Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Kat had her litter of puppies today. Here's #2. She's still in labor, so not sure how many we'll end up with. They're tiny and perfect.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Crafty turkeys

Chickens and turkeys think about their nesting sights differently.

In the picture above, both the chickens and turkeys have decided that this is a good spot to lay eggs. The chickens have laid the clutch of eggs you can see, but if you look in the upper left hand corner, you can see the turkey egg. The chickens don't take near the time and effort to hide their eggs that the turkeys do.

Here, a turkey hen has chosen another laying spot, and has actually scratched some grass and other debris over her egg to cover it after laying. They'll consistently do that, and the chickens won't.

The other behavior that the turkey hens will do that the chickens will not is that they will select eggs in a communal nest from a hen that they don't like, and roll those eggs out of the nest -- into the open, even. I think that this is reproductive competition in the rawest form. They are killing the babies of turkeys that they don't like. Hen competition.

Turkey goals for 2010 & heritage turkey Q&A

I raise heritage breed turkeys, and a small quantity of broad breasted. I prefer the heritage breeds because they appeal more to me. They can reproduce naturally, are beautiful, and are good at foraging for themselves. The broad breasted I raise because the market demands a bigger bird, and I raise them on pasture as well.

The heritage breeds are more expensive to keep at every stage in their life. They cost more as poults; they cost more in feed, and they take longer to reach market weight. I think that they taste better, and for a holiday meal, there's something to be said for having a special bird. That's what the heritage are for me.

My goals this year for turkeys are as follows:
Maintain my own breeding flocks of Bourbon Red and Narragansett turkeys.
Collect and hatch eggs from my home flock
Locate and include different genetics to widen my home flocks gene pool.

I'm putting my first batch of turkey eggs into the incubator now, and will be hatching for the next 3-4 months. Some of the birds produced now will be for thanksgiving, some for christmas.

Marianne Reimers wrote as a comment, the following:

We are thinking Bourbon Reds, as I read about them in Barbara Kingsolver's book. We would like to try to have them breed naturally and hatch their eggs, but understand this can be quite a challenge. I see if you have several heritage breeds. Would this be a good one for beginners?

Turkeys are more challenging than chickens. If you can keep them alive for the first 6 weeks you're usually good.

Here's my tips for raising turkey poults (heritage, or broad-breasted)

1) Make sure your brooder setup is ready and warm before you get your turkeys. Take the time to make sure that there is a 100 degree spot on dry chips, that your water and food are fresh and clean, and that all you need do is put the turkey in and dip its beak. It is important to get the turkey warm as soon as you get it. Even an hour makes a difference.

2) For the first day of a turkeys brooding, cover the chips with newspaper. Turkeys will eat the chips, fill themselves with the chips, and die of starvation. Sprinkle some food on the paper.

3) after the first day, take the paper out so you don't get spraddle.

4) Dip their beaks in the water on first arrival, and then, when they're all in the brooder, tap the food with your finger. the tapping noise will draw the poults to you. keep tapping until they're pecking at the food dish you're tapping on. by accident they'll get some food. yes, they will sometimes starve to death with food in sight.

5) I will sometimes put chicks in with the turkeys if the turkeys are particularly clueless. chicken chicks will show the turkeys how to eat and drink by example. There is a risk of blackhead disease in the literature, but i've never had any problem and I've raised a few thousand turkeys over the last few years

6) Turkeys are particularly sensitive to the quality of the food that they are fed. You must use a higher protein feed to support a turkeys growth. 25-28% protein being a good guideline. If you don't do this you'll have turkeys die in 3-4 weeks for no apparent reason. Start with and keep feeding good quality feed. Game bird feed or turkey poult feed, or you can use standard turkey feed if it is supplemented with crumbled hard boiled eggs for protein.

7) I have had turkeys kill themselves in the following ways: drowned in 2" of rainwater in the bottom of a 5 gallon bucket; squished under a piece of plywood that they managed to tip over; suffocating in groups as they huddled in a corner because it was dark, killed by rats chasing them out of their brooder tub and onto the cold floor, death by hypothermia because they turned over the feed dish and trapped themselves under it against the cold, wet ground. I have had to carefully turkeyproof my pens, and to make sure that all buckets are set down with the opening down.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Building a turkey laying pen

Spent a good part of today building a turkey pen. I'm penning the turkeys because the red tailed hawk killed one earlier today and I'd like to be able to collect their eggs more efficiently. I'm not sure what I'm going to do about the hawk long term -- I can't shoot them, they're federally protected migratory birds -- and I don't know what will be effective as a deterrent. Since I need to collect the eggs anyways, I'm going to pen the turkeys and see if the hawk doesn't find something better to do.

I've put down a layer of wood chips, and a bunch of old, rotted hay and stirred it all up. The turkeys will pick through this and scratch at it, and level it out, fertilizing it, and next year I'll plant part of my garden here. Sort of a turkey tractor.

The turkey pen will have two coops, one on either end. Both are built of recycled materials. I build the one in the picture above on a pair of cedar logs so that I could easily move it around with the tractor, or, in case of flood, rise with the flood waters. I'll chain it to one of the fence posts to the left. Those fence posts have 800lbs of cement at the bottom. Farming the flood plain makes for interesting challenges.

Inside the larger shed, all of the boards are intentionally spaced. This allows air circulation and keeps the structure dryer in my damp climate. It's tall, so that the birds can roost up near the roof, and so that I don't have to stoop when collecting the eggs or working in the building. The turkeys food and water will be in this shed. Turkeys like a pretty big nest box. I'll use 30 gallon garbage cans turned on their side, and provide a couple of other nest box choices. The goal is to get the turkeys to pick one of the boxes vs laying the eggs out in the yard somewhere, so I'll be creative and come up with different looks, hopefully to meet every hens preference.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Notes on using a farrowing crate

I run a pastured animal operation, and for the most part allow the animals to roam pretty freely. In doing this I've had an unacceptably large mortality in my piglets, and I've tried all sorts of things to reduce the number that die.
A farrowing crate is a commonly used device that is custom-designed to reduce piglet mortality, and I'm working with it now after trying all sorts of other things.

I've written about the losses when I allow the sow to pick her own farrowing spot in the pasture or when they've chosen a bad spot here, about my experiences with a farrowing pen (good and bad)

The black pig on the right is an experienced mother; she's had a litter in a farrowing pen, one on the pasture (total loss), and this third litter of hers in the farrowing crate.

Summary of my experiences with the farrowing crate, by sow/gilt:

Big Mamma, 4 year old sow. 14 at birth, 2 currently alive. Farrowing crate. I've lost the last 2 litters from her entirely, so having 2 pigs survive is an improvement, but I need at least 5 piglets per sow to break even on just the feed costs. She's not an economic pig at this time so she's got to go.
BUT... the farrowing crate made this decision easier. Normally I'd find her after she'd given birth somewhere and there'd be dead piglets all over the place, and it was impossible to figure out what had killed them, for the most part. It's easy if she steps on one, but harder if she lays on one. In this case, in the farrowing crate, I was there when she was giving birth, and most came out stillborn. Lucky that I was there, but if I hadn't been there, it would have eliminated her laying on them as a possible cause of death. I don't know what's causing her stillborns -- she's one of my oldest sows and a very friendly girl. I hate to see her go, but I've given her every chance and seen no improvement. She'll go to market after weaning her current 2 piglets. I moved her into a farrowing pen 1 week after birth with 3 live piglets, and she squished one of the 3 that night. the other two have survived so far.

Black Pig: 3 year old sow. 16 live at birth, 6 died within 24 hours. 3 were just tiny, one got kicked by mom, and one had problems in birth, likely brain damage due to suffocation in the birth canal. One died for unknown reasons. She did a pasture farrow last time, and lost her entire litter. In the litter before that she was in a farrowing pen and lost 12 out of 14 pigs there. So the farrowing pen is a clear win (at least so far) for the black pig. She stays.

White faced pig: 250lb 13 month old gilt, first litter. 9 born, 6 alive now, farrowing crate. She had the piglets overnight; temps in the 40s, and they were dead away from the heat, so might have died from that.
The white faced pig is on the left in the photo at top; she's a purebred berkshire, and I moved her in right after I moved big momma out. I'd like to see if the smaller sow has a different experience. So far so good.

Here's big momma in a farrowing pen with her surviving piglets. She's a 500lb sow, and the feed costs are prohibitive to keep a sow that size without any piglet production. That's the difference between a farm and a hobby.

I've talked about the experience from the farmer point of view, and from the sows point of view, but there's really an important party that I need to talk about here. That's the piglets themselves. The piglet experience in the farrowing crate is actually pretty good. There's a warm spot, they're safe, it's unlikely that they'll be squished to death or suffocated, and there's the wall-of-mom, the cliff of goodness as shown in that picture, above. Seeing more live piglets is really my goal in this, and while I feel mixed about confining the sow for a week until her piglets are oriented and able to dodge mom, I hate buckets of dead piglets more, so that's how I got here.

I'm open to questions and comments.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Variation in piglet size at birth

All of the piglets in this picture were born about an hour ago, from The Black Pig. She's a 500lb sow, 3 years old.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A day at the auction

I was at a farm auction the last weekend and had a pretty good time. Washington state is young enough that the old growth forests were harvested pretty recently. So recently that you often run across people who cut down the big trees.

The rural auctions here have a wide selection of big-tree saws and axes and other implements that work well for big timber. I like the history, and I enjoy timber framing, so running across a great deal on an adze or a set of draw knives. I like the feel of a tool that is hand-smooth and shows decades of use.

The handsaws in this picture are 5' and 7' long. that's a handsaw that's designed to cut logs in half, or huge beams. It's not a two-man saw that's 14-20' long -- and they were there at the auction. Hand drills, bow saws, all sorts of cool old tools. Those handsaws went for $30 each. For scale, notice the auctioneers feet in the upper left hand corner of the picture.

Some of the tools show surface rust, some more damaging. Some of the tools are just plain hard work, like that hand drill with the shoulder pad so you can lean into it while you drill.

All of the items are stacked on hay wagons, and there are three auctioneers standing on three different wagons, all simultaneous. I'm moving back and forth between wagons hoping to catch the items i'm interested in, missing some. It's part of the game. Carhardt clothing is the uniform of the day, and I wonder if some of the old-timers here are buying because of memories and not need. Every now and then someone will hold up a tool and ask anyone in general "what is this". "Silage knife", comes the quick reply. "you use it like this" gesturing with both hands. "Root axe. Really good at chopping roots out of holes" "Not good for anything, wall hanging. Maybe not even that", said with a sly smile -- and you know the bidder you'll be competing against.

Then there's the tractor auction, where tractors of all sorts are paraded through and sold. It starts with lawn tractors, to general derision. The farmers want them, but dont want to be seen buying one because their friends are all there, and they'll get ribbed about it. As each lawn tractor sells there's a general hue and cry by people who know the buyer. "DAVE! HOO YEAH! YOU ARE FARMING NOW!!" "Something for the wife, eh dave!!" It's all good natured, but dave is red faced.

There are tractors of all descriptions, but the big boys are the ones that garner respect. Each one was the king of its farm in its day -- the purchase that the farmer weighed and debated and scrimped and saved for. Visions of the work he could do, and the better life he'd live, and all of that is decades ago for these tractors. Some are very pretty, with new paint and parts, and others aren't, and I like the rusted ones, and the dents, and the wear and tear shown becuase it's honest. I am an honest machine that's worked hard, and I made life better for he who bought me. The gleam of that promise can be seen in the faces of the bidders. They want to pretend like buying this tractor is just business, but it's the boy in them 50 years past that secretly delights in the ownership of this anchor of the farm.

The small tractors are a mystery to me. Maybe that's as big as they were when they were made. Maybe its all that could be afforded, or a bigger one wouldn't fit between the rows. A tractor museum roars and clanks and squeaks by and the baseball caps swivel and the carhardts bunch as shoulders rub together in urgent conference about whether the wife will approve.

A crafty farmer has posted a sign on the side of this truck. "2 speed axle has disc brakes, NO CDL REQUIRED" because no one likes paying more than they can, and this truck goes for more than other, newer trucks because what was said makes sense to the other farmers, who watch every penny and don't delight in the purchase of a truck as much as a tractor.

Outside, groups of farmers in their uniforms meet and greet. The auction is one of the few times that they'll see other farmers, and it's half social. Surrounded by old wagon wheels and a yard-art seeder, these men are discussing fertilizing their field; general complaints about the price of fertilizer, and what a good price that tractor went for.

Some of the carhardts are clean, as this fellow on the left. I wonder if his wife made sure he was presentable, in the new outfit. His friends don't care, as with the fellow at the center. Smudges are a mark of honor. I work for this dirt, it says.

My choices were a pair of scytes, hand-smooth and well used, with sharpening stones attached by duct-tape. Clearly well used and in very good shape. A root axe, a pair of double-bladed axes, 4 adzes, an I beam 20' long and weighing 400lbs, a box of draw knives and a giant stainless steel pot.

I'm curious about the scythes. I'll try using them this summer to see what it was like. My connection to history.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Look, this stuff happens.

Ok, so I'm out fixing the fence in the sacrifice paddock for the pigs, and I see my boar breeding a sow. Well, he's trying.

So I'm watching this, and wondering if the boar is having some sort of issue. It's not like he's new at this; he's been a part of 300 or 400 piglets, but today seems different somehow.

You can almost see the balloon over his head. "?????"

Or maybe that's the balloon over the sows head. She's patiently standing there waiting.

Ok. After watching this for 5 minutes I go over and push him off her. He weighs about 800lbs, and I don't want him on her for an hour. The things you do when you're farming animals. I cajole him around to the other side of the sow.

Ok. He finally figures it out. I note which sow it is he's breeding, and use the gestation calculator to get a likely due date of July 12th, 2010. I'll check her with my pregtone a couple of months to confirm her pregnancy and make a note on my farm calendar of her due date.

Ok, now that you've read this entry, do you think that it's appropriate? It's part of the cycle, but I'm curious if it violates the generally G rated nature of the rest of the blog.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Pig sizes & tips on buying piglets

I got a request to post pictures of different sized pigs to help a fellow figure out what a 50lb pig looked like vs an early weaned, and so on. At the bottom of this post you'll find a list of things to consider when buying piglets. Size first:

This is big momma in a farrowing pen with her three piglets. In this picture it's hard to tell relative sizes, but big momma is 7' long and about 600lbs.

I was trying to figure out something I could use for scale and decided that a coke can was good for that. This little pig is 2 coke cans long, weighs about 8lbs, and is 1 week old. This is the same piglet shown in the big momma picture, above, so you can see how huge big momma is relative to her piglet.

these two little guys were hanging out in one of the calf domes, sleeping. They're 6 weeks old, about 15lbs. Lets follow these guys around a little. First lets put the coke can near them. They're pretty active.

They were moving pretty fast, but you can see the scale. A little longer than 2 coke cans, but a lot taller and a lot thicker than the week-old. This is about the size of an early-wean piglet.

That same piglet walks by some bigger pigs.

Ok. There's a 60lb pig there in the foreground, and a 40lb pig in the background.

Here's a better shot, with the pigs all lined up. See the difference between the 30-40lbs and the 50-60lbs? there's probably 4 weeks age difference between the two. Winter farrowed piglets grow slower than summer, for me, anyway.

Here's the orphan piglet, about 1/3rd of adult size. She's at 70lbs.

and to complete the circle, here she is with a coke can in the frame for relative size.

first, when you arrive, observe. Piglets are either active, curious, nosing around, noticing you and bright-eyed and cute, or they're asleep. Lethargic, listless, droopy -- all reasons to avoid that piglet. if the whole litter looks that way consider finding another litter. Don't buy a problem. Sometimes this is hard to judge because all of them are listless; you'll get a feel for it after a while. When piglets wake up look for them to streeeeetch out. That's the sign of a piglet in good condition.

Second, Bring your bathroom scale. very few small pig farmers have a scale. So any weight that they tell you is their guess. Some people are better than others at guessing. To remove all doubt, bring a bathroom scale. Weigh yourself, weigh yourself holding the piglet, subtract, and you've got the piglets weight. If you're paying extra for a 60lb piglet, it should be 60lbs. In doing this I've found that some sellers are insulted, some amused, but all agree it's an accurate measure of the weight of the pig, and I make sure I'm buying what is advertised. Hold the pig firmly by both back legs, head down, step on the scale.

third, look at the piglets ass. Runny poo isn't fatal, but it's not ideal, and if you have a choice, pick the piglets that don't have obvious signs of loose stool. Look at the back of the hams and under the tail. For an example of good looking piglets, look a the pics above. No sign of runny stool. If you get one with runny stool, a half-cup of yogurt will typically take care of it. Don't overdo the yogurt. for a little pig, a half cup is a lot.

fourth, if you're going to breed, flip the piglet over and count the nipples. You want as many as you can get, 14-16 is good. 12 is poor for most breeds you'll run across. Berkshire, hampshire and yorkshire, the three breeds I run, can have litters of 16 or more piglets, and you want to have a sow that is prepared.

fifth: If you are going for meat and the seller represents that they've been castrated, look for the scrotum to be fully healed before you pick them up. Being on mom after castration means pigs do better. Buy that.

sixth: Piglet color doesn't matter at all. All pigs are pink when scraped. Don't sweat pigs that aren't pink.

Blogs that have interesting entries for your enjoyment

How about a writeup of the best tomatoes of a variety of different types?

Have you ever wondered what organic certification looks like from the farmers side of the table?

Losing a cat to a coyote

part 2 of why llamas are a weird animal to keep

Refurbishing a butcher block table for more years of use

yum! peas!

Birds and lobsters!

The mystery of the teleporting chicken

Thanks to Robin at Seasonseatingsfarm

Sheep fight! Sheep fight!

Stuck tractor! Death-defying recovery!

Chickens eating squid!

You park your truck in your driveway, and then THIS happens.

baling pine straw? really? Note the big round bales of real hay in the background

Friday, March 19, 2010

Raising your own pig, from the web

Pic: Pigs bedded on hay enjoying their calf dome. Warm and cozy.
Ran across these questions on the web today:

HI there, I usually poke around in the goat forum but my neighbor friend and I want to raise a couple of pigs this spring to late fall and I have never done it before. So please bear with me and indulge me. Here are my questions:

How do they do being raised in a big box stall without going outside? We have 2 options and one is outside and one is inside. Inside they would be kept in shavings and cleaned daily and outside would be open pasture with a nice run in shed that is 10x20 and 3 sided.

Can they eat primarily food scraps or what is the ratio of food scraps to grain to pasture, etc?

What is a good breed to start with, I am in NE Vermont. I don't want something that is aggressive.

What is the best age to butcher?

Couple of things about pigs. First, think about two pigs, not one. They'll keep each other company, try to get out less than if alone, and you'll be popular when it comes time to process them. Who doesn't like a gift ham? Or you can sell one to offset the cost of raising the second.

Pig poo is a little ranker smelling than horse. Smells closer to human poo, and in a small stall, mixed with urine, you'll have to keep on top of it and use a lot of bedding to keep the smell down. When I have to keep sows inside I use chips from tree service companies that I get for free, and I'm figuring I'll use a cubic yard or two of chips per pig. That's a lot of chips or shavings. The upside is that the better housing you provide, the quicker the gain. Less feed goes into heating the pig and more goes into pork. Not really a big deal in the summer, but it is in spring and fall.

Pigs actually like someplace that's pretty cozy. If you put them outside (which is where I would put them) you can throw a couple of bales of straw into a 3' tall structure and they'll be quite happy there. A run-in shelter does give them a wind break and shade and rain cover, but they'll want something to sleep in to be happiest. a pile of wood chips or shavings is second-best to hay or straw.

The issue with food scraps is if the food scraps are coming from off your farm. If its scraps from your table, the chance of your pigs catching something is pretty low -- if they're gonna get sick from your germs they will probably anyways. but if you're feeding stuff from the public, you never know what comes in on that food that can make you and your pigs sick. people that feed commercial food scraps to their pigs (bus tubs from restaurants, for instance) cook the food to sterilize it before they feed it.

Pigs like pasture and hay, but that the bulk of their weight gain comes from some other feed. So plan on 800-1000lbs of feed per hog, and maybe you'll use less if your pasture is tasty to the hogs or if you can feed them other stuff.

Most people butcher on their schedule -- hogs are tasty at any size. I call a pig between 100 and 150lbs is a BBQ pig. between 150 and 250 a slaughter pig, and 250 to 350 a baconer. Baconers are best if you use lard in your cooking and prefer wider bacon, and more pounds of it, but you'll pay for that extra weight. between 250 and 285lbs is where most pork is butchered; usually 6 months after weaning, provided adequate food.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Chicken experiment #1, day 28

Pictured above are two of the chickens in the experiment, a rhode island red rooster and a cornish cross. The cornish cross weighs 25 ounces, the rhode island red weighs 8 ounces.

At this point most of the chickens have a good start on their feathers and I'm reducing the amount of heat that they get to gradually acclimate them to room temperatures.

I am restricting feed on the cornish cross to slow their growth and prevent ascites and while this may slow their theoretical growth, reducing feed reduces mortality for the chickens.

The cornish up to now have been about double the amount of labor of the other chickens -- they require quite a bit of bedding to keep their bin clean.

I've reduced the amount of feed being offered to the other chickens to reduce waste. When the feeders are full they flick it out of the feeders onto the floor of the bin. With the feeders 2/3rds full they waste less of the feed.

Day 14: batch of 10 birds weighed 36.75 ounces (2.29 lbs)
Day 21: batch of 10 birds weighed 62.5 ounces (3.9 lbs),
day 28: batch of 10 birds weighed 74.5 ounces (4.6 lbs) gain of 1.3lbs
Bird weights 7.75 9.75, 4.75, 6.25, 6, 8.75 7.75, 7.25, 8.5, 7.75
5 pounds of feed presented, 3.8lbs pounds of feed per pound of chicken

Barred rock
Day 14, batch of 10 birds weighed 31 ounces (1.93 lbs)
Day 21, batch of 10 birds weighed 53.25 ounces (3.32 lbs),
Day 28, batch of 10 birds weighed 70.5 ounces (4.4lbs), gain of 1.1 lbs
Bird weights 7.5, 7.5, 6.25, 6.5, 6, 7, 7.5, 8.5, 7.5, 6.25
5 pounds of feed presented, 4.54 pounds of feed per pound of chicken

Light Brahma
Day 14, batch of 10 birds weighed 42 ounces (2.62 lbs)
Day 21, batch of 10 birds weighed 73.25 ounces (4.57 lbs)
Day 28, batch of 10 birds, weighed 90.5 ounces (5.6 lbs) gain of 1.03 lbs)
Bird weights 9, 8, 8.5, 10, 9.5, 8.25, 8.5, 11, 9, 8.75
5 pounds of feed presented, 4.8lbs of feed per pound of chicken

Rhode Island Red
day 14, batch of 10 birds weighed 45.25 ounces (2.82lbs)
Day 21, batch of 10 birds weighed 73 ounces (4.56 lbs)
Day 28, batch of 10 birds weighed 91.5 ounces (5.7 lbs) gain of 1.16 lbs)
Bird weights 8.5, 9.75, 8, 9.25, 8.75, 9.25, 8.25, 9, 9, 11.75
5 pounds of feed presented, 4.3lbs of feed per pound of chicken

Cornish Cross
Day 14, batch of 10 birds weighed 105.25 ounces (6.5 lbs)
Day 21, batch of 10 birds weighed 199.75 ounces (12.48 lbs)
Day 28, batch of 10 birds weighed 250.75 ounces (15.7 lbs) gain of 3.19 lbs
Bird Weights (ounces): 25, 24, 25.5, 25, 23.5, 24.5, 25.5, 22, 28.5, 27.25
9lbs of feed presented, 2.82 lbs of feed per pound of chicken.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Book Review: Small scale grain raising by Gene Logsdon

One of the big challenges I've got in my farming operation is the cost of feed, and the second is my inexperience in growing things that I might feed to my animals. There aren't any farms growing any grains that are nearby that I've found. I did see some barley growing last year, but I haven't been able to find that guy to ask him about it.

This book has been particularly helpful in describing the planting, harvesting and uses of various types of grain. Corn, Sorghum, Wheat, Oats, Dry Beans Rye and Barley, buckwheat and millet, Rice and Legumes are all included, as well as a chapter on animal feeds using grains.

He does a good job of describing the amount of space and the yield expected for that amount of space, the planting conditions required and the cultivation that works best.

All of the plantings described are in 1 acre or smaller plots -- he breaks it down into a single row of sorghum, for instance, and he describes how you harvest, process and store it as well.

For me, this approach works really well. I like to experiment, and I'll probably pick three or four different types of grain to plant this year as test crops. If a particular choice works out, I'll expand, if not, I'm not out much time and money.

He's stated that a quarter acre will provide the majority of the calories needed for a years (human) diet, and that an acre of corn could fill out the grain requirements for one pig, one milk cow, one beef steer and thirty chickens.

Which sounds mighty good to me when I look at my feed bill.

The spring flush

Eggs are being produced by all of the poultry right now. Duck eggs, turkey eggs, chicken eggs and goose eggs.

The term "Spring chicken" came from this natural surplus of eggs. You'd hatch the excess. The roosters would be raised for the table, the hens to replace your laying flock. The birds typically weren't sold in the spring, but they were spring chickens.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Old Yeller & Animal cruelty

Old Yeller is the first movie that I remember crying at as a child, and it made a big impression on me. It's a love story between a boy and his dog, and the dog saves the boys life a couple of times over the course of the movie.

WARNING: SPOILER ALERT. For a disney film, the ending of the movie is pretty dark. It points out to me how much the ethos about animal care has changed since then. The basic concept of shooting your own dog has really stuck with me and resonated over the years. Sometimes you have to do the right thing even when it hurts. Now it's not ok to put your own dog down. We've got to delegate that task, too. It's quite a bit like slaughtering animals -- it's ok if the priesthood does it, but common folks don't have the stuff.

I mention this because I read a story today about a father and son who were on trial for animal cruelty. The fathers trial ended in a mistrial, the Son was acquitted. The crime they were accused of? Shooting their own dog.

The basic facts recounted in the story is that the dog, a male rottweiler, had bitten the sons wife several times in the last two months and that the father and son had decided to put the dog down.

Rottweilers are big, powerful dogs, and my own mother was involved in rottweiler rescue until one bit her finger off, killed her cat and then attacked another dog in the household. Another rottweiler killed a 4 year old daughter of a star of "ax men", a reality tv show, on March 1st after biting his wife a few times. So the risk that the two men had identified was, in my opinion, real. When you have a big, powerful dog that you cannot control, it's the responsible thing to take concrete action to control the risk. As my mother found out, just foisting your problem off on someone else isn't always a solution -- sometimes it just delays the problem.

They drove the dog out to a remote area, tied it to a tree, and shot it three times. It went over an embankment after it was shot, and they left it there. I can imagine that it was pretty emotional to have just shot your own dog, but I understand exactly what they were trying to do. They weren't dodging the problem; they stood up and made a decision, hard as it was and were carrying it through. I do fault them for not making sure that the dog was dead, and for leaving the body there. They weren't charged with littering or improper disposal of an animal, both of which are against the law.

Apparently it wasn't dead; and was found at some point, and taken to the animal shelter, where it was killed after a couple of days.

They were charged with animal cruelty and prosecuted. Don't know how much was spent on the case, but taking a case to trial is never cheap. $10,000? I don't know.

In Washington state, gunshot is considered a humane slaughter kill method; it's one of four ways you can legally kill an animal. It's also a humane slaughter method in federal law.

What were they really guilty of? Bad aim. I'm guessing that there were tears being shed at the time, and that they did look at the dog and it looked dead. I don't think their intention was to leave it alive -- and apparently the jury agrees with that, too.

And I'm really glad that the jury in the sons' case agree with me. The fathers case was deadlocked and the prosecutor decided not to retry him. At least some of the jury agreed with me there, too.


News story about the father/son trial here.
News story about the ax-men stars child who was killed by a rottweiler here.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Bee season is approaching

Spent most of today cleaning and painting the empty bee equipment for the coming season. Packages are supposed to arrive the first week of april, and I've got 10 of them coming. I'm also preparing extra hives for potential swarms from my hives, or from calls I get from time to time to collect honeybee swarms that are bothering someone.

Every year I retire some of the gear and replace it with new. Since I expect the new gear to have a pretty long life -- 5 to 10 years, I take care when assembling it. I glue and nail all of the corners, and use a framing square to make sure that everything is square and lined up. I wipe off the excess glue as I go.

I use electro-galvanized roofing nails to put the hives together. I probably could use plain metal nails to put it together since I paint the hives, but I've found that the non-galvanized nails produce black stains that appear in the paint, where the galvanized don't. 1.5" galvanized roofing nails are cheaper than hot dipped nails. I chose a roofing nail because beehives are typically made of pine boards, and it's a very soft wood. The big heads on the roofing nails means that they don't pull through the wood very easily. That, plus the glue, makes for a very solid connection.

I only paint the outside of the hive -- the bees will coat the inside with propolis or beeswax.

I paint the hives white because that's the color people expect bee hives to be. Most of my production gets sold to people on the highway, so making the hives white also increases my sales to the people stuck in the traffic jams above my farm.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Repairs and ruminations

This is my third tractor. I've always bought them used, and generally speaking my tractors have been getting more and more powerful. This one is a 90 horsepower diesel, with plenty of power to do most of the things that I'd like to do without too much stress.

Buying used equipment is a little bit of a crap shoot. You look at what you can, and I always plan on having some maintenance costs. With this tractor, I'm not sure who owned it before (I got it from a tractor dealer, who received it as a trade-in or a repossession, I was never clear), but whomever it was really didn't want to buy kubota parts -- or even use the correct parts.

One example of this was the front left wheel. I've gotten pretty adept at fixing flat tires on tractors because I seem to have a flat every 2-3 weeks. The tractor tires are big; the front tires weigh about 300lbs, and the rear ones weigh quite a bit more, as they're filled with calcium for additional weight and stability. So changing a tractor tire is really a review of your basic high-school physics class, with levers and ramps and so on. That 4x6 in the picture below was used to help mount and unmount the tire. the front tires are easier to change than the rears, mostly because of the front loader, which you can use the lift the tractor off the ground. The rear tires require a farm jack (yes, farm jacks are actually used on farms) and a solid surface to jack off of.

whoever last changed this tire apparently lost a lug nut, and substituted a regular nut for it -- which looks good to a casual glance but really isn't an acceptable substitute for me. Having the tires securely attached and the tractor supported properly is pretty darned important. So I toss the nut into my toolbox and spend a day hunting down an M16/1.5 nut -- eventually finding that only the kubota dealer has them after checking 5 different places. ugg. when you buy it from kubota you know that it's going to be gold-plated.

So I pull off the lug nuts and two of the studs come out in the process. They're threaded into the hubs. No big deal, but while I've got it apart, might as well check the condition of all of the studs. Turns out that three of them show signs of wear, and so I note that for my trip to the dealer, and inspect the brake pads and lines while I'm there, and grease the fittings. Sounds like a lot, but it only takes 2-3 minutes, and I've always had good karma when I treat my machines well.

After the trip to the kubota dealer, I am horrified to learn that the lug nut and stud combos are $20!!!! each. Good grief. So I buy 5, because they do wear out or break, and... well, maintenance costs money. You save it in the purchase price but pay it over time.

My first tractor was manufactured in the early 70s and had lug bolts; my second tractor had studs that were actually threaded bolts that stuck out from the hub. The third tractor, this one, has studs, but they're different than car studs. You pound the studs into a cars hubs with a hammer. These screw in, and so I double-nut them so that I can get them screwed into the proper depth and not damage the threads.

With everything greased and inspected, I put the tire back on and tighten the nuts in the approved way, a nut on one side, and then a nut on the other, so that you don't bend or distort the hub.

I actually like doing this sort of meticulous work. It reminds me a lot of software engineering. I think through a problem slowly and methodically. Tire is flat. Remove tire, inspect nuts and studs, brakes. make a list of replacement parts. examine hub and axle for signs of damage or wear. grease, buy parts, reassemble, torque bolts.

I like knowing that the corner of the tractor is in good shape, ready for another few weeks of work, and that it's well maintained.