Thursday, September 30, 2010

apple season

It's apple season right now, and I'm seeing large quantities of fresh apples from the produce departments.  Here the pigs are eating a half ton of fresh apples. 

A few pieces of plastic slip into the food, but by and large the loads have been clean recently, and it's pretty fun to watch the pigs select out their favorite fruit or vegetable.  One of the sows seeks out acorn squash and carries it away from the pile to eat privately. 

The sow in the next picture really likes nectarines.  She'll eat 50 of them, and them pause and reflect, and eat another 20.  Here she's sorting through the pile to eat the nectarines first.   Hog heaven. 

Monday, September 27, 2010

Corral part 4, the ramp

 I've been working on the corral for the last couple of weeks, slowly, as I've had various other things to do, but this is a part that I completed a few days ago. 
 The ramp needs to be at least 15' long to allow a gentler slope up to the truck.  I'm building this loading dock to be able to both raise and lower to match the truck or trailer height, and to swing a little from side to side.  easier to slide the ramp than have to back up a semi, basically. 
 The first part of the ramp is from ground level up to about 12" tall.  this height is the height of my current stock trailer, so that's as low as it goes.  A semi-truck trailer is 4' or so off the ground, so the second part will need a hinge, and a swivel.  Here the side rails are put on the ramp frame. 
 The ramp is floored with boards, solid.  No gaps or cracks in it.  Pigs fear cracks, especially if they can see through them.  300lb sows will be firmly convinced that a vortex will suck them into a 1" crack in the floor, and they can be very good debaters.  So a solid ramp it is.  Not shown:  Cleats every 12", attached later. 
 This is the tilt-and-swivel hinge that was fabricated.  The rest of the ramp will be attached to this. 
When finished this ramp will have solid sides.  It is 22" wide, which is based on the size of my biggest boar, but I'm concerned that it may be a little too wide. I'll load and unload the pigs and few times and see how it goes.  To narrow this chute I'll put a 2x4 along the bottom to flare out the plywood sides. 

Eating a boar followup

One difference between the boar and a younger pig is that the ham and other meat is tougher.  More chewy.  the taste is ok, but I think next time I'll go the sausage route with the boar and not process it as pork cuts. 

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Low input farming, controversy and "unproven"

I read quite a few farm blogs.  I read them for entertainment, I read them to keep abreast of what people are thinking, and I read them to learn how other people are doing things.  From time to time I'll read something I really like, and if I'm sufficiently impressed I'll try whatever it is on my farm to see if it works for me, too. 

The holy grail for most of the farm blogs is to go for low input farming.  That means that you minimize the stuff you have to pay money for -- inputs.  For instance, you can buy chemical fertilizers, or you can create your own compost, as I do.  The fewer the inputs  you have, the closer to perfection. 

To be honest, low input farming is pretty attractive.  For me, I've been trying to find an animal that I like to eat and that I can raise with the minimum cost.  Towards that goal I added sheep to my farm 2 years ago, and added more sheep this year.  Lambs born in spring and slaughtered in the fall, after feasting on the lush grass all year, are closer to that "low input" farming ideal, and I completely understand why people like it.  Heck, I like it as an ideal. 

But with lambs, with sheep, it's not all low input.  First, there's winter.  You've got to have something to feed the ewes and rams over the winter.  Second, at least for katahdin sheep, the type of sheep that I have, you have to supplement their feed while they are pregnant to make sure that they get plenty of energy to grow the lambs.  So while the slaughter lambs are either fed mothers milk from their ewe, or grass, the mothers themselves get some feed in addition to the hay I feed them.  Most consumers don't really care much, and this practice is pretty common among folks who raise katahdin breed sheep (and maybe other breeds too, but I can't speak for them) but even these relatively-low input animals require some input. 

Pigs are more input intensive, and they're the primary animal I sell.  I've written about my search for lower-cost feeds for the last few years, and I buy feed from a mill to ensure that they have plenty to eat, and that it's a balanced diet.  But for years I've wished for a way to raise lower input pigs -- closer to that ideal that us farm bloggers strive for. 

So imagine my surprise to find a fellow who said that he could raise pigs on hay alone, well, hay and some forage from a field.  but without any supplemental feed.  And that you could do this with commercial pig breeds, full-sized pigs.  And better yet, that it only lengthened the growout of the pigs by 2 months.   Heck, wild pigs grow without being fed, so it must be possible. 

WOW!!!!  I want THAT!!!!  That would mean than I could save...  $10,000...$25,000...  LOTS of money a year!!!  And I'd be closer to the ideal (low input) farming!

So I glued myself to that guy, and I asked him over and over and over again for details.  How big a pasture?  what was planted in it, or what plants existed there?  how many pigs per acre?  (or acres per pig?)  How much hay did you feed them, and what kind of hay?  Alfalfa?  Peahay?  grass?  what? 

I finally offered the guy $10,000 to raise 4 pigs as he described.  I did that publicly, and I meant it.  I would cheerfully pay $10,000 to this guy if he could prove that his guidelines worked.  He declined.  He refused to answer questions about the basic parameters.  He accused me of stalking him.  He speculated about my mental health and my ancestry (kidding about the ancestry... I think)  In fact, he doesn't even claim to do this himself, preferring to raise his pigs with thousands of gallons of dairy product,and tens of thousands of pounds of dairy products. 

So what do you do about this sort of stuff when you run across it?  I think that the term that applies here is "unproven". 

Unproven means that a result has been reported, but without some sort of proof or verification it shouldn't be taken too seriously.  That the result may be true -- like the guy who fell out of a 40 story window and survived -- but that doesn't mean that you should be jumping out of windows yourself. 

Whats odd about this fellow is that he does do a great job talking about farming and pigs and other stuff all over the place.  I mean he's prolific and obviously dedicates himself to the topic with a passion.   If he stuck to the stuff he does on his farm, talks about his current practices, he'd be golden.  The majority of what he writes is good stuff, really. 

Lets take another fellow who talks a lot about farming.  Joel Salatin was the first person to describe chicken tractors and really popularize them -- so much so that his method of raising chickens is by far the dominant way of raising chickens on pasture, worldwide.

Joel Salatins' chicken tractors are Proven.  They produce results and those results have been repeated by tens of thousands of farmers. 

This pig farmer guys raising pigs on hay alone is Unproven.  It might even be true, who knows?

So I'd like  you to add this word to your vocabulary and use it when you see someone promoting a farm practice that you think is odd.  Unproven.  

Oh yea.  And that applies to me, too.  Make me prove it if you see something I talk about that you're skeptical of.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Question from the web: How do I find out what pork prices are in my area?


 From a planning perspective, how can I see what pork is selling for locally and what markets are out there?
I understand that selling at auction is the quickest way to lose money, but I would like to have some hard numbers for planning.

Pricing is difficult for farmers.  It can be difficult to figure out what a reasonable price is, and it's especially difficult when you compare the meat prices in a grocery store with your own cost to produce.

When I'm looking for price information, I'm interested in both retail and wholesale prices.

Wholesale prices are the price you might sell to if you sold to a local meat shop, for instance. Call one near you and see if they buy animals from farmers directly. They may not, but ask who they buy from, and follow that chain. Sometimes you'll find that the local shops will not buy anything from local producers, but keep trying and you'll find out what the pork supply chain is like in your area.

A second source of wholesale prices is auction results. The national auction results reported in farmer newspapers like the capitol press are usually (for Washington markets) unbelievably low. Like a 100lb side of lean pork selling for $40. My hard cost (Animal cost + feed cost. ) to raise that same pork is $90-105. I have no idea how they can stay in business with prices that low, but that's what you'll see if you look at the national press.   To make the farm an ongoing concern I have to add land, equipment and labor, so I end up with a cost of around $180 per side.

A more meaningful result is the sales numbers reported from a local animal auction. In washington state I use the toppenish auction market results page, which you'll find on their website, here: Fat hogs are selling for $50-65 this week. Again, if I sold pigs at those prices I'd be out of business. I don't pursue the wholesale market at all.

Retail prices I get from three sources. your local craigslist (I use this one ) and do a search for "pigs" or "pork". there's probably one near you, or if not, find the nearest one.

The second source for retail pork prices is your local farmers market. find the folks selling pork and ask 'em.

The third is the localvore internet folks. Do a search on something like or for farms near you and check their prices.
You're welcome.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


This is my second year of seriously trying to grow watermelons, and as I've talked about, this year the weather really sucked for growing anything.  

But I have a secret weapon:  The greenhouse.  The following are pictures of the watermelon portion of my greenhouse.  The melons got enough sun and warmth to ripen nicely, and they're pretty sweet.  I'm guessing I have about 100 of the personal sized watermelons.  Organically grown, no pesticides, local to Seattle. 

Take note you 100 mile diet folks:  Watermelons you can eat guilt-free!

Some of them are the size of softballs, others the size of basketballs.  I've been trying to get the watermelon growing down because these personal-sized watermelons sell for $6 to $8 in the stores, and I think I can make a good market in them in the local farmers market.  I certainly enjoy them. 

I grew both seedless and seeded watermelons this year.  Having tasted both, I think that the seeded watermelons are sweeter, nicer melons. 

Next year I think I'm going to try more hot-weather crops.  Peppers and more types of melons.  cantelopes, maybe.  After having the pigs and cows eat most of my melon vines TWICE last year, I'm pretty happy with the crop this year. 

Monday, September 20, 2010

The weather

I thought that this spring and summer were cool; many of the farms around here didn't get enough heat to finish their corn, and several farmers that raised animals on pasture found the growth to be slower than normal. 

But know I know for sure:  This is the coldest summer in the last 30 years, and we've received double (almost triple) the average rainfall for the entire month of September already. 

The rain has been relentless.  Over 3/4" of rain a day for the last 4 days.  Total for this month to date is a bit over 4", and the wettest September ever recorded at seatac is 5.95 inches -- and chances are very good we'll break that record. 

When you raise animals on pasture and you get this much rain it makes you want to build an ark. 

Hope things are well with you and yours

Weather stats courtesy of the Cliff Mass blog, whos weather reports I trust more than most others. 

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Big litter

A blue butt (that's a breed name) sow of mine had a big litter today.  Here's the picture: 

Click on the picture for a bigger version
How many piglets do you see? 

The best part is that there are 4 more piglets off camera, on the other side of the sow.  Lots of color variations.  that's part of the fun!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Recent blogs I've been enjoying

I enjoy reading other peoples blogs, and I recently found one that I like pretty well.

The folks over at have just purchased a couple of weaner pigs, and they're working through raising pigs through the winter.  I liked his pen idea, and, and his shelter idea, but if you ask me, I think that his pigs will eat his hay and knock down the shelter before too long, but that's OK.  It's just hay and a tarp. 

In any case, you'll find the blog here, and on the list of "blogs I follow" on the right hand side of my blog.

Update:  Lisa farms in Alaska and writes a blog here.  She notes that there's a $500 a ton surcharge on freight.  I think that will make most people think that their inputs are CHEAP.

The rain and floods

The rainy season has begun in earnest.  Here it's from mid-September to probably May, and the long-term forecast this year is that we'll get a lot of rain.  For me, it's a time to look at the items on the farm and start preparing for a flood. 

Ebey Island, where my farm is located, is entirely surrounded by a 15' tall dike.  I'm close enough to the ocean that the tides push the river water up 8' each high and low tide on the outside of the dike, and the dike does break from time to time. 

The last time it broke was on an outgoing tide, so there was a 6  hour period where the waters were receding because of the tide that allowed the hole to be patched.  If the break had occurred during a rising tide I suspect that the hole would not have been plugged, and the entire island would have flooded. 

When Ebey island was diked in the 1920s they dug a network of ditches across the island to drain it, and a set of giant pumps to pump out the water.  There are also tide gates that open during minus tides to remove the water, and close when the tide comes in.  This draining of the island has causes the land inside the dike to subside about 6' from historical elevations.  So a flood event is more like a bathtub filling up than a traditional flood. 

Here's the sequence that will cause me problems: 
  1) heavy rain for a few weeks to saturate the ground
  2) heavy snowfall in the mountains to build up some water
  3) warm rain on that snow to release the water all at once
  4) high tide

And there's a 5th factor that has nothing to do with the weather. 
  5) various government agencies that are not allowing the diking district to do the same sorts of maintenance on the dike that has allowed it to last all these years.  This list includes the Washington Dept of Fish and Game, The army Corps of engineers and the Snohomish county planning and development service, along with the snohomish county surface water management district.  Each of these agencies has the potential to, through requirements or permitting changes, or the refusal to issue permits, make the dike more susceptible to failure than it has been.

The first 4 I knew about when i bought this land.  #5 has been an unpleasant surprise. 

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Antibiotics and pigs

I have talked about the use of antibiotics on my farm; generally speaking I'm against it, and I am particularly against the constant low dose of antibiotics that you'll find in most of the animal feeds available.  I'm speaking specifically to "medicated chick starter" and the equivalent baby animal feed. 

With swine, the industry has found that feeding antibiotics to pigs helps they gain weight faster; it allows them to save $1 to $3 per pig in feed costs, but at what cost? 

Antibiotics are wonderful.  There was a time when people could get a cut on their hand and DIE of it.  Infections, prior to antibiotics, were basically the luck of the draw.  After the invention of antibiotics a cut, even major surgery, became something that was much lower risk. 

Right now we're seeing a greater incidence of antibiotic resistant bacteria, like MRSA.  Why do I care?  We are going back to a time when a cut on the hand could be fatal.  I think that the risk of breeding these superbugs is not worth the estimated price rise of 5 cents per pound that not using antibiotics would cause. 

I don't use antibiotics, and I strongly recommend that other farmers don't use them except in the extreme, to save a life, and to do so under the best advice that they can reasonably afford.  If you can't afford a vet, do the research yourself or see if you can get a vet to counsel you on what the course of treatment is, and follow their recommendations. 

The alternative is to have more and more of these bacterial strains that cannot be treated, and a return to the bad old days.   Most of the science today points to the bacterial strains as having originated on farms where they feed low doses of antibiotics to their animals. 

Here's a NY Times article on the FDAs proposal to strongly limit the use of antibiotics to produce pork. 

Monday, September 13, 2010

Eating a boar

Click on the picture for a bigger version
I culled a boar on my farm a month or so ago, and ran him through the farm kill system that my customers meat goes through. (Farm kill, dressed at farm, cut and wrap & smoke at meat shop). I do this from time to time to do a quality control check on the whole system, and in this case to see what the boar tasted like.

One advantage of farm kills to the farmer is that I get to double check my husbandry.  Amount of fat, condition of internal organs, overall health of the animal and so on.  In the picture above I'm watching Al Stevens cut open a bit of the sows uterus so that I can see the condition and verify that she was not pregnant.  I do this from time to time to check the accuracy of my pregtone pregnancy checker, and it's proven accurate so far.  (Big help when you're culling sows for not breeding, btw)

Castrating male pigs is a common practice for Americans, and it retards both their growth rate and progress, so if you can not castrate various studies have shown you'll get more efficient conversion of feed to meat.

The boar I culled weighed 700lbs, and was sexually active. In fact, it was mating a sow about an hour before it was killed, and was kept in a pasture with several other boars. So if there were any sexual activity linked issues, I'd expect this boar to have them. I did this intentionally to make sure that I had a good chance of experiencing boar taint if it was present.

 I had 5 people smell the meat as it cooked, and taste each of the following meats after cooking. I asked them how the taste was, whether there was a difference in texture, how the fat tasted separate from the meat, and any other impressions they had.

Here's the rundown:

The sausage is fine, in all of its (3) iterations. Spicy, sweet Italian, breakfast. It smells fine when cooking, tastes fine. No issues.

The bacon, to four of the five people tasting, had no discernible difference. I smelled a small amount of gaminess to it. Similar to the difference in taste between wild boar meat and domestic pork. On a scale of 1-10 I'd rate the gaminess to be a 2 or 3. Venison I'd rate a 4 or 5, beef I'd rate a 1, lamb a 3 to 4, to give you a comparison.

I'll try the ham and pork chops tomorrow, but given that bacon a high percentage of fat, and that the bacon was fine, I'd expect the rest of the meat to be fine. 

Summary:  This animal was fine, and my family and I will be eating him for a while.  If I run into any other issues I'll update this post.   he dressed out to something like 400lbs of meat.  The pork chops are huge.  The hams are gigantic.

Candy smoking salmon

Right now it's salmon season in the NW, and many of the local fisherman are selling fresh-caught salmon right off their boats; usually for $2.50-$3/lb, either whole (head on, guts in) or head-and-gutted (heads off, guts out).  I usually buy my yearly salmon around now, and then can some of it, freeze some of it, and then smoke some of it.
Click on the picture for a larger version.

When I smoke salmon I'm usually after something that I can't get locally for any price I'm happy with:  Candy smoked salmon.  I think that fresh king salmon smokes into the best stuff on earth.  Here's the recipe: 

1 lb brown sugar
1 cup pickling salt (regular salt has additives to prevent clumping, don't use)
1 cup maple syrup
3 tablespoons dark molasses
1/2 gallon water

Brush mix:
 3/4 cup honey,
 1/4 cup water

This will make enough brine for 2 10-pound salmon, filleted and cut into 1" strips.  I use 1 gallon ziploc bags, and pour half the brine into two bags after I've filled them with salmon.  Let the salmon soak for 12-24 hours, refrigerated. 

After soaking, put the salmon onto a rack and allow to dry to a tacky consistency, unrefrigerated.  Usually an hour or two.  You want the salmon to be moist to the touch but not wet.  The picture below shows the salmon right after being taken out of the brine mix.  if you don't let the strips dry your smoke will not stick to the meat and you won't get the good smoked flavor you want. 

Brined salmon drying on a rack

I use a big chief smoker; mine is a top loading model, and it holds about 20lbs of strips at a time.  I feed it with green alder chips that I get from tree service companies.  You can use any wood you choose, alder is a traditional wood in the NW but apple, pear, cherry and other woods also provide a nice flavor.

My alder chip supply for smoking, in a 30 gallon garbage can. 

With big strips like I use, smoking time is between 6 and 10 hours.  About halfway through, when the strips are partially smoked, I brush with 3/4 cup honey and 1/4 water, and then return to the smoker until they're at the right texture.  I'm looking for something similar in texture to soft leather.  I don't want to make jerky, but I do want there to be some drying. 

Notice that there's a piece that is a little white looking, at the left center of the photo.  That's a piece of the salmon belly -- a very fatty piece of the fish.  I think that it makes a really tasty smoked tidbit and that's actually my favorite part to eat.  Oily and sweet and delicious. 

This year I smoked 60lbs of silver salmon and 40lbs of king salmon.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Cow cuties

I purchased a few calves at the auction; here's a couple of them.  They're beef calves, about 300lbs.  The little whitefaced one is not at all tame, in fact, its a little wild.   Which I actually prefer.   She'll keep her distance, usually 15' or so minimum, and that's pretty nice for me.  I don't have to worry about her stepping on my feed or knocking me out with her big hard head by accident. 
I chose this particular calf because... well, I like herefords.  A good british beef breed that should make for good eating in a few years. 

The little black one was in the same lot, and is about the same age, and every cow needs a buddy, so I took her, too.  She's solid black, maybe an angus or angus cross.  Her funny expression here is because she's chewing her cud, with her eyes half open as she does so. 
This is a little red steer that I got off craigslist for $175.  About 300lbs; can't figure out what it is.  Maybe red angus?  Maybe jersey cross?  Dunno.  I'll have a few years to figure it out. 

Another cow I picked up off craigslist is the black one in the background.  About 600lbs, seems in fair shape, $200. 

If you can over-winter animals you can often buy them in the fall for very low prices; $200 for a 600lb young cow is a pretty good deal, even if you just immediately eat her.  That's $0.30/lb live weight.  At the auction that same cow would probably fetch $0.90 - $1.10/lb, but the fellow who was selling her didn't have a trailer, so couldn't get the cow to market. 

The low prices for pigs means that I don't sell many of them right now; I'd rather keep them and finish them for sale next year than sell at this low price in the season. 

Saturday, September 11, 2010

chickens are a luxury... but not in africa

A while ago I spent a few months in rural Zambia and Zimbabwe;  and it was an interesting trip.  Most of the people I met were subsistence farmers who competed with the hippos for river bottom land, and who would go to great lengths to get protein in any form.  Fish, bush meat, domestic animals -- all were a prized addition to their diet.  In the villages, there would often be a flock of chickens around the house, and to my American eye, they looked pretty scrawny. 

When you visit a village like this they're at pains to be hospitable, and most every night there was a chicken dinner and many questions about America.  The chicken was often the best that they had, and they'd trot it out with the sadza (a mush made of ground corn) and a bit of this or that, and I ended up giving away most of my clothes.  Western T-shirts were prized there, as were American $1 bills -- $1 USD being roughly 2 days wages for a 12 hour a day laborer.   I appreciated their earnest, heartfelt hospitality.  It was really amazing. 

The chickens were always owned by someone, and what they represented was a net benefit to the family that owned it.  The egg laying was paltry by American standards -- an egg a week, for instance -- but whatever eggs the chickens produced they did so on food that was inedible by the villagers, and the chicken meat was also made from foraged foods inedible to humans.   

Contrast that to our treatment of poultry; we measure our hens efficiency in pounds of feed per dozen eggs; a good hen will produce 280 eggs a year, and we've got it down to a science. 

My feeding wilted produce to my pigs is my way of making the pork less of a luxury; using food that would otherwise be wasted and making something good out of it.  My African pigs. 

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Dirt. Plain old dirt.

Well, not really.  This is compost, 40 yards of it, composed primarily of manure from the farm and large amounts of wood chips.  The wood chips capture the nitrogen in the manure, and the combination makes this lovely black gold.  This particular pile will go back into the greenhouse and be the basis for next years greenhouse crops.

Here's the first step.  A layer of new, clean chips that we'll use to catch the liquids from the pig food. 
If you look in the upper left hand corner you can see some fruit and vegetables that came in that truckload.  The pigs eat what they want, and what they don't eat gets pushed into windrows -- you can see on in the middle, partially obscuring the two white domes.  There are still bits of food that the pigs find tasty in the windrows, and they'll dig and root through the pile several times.  Once a week or so I'll go out with the tractor and push it back into a mound, and this stirring of the compost allows for complete composting of the material.  I pile it up with the tractor so that it gets completely turned over; if I don't, I've found that it doesn't compost as completely as quickly.  The two pigs in the upper right hand corner of the picture are actually digging into the pile and turning it over as I took this picture.  Good pigs! 

When I windrow I'm careful to put a few inches of new chips on top of the compost.  This helps to insulate the pile a little, to get to the magic 160 degrees for sterilizing the compost, and to keep any odors down.  It really doesn't smell when you use enough carbon.  You can compost animals in wood chips as well, but I don't do that in the pig pasture.  The pigs would dig up the carcass and eat it. 

Pigs are the only earthmoving equipment that increases in value as you use it.  As Joe Salatin has said "Pigs go around with this sign on their heads:  Will work for food!"

After a couple move months the smaller wood chips and all of the food has completely composted away.  Larger wood fragments still remain and provide a carbon sink for any excess nitrogen in the manure or urine. 
The pigs enjoy sleeping on the compost piles because of the heat generated, especially in the winter.  The larger piles will maintain a working temperature inside even when covered with snow -- they look a bit like volcanoes, with a steaming plume.  The pigs lay in the steam. 

When this soil goes into the greenhouse you get some really lovely results.  Like this, or this

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Livestock guardian dogs

An anonymous person asked this question in the comments section of yesterdays post, and despite the tone of the comment, the topic is worth talking about.  Here's the comment: 

Is this the breed of dog that you suggest that aspiring farmers purchase for their farm?

I don't actually recommend any breed to anyone; the choice is more based on the individual and the objective and less on the breed.  In fact, many of the service dogs that are trained today are picked up from the local animal shelter and trained, and a farm dog another kind of service dog.   Airedales are a versatile and adaptable breed.   In the UK they're used as police dogs.   It's interesting to note that tail docking is illegal in the UK except for working dogs.  I leave the tails on my dogs. 

I think that the single biggest mistake people make in choosing a "livestock guardian dog" is the assumption that the dog will magically perform its duties without any intervention or training.  Horror stories about someones purebred dog eating their sheep or goats, or becoming a terror of the owner, or people who are just fundamentally unprepared for dealing with the needs and drives of a working dog like a border collie or Australian shepherd abound. 

  I happen to like the temperament of the Airedale breed, their tenacity and their hard-headedness, but as far as dog training goes, they're not the easiest dogs to train.  Airedales have a very strong prey drive that you can redirect to other purposes, but left to their own devices they are terriers, and terriers are meant to hunt and kill prey, which they do very efficiently. 

If you'd like some background on the terrier breed of dogs in general (and a few notes on Airedales in particular, you'll find it here.   Terriers, and in particular, Airedales, are a working breed that is still commonly used for hunting in north America.  They are used quite a bit for bear and cougar and this is where a lot of the dogs in BC, and Idaho are used. In the south they're used for wild pig hunting

I cannot use my dogs for hunting big game in Washington state because dog assisted hunting was outlawed a few years ago.  This change in the law (and one primary reason for breeding and keeping Airedales for many people) has resulted in a big reduction of people breeding Airedales and using Airedales for any purpose in Washington and Oregon.

But I do use them to hunt coyote on my land, and to kill rodents and other smaller predators as they appear.  I use a good perimeter fence around my property, and the dogs roam at will inside that fence most of the time.   I vaccinate the dogs, and the rabies tags plus their license and address tags provide a noisemaker on their collars which serves to give fair warning to most everything that the dog is on its way.  I do this to reduce the mortality of things like raccoons and possums and weasels.  While the dogs will attack and kill these smaller predators, I'd prefer that these small predators get warned away by the jingling dog collars and survive to establish territories just outside my fence line, and by doing so provide a "predator buffer" around my property. 

I have a pack of 5 Airedales right now, and that seems like a reasonable number.  They travel in a pack most of the time, and at this time of year they're constantly searching for rats in the field and around the buildings and feeders.  They're useful in herding the sheep, and if you've got a pig in the bushes, they are invaluable in bringing it out. 

So no, I don't recommend this dog except to someone who likes its individual traits and characteristics, as I do.  I do recommend dogs as part of your working farm when you're raising animals on pasture.  They enrich your life in many ways, and make the work easier.  I train my dogs so that everyone has a clear understanding of what the rules are, and my life is so much better for having done so. 

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Dog training time

Blue, born in March 2010. 

The two puppies I retained from my last litter of Airedales are at the age where I start to train them.  What I teach them are the basic skills I need to make my life with them more peaceful, and to make them more useful on the farm.  Here's my basic list: 

Come when called
Don't pull on leash
Don't get on the furniture, ever. 
Don't jump on anyone
Lay down until told you can get up
Go left / Go right / Go where I am pointing

The basic rule that I follow is that you always treat a big dog puppy as if it's a big dog already.  I don't roughhouse with them, as fun as that is with a puppy because it leads them to believe that roughhousing is a good thing.  Its ok when they're puppies, but when they're north of 60lbs, a friendly nip or jump can get someone hurt, or scare someone who doesn't know the dog.  So we just never do it. 
I know that you called me, but if I sneak away slowly you won't notice
Airedales are willful dogs.  They're stubborn and loyal, and they tend to stick with an idea once they get it into their heads.  So I'm a bit stricter with them than I might be with other dogs.  This shows up when I teach them to lay down.  Lay down for my dogs means their chin is on the ground.  that means when they resist it's by raising their heads.  If I taught them that lay down meant laying down with their head up, resisting is walking away slowly. 
On the right, Red, last years littermate
Some Airedales have a very strong prey drive.  I've written about Red, pictured above, and my challenge in getting him to stop eating my poultry.  he's very good at herding, listening to the call-off signal and supporting the other dogs, but he does like his poultry, and this is a problem if he's bored or unsupervised.
Blue, this years pup

Blue has shown some potential as a herding dog as well.  He's calm and friendly, and has a good conformation.  Nothing at all wrong with him.  He's still growing (note red on the left and monster over the top of him for size comparison) and I expect him to be around breed standard at maturity. 
Monster, the father of the pups
Monster, the dog of this pack, is starting to grey out a little, but is still doing his job on the farm every day.  He I trust to not mess with the livestock, and as top dog he gets more face time with me than the other dogs.  He's my pickup truck companion as well as the tireless rat hunter at the farm.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Heritage roosters

new hampshire red rooster

When eggs are hatched the mix of hens and roosters is about 50/50.  The female chicks are usually sold as egg-laying hens and the roosters are either sold very cheap or killed outright at the hatchery.  This is different than what used to happen; the roosters would typically grace the table, but with the heritage breed chickens, the roosters just take a very long time to grow -- 6-7 months -- vs the cornish cross that takes 2 months. 
red leghorn / aracauna cross rooster
Every year I order around 400 male heritage breed chicks from hatcheries because my customer base likes the old-fashioned heritage birds and is willing to buy them.  In fact, I'm the only farm in my county that raises any quantity of heritage rooster, so over the past few years people who want that traditional bird have found me in greater numbers. 
barred rock rooster
It's kind of fun to raise these birds.  All sorts of colors, different behaviors, plumage, and having a mixed flock is more interesting to me as a farmer.  i like having the variety in the barnyard. 
light brahma rooster
The different growth rates are interesting, too.  The picture above is a light brahma that was the early winner in growth rates -- it grew the fastest in the first month or so -- and that faded a bit.  Some of the breeds are bigger than others. 
speckled sussex rooster
The speckled sussex, in this group of birds, has been the calmest of the bunch.   The light brahma is the largest.  the one most likely to have a harem of hens is the barred rock, and the prettiest, of this group, are the new hampshire reds.  They almost glow with their red plumage. 

Out of the original 400 I'm down to about 30 roosters.  They'll all be gone by October. I'll be ordering the next group in a month or so.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Eagles, hawks and poultry - Guinea fowl

My farm is surrounded on all sides by land that is minimally farmed.  most of the use around me is either orchards or used to graze cattle.  One one side is an 800 acre parcel managed by the Washington State Department of Fish and Game, primarily as a warm-season pasture and a cool-season stop for migrating waterfowl.  they provide access and I see people shooting birds out there all the time. 

As a result of this activity, I have quite a bit of contact with wild birds; both migrating birds, who are attracted to the lush greenery, and birds that seasonally nest in the area; raptors like eagles and hawks seem to think that this is a pretty good area to raise their young. 

I've made my piece with the raptors by doing a couple of simple things, and one of those is keeping a small number of guinea fowl that range with my poultry.   Their function in the larger flock is to provide the early warning system for aerial attacks from raptors, and they're also very good at spotting people they don't know (and sometimes people they forgot they already know) and sounding the alarm. 

Chickens and ducks quickly learn to pay attention to their calls, and while there is an occasional false alarm I pay attention to them when they start screaming, at least to figure out what they're squawking about.   

Guinea fowl are a lot more gang oriented than chickens.  Both guineas and chickens will hang out in flocks, but the guineas are a little poultry mafia.  If a chicken dares to pick a fight with a guinea it will find that it is fighting the whole guinea flock in a matter of seconds.  they'll also single out chickens or turkeys that they consider to be threats (well, guinea consider everything a threat, they're pretty paranoid birds, but maybe a bigger threat) and they'll pick on that bird.  they'll single out the bird they've chosen and drive it away, even though they're taking on birds that are twice or more their weight. 
I do get asked for them from time to time, and I'll sell them if someone really wants them, but mostly I like their watchdog tendencies and their ability to make my life easier by safeguarding less paranoid fowl. 

Note:  They really do create quite a racket.  If you think roosters are bad, you don't want guinea fowl.  However, if you have a neighbor who thinks that roosters are bad, a few guinea fowl will make the rooster noise seem insignificant.   You can also give them as gifts to children.  This is roughly the same as giving a noisy toy to a child at Christmas.  The gift that keeps on giving. 

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Our fragile worldwide food system

We have a food system that is adequate to feed everyone on this planet for a price that they can afford -- at least that's the way it works most of the time.  You may not know this, but there were food riots in 2008 around the world over the price of bread, which reflected the highest price for wheat that we've seen in many years.   There are food riots going on now because of a crop failure in Russia -- the price of wheat again. 

I mention this because it's worth noting that our food system, our food supply, is pretty tight.   It produces the food we eat, and not much more.  When there's even a little bobble (or a big one, like the Russian wheat harvest failing this year) people die.  That's one reason that I think that ethanol is such a bad idea.  If you take a system that is pretty much meeting the need, and add another 2% consumption to it, suddenly the whole thing goes out of whack -- prices escalate, people speculate, there's hoarding, countries ban exports and the whole thing goes down an ugly path. 

What can you do?  The next time time that you hear someone diverting food into fuel, tell them why it's such a bad idea.  Corn is to be eaten, not to be consumed as fuel.  We have other sources of fuel, but little else we can use as food.   The same applies for destroying farmland.  We have precious few places with the fertility, water and climate to produce food.  All of the best land is already cultivated.  There is no excuse for destroying farmland. 

This blog entry inspired by this article in the NY times, U.N. Raises Concerns on Wheat Harvests

Friday, September 3, 2010


We had a cold, wet spring and early summer this year that delayed most of the plantings I did. It also made the blackberry season later than usual. 

When I was a kid I always looked forward to the first blackberries ripening.  There's always one blackberry at the tip of the bunch of fruits that ripens long before all the others, and I used to pick that one and eat it, and I was always surprised by how sour it was.   From one year to the next I'd always forget. 
The blackberries although late, are pretty good this year.  I always pick a few gallons of the ones that grow wild around the farm, and I always promise that I'll make jam, but then I'll usually eat them fresh, or with some vanilla ice cream. 
The vines are still flowering, into September, which is unusual.  The flowers being pollinated now won't ripen by first frost, but they're much appreciated by the bees, the typical bee schedule was disrupted by the cold weather as well.   

Late summer is a great time for foraging.  If you have blackberries near you, don't miss them. 

Thursday, September 2, 2010

pigs eating produce.

Click on the photo for a larger version

One thing about feeding the pigs a buffet is that they get to pick their favorites out of the mix.  The fruits and vegetables are in addition to their regular feed,and the entire herd comes over when a load is delivered to inspect it and eat the bits that they prefer.
Before i receive a new load I scrape up what is left of the last load into windrows.  It's a mix of decayed fruit and vegetables and wood chips.  I use the wood chips to provide additional biomass and to provide lots of carbon to keep the smell down on the composting itself.  The smell is interesting; there's a substantial amount of citrus that comes in each load, grapefruits and oranges mostly, and the pigs don't like them very much.  So when I go to scrape it up it smells a bit like a citrus salad as I crush the fruit with the tractor. 

   I'll turn these windrows of half-composted materials with the tractor, and the pigs will turn them as well.  Later in the fall the pigs will actually sleep on the compost pile because of the warmth that it generates.   In the picture above I've spread another 12" of wood chips to receive the next load. 
The piglets, like any young critter, like the sweet stuff.  Here these three are scanning for their favorite items.  Strawberries and cherries, with the occasional mango or papaya. 
As with most children, getting them to eat their salad first is often a struggle.  Here this little pig is ignoring the sweet corn and lettuce for the strawberry it's eating. 
Food is good, but it's even better when you can bury your whole face in it.  Here this pig is enjoying its bananas -- both the banana in its mouth and the ones it's smearing all over its face. 

The big pigs lead the little guys over to the pile, and give them a rough idea on what's good to eat.  The little pigs are a little tentative, but they'll skitter in under the legs of momma, or kinda hang out and try to steal bits from her mouth, which most sows tolerate.  Eventually everyone has all they can eat and the day ends with a siesta.