. 

I haven't written much about the sheep because they're about as much work as the chickens.  If you've got a good fence and an automatic waterer, and you've got enough grass, my experience has been that you don't have to do much for most of the year.  Lambing might be a different story, but right now they're pretty painless.

The paddock they're in is 3 acres, and has good grass.  What I'll do in the next few days is move them into a smaller area, a sacrifice paddock, so that the main pasture grass can recover.  I'll do the same with the cows.  I've pretty much switched over to the local grass hay I put up in late may/early june, which i use both as fodder for the sheep and cows, and for bedding and fodder for the pigs.  I've also been constructing a sheep shed, into which I'll build a hay feeder so that less of it gets wasted, and some storage space for bales.  I'd like to be able to reduce my trips with the tractor to once every two or three weeks, so I'll build in shelves so that I can store as much hay as I can inside the shelter, but out of reach of the critters.  So feeding them becomes flipping a bale from here to there inside the shed. 

I purchased these ewes and a ram as breeding stock, and I'm hoping for a decent lamb crop next year.  Three of the ewes got bred sometime in May or June because I left a gate open and the ram got to them, but the rest of them were bred in november.  I'd like the lambs to be out when it's a little warmer and maybe a little less rainy. 

I chose this particular breed of sheep because they shed their wool in the spring and summer, and don't need to be sheared of their old wool.  Sheep wool as a fibre has basically no market that I can find in the USA for the small sheep herd -- and shearing is a nuisance if you're raising the animals primarily for meat.  These sheep are Katahdin hair sheep.  Other breeds of sheep are also hair sheep, and one in particular has been shown to be pretty good for a grass-based operation, at least in the opinion of researchers at the USDA Meat Animal Research Center (MARC).

Friday, November 13, 2009

truck woes

Spent most of the day today getting the truck fixed.  It's got 230,000 miles on it, and it turns out that the problem was that it had $2400 stuck in the suspension. 

When they removed that, it worked fine. 

Thursday, November 12, 2009

12,000 pumpkin pies

I guess it never occured to me that you could buy industrial quantities of pumpkins pureed, but when you think about it, when you have to bake a few thousand pies for thanksgiving... 

I got an email about 6 tons of pureed pumpkin that a fellow needed to dispose of.  It was being kept at a cold storage facility, and was packed into one-ton totes.  Well, it's getting close to thanksgiving, so I went and got the pie filling. 

I've talked a lot about calories in pig feed recently, and the best estimate that I can make is that there's 18 million calories in this load of food. 

The totes are actually really thick cardboard boxes.  Here's a top view of the side wall.  It has 10 plies of cardboard and is a really strong container.  Inside it was packed in an aluminized mylar bag, like an industrial sized wine bag.   It's actually a very nice shipping container.  Recyclable, tough, holds a lot of weight. 

The pumpkin is soupy and wet, very liquid.  To feed it to the animals I'll probably have to either put the container out in the field and let them feed directly from it, or bucket it out into troughs. 

One of the pallets had a part of the bag hanging out of the bottom. Shipping damage, maybe.  It wasn't pierced, but I decided that I'd feed that one to the pigs first.  So I unloaded it from the trailer, took it out to the pig pasture, and set it down.  The first pig that wandered over, sniffed the protruding bag a few times, and then took a good bite out of it.  That pig was almost knocked down by the stream of liquid pumpkin that came out.  It squealed a bit, and that attracted the attention of the other pigs in the area. 

Pretty soon there's a river of pumpkin and a whole bunch of pigs all lined up eating it. 

Yummy pumpkin! 

Snout-licking good!

The cows were into the pumpkin too, but I didn't let them eat too much for fear of messing up their rumen.  They're almost entirely grass fed, and hundreds of pounds of pumpkin might give then indigestion. 

The problem I had was that they were pretty excited by the pumpkin, and it was hard to get them to move away so I could pick it up with the tractor. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Sleepy pups

While I'm working on the sheep shelter two pups that I retained from this years litter are keeping me company.  One is the runt of the litter, the other is one of the larger male puppies.  they don't have names yet. 

They've been running around all day and are really tired.  They're sleepy, and leaning against one another trying their best to stay awake, but they're slowly sliding down each others body as they lean in. 

The big puppy is nodding off.  the only thing holding his head up is the smaller puppy.  She's supported by his leg.  They are really trying hard to stay awake. 

His head slides down her back, and hits the ground with an audible THUNK!.  He startles, and then raised up enough that his head is back on her back and then goes back go nodding off. 

Airedales are extremely loyal dogs.  They want to be involved in whatever it is you're doing, but these little guys are just tuckered out.  After I took this picture I put some hay in their pet carrier and put them both into the dry hay, where they spent the rest of the afternoon sleeping, waking up every now and then to watch me build the sheep shelter. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sheep shelter part 2

Rainy today, rained all day.  It'll be nice to have the roof on this shed tommorow. 

I'm putting down a deck of 1x8 rough sawn douglas fir boards that I milled last year.  They're 16 feet long, so each board runs the whole length of the shelter.  Some galvanized ring-shank nails and it's a solid platform for the next step, the verticals. 

I first notch the skid log so that there's a flat surface I'm basically cutting the curve out of the log.  Each of these cuts is the width of vertical member that fits into it.  It's pretty quick to do. You place your vertical there, scribe a line, and then make the cut with the chainsaw. 

Then you do the same sort of cut to the vertical piece.  Here I've cut a flat spot on this post. 

If I did it right the post fits snug in its new notch.  6 spikes later and it's secure.  I've been thinking about putting in a lag bolt here, but I think I'll defer that until near the end of the project.  I think it'll be sturdy enough when I get the diagonal bracing in; the wood notch helps keep it in place, too.

The length-wise beams are a pair of 1x8s, same as for the flooring, nailed to the posts.  The rafters are 2x4s, with a 6' span between the two beams.  I think that a 1x8 is enough strength for the small roof area here, but if it turns out that it's not enough I can nail another 1x8 on each side and double it up.  The boards across the ends of the rafters are to keep the rafters spaced correctly and give me somewhere to attach the metal roofing.   I've also trimmed the deck boards and the flooring joist ends here.   Next step is to put the roof on and then start building the side walls.  This will be a three-sided structure.