Sunday, October 31, 2010

How much space does it take to produce pastured eggs?

Multi-species rotational grazing on my farm.

In the discussion about TLC Ranch eggs / closing its doors, I made a comment about the amount of space required to pasture hens.  the context was "why do they need 48 acres of land (and the related expenses of that land) for just 2,000 hens? 

Here's my entire comment:

"Rebecca states in her interview that she had 2,000 laying hens at the end.
Giving each hen a 1/2 square foot of grass per day that's 1,000 square feet a day. An acre is 43600 square feet, which means that each acre gives you 43 days of rotation for all 2,000 hens. So I'll revise my estimate of land needs for the hens to 3 acres giving a 4 month rest after grazing"
Kelsey, a reader on my blog, reads that and makes this comment [edited for length, but you can read the whole thing in the comments section of that other post]: 
"... know that 1/2 square foot per chicken is unacceptable. For comparison - taking into account a healthy adult male's height and weight - imagine living your entire life in a 25 square foot room with 10 or 15 other people. Imagine eating, sleeping, breathing, defecating, establishing social orders and relationships (yes, chickens do that), with less than 3 square feet of space in which to position yourself. Imagine the toll it would take on your mental and physical health."
What I said, and what I meant, was to provide each chicken with 1/2 square foot of NEW GRASS per day, but that is not the entire size of the chicken pen.  Land is one of your biggest expenses, and in general, anything you can do to use your land more efficiently (to reduce your land expense if nothing else) is good, in my opinion.   So you can allow the chickens any amount of trailing space you want,  depending on how much vegetation you have and what your soil conditions are.
 The basic concept is Managed Intensive Grazing.  The goal is to completely consume the forage on the exposed part.  Tasty vegetation is eaten.  Not so tasty vegetation is shredded and trampled -- weed control.  manure is deposited, and a long regrowth period is allowed to restore the vegetation for the next cycle. 

The amount of exposure, the amount of time for regrowth, the number of animals (stocking level) and the amount of manure that can be tolerated will all vary by location.

So in this case you're exposing fresh, new pasture every day, and rotating out consumed, fertilized, weeded pasture.  By maintaining the pen you can efficiently use all of your land and precisely control how often it is grazed -- for parasite control, for instance.  You can use more land if you'd like, or less.  In this particular case I was optimizing for the least amount of land because that was one of the primary complaints related to the closure of this farm -- land cost.

So I'll stand by my basic math:  3 acres for 2,000 hens would do it if you're on a good pasture.  Heck, lets double that -- 6 acres!  

I wish I could say that I came up with this; I didn't.  It's done with chicken tractors, popularized by Joel Salatin, and most recently I found a video of a farm operation in Canada that is both profitable and pasture based, which you'll find here.   Special thanks to Kevin Kossowan for his video series "From Local farms".

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Another farm bites the dust: postmortem

The blog has announced that after 6 years of operation they're closing their farm operation, named TLC Ranch .  A postmortem is an examination of a situation to see what you can learn from it.  I was introduced to this sort of examination while I was working at a big company; failed projects, and successful ones too, got postmortems.  Personally I found the discussions around failed projects to be the most interesting. 

First, to be clear, Rebecca, one of the farmers at honestmeat, and I have not had the best of relations; but this is not personal in any way.  I hate to see someone who clearly wants to farm and has spent 6 years doing it close the doors.   Rebecca and I most recently 'conversed' in the comments section of this blog post in the end of May of this year. 

 Here's my (no so hidden) agenda: 

The audience that I write for is mostly other producers, particularly those folks who are producing animals.  Anyone is welcome to read it, but what I'm writing is mostly aimed at other farmers or people who are thinking about farming.  I write about the nitty-gritty stuff that is farming, and I do so with the following goals in mind: 

  1) Save farmers time and effort by talking about stuff I do, including stuff that doesn't work well. 
  2) Emphasize practices that are in my belief the most likely to work for people, and;
  3) Be skeptical about things that I see as not workable or not likely to succeed. 
  4) Encouraging farmers to make a profit*

Lets talk about TLC ranch, the business name of the blog. 

Principle farmers: 
Jim and Rebecca appear to have a long-term interest in farming; Jim did a stint in the Marine Corps and started a delivery service for vegetables, and Rebecca spent some time earning a degree and then apprenticed on several farms.  I'm pretty clear that both of these folks know about hard work and dedication, and they started this venture with their eyes open.    They have a little girl, born 4 years ago.

their website lists several products that they sold at the end of their farming life:   pork, eggs, lamb and beef.  It appears that they would buy the hens, pigs and lambs from other farmers and raise them to laying age or market weight.  They would also resell beef from a neighboring farmer.   they apparently did not sell any sort of vegetables or fruit (see land and facilities)

Land and facilities: 
 They rent a house and 48 acres, and state that "For all 48 acres we rent, we pay about 10 times the going rate for pasture".  

 TLC sold products into the San Francisco bay area, which is one of the highest priced markets in the country.  Their prices are high by most standards.  Representative pork prices:  Tenderloin $17/lb.  Bacon:  $15/lb, fresh sausage links: $9/lb.   Beef prices: Filet Mignon $19/lb, flat iron steak, $15/lb, etc.   Eggs are $8-9/dozen. 

Feed & Husbandry: 
Quite a bit of discussion on their site about organic feed, how the animals are slaughtered, and how they're handled; taken at face value, these folks spent a lot of time managing their animals.  This is reflected in the comment that Rebecca made in her announcement of closing their farm that they were working 80 hours a week. 

This venture was difficult to begin with, but complicated by several factors.  The price of the land that they were renting was one; difficulties with labor was another, and finally the lack of sales.  I'll add to that list insufficient capital.  Their pricing was sufficiently rich that they had sufficient margins, but in pricing at that level I'm guessing they also significantly limited their market.  There is very little discussion of traditional business planning; revenue projections, milestones, critical path items...  that may have been done, but it's not obvious from the blog or website.

Stated reasons for closing: 
"1. LAND ACCESS: We rent land in North Monterey County, California. Half the land we rent is in an active floodplain and is under water for half the year. The other half of land we rent is a steep, overgrazed, parched hillside with no water to help bring it back to life. For all 48 acres we rent, we pay about 10 times the going rate for pasture. The best grazing lands in this region are locked up by a handful of long-time cattle ranchers, the fertile bottomland locked up by capital-intensive berry farming, so we are left with the dregs. To top off the over-priced land, our leases are too short to build a long-term business, the landlords too inflexible, and ultimately, we are building no equity for all the effort we put into the land. What can you do to help solve the land problem for farmers? Make sure your city and county planners don't pave over any more good farmland in your county and don't let them rezone farmland for things like rural "ranchettes" and other developments that carve up viable farmland. If you or your family own farmland, consider offering a low-priced, long-term lease to a good farmer to help them build their business.  "

The best farm land in all parts of the USA are always occupied by farms that can turn a profit and are sufficiently capitalized.   As a new farm, you will always find the marginal land anywhere you go to be the most available.  My farm is located on the flood plain.  Welcome to the new farmer club, chums!

The discussion of equity is interesting.  The equity that I would expect them to be building is in the TLC ranch brand name.  With a strong brand you can move your location around and still be in business.  Land ownership and building a farm are not connected.  Many successful farmers are using leased land.  If you are in that sort of situation, develop a farm plan that allows you to move when you need to; either for natural reasons (floods) or for business reasons (loss of lease).   None of this should have been a surprise to these folks. 

"...offer a low-priced long-term lease to a good farmer..."  A good farmer is one who manages their farm business in a sustainable way, and I'd like to promote and support people who don't need a subsidy to farm.  I'd disagree with this. 

"2. MEAT PROCESSING: This topic warrants a much longer post, but basically California has only a handful of USDA-inspected slaughter and butcher facilities. Because there are only a few, it is hard to even get an appointment to bring your animals in (one place we called had a 7 month waiting list!). Also, because these abattoirs don't have much competition, they don't have to provide high-quality customer service to ranchers. They can charge what they want, they can choose not to follow your detailed butchering instructions (for example, put nitrates in the hams that you asked for "nitrate-free", cut all the fat off your pork chops when you asked for 2 inches of fat on them, etc.). These abattoirs charge you by the carcass weight of your animal and then sometime they won't even give you the whole animal back that you paid for, such as taking the head, the organ meats, the feet, etc. So we work our butt off to raise this amazing animal and then the butchers devalue your hard work. Having zero control over our processing is extremely frustrating and costly. To top it off, the rules for ranchers processing their own meat are different than those for small custom butcher shops. They can take their meat products to farmers markets without a USDA-inspection but we cannot (Corralitos Meat Market is an example of this). This is a double standard that most customers are oblivious too."

The USDA slaughter situation has been this way for at least a decade.  None of this should have been a surprise to these folks.  Many farmers have trouble finding people who can correctly cut and wrap their meat (myself included).  If another farm has a competitive advantage in getting to market, consider seriously doing what they do.  You've had 6 years, folks.  that's longer than most.  If it is a crucial aspect of your business, maybe you should have looked at carralitos meat market carefully and done that yourself.  I can't speak specifically to the laws of the State of California, but this is a common, reoccurring problem when raising animals for food. 

"3. THE ECONOMY & CONSUMERS: We certainly have some amazing customers, some who have been with us since the beginning, others who have loaned us money, and many who put faith in us when purchasing an egg share. We get the occasional compliment like "your eggs changed my life" or "I feel comfortable eating meat again when it is from you". Yet we have other customers who want our products to be cheaper, for us to stop using organic feed, or for us to lower our standards in other ways. There are people who want us to use a soy-free feed, but yet are not willing to pay the added price that a non soy feed will cost (it takes longer to grow out an animal without soy and laying hens produce fewer eggs when not on soy). Many customers, in fact, will choose to get eggs from several states away from a farm they have never seen in order to get a soy-free egg or they will buy bacon or sausage that is sugar-free but happens to come from some nameless farmer in Iowa. Many people prioritize their personal dietary preferences du jour (I say "du jour" because these preferences change often over time) over supporting an actual local farmer or perhaps over humane animal care, environmental sustainability, etc. I encourage you all to look at the bigger picture and think about what values you want to support. Added to this, the bleak economy is encouraging many of our former customers to pinch pennies and discard their values for food that are organic, local, environmentally sustainable, etc. While I understand the need to be budget-minded (we haven't seen a movie in over a year), I don't think people should skimp on the food they put into their bodies and the kind of planet they want to see. If we want local farmers to stay on the landscape, we must support them over the long term. When we shop around, try to save a few pennies, or preference our dietary fads over the realities of local livestock production, we are taking away that vital support that keeps local farmers around. "

Customers ask for things you don't produce.  Check.  Customers complain about prices.  Check.  Customers like your product:  Check.  Customers make choices on who they buy from based on factors other than you being more righteous than other farmers.  Check.  Customer preferences change.  Yep. 
You should buy from me because I am entitled to your business.  Um.  Nope.  Sorry. 
This is a pretty classic marketing problem.  If customers aren't buying your story (and your product) change it.   I'm sure that there are lots of dollars flowing to local farmers from the bay area.  Its your job to figure out how to get more of them; and that's the bottom line:  Starting a business is all about customers, and nothing else.  If you don't have enough customers to support your operation, right-size your operation. 

"4. QUALITY OF LIFE: We both used to be avid mountain bikers, backpackers, rock climbers, all around adventure-lovers. Since starting a farm, we have had almost no time to do anything fun. Our daughter's only 'fun' time is when all three of us are washing and packing eggs to music at night. We live next to a highway because that was the only land we could find to rent that also had a house for us to live in. We farm in an area rife with criminal activity and had 300 of our laying hens stolen in the spring, but it is the only place we could find that would rent us land. To top that off, we can't find any good employees that would enable us to work less than 80 hours a week and have some semblance of a life. So unlike the beautiful, joyous life that many romanticize for farmers, we don't have that. We need a better life.  "

A small farm IS your life.  A small business IS your life.  If you are not able to do the things that you wanted to do, maybe it's not the business for you.   I think it's unreasonable to think that your lifestyle will not make a drastic change if you go from being an academic to a full-time farmer -- you are making a drastic change.   Since you are self-employed, design a job you like, not one that oppresses you.  In fact, that's my version of hell:  Self employed at a job I hate.  I have no one to blame but myself since I created the position. 

Summary and conclusion: 
A house and 48 acres is something that looks good on paper, but isn't really necessary for the operation that they described.   They could have produced much the same product on a 2 to 3 acre parcel.  It wouldn't have been as pretty, but sometimes you start small.  Feed the same organic feed to your chickens and pigs, rotate the chickens over an acre of grass, accept a dry lot as your pigpen.  Instead of living in the trailer now, you should have been doing that 5 years ago, on the 2 acre plot.  Once you've got a good system in place, and are selling product, expand.  Lease another 2 acres and double your operation.  I'm sure that they could have found a 2 or 3 acre parcel to lease, maybe even closer to their markets.  And being that close to the animals solves the theft problem, and the commute problem. 

  They also seemed to have missed a revenue opportunity: they had 100 people attend an event where they slaughtered a small pig.  Classes on the basics of farming are a great source of funds and are interesting and useful to the participants, too.  If each of those 100 people had paid $100 for the class, the resulting $10,000 would have probably been pretty darned welcome revenue.  Do one of those per quarter and you've got a new tractor.    three years of that and you can put $100,000 down on that land you had your eye on. 

  Spend less time worrying about certification and organic, and more time worrying about customers and markets.  Ask for help before you fail.  Accept help.  Learn how to hire and retain good employees. 
Trailbreaking sucks.  Study and emulate farms that are succeeding unless you have a lot of money for the inevitable mistakes you'll make trailblazing. 

You'll find the final post on here


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

no drama, but life & death on the farm.

The life and death aspect of farming is not something that's really obvious; but at some level you make the decision on who lives and dies for all of the animals you keep. I had a sow farrow last night and two of her piglets died out of 10 born. they looked stillborn, and while picking them up I briefly thought about what I might have done to prevent the deaths, but decided that they were stillborn and there wasn't much I could do - no change in husbandry, not really something I can reasonably effect. 

But while I was contemplating them, I noticed that the smallest pig in the litter, the runt, was crawling underneath the sow, into the crevice formed by her leg, and I know from experience when a little newborn pig does this that they're likely to get smothered. All of the other pigs in the litter were actively seeking nipples and doing heir level best to get a full meal. And I watched this little pig, and I thought about it, and I turned and closed the stall door. I'll pick that little pig up tomorrow.

That's more of the... not casual, but matter of fact decision that I make every day. I'd be happy to see the little guy living tomorrow, sure. But I know what the outcome will be, and I've come to peace with nature taking its course.

I make this sort of decision maybe 3 to 5 times a day.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

How does your beef get to your table?

I ran across an article in USA TODAY that talked about the market for beef, and the fact that there really is basically one buyer for beef in each market. 

This means that if you're a rancher you'll end up selling the majority (or all...) of your beef to a single company, and that other companies don't appear to be competing to buy your beef.    My impression from the article is that the beef packing companies divvy up various cattle ranchers and don't seriously bid for their products; one rancher describes being known as a "swift yard" -- a brand name of JBS meatpacking, and having other packers stop buying his product when that became known. 

This is troubling because when there's only one real market for your product, the buyer calls the shots and the price. 

If you eat beef, take the time to figure out who's producing it.  And if you don't know their name, perhaps you should. 

You'll find the original USA TODAY article here.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


Spent today sorting through the turkeys; into three groups.  1) thanksgiving.  2) Christmas and 3) breeding.  I'll be penning the breeding flock separate from the market birds to prevent unfortunate accidents.  the turkeys are a little lighter than last year at this time; the record-breaking cold spring and summer slowed their growth.  The Christmas birds will be a bit bigger -- but they'll have an extra month to put on weight. 

I'll be glad to reduce the size of my flock.  While it's visually amazing to have a few hundred turkeys, making sure that they're in their coop every night is a bit of a chore.  I've finally started feeding them late in the day, and using the buckets of feed to lure them back into their coop. 

I put them in the coop at night to save them from being a coyote dinner.  The coyotes have been more present the last few days. 

Friday, October 22, 2010

Fencing with barbed wire

 I put up 600' of barbed wire fence today.  The ground that I'm fencing is pretty firm, firm enough that I can use my big tractor to unspool the barbed wire.  the picture above is the way I did it.  I take a length of solid bar stock (about $10 at a steel yard near you) and a couple of collars (pictured below) and suspended the spool off the 3 point hitch arms at the rear of the tractor.  With a bit of judicious driving -- slow and careful -- the wire unwinds nicely off the spool and you can run strands back and forth over your fenceline.  To deploy 5 strands of barbed wire over 600' of run takes about 20 minutes.  no big deal. 
what's important to do is to make sure that the wire unwinds off the spool without any kinks.  Kinks will break at a much lower tension than straight wire, and this will typically happen when you stretch the wire, but can happen if an animal runs into the fence or a tree falls on the fence.  Straight wire without kinks gives you the longest fence life and durability. 
To stretch the wire today I'm using the backhoe off of my smaller tractor.  i like stretching with the backhoe better than with the bucket because i can draw in 10' with the arm of the backhoe.  With the bucket I'm limited to the curl, which often means I need to back the tractor up during the process.  backhoe is easier -- but you do have to be careful about how tight  you stretch the wire.  You can break barbed wire pretty easily with the backhoe. 

for this stretch I'm using barbed wire because it's the cheapest to install per linear foot.  A 5 strand barbed wire fence with metal T posts every 20' will cost you about $1/foot for materials and take a day or so to install.  Here's the bill of materials for 500' of barbed wire fence: 

25 8' heavy t posts:  $7.50 each, $187.5
4 6x6x8' pressure treated posts (fence ends and brace), $20 each, $80.00
2 4x4x8' pressure treated posts, (diagonal brace) $6 each, $12
2 spools barbed wire, $82 each, $164
30' galvanized electric fence wire (used to tie barbed wire to posts)
12 80# sacks concrete, $3.50 each, $42
couple of spikes for braces, handful of fence staples. 
$485.5 materials

Day 1:  dig holes for end posts, cement and install braces, 3 man hours. 
Day 2:  String and attach wire, 5 man hours. 

Thursday, October 21, 2010

grass and grazing

 This is the time of year that I start looking at the pastures; I'm looking for how much grass remains, and the shape the grass is in.  I don't want it too short, but I don't want to start feeding hay to the animals too soon either.  In the picture above, the sheep are shoulder deep in the grass. 
a little closer inspection shows that the grass is 11" tall still over the majority of the field, so in my mind it's in pretty good shape.  Reed canary grass, the species I have on my property, gets very stemmy; when an animal nips off the seed head the stalk will turn a bit brown, but the grass will sprout many new heads down the remaining stock length.  I've appreciated the canary grass for its ability to produce huge amounts of forage with very little care on my part.  Product of rich river-bottom soil and rotational grazing. 

When the grass stops growing I'll be moving the animals off their summer pasture and into a sacrifice paddock to preserve the sod for next year; next spring they'll go back out on it when it's lush and green. 

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

New arrival at the farm: Boer goats

Over the past 2 years I've had a continual stream of requests from people for goats.  In general I like goats because they can eat a variety of plants that grow well on my land, and any animal that comes with a small feed bill, or non-existent for part of the year -- is interesting. 
I've purchased an entire small herd; 16 animals, varying in age and condition.  Over the next week or so I'll be looking at them.  The bucklings aren't castrated, and I'll have to do that for the majority of them, or all of them if I can't find one that I think is worth breeding.  I'm guessing that they're all related, and so i may castrate all of the bucklings in this herd and go find a boer buck that is unrelated, for genetic diversity reasons. 
I turned them out into my vegetable garden, and they had a funny reaction.  Most of them ignored the vegetables and lettuce and headed straight for the fence to eat the blackberries growing through the fence. 
They'll climb as high as they can to get the blackberries. 
Here a goat has found the overgrown leaf lettuce and is polishing it off. 
These goats have found something that is worth fighting over; they're sparring. 
I'm going to have to look at all of my fences pretty carefully.  Goats can fit through very small openings, and they can jump and climb pretty well.  I'm guessing that this will be my challenge for the next few months:  Contain the goats. 

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Auction tale; a bit sad.

When I'm going to a livestock auction I always arrive at least an hour early so that I can watch the animals being unloaded.  This lets me see how the owner handles them; from the human I'm looking for whether they treat their animals kindly.  This is particularly important for me when I'm buying young animals.  The care taken when they're unloaded tells me a lot about the farmer. 

While I stand there there's often several other people around, and one fellow and I started talking about prices.  As a producer of animals, I'm interested in higher sale prices; buyers are interested in lower prices, and we talked about the merits of this livestock auction vs others that he'd been to. 

As a seller of animals you have the opportunity to set a reserve "no sale" price -- if the bidding doesn't reach that number, you take the animals back and don't sell them.  Often the auctioneer will ask you if you'd like to sell if the animal hasn't reached the reserve price, and you can say yes or no. 

This fellow I was talking to related that he'd seen a fellow a few weeks back bring in a batch of weaner pigs, and put a reserve on them; in due course these weaners came up on bid, and the bidding ended at $18 each, way below the reserve.  The auctioneer asked, and the farmer shrugged and said yes. 

And the next week this farmer brought his herd into the auction and sold them all and was out of the pig business. 

A few dollars higher price doesn't mean much to the typical consumer, but it means everything to the farmer; sometimes the difference between staying in business and moving on to something else.  It can be a labor of love, but you can love your local farmer by paying his price, recognizing that there is a cost to having good people raise your food, and that cost is worth paying.

I was the buyer of those pigs.

Monday, October 18, 2010


 I've traveled quite a bit, and I really love the scenery in the northwest.  I had to get up before dawn to make this trip, and driving through the mountains at dawn is really special.  you can click on the picture for a bigger version. 
 There's a big line drawn through the center of Washington state; called the cascades, and the western side, where I live, is quite a bit wetter.  Here I've crossed and entered the sagebrush desert that is eastern Washington.   Eastern Washington is quite a bit sunnier, and the temperature varies more than in western Washington. 
 The geology is massive flows of lava that were scoured clean of dirt by gigantic floods and glaciers.  The dirt that remains is relatively fertile, although it's pretty thin.  It's excellent wheat and apple country.  Recently I've seen more diversity in crops; grapes, hops, mint, forages of various sorts... more variety.   
Here you can see the basalt on either side as the road cuts through the hills.   if you look carefully at the horizon, right at the center of the photo, you can see mount adams, one of our active volcanoes, peeking up. 

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Livestock auction and stockyard design

I was at the livestock auction yesterday and I've always been fascinated by the pen design.  The auction receives animals from many different sellers, and each animal has to be tagged, weighed and sorted prior to the sale. 
This is the first step of the dropoff side; the truck and trailer at the top of the photo is unloading animals.  the fellow in the blue standing at the rear of the trailer is encouraging the animals to exit the trailer. 
Once the animals are off the trailer they're in a maze of pens.  Each pen is formed by a grid of steel posts, with each post having a number of gates attached to it.  Some posts have 2 gates, some four.  The gates are opened or closed to form different sized pens, and into each pen each sellers animals go.  If they need more space they can open a gate between two pens and form a larger pen. 
There are a couple of acres of these pens.  In the photo above there are four different auction lots from four different sellers.  They'll run the animals across the scales one by one and record the weight and either put an eartag in the animal or paste a sticker on the animals back that has a unique number for that particular animal.
Here some cows are being put into the pen at middle left in the photo. 

Once each sellers animals are weighed and tagged they'll be resorted prior to sale, where like animals are grouped together and offered to the sale as a unit.  A uniform group of animals, about the same age and condition, will typically receive a 10 to 20% premium.   This premium in price reflects current farming practices.  It's desirable to have all of your animals mature at the same age to minimize labor and transport costs.  One truck trip instead of several, for instance.  It also allows you to practice "all-in, all-out" management of your facilities.  You'll get a chance between batches of animals to clean your barn or corral or feedlot or whatever, do repairs, or take some time off if you're a small farmer.  Animals require care 7 days a week, and if you're operating a small farm, that means you're working 7 days a week.  Taking a week or two off between groups of animals is a prized break. 
 On the inside, a door opens and a batch of animals comes through.  The auctioneer will either offer them "choice" -- highest bidder gets to pick how many and which animals they take, "x times your money" -- in this case, "3 times your money", where you bid on a per-head basis, but have to buy all three in a lot", or by the cwt, which is a fancy way to say price per hundred pounds.  The number of head, total weight and average weight for the lot are displayed above the auctioneer at the head of the auction, so buyers can use that information in their bid. 
This was a group of little jersey cows; i don't recall if they were bull calves or heifers, but both were represented. 

I was asked to stop taking pictures after these two and I did.  I don't know what the auction house is concerned about, but I respect their property and wishes and complied. 

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The emergency room visit

It has been a number of years since I've been to the doctor; at least 10, maybe 15 years, and I had the opportunity to go to an emergency room recently as a patient.  It was an eye-opening experience for me, literally. 

I'd been working on the farm, and I forget exactly what I was doing, but I remember getting something into my eye.  It felt pretty small, but it was causing me to blink, and I didn't think much of it, and I went about my business.  it bothered me all day, and I spent some time in a mirror trying to see what it was that was causing me grief, but didn't find it.  the next morning it was still bothering me, and I purchased some eye drops and tried to irrigate it out of the eye, with no luck.  On day 3, the eye was noticeably red and the pain had increased, and I was starting to get light-sensitive.  Into the emergency room I went. 

My blood pressure seemed to be very interesting to them.  Interesting enough that they measured it 5 times during my 5 hour visit.  the receptionist, the triage nurse, the orderly, and then the RN each took a turn, and then the doctor did.  It was remarkably consistent at 80/120, and my pulse, which they measured at the same time, was a resting 55.  None of that had anything to do with my eye, but whatever.  

The actual treatment was for them to put an eye drop into my eye that made it insensitive, and then remove a very small black speck from it with a cue tip swab.  $9 eye drop prescription and tetanus shot later they released me. 

My insurance co-pay was $235, which I paid at time of treatment.  They billed my insurance company...  $2100. 

Twenty one hundred dollars. 



Question from the web: Clearing land with animals

we have a raw piece of land, partly logged, with small trees and some grasses and lots of blackberry bushes. we intend to enclose a parcel, about 2.5 acres in permanent woven wire fencing. we also plan to put some strand of electric wires in it. we will also put electric quickpig fence inside to divide the area into smaller paddocks.

 our intention is to have goats to consume the blackberry bushes and pigs to root the roots. the following are my questions:

1. can we put the goats and pigs together in the same paddock?
2. are goats effective in razing down the blackberry bushes (or human/machine intervention required?)
3. what is a good number of animals - pigs and goats, given a certain area, i.e. 1/8 of an acre(?) what's a good size of a paddock?
4. what is a suggested number of days stay in a paddock? if they stay too short, will they inflict enough damage/effect on the bushes/rooting?
5. any suggestion on gates? what are best places for them?
6. waterers - ratio of animals/waterer
7. what breed of pigs/goats?
Goats and pigs coexist in a pasture very well, as long as the goats are adults. if the goats are kidding you've got to watch the pigs, as they may consider a newborn goat/lamb a nice tasty treat. goats are browsers and really like blackberries. they'll eat the leaves and foliage, leaving the vines and roots. The pigs will eat the roots.

In the non-growing season you can use a smaller number of animals as the vegetation isn't replaced as it is consumed. In the winter the ground may freeze, making it difficult for pigs to root, but the blackberries aren't growing either, so it's a wash. when the ground softens the pigs will finish the job.

I keep two goats in with my pig herd to eat the thistles that appear in the pasture. the pigs don't like thistle, the goats do.

for 2.5 acres, depending on how much vegetation you've got, 4 weaner pigs and 4 goats will eat the majority of the vegetation by the time the weaners are market weight (6-8 months). if you'd like it cleared faster, add more.

I keep 4 full-sized cows on 8 acres of pretty good river bottom land -- they keep the grass less than knee high over the entire parcel. For a homesteader having your own beef cow is a nice alternative if you have the space. maybe buy a yearling next spring and put it out on this parcel until the fall, when you butcher it.

A final consideration is the vegetation that's already there. Whatever is growing there is acclimated and suited to your land. that means you may want to look at the forage and make a decision to keep some of it. in my area reed canary grass is the predominant river bottom grass. I decided that I'd keep it as my primary forage/ground cover and I've been pleased that I've never had to reseed, fertilize or otherwise mess with it. Whatever you've got on your land deserves a look to see if it'll work out as your primary pasture forage.

For example, when I started grazing my cow pasture there were stands of bushes interspersed with the canary grass. So what I did was encircle the bushes with a battery-operated electric fence and put pigs into that area. the pigs reduced the bushes selectively, and the grass regenerated into the cleared areas. the grass around the bush stands controlled the loss of soil and colonized the bare areas once the pigs were done. over a years time I had nice finished pigs and 3 more acres of nice grass, all without any tractor time.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Talking turkey - question from email


Quick question. We have two royal palm toms. How many hens do you think we would need to keep them from fighting each other over them (currently they are running in a mixed flock with chickens, ducks and geese)? We had turkey hens before, but suspect that they were killing our hens. So we ate them (the turkeys). We have the ability to run the turkeys in a "pasture rotation" with some goats, and keep them away from the other poultry.
Background:  I raise a couple of hundred heritage breed turkeys each year for sale.  I do so in a single, large flock that is roughly 50/50, so I get a lot of time to see how turkeys in large flocks behave. 
Turkey hens and toms both have a pecking order that they maintain.  the toms and hens will carefully determine what the social order is, and they will enforce that order -- preventing lower ranking birds from eating or drinking, or occupying the best roosting places. 
If you introduce a strange tom or hen, that new bird will be challenged by just about every bird of the same sex, and if it goes on long enough, the flock can kill the new bird.  What the turkeys want to know is where the new bird fits, and every bird feels threatened by the new bird so feels the need to challenge it to resolve the question. 
So the basic premise of your question doesn't match my experience.    It's not that the two toms will stop fighting with one another if there are enough hens; they'll stop when they figure out who's #1 and who's #2.  The longest fights are when two turkeys are closely matched.   Adding hens won't change this. 
Running turkeys with chickens usually isn't good for the chickens.  The turkeys outweigh them, and turkeys form and hold grudges.  There's a rooster that my turkeys will attack on sight and they remember that particular bird and will pursue it.  The only solution that works for me is to either provide enough space that the birds can escape from the agressor turkey, or keep them seperate.   Turkeys will kill chickens, intentionally or accidentally. 
Turkey communication and chicken communication aren't the same.  So when a chicken has had enough and wants to surrender the turkey won't get the message and will continue to attack.  

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Sheep breeds and taste

I've been experimenting with sheep as a new product for the farm.  Lamb is well-accepted and popular. and grass-finished lamb appeals to me.  Most of what they eat is produced on the farm, and the care required during their growing phase is pretty minimal. 

Right now I've got a flock of about 40 katahdin sheep, and 20 of these sheep that I believe are suffolks.  The katahdins are hair sheep -- they shed their wool every year, and so don't require shearing.  The suffolks don't shed their wool, and do require yearly shearing.  Both breeds require foot maintenance every 6 months, to trim their hooves.  My ground has no rocks to speak of in it, and so the sheep hooves don't get worn down as they would on rougher ground. 

The farmer I purchased my katahdins from raises his sheep on pasture, but provides feed for them throughout the year, and prior to purchasing my ewes I bought a couple of lambs from him to see what they tasted like, and what the yield was like. 

Taste is one of the primary reasons that I raise the animal breeds I do.  If you're going to go to the trouble of raising an animal by hand why not raise the animal that you prefer the taste of? 

I also purchased three hair sheep that had been raised on grass, and that gave me a useful comparison.  what does feed-raised lamb taste like compared with grass-fed? 

Grass fed lamb is leaner and smaller than feed-lamb.  In texture the penned-and-fed lambs were a little more tender, but not so that it really made any difference to the end consumer (me).  Both were acceptably tender.  Smaller:  grass fed is 50-70lbs on the hoof, grain-fed is 70-90lbs, same birth date. 

Fresh, as in eaten on the day that it was slaughtered, the fed-lamb was bland.  So much so that it really didn't taste much like lamb.  It just tasted like meat.  It could have been chicken.  I was pretty disappointed.  While the yield was better, the lamb didn't taste like lamb.  I ate a couple of chops and a bit of the leg of this lamb.  hanging it for 7 days improved the flavor. 

The grass-fed lamb however, was good tasting immediately.  If I were to want to spit-roast a lamb, I'd take a grass fed, hands down, as they're usually cooked relatively fresh.  hanging for 7 days also improved this lamb, and comparing the two side by side, I have to say that the grass-finished lamb was preferable to the fed lamb. 

So I want the katahdin because they don't have to be sheared, but I want good taste.   I'm happy to report that a grass-fed katahdin is as good as a grass-fed suffolk lamb, and I've tried both this year. 

I have both suffolk and katahdin lambs available right now.  if you'd like to try one, let me know. 

Friday, October 1, 2010

The dog doesn't even like green peppers

 This is my dog, Monster.  He doesn't like green peppers.  But if a pig is going to eat it, he considers it his job to make sure that he makes a valiant effort to eat it himself.  When we get these massive shipments of fruits and vegetables, he's in a quandry.  While he's saving this green pepper for himself, thousands of other vegetables are being consumed. 
 Being the dedicated dog, he takes a good bite of it, and then decides he doesn't like it. 

But when pigs show an interest in this green pepper he carries it off.  Dogs are clearly zero-sum thinkers.  If a pig eats it I have lost it, so I must save it, even if I really don't like it. 

"free range", chickens and regulations. Public comment period

The Seattle Times has a story today about the debate in the egg industry about what exactly "free range" means, and what "organic" means.  

Several things stood out in the story -- first, the cornucopia institute, who I've never heard of before, came up with rankings of egg producers and a report about various practices.  Check this excecutive summary for pictures of what some larger egg producers (and the industry) consider "outdoor access".  I think that this sort of reporting -- showing people what the conditions their food is raised in -- is very valuable.  Lets people make informed choices about their food.  I'd have to say that roofed, enclosed outdoor porches don't quality as "outdoor access" in my book, but the regulators have agreed that it is.  That's the sort of regulation creep that makes "organic" or "free range" useless as labels for consumers. 

What I think is less valuable is the cornucopia institutes rankings.  One of the top-ranked egg producers in washington state claims "3800 square feet per bird" space.  Which I believe means that their birds are kept in a 3800 square foot pen.  And that same producer says, and I quote, "...We do not kill any chicken for meat so as they age we end up as a nursing home for retired chickens.".

I don't think it's fair to compare farms that are producing 10,000 eggs a day with farms that are producing 30.  And this whole business of "we don't kill our birds" is odd.  By buying hens you've already killed all the roosters.  Why stop there?  You'll find their website here.   If I were only keeping 3 birds, I could lavish time and attention to them and get a perfect rating -- but I couldn't make a living off it.  Apples to apples, i say. 

The Seattle Times story has a link to make public comments about the practices to the board, you'll find it at the bottom of the story.  Take a couple of minutes and post your opinion. 

You'll find the Seattle Times story here.