Friday, July 30, 2010

Oink Oink, the boomerang pig

Oink Oink is a pig that I sold to a couple last year who wanted to raise their own pig for meat; she was purchased with another piglet, as it's best to have two pigs to keep each other company, and both of the weaner pigs went off, and I thought that would be the last I'd see of her. 
  They called me about 8 months later and explained that one of the pigs had been sold to a friend of theirs, and that pig had been sent off to market, but that they couldn't do that with oink oink.  You see, they'd named this pig, and were attached to it, and would I like to buy it back from them?
When people sell me animals I listen to what they say and if they ask me I'll say what will probably happen to this animal.  Some people would like to know, and some don't.   In this case, I agreed to buy Oink Oink back, and they brought her down in the trailer, and they never asked what I might do with her. 

When I'm managing my herd I'm looking for certain traits that I want to encourage.  Number of nipples on a sow or boar (looking for 14 or 16), overall length of the animal (more bacon), stance and muscling.  So when i got oink oink back I looked at her carefully, and kept her separate from the main herd to make sure that she was in good health.  It was clear that this pig had been handled a lot, and loved.  She loves to get her ears scratched and is about as sweet as they come, and she was 14 nipples, and good conformation. 

So here's her first litter -- a little late, but she's doing fine with her 11 piglets.  Welcome back, oink oink. 

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Auction livestock mortality

When I buy livestock at auction there's always a risk that some of it will not make it; either at the auction, or at home, for a variety of reasons.  I bought some lambs at the auction and one of them died.  For husbandry reasons it's best to figure out why they died -- maybe it's something preventable. 
The lamb that died was about 40lbs, and was part of this group of lambs, the blue stripe group.  It's a very young animal, looked good, but was listless the night before, stopped eating and drinking, and I put it down the morning after.  Although sheep are pretty tough, when they stop eating and drinking it's just a matter of time.  A single shot and throat cut and it was done. 
This is a young animal, and in what looked to be pretty good health; no signs of illness and no breathing problems.  Next step is to skin it to see what it looks like.   what you're looking for when you skin an animal is any sign of trauma or bruising, or possibly some sort of wound.  Here Andrea skins the sheep. 
From the bruising on the back it looks like this sheep was crushed from the side; either prior to the auction, during, or possibly during transport.  You can see the bruising in two C shapes on the back, and a fairly extensive bruise to the left in this picture.   an examination of the internal organs showed some blood, and that's pretty much all I needed to know.  At some point this little guy got squished, and it did him in after a couple of days. 

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Legalizing pot: Farm perspective

There's an initiative to legalize the sale of marijuana in california, and it's getting a lot of press.  If it is legalized, I'm confident that american farmers will produce it at the lowest possible price, and the days of $375/ounce pot are over for good. 

It's happened with every other crop.  Theres no reason to think that, if it becomes legal, there won't be ten thousand farmers planting 3 acres on spec. 

The luckiest chicken in the world

I don't have a name for this chicken, but maybe I should name it lucky.  It's a white cornish rooster that's been making a fairly good living at the farm, doing chicken things, but for some reason came to the attention of a puppy that I'm training a week or so ago, and this resulted in the loss of a bunch of feathers before I could get him away from the pup.   Perils of training a new puppy; chickens are pretty irresistible to them.  He was a bit shaken and plucked, but no harm. 

This damage happened 4 days later.  I came to the farm gate and was opening it when I saw an eagle swoop down and grab THIS chicken, and stand on it.  The dogs saw this eagle stoop, and ran out after, but not before the eagle tore a big chunk of this chickens skin off its neck.  If you had asked me, I would have sworn than the chicken was done for when  I saw that eagle come up with a big hunk of this chicken in his beak before being driven off by the dogs. 
When an animal is hurt, and this looked pretty bad when it was fresh -- doesn't look much better now -- the first thing that I think is whether I need to put it down to prevent suffering.  This chicken was in shock, and it looked like a big wound, but other than skin and feather loss it looked ok.  No spurting blood, trachea intact, hmm...
So I sprayed it with gentle iodine wound solution ($5 for a pint, at the local feed store, keep it on hand) and sewed this chicken up with standard cotton thread and a curved needle.  took about 10 minutes, and at the end I was able to get the skin on the shoulders to attach to the skin on the head.  you can see that line just below this roosters wattle.  I use cotton thread for this sort of work because it eventually breaks down and comes out, and it's cheaper than dissolving sutures. 
So far so good.  It looks a bit like I glued this head onto this chicken body, but he's moving around and eating and doing chicken things.  Birds are very tough critters.

A tale of two fields, farming, a US Senate race and a town that was drowned

My mother was born in a town that no longer exists.  This picture is of a house being relocated to avoid the rising waters of Lake Roosevelt, the lake created when Grand Coulee dam was completed.  Grand Coulee and the other dams along the Columbia river allowed the extensive irrigation of what was an arid region, and it's this water that makes Eastern Washington State very productive farmland, and this construction came at a cost, even then.

Irrigation is an interesting topic because the people who are using the irrigation systems today seem to have forgotten the vast sums of money spent to create the water system that they benefit from.  One of those folks is Clint Didier, who's currently running for US Senate in Washington State as a conservative republican candidate.

Clint is an ex-NFL player, a farmer, who works hard on his farm.  He's a proponent of less government, and less subsidies, and "Rugged individualism, self-reliance and personal responsibility", according to this story in the Seattle times.   Sounds good. 

My point isn't that he's a recipient of farm subsidies, or that the water that he uses on his farm is also hugely subsidized; that's been pretty well covered, in that news story linked above and in other places. 

What I'm going to talk about is a comparison of his farm field and mine. 

I don't think that there's any doubt that by constructing these dams we completely decimated the salmon runs on the Columbia; and there will probably be fights about water rights until we no longer have a legal system.  Who gets water, how much water they get, an equitable split between salmon, farming and industry; these are the topic and subject of millions of man-hours of attention.  We have spent, and will spend, billions of dollars on these water questions, and every resident of Washington State (and several other states) benefits from the electricity that those dams generate.  Our electricity rates are half that of the rest of the country -- for a reason.  But there's no talk of destroying those fields to save the salmon, or serious motion towards removing the dams.  Yes, there's lawsuits, but I don't think it'll ever happen. 

But in western Washington we've got perfectly good acreage that could be equally productive that we seem to be solely interested in destroying, in what seems to be a weird sort of atonement ritual.   We're hell-bent on taking productive land that doesn't have to be irrigated at huge cost, river bottom land, and destroying it.  In the past this destruction was done by development.  Boeing is built on thousands of acres of good farm soil.  So is southcenter mall.  So is most of the port of Seattle, what wasn't built on fill, anyway.

  Now it's the department of Ecology and the Fish and Game department, and the various county agencies (Planning and development services and the Surface Water Management are two that spring to mind in Snohomish county) and each of those agencies have interlocking regulations that basically mean that over time, more and more acreage is converted from farmland to wetlands.  and once that conversion happens, its permanent.  Yes, there's lip service to helping agriculture, but the bottom line is that productive land that is better suited for farming than most of Eastern Washington is being removed from food production. 

To facilitate this sort of taking, the agencies that count how much farmland there is have decided that farmland converted to wetlands is still farmland.  You'll never grow another ounce of food there, but it's farmlands as far as counting goes.  And because of that the loss doesn't show up when we look at acres of farms, but it's very real, and its ongoing.

A tale of two fields, a US Senate race and a town that was drowned. 

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Rotational grazing redux

I've talked about rotational grazing -- moving animals over pasture to efficiently use the grass and allow it to recharge, and was thinking about that when I was checking my holstein steers. 

These four steers are on 10 acres of river bottom land; pretty rich, nice stuff.  Grows great grass, high water table so you really don't have to irrigate; pretty much trouble free, lush grazing.  They're standing on grass they've been grazing for two months now, and they move themselves around the pasture and eat as they please.  when it gets to ankle length they move on to another patch.  

Rotational grazing is about grazing your land to its carrying limits.  but old-style free grazing, if you're stocking very few head of livestock per acre, works pretty darned well and its about as trouble free as you can get.  I check the cattle every few days, walking into the pasture to find them and looking at the overall condition of the land, and then that's about it. 

I don't write much about the cattle because they really don't take much time at all.  I understand completely the lure of cattle ranching.  Its pretty satisfying to look out and see them pretty much taking care of themselves. 

Signs of life at the auction

I've been looking at auctions in my area, and to tell you the truth the information they provide isn't very useful.  What I'm after is what a fair price for an animal is -- what the market price is.  Some of the local auctions list "auction results", but what they're reporting on their website isn't really accurate. 

This particular auction claimed that weaner pigs (10-20lbs) were selling for $15-30.  In the auction I attended, there were only two weaner pigs sold, and they sold for $60 each.  The next week the auction site listed weaner pigs going for $45-75.   

When an animal (or group of animals) is auctioned, they are weighed prior to entering the show area.  The picture above shows a couple of calves in the show area.  While they're there their weight is displayed above.  In the case of a group of animals, the total weight is displayed, and the average.  So if they're going to auction 10 lambs, you'll see on the display something like "10 74 740" indicating that there are 10 animals in this lot, they weigh 740lbs total, and the average per animal is 74lbs. 

They're sold either by the head or by the CWT, which is a fancy way of saying by the hundred pounds.  Every now and then they'll just do a straight bid for a group of animals just to mix things up. 

The signs of life that I'm referring to were what people were buying.   All sorts of animals show up at these auctions; animals from farms that are shutting down, surplus animals, animals that are culls for one reason or another and so on.   One class of animals are those that you'd use to build  your farm.  these are sometimes referred to as "feeder" stock, as "feeder pig" or "feeder lamb".  They're too small for immediate consumption, but with a few months of feed you could either keep them and breed them, or take them to market. 

Farmers raising animals for consumption have to think about what people are going to eat a year or two in advance.  It takes that long to come up with a cow for beef.  It takes most of a year to come up with a good pig.  chickens are faster -- don't have to plan much in advance since you bring them to market in 2 months, but you do have to do some planning. 

The prices of (and the interest in) feeder stock is high right now.  farmers are betting that a year or two from now the market will be good for meat animals.  I noticed this particularly with dairy goats, dairy cattle and feeder stock of various species. 

So animal farmers, at least in Washington state, are betting that the market for animals will be better in a year or so.  You heard it here, first!

Prices at the auction: 
  Black faced lambs, 75lb average, $1.18/lb = $88.5 each
  Black faced lambs, 40lb average, $1.18/lb = $47.2 each
  Cull ewes, 100lb average, $30 each in quantity 20
  Meat goats, 120lb average, $150
  Pygmy goat kids, $27.5 each
  Feeder pigs, 70lb average, $130
  Weaner pigs, $60 each
  Started holstein bull calves (castrated, 250-300lb) $150
  Beef calves (300lb) $200-300
  Feeder steers (600lb) $500-700


Saturday, July 17, 2010

Our new ducks?

These three ducks showed up a few days ago at the farm gate.  Not sure where they came from; maybe someone dumped them.  Oh well.  They'll be tasty later this year. 

Friday, July 16, 2010

They really meant well... I think.

Came to the farm this morning to find someones been feeding the pigs over the front fence.  Looks like pre-consumer wrapped bread products.  I do appreciate the thought, and the food helps keep the feed bill in check, but if I'm going to feed bread to the pigs I take it out of the wrapper before I do.  The pigs had been at it before i got there, taking a bite out of this or that loaf, and dragging the plastic bags all over the paddock. 
Pigs are funny creatures, and very particular.  They'll sort through the bread products and eat anything sweet first.  Cinnamon rolls, cupcakes, anything with frosting.  then, after they've eaten dessert, they'll go through and eat any loaf that has molasses in it.  They'll eat all the dark bread first.  Then the white bread.  After they've got through the whole thing a few times, and only then, they'll eat the sourdough. 
That's why this sourdough loaf is out of the bag, but not eaten.  The pig had to make sure that it was sourdough before it dropped it in search of something tastier. 

So I spent the morning chasing pigs around the pasture trying to get the plastic bags out of their mouths.  The smaller pigs think that plastic bags are the best toys ever!   They make cool noises when you chew them, you can play tug of war, and if you run with a bag in your mouth other pigs will chase you on general principle, so you become popular!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Bucking bales

Here's my winter hay supply, stacked in the hay barn.  The barn itself is 20' high, and open on all sides.  This stack is 800 bales, about 75lbs per bale, for a total of about 30 tons of hay.  The hay is a mix of local grass and timothy, and it was cut and baled about a mile from my farm.  I like to patronize other local farmers as much as I can.  You'll notice that there's some loose hay on the stack, to the right in the photo.  You always break a bale or two when you're stacking or loading hay, and I hate to waste even that little bit, so I tossed it up there and will use it first to feed or bed animals. 
I use my three-axle equipment trailer to get the hay out of the field.  I'll tow it down behind my picking, and then have two or three guys toss the bales onto the trailer.  We go 6 bales high, which makes the trailer about 14' tall, and usually stack 160-170 bales per load.  So it took 5 trailer loads to put away enough hay to feed all of the animals from october to march or april of next year. 

Note to self:  Buy a hay elevator next year.  tossing the bales up 10' sucks. 

The price of hay has decreased in the last two years; but even so, there's lots of horse owners that are abandoning their animals because their feed bill is too high.  With farm animals -- like beef cattle -- people who can't afford to feed them either sell them or eat them.   Different deal with horses; horse slaughter for human consumption was outlawed in the united states in 2006, and it's been illegal to use horses for dog food since 1972, and that's pretty much meant that there is no economical way to get rid of a horse.  So people let them starve, or turn them loose on indian reservations, or put them in someones pasture.  It's becoming a bigger problem each year.

With local hay, that i'm picking up and stacking myself, my costs are minimal.  Total cost per bale stacked in the barn with hired labor is $3.50 a bale, or roughly $110/ton.  I use about 80% as feed for pigs/cows/sheep, 20% as bedding.  At $3.50 a bale, it's much cheaper than straw single-bales. 

Another way to buy hay cheaply is in the big round or big square bales.  I prefer the small squares because I'm feeding or using small quantities.  But if I get more sheep I'll probably switch to large round, that being what is produced around here. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

How hay bales are made

Grass doesn't grow in the winter.  So to make sure that the animals are eating good stuff, I purchase and stack 20 to 30 tons of hay each year.  For the last several years I've been buying bales from a farm about a mile south of mine and picking it out of the field when it's ready to go.
The basic wisdom is that the greener the hay the more nutrition the bale has.  I don't know if that's true or not, but I like green bales myself.   Here's the basic steps in producing hay. 
The first thing you do is check the weather.  You want a string of 3-5 days of hot, sunny weather, and in western Washington that's pretty hard to come by.  So you sit and wait and watch and hope that the weather window will come at the same time that the grass is ready to be cut.  There's some details I'm cutting out here about what stage of growth for the grass, but you get the idea.  Once the weather is in line, you cut down the grass and let it dry in the field. 
There is some technology that I will talk about here.  This grass was both cut down and then squished between two rollers (a mower-conditioner, vs just a mower).  This crimping of the grass stems allows a more complete drying of the stalks and results in a better quality hay.  A second step in baling is to cut the hay into lengths of 1' or less.  This is so when the animals eat it they don't waste as much because less will hang out the sides of their mouths. 
The cutting portion of this operation is mostly accomplished with disc cutters.  that round disk spins very fast, and the little metal knives stick out and cut the grass.  There's a string of these across the front of the mower.  Some mowers are 8' wide, some are 20, all depends on the size of your tractor and how fast you want to cover acreage. 
The next step is either to ted the grass (fluff it up so that the bottom of the grass dries as well as the top) or rake it. 
Raking is the process of forming rows of concentrated hay.  The baler will run down these rows to produce bales. 

Here the baler is producing small square bales, which I prefer for most of my hay because it's easier to handle a 60lb bale, but there are all sorts of other bale options.  Notice that the operator is looking back at the baler while the tractor moves forward.  Typically when you're baling you're fiddling with the baler now and then.  The yellow container to the right on the baler is a spray that is applied to the bales to retard mold.  It's an organic acid that smells a bit like vinegar.
 Once the baler has passed by it looks like the field has been vacuumed clean.  You can see the raked grass at the top of the photo, the bales in the foreground. 
The pictures here are from a 90 acre farm; the farmer will produce about 50 bales per acre, so he'll produce something like 4500 bales this time, the first cutting.  First cutting hay is usually coarser and has more stem mass than second or third cutting.  A second or third cutting will produce fewer bales per acre, but be leafier and is considered higher quality. 

Another popular option in this area are large round bales.  They weigh about 800lbs each, and are preferred by people who are feeding cows.  You can feed a lot of cows by dropping one of these big bales into a feeder.
Here's another farmers round bale.  This baler makes a much tighter bale than the one pictured before... well, that's when it works. 
...well, it does when it works.  Here the farmer has stopped baling and is fiddling with the baler.  This is more common than you'd think.  To take the pictures for this entry I looked at 4 of the farms on my island and each of them was baling, and every one of them was fiddling with their baler at some point during the 20 minutes I watched. 
and we end with a picture of one of the final consumers of the hay:  the ruminant squad.  Here they're still working on the lush summer grass, but after the first frost they'll be on the hay diet. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Real rotational grazing

One of the things you'll hear people who raise pastured animals talk about is their "MIG" or Management Intensive Grazing" or rotational grazing of their animals.  You'll see them talk about how they do it, but when you look at what they're actually doing (via in-person visit or their blog) they really don't do what's required. 

Matron Of husbandry (She doesn't use her name on her blog by preference, see the "about" link on it) has been talking about her implementation of rotational grazing on her property, and I think it's worth looking at to see what it actually takes to do this.  Use this as a baseline when you hear someone else claiming to rotate their stock or rotationally graze.  Here's the basics:

1) There's no fixed water, mineral or other location.  The water, minerals and anything else the animal needs moves with the pasture. 
2)  It takes time to move the fences.  A half hour, an hour, whatever.  If you're truly doing the whole job, you're moving the pasture every day.  7 days a week.  No barn, no fixed feeding stations.  The whole herd moves. 
3)  There's a long recovery period after every grazing episode, measured in months in some cases. 
4)  You have to look at how the animals are doing and adjust the size of the area to be grazed based on their reactions and the growth area to be covered.

If you see someone claim to be doing some sort of rotational grazing system, you should see all 4 elements.  NO fixed feeding stations, no fixed water locations (if the animals all water at a pond, for instance, that means they have constant access to it, which also means free grazing, not rotational), and so on.   

So without further ado, here's some links to Matrons' blog entries
 Rotationally grazing mechanics, with a small herd example.  Comments include square foot suggestions. 
 Making your acreage more drought-resistant.  Joel salatin videos in this one, with a comment from yours truly about what my opinion of what salatin's system requires.  Hint:  It's not just grazing small areas.
Cows as a tool to improve land quality.

Airedale pups

Pictures of airedales by request

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Piglet avenger - the mean black pig

This is a sow I've named "the mean black pig" because she is very protective of her piglets You can see them to the right of the photo and underneath her. I was walking around the pasture doing a welfare check and had the camera in hand, and looked into this shelter to see how she was doing with her piglets. She immediately stood up

when a pig is about to attack they don't give you much outward sign. Notice her ears are forward and she's squared up on me. Shes giving me that look that I've come to associate with "look out!". It's a mix of the dirty-harry style "c'mon punk, make my day!" and from here you don't get any more warning.
this picture isn't really framed like the first two because i'm backpedaling hard to get away from her as she charges me.

From a husbandry point of view, having a sow that is very protective of her piglets is a bit of a problem, at least for my operation. I'd prefer to be able to work with the sow and her pigs without having to worry too much about being attacked. This particular pig won't let me get within 20 feet, and so I've been considering culling her on temperament. The upside for her is that she produces nice batches of piglets and manages to wean a good percentage of them. She's fine when she's not nursing pigs, and in fact, calms down when the pigs are a little bigger and running around on their own.