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.

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