Sunday, July 31, 2011

This recession is really, really bad.

A pretty simple barometer that I use is the pump price.  No, not the price of a gallon of fuel, because that's actually pretty close across the country, but the amount of fuel purchased, and I've been  seeing this more and more often: 

When you see this sort of fuel sale it says to me that the person buying the fuel is pretty much flat busted broke.  It's not a gas can -- that would be 1.0 gallons,or 5.0 gallons.  It's not topping off the tank (not many people refill their tank when they're a gallon and a half short...) 

It's an even better indicator if it's a flat amount.  Like $5.00.  or $3.00

So next time you're at the pump, look at the previous purchase.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Danny Woo Community Garden Pig Roast

I was honored to provide a pig for the Danny Woo Community Garden pig roast last year, and they selected my farm again this year; last years pig was the tastiest they'd had, and it was a nice endorsement of what I select and raise my animals for -- the best taste. 
The garden is operated by Interim CDA, a group who advocates and builds housing for low income asian and pacific islanders, and towards that goal they've renovated or constructed 303 units of housing, which is a pretty large number in the downtown area.  As part of their projects they provide a garden area where people can grow whatever they wish. 
The amount of labor that goes into each plot is amazing.  This fellow is removing all the leaves that have any sort of blemish on them, one by one. 
These leaves are then given to the chickens that are in a coop in the center of the gardens.  Personally, I think they need a couple of pigs to eat up all the excess produce. 
 They've been roasting pigs here for 30 years.  that's an amazing continuity.  This pig was rotated 12,000 times overnight, by hand, to produce the lovely mahogany color and crispy skin. 
of course, what's a community garden without a gubernatorial candidate.  I'm the funny looking guy on the right.   Jonathan Chen, the gardens manager, is on the left, holding the sign. 
The skin is one of the favorite parts at a pig roast.  Slightly crispy, it's sliced into bite-sized pieces to be served out with the rest of the meat.  It was really yummy. 
The pig itself was fork-tender.  Here it's being sliced up with a spatula.  Not a knife.  A spatula.  lovely. 
Eventually the entire pig was reduced to bones, and then the bones were parceled up and given out to make stock with.  No waste.  Once through the stock pot, into the compost pile. 

Thank you for your support of local agriculture, Interim CDA.  I appreciate it. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The steaks and roasts of 2013

One of the things that I like about farming is that you can make your own rules about what you eat.  I've found that for my table a little older cow, someting around 30 months, is tastiest.  They've got a little fuller flavor, and a bit more marbling, and I prefer that. 

If I were doing this as an investment, I'd like to get my money back a quickly as I could; to maximize my concern, but cost or profit isn't really the issue here.  It's all about taste and what I like to eat, and it really doesn't cost much more to keep the cows a year longer. 

The big secret to that is having sufficient grass and forage, and watching your winter feed costs.  In a normal year I do that -- buying good quality local hay as cheaply as I can, and by managing the pastures so that the cows have plenty to eat at all times.  I maintain a 10 acre field solely for my beef cattle (well, I may run some pigs up there to clear some brush out, but it's mostly for the beef cattle) and that ground provides enough forage for my little herd of 7. 
I don't really like having meat in the freezer for more than 6 or 8 months, so I stagger my production so that a cow is available every 6 months.  I'll either sell the half that I don't eat, or, more likely, give it to friends or family.  It's nice to be able to give the folks you care for something that both tastes good and is better than they might be able to get on their own.  

I've decided that for the most part, I'm not going to eat anonymous meat any more, and the majority of the meat that I eat I know a lot about.  In the case of cows I don't really have to worry about getting too attached to them.  For me it's just not an issue.  With pigs you can see an active intelligence and they have endearing personalities.  Not so much with cows.  While they are affectionate and have sufficient brainpower to move their legs and work their jaw, that's about it. 
The grass in the field is 8' tall in some cases.  The cold and wet has made it impossible to hay so far, so I'm using the animals to harvest part of it. 
And this is what they'll do until mid-fall, where I'll move them to another field and feed them through the winter with the summers hay.  And next fall, in 2012, I'll walk out on the field and select my table fare. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

"78 minutes of summer" - Problems with hay

While the rest of the country has been baking, Washington state has been cold and wet.  So cold, and so wet, in fact, that a local weatherman calculated we've had exactly 78 minutes  of summer

Normally cold and wet isn't a problem, but I have a big problem.  We have not put away any hay for the year.  Normally we'd have a first cut in the barn by the first week of june,  and we'd be all done with haying by the middle of june,  but this year we haven't had enough sun to to dry the grass to bale it. 

background:  To make good hay it's first cut in the field, and dried.  Then raked and fluffed, and dried some more.  After it's reached the right moisture content, it's baled, and the bales are then kept dry.  Properly dried and stored hay will keep for years.  Wet hay can burn your barn down, or the mold that forms can make your animals sick.  So we want it dry and well cared for. 

I've been waiting and waiting for the weather to break, so that I can get the haying out of the way, but so far we have not seen 3 sunny days in a row, and the overall temperatures have been too low. 

This is getting to be a problem.  I need between 20 and 30 tons of hay for my ruminants (cow, sheep, goats) and for bedding for my pigs.  Having a few bales of hay (or a few hundred) is pretty handy when you need to keep animals warm and dry. 

I can buy hay from other areas of the country, but my strong preference is to use local whenever i possibly can, and my favorite source is only a mile or two down the road, and the price and transport cost is right.  But this year I'm a little worried.  We're way late for hay, and I'm feeling the need to have some hay stacked. 

So the barn sits, all prepared, and empty.  And the grass waves in the field.  And winter is only a few months away. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Landscaping on the cheap

I've owned this house since 1999, and I call it my cliff dwelling.  It's a pretty nice house that's surrounded on three sides by 7 story apartment buildings.   The front of the house faces a street, but the sides are only 4' from the neighbors, which means that there's a lot of peekaboo opportunities.  Most folks keep their shades closed.  It's been kind of odd living there; from time to time I'd bring a piglet home and let it run around in the front yard while it healed from whatever was ailing it, and I kept a few chickens (allowed by Seattle zoning code) for fresh eggs, but I've got to say having 450 neighbors does get on my nerves. 

The iron fence in the front of the house I salvaged from a church that was being demolished.  I picked it up, and then put it up as you see it.  It's a little odd in the orientation (look at the slope) but no one has ever noticed or if they have, they havent' said anything.  I put that retaining wall in, and did a soldier course of bricks on top as an emphasis.  The masonry wall behind that was original to the property -- maybe  1905 or so, which for a Seattle house is ancient. 
I brought in a truckload of compost from the farm, and I'll use that to plant the landscaping plants.  I've neglected the yard for a year or so, and it's time it looked better.  At the bottom of the picture above you can see a closeup of the soldier course of bricks.  I like that the bricks and wall look like they've been there as long as the house; they're only about 5 years old. 

This particular batch of compost has a variety of materials in it.  A little bit of straw, some broken down wood chips, and a bit of cow and pig manure that's been worked in over the last year.  I think it'll do great holding the moisture and providing plenty of good nutrients for the plants to thrive.  My goal is to water as little as possible. 

Part of the food we get includes potted plants and trees and stuff.  when we see something interesting go by, we'll fish it out and plant it, and see if it survives the rough trip.  The plants are all tossed into a freezer and frozen solid, which kills many of them.   These plants are survivors. 
This year the stores were selling these really pretty Japanese maples.  They're really red -- click on the picture for a bigger version - and they're shade-tolerant, which works pretty well for my cliff dwelling. 

The plants I get are the inverse of what is popular - what I get is what didn't sell.   So this year Japanese maples didn't sell, and European fan palms, and a few blueberries, and some... well, it's a little random, but I figure I pulled $3500 retail worth of plants and salvaged them.  When they toss the plants they do make every effort to kill them.  So for the trees they'll cut the trunks off. 

I'm going to plant all of this tomorrow.  Should look great.  And it makes me happy to save even more stuff from the landfill. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Farm wages: Your opinion

I wrote an entry about a farm hand, and I noticed that the majority of the comments talk about what they're paid. 

What's a fair wage for a farmhand? 

Here's where I'm going:  The unemployment rate for teenagers (17,18.19) in my county is close to 30%.  The minimum wage around here is somewhere north of $8, closer to $9/hour.  I don't know what it is because I don't pay the minimum wage. 

What are the wages like in your area?  Have you hired anyone?  Are you employed on a farm? 

Pigs on summer pasture

 Moved the pigs onto their summer pasture today; the sheep and goats have done a great job of keeping the grass low and tender for the pigs.  If it gets too tall they don't seem to eat as much, so this is about perfect. 
The sow in the middle is a purebred berkshire.  Notice the white socks and white blaze on her nose.  That's how most folks recognize the breed.  White socks and nose. 
 We still find bits of pieces of cars on the land, here Andrea is offering a hubcap she found to one of our sows who was curious about it.  The sow weighs about 800lbs; she's one of our biggest.  Very sweet girl. 
It's funny, but even with acres of space in all directions, the pigs prefer to touch each other if at all possible.  They'll occasional meander apart, but most of the time they're within touching distance of the other pigs. 

Monday, July 18, 2011

Fred the farmhand and the stuck tractor

I interviewed a whole bunch of people for a farmhand position, and at the end of the day I picked 3, figuring that one of them wouldn't work out (hoped that all three would, but you have to be realistic) and sure enough, one of the three picked came to me about a week into it and said "This is waaay too hard. I gotta quit". No hard feelings, nice person, just not a good fit.

So I went back to the list and found the next candidate, Fred (Not his real name). I called Fred on a Thursday, and told him to come to the farm on Saturday morning.

Sean worked with him, and he did a pretty good job. Between the two of them they did a fair bit of work, and we scheduled him to come back Monday.

Monday rolls around, and Sean's off doing his thing, and Fred's on the tractor, doing a pretty good job. We're going to be planting blueberries, and we're forming the raised beds for the rows of plants. Fred is new to the land though, and manages to drive the tractor into a soft spot, and get it stuck.

I stop by, spot him struggling in the field, put my boots on and walk him through how to get the tractor out. After a little coaching, he seems to be in a good spot, and off i go to get my other work done.

So I was a little surprised to get a call about 45 minutes later. "Hey, the tractor is stuck, and I've got to tell you that... " Freds voice trails off. "...that, I, Uh, brokethetractorwindow"

What? You did what?

"I broke thetractorwindow"

You broke the tractor window?


How did you do that?

"Well, I just wanted to tell you that I also got a call from a friend of mine about a full time job and I hate to do this, but I've got to take that job"

What? You're quitting?


Ok, let me get this straight: You work for me for a day and a half, get my tractor stuck, break the window, and then you tell me you're quitting? "yea" Thanks for the 2 weeks notice, dude!

"uh. Can I ask you something?"


"Can you give me a reference?"

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Tractor stuck

Seans one of the new farmhands, and he was out on the tractor working on a paddock, and he got our big tractor pretty stuck.  This tractor weighs about 12,000 lbs and is a 4x4, and pretty darned agile, but when all four wheels go in and you get the frame stuck... well, you're stuck. 

I've worked out a system that gets the tractor out.  The biggest problem is the back wheels.  When they sink into my mostly-clay soil they get a suction going that is pretty hard to break.  So the first thing we do is put something solid under the front loader, and use the front loader to lift the front tires up.  We then shovel dirt or whatever under the front tires.  We'll do this 3 or 4 times, eventually raising the front tires above the level of the original ground. 

So you lay the bucket down and then use the curl to move the last 12" up, stuff dirt under the front tires, repeat.   Eventually we needed to put stuff under the bucket , too. 

Once the tires are raised, we use the front loader as a lever to pull the rear tires up and out.  Here we've attached a chain from the frame of the blue tractor to the chain hook on the front loader of the orange tractor, and then back the blue tractor away slowly while the orange tractor goes forward slowly, in creeper gear (1mph). 

The loader acts as a lever.  The mount of dirt under the front wheels acts as a fulcrum.  This allows us to get an upward pull on the rear wheels of the orange tractor with a mechanical advantage.   You could hear the sucking sound as the rear tires came free; they were pretty much glued in place by the mud. 

Notes:  We attach the chain to the weight mount on the front of the blue tractor because it's a lot stronger than the little loader on that tractor.  We could rip the loader off the blue tractor with the stresses we're putting on it.  It also gives us the best angle for a lever.   We could have done the same sort of maneuver with an anchor instead of the tractor, using the orange tractor front loader to provide the pull, but since we have two tractors and it's pretty easy, might as well use 'em. 

Monday, July 11, 2011

Picking breeding stock: Making the cut for 2012

Culling criteria for sows

One of the regular tasks that I face is to look at my pig herd and make the call as to who stays, and who goes.  My list for sows goes something like this: 

Number of piglets weaned
Her condition and general health

Temperament is how easy she is to work with.  This is pretty high on my list because sows that are gentle natured and not aggressive are safer and easier to work with.  They're a joy to work with, and at 400+ pounds, you really don't want them to be mean. 

Fertility is the number of piglets produced live; weaned is the number who survive to weaning.  Some sows are better than others, and I consider all the circumstances, but the bottom line is that they need to produce and wean at least 20 piglets a year to make economic sense. 

Condition is noted based on where she is in; she'll be skinny if she's just weaning her pigs; she'll be a little plump when she's gestating -- but I want a pig who bounces back from pregnancy well, and takes care of herself with as little input from me as I can manage.  In particular, I'll look at their feet for any sign of problems or weakness.  They're already carrying 400lbs -- a litter of pigs adds another 100lbs to that, and if they are limping, it won't have a chance to get better. 

Criteria for potential gilts - picking good piglets
Having decided how many sows that I want to replace, I'll also consider how many sows I'd like to run next year.  I have to think about this about a year in advance.  So here's my gilt selection list: 

Condition at age
Number of nipples
Definition of muscles
Bow of back

Temperament is how the pig is fitting into my farm.  Is it having a good time, and friendly?
Condition at age is how this pig compares to others at the same age.  I want a piglet to be noticeably bigger and more robust than her litter mates. 
Stance:  looking at the front legs of the piglet, does it have a wide stance?  Means better musculature.
Number of nipples:  I want a minimum of 14 nipples.  16 or 18 is better. 
Definition of muscles:  At this age, I want to see the loins down the back, and I want to see good conformation of hams and hocks.  
Finally, I want her back to have a good, upward bow that is even and uninterrupted.

  So I look through each group of piglets for good gilt potential.  Here's 7 piglets all lined up.  The one 4th from the left, the biggest one, is my first choice from this group.   Compared to the others, she's managed to put on more weight and I can see more definition of muscles between her shoulders and at the base of the tail.   My second choice from this view would by the one 2nd from the left, and my third would be split between the one all the way to the right, or the one that is 5th from the left.  Click on the picture for a bigger version.   
  I find this lineup to be very good at showing me relatively small differences in growth and body shape.  Of this group, the only one that I chose to look at further for breeding was my #1 pick. 

The little girl that is at the left front is one that is showing bad posture.  Now she might be stretching, so I'll watch to make sure that it wasn't just a momentary thing - piglets will do that if they get sunburned, this little downward wiggle, but a drop between hams and shoulders is an automatic disqualify for breeding for me.  Fine as a meat pig, but she won't have a good time carrying a litter.   There are three pigs there that have good posture.  Which ones? 

Temperament is a bit more subjective.  My preference is to get to pigs that haven't been stressed; pick them out at the farm of origin if I'm buying from someone else, or quietly evaluate them while they're on the sow at my farm.  I want the little pigs to be curious and active; I want them to approach me.  I want bright eyes and an active and speedy piglet.  I want them to approach me when I get into the pen.  They may shy away if I try to touch them.  This little girl is curious about my boot.  Good sign. 

Which of these four would you pick, and why? 


I've been getting up earlier than usual in the hopes of taking out this coyote, and it's been interesting to be out there early in the morning, just watching and listening. 
 This is about 4am; the night shift is still out and about; I can see them using a little infrared sensor, and it's pretty amazing out many critters are out there that I never see in the daytime. 
When the sky starts to brighten you can see the ground fog; it's caused by the cold air trapped at ground level, capped by warmer air above.  it burns off in 20 minutes, but its quite pretty. 

There's a whole orchestra of bird calls.  The earliest one that I hear is the common robin.  Starlings come in big flocks, and the crows are soon there.  I have 4 ravens that show up after that, and then the redtailed hawk makes her rounds, and after that the two eagles nesting nearby do a flyover -- and annoyingly, perch on top of my turkey coop and terrify the turkeys for the next 30 minutes. 

No coyote this morning, but enjoyed the dawn on my farm. 

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Piglet patching: Treating a BIGGER hernia

I wrote an entry a few days ago about treating a small umbilical hernia in a pig.  Here's a look at a big umbilical hernia treatment. 

It's pretty obvious.  It's protruding quite a bit below the line of the belly, and looks painful -- red and irritated. 
The tennis ball is being used for scale.  on a little pig like this it's pretty darn big.  It can't feel good either.  the internal organs are probably forcing the opening wider every day, and that's got to hurt.  Despite that this little pig is running around and eating, but I'd like to see if we can't fix this problem. 
It's helpful to have a another pair of hands -- here Andrea holds the pig while I carefully, gently push the intestines back into the pig.  The skin is warm to the touch, and feels a lot like an innertube.  there's quite a bit of tension on the skin.  The pig is screaming while I'm doing that, and every time it draws a breath I feel the guts push out hard. 
We wait a few minutes until the pig calms down, and then slowly push the mass back into the body cavity.  Once it's in, I slip the tennis ball half in to provide some support and then use the duct tape to hold it in place. 
After the procedure the little pig is returned to her litter and we watch to make sure that she's running around.  We'll keep an eye on her to make sure she's eating and drinking and pooing -- the blue duct tape is used to make her more visible. 

How long?   Usually we'll look at the pig in a week.  At this age they're able to grow pretty fast, so the concern is that the duct tape might be too tight.  Probably leave the ball in place for 2 weeks, check to see how we're doing, and if we need to, retape the pig. 

Chinese complaining pork too expensive

Ran across an article in Reuters about pork prices in China.  It's interesting because right now china is in the midst of a boom -- their economy is growing, and it's showing signs of inflation.  Commodity prices are rising, labor costs are rising... 

"...Her fleshy, pale-downed porkers are worth 70% more than last year on the market, with live pig prices, and their girth, growing daily.  'Each pig can grow about a half-kilogram a day, which means 10 yuan [about $1.50 USD]' said Ma, 43.  'For 100 pigs that's 1,000 more yuan for each day I don't sell them"

China had an increase in feed prices last year that drove many smaller pork producers out of business, and the remaining ones had problems with bad feed ingredients, forcing the slaughter of many pig herds.  The farmers reacted by raising fewer pigs, and that shortage, plus rising labor, fuel and feed prices continue to drive the price of pork up. 

click here for a graphic of pork price vs corn price

You'll find the whole article here

We're in a recession of historical dimensions.  We're the biggest customer for chinese goods.  I wonder how long this will last -- and how big the crash will be when Chinas bubble pops.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

lost a lamb today: Coyote hunting.

One of the ewes was running around distressed today; I wasn't sure what was up, but on counting my lambs I came up one short.  So I counted again.  Still short.  We're down a lamb. 

Sometimes you'll lose one for no particular reason, so I looked in all the places the sheep hang out, and in the bushes and along the drainage ditch; no lamb.  Lamb is just gone. 

My first suspect is coyotes.  The lamb in question was a smaller one though, and it could have been an eagle, but generally when an eagle or hawk kills a lamb they eat it in place, or at the least tear chunks of wool off and scatter then at the kill sight.  No wool -- no obvious kill site.  Coyote still #1 suspect. 

So I start looking for recent coyote sign.  We're down a couple of chickens, too.  Hmmmm...
 When a coyote grabs a chicken they'll come up to the building and grab it, and then run off a couple of hundred yards to eat it.  Here's where a black chicken got eaten. 
 Coyotes will tend to respect fence lines; they'll walk parallel to them, particularly if it's open on the other side, so I'm walking this electric fence line looking for recent tracks. 
 Here's a coyote track in the mud at the edge of that fenceline.  It's moving to the right, and you can make out the claw marks in the mud just to the right of my finger.  The size is right, claw marks... coyote. 

 I'm interested in knowing where the coyote comes from, and where it goes.  They tend to get into routines, and since this one has eaten chickens and a lamb, I'm sure that it'll be back.  In the picture above I'm looking at the grass -- it's bent down in the direction that my finger is pointed, and a few feet further on I'm rewarded...
 by some clear coyote tracks.  another 20 minutes and I've got a good idea of where the coyote enters the property, and the likely route of travel.  I want to know that so that I can set up the shot. 
 This is part of this years lamb crop -- they're not sure what I'm doing, but they sure look tasty.  It's just that *I* want to eat them.  Sorry, Coyote. 
 Here's my prepared coyote blind.  The umbrella is for my comfort.  The logs and plywood are to break up my outline and allow me to sit quietly without being seen. 
This is the siteline for the shot.  The tree to the left center is where that electric fence line is.  the coyote enters to the left of that tree, comes into the pasture about 30 yards, and then moves left-to-right over to where the chickens are, along the brush line.  The black chicken comes from a coop to the left of this photo, so to get there the coyote has to cross about 100 yards of open ground.  I have the luxury of measuring out the distances; from here to the tree is 300 yards.  To the coop is 100 yards.  To the barn to the right 200 yards. 

Guess I'm getting up early for the next few days.