Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Ever wonder what a working dairy looks like?

On my vacation I drove from Washington state to Arizona, and I noticed something that I hadn't seen (or maybe hadn't noticed before:  The desert dairy. 

At first I thought that these operations were feedlots.  I'm going to qualify what I'm saying here.  I didn't talk to any of the farmers running these, and my commentary here is only my opinion, not neccesarily fact, or even true.  It's opinion.
The basic dairy is a permanently fenced lot, an acre or two in size, with several shade structures on it.  There's not a scrap of green on the ground; it appeared that the dirt was mostly cow manure, and that the yard was scraped down from time to time, generating piles of manure, that you can see at the top of the photo above. 
The cows appeared to be being fed grass and alfalfa hay.  I couldn't tell if they were getting some sort of prepared feed in addition.  This is a little different view than you'd get if you looked at the milk carton.  Usually they show a happy cow on grass, with a barn in the distance. 
Some of these dairies are small; 200-300 cows, some are very large.  Sometimes it appeared that the operation was very large (>1000 cows) but split into several units.  In these pictures you'll see a variety of dairy cow ages; some are currently being milked, some are replacement heifers.  I didn't see any steers; apparently they're elsewhere. 
There are green fields around the dairy; and the cows diet is at least partially forage. from my perspective, having a ruminant like a cow on a bare dirt for their entire life seems a little sad. 
General notes;  all of the animals seemed in very good condition.  The lot was dirt/manure, but the animals themselves were relatively clean.  The feed being offered appeared good quality.  Since they're feeding forage, I'd say that they can probably achieve a USDA organic label.   The farm itself appeared to be in good shape; things were neat and tidy. 

This particular operation was very big, and they'd arranged their hay bales so that it was hard to see over them.  I took most of these pictures from the shoulder of the interstate. 
in this picture you can see the next "unit" of dairy cows.  It was just as big as the one that was closer.  there was another one behind this one, and two more to the left and right.  I'd guess there were 3-4,000 cows total.  that's a lot of milk. 
There you have it.  Grass fed dairy cows.  I saw most of these farms in Utah and Nevada, with a couple in oregon and Arizona. 
Thanks for your patience; in my absence there were several comments about farmers and vacations; basically, if you're starting a business, why design one that has a lifestyle that sucks?  My farm is in the flood plain, and during the winter I'm on 4 hour flood/dike call, from November to February.  That means that if I do want to get away I have to do that in the summer.  Why should the working condition of someone who farms be worse than any other profession?
The grand canyon is one of the most beautiful places on earth, and having the opportunity to row a boat down the length of it, and look up at this for most of 3 weeks is something that I really  treasure.  Doesn't mean I'm less dedicated to my animals -- I lined up folks to cover for me while I was gone, and traded favors with other farmers, and worked like a dog for a month to make sure that everything was ok. 
So I'm going to stop being defensive.  Yea, I took a vacation.  Sue me. 

Thursday, June 10, 2010

All work and no play...

I have to be at my farm during the winter months for fear of flooding or dike breaks. As a result, about the only time I can get away is during the summer. I'll be back July 1st.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

13,000lbs of milk

Got another shipment of sweetened condensed milk today.  Well, "got" isn't really the term.  "picked up" is more accurate.  It's packed in these cardboard containers, each one weighing about 600lbs.  I'll mix it with the spent grain I also pick up, the two ingredients making something that looks a lot like the oatmeal that you and I eat at the breakfast table. The pigs fight over this stuff.  To them it's ice cream and birthday cake all rolled into one. 

If I feed it straight to the pigs, as I did in that video, I'll put the barrels down in the pasture, and cut a hole about the size of a dime in the side of the barrel, about 3/4 up. A little bit will dribble out, inquisitive pigs will find it, and they'll eventually knock it down and rip it apart, going for the milk inside. the next day I'll pick up the metal rings that form the top and bottom, and the plastic lid, and leave the cardboard in the pig pasture.

Why leave the cardboard? the pigs will chew on it, and mix it with the soil, and it breaks down in a month or two. Composting it is an idea I like better than taking it to the landfill, or even recylcing it. I keep my recycling on the farm as much as possible.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Pig pregnancy tests

Pregnancy tested the herd today using the pregtone. It's a hand-held ultrasound that works by detecting the amniotic fluid in a pregnant pig.

In order to pregnancy test a pig you've got to get a good contact between the pig and the instrument, and it helps a lot if the sow sits still, which can be a problem with a 400lb animal.

We use vegetable oil for the contact oil -- if they eat it they'll be fine, and its relatively cheap. Although I'm not sure what people might think of us chasing the pigs through the pasture with a bottle of lubricant and a blue plastic thing.

I tested 6 pigs, and 5 turned out pregnant. Since this is a relatively new device for us that proof is in the pudding. We'll watch the sows that tested pregnant and see if they actually produce a littler in less than 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days, which is the normal gestation for a sow.

you apply the gadget to the sows belly a few inches in front of the rear leg, "aiming" for the area below the spine on the other side of the pig. After a couple of tries you can test a sow in 3 or 4 seconds. It works pretty well if they're at the feeder.

I pregnancy test the pigs to make sure they're doing what they should be. It's expensive to feed a full-grown sow,so if they're not coming up pregnant on a regular basis, it's time to go.

Not every sow works for my operation. I want a sow with a good attitude towards me, good mother instincts towards her piglets, and fertile.

In my pasture, a good mother will find a spot in the long grass and spend hours moving mouthfuls of grass into an alligator nest. She'll then dig a furrow down the center, and lay in that groove to have her babies.

A good mother will get up very very slowly, and lay down very very slowly, so as not to smother a piglet. She'll be protective of her brood, but allow me to handle them and inspect them provided that I do so in a way that doesn't cause them to squeal.

She'll spend appropriate amounts of time with her litter, and raise happy, fat piglets.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Pig question from Utah

Got a phone call from a lady in Utah. She'd been reading my blog and came up with my number from somewhere, and had some basic pig questions that I talked about with her: 

"When is the right time to slaughter a pig".  She wanted to know what weight was appropriate, and had two problems:  It takes some time to be able to judge pigs weight by eye, and this particular pig wouldn't stand still for her to use a pig tape on, so she really had no idea of how much it weight.  So here's the long version of the short answer I gave her: 

This is a pretty simple question.  Anytime.    My personal preference is for a pig that is 300-320lbs.  This means that it'll probably have 1" or so of back fat, which is part of what I want from the pig.  I use lard as my primary baking and cooking oil, and lard from pastured animals is particularly good tasting. 

Here's weights of pigs and the primary uses my customers put them to: 

5-10lbs  Young suckling pig.  This is a piglet that has had nothing but mothers milk.  It's a traditional wedding meal for the bride and groom in some cultures, and is popular among pacific islanders in my experience.  Spanish (as in:  People from spain) and cubans also like pigs this small. 

10-40lbs  This is the favorite of pacific islanders and people who want a tradtional apple-in-the-mouth suckling pig.  At the high end of this (30-40lbs) the piglet is weaned and eating solid food. 

40-120lbs  This is the bbq pig weight range, particularly for spit-roasted whole pigs.  This size pig allows you to cook it through without having the outside be burned or overcooked.  Bigger than this and you're talking about....

120-200lbs luau pig size:  This size pig has been preferred by folks who are going to cut the pig into big chunks and slow cook it in a pit, as in a hawaiin luau. 

Over 200lbs and you're getting into butcher pig sizes, which are usually cut into the retail cuts you're used to seeing at the supermarket.  You can cut and wrap a smaller pig, (and I did that earlier this year for a customer who requested a 170lb live weight pig) but the pork chops were very small, as were the hams. 

275lbs is a common live weight for intensively raised hogs.  Most of the pork in the supermarket is sold at this weight.  They'll commonly be very lean at this weight,  having 1/2" or less back fat.  I think that this lean isn't as tasty as....

300-350lbs.  This was traditionally called a baconer, and is my favorite size.  Good amounts of lard, good marbleing in the rossts and chops, and a good supply of lard for cooking purposes. 

What was my answer to her question?  "Tired of feeding it, and your freezer is empty?  Now's a good time!"