Thursday, September 29, 2011

Creating a swale

I've been working with my power rake to do some contouring of the land and using it to form a swale.   The power rakes sure are nice for some stuff, but they're expensive.  I got mine at auction a couple of years ago for a few thousand dollars -- specifically for rehabbing pastures, like this one.  
 This is at the north end of the pasture.  I've contoured the entire pasture to drain in this direction; its about 400' long, and the drop from one end to the other is about 4', so the overall slope is a pretty gentle 1%, which for most purposes is flat.
 It's a little hard to see, but what I've been doing with the harley rake is using it to move the dirt and mound it up a little on the left side of this picture. 
 At this point I've probably moved 18" of dirt, which is hard to see, but the goal is to have a raised area on the left side that will be planted and permanently maintained as a green filter, and form a swale in the center. 
 The post and pipe in the foreground is an improvement that I put in since I was going to be working this ground anyways.  Might as well do all of the digging and dirt prep at once.  Having a frost-proof faucet allows me to avoid carrying water for pastured birds -- which is one of the uses of this particular bit of ground. 
 While I'm doing this I'm also removing rocks and debris and leaving a pretty nice seed bed.  It'll be pretty smooth when its done for the most part. 
 A couple of passes later and I'm getting pretty close to my goal. 
And that's about it.  The area I've designated as a swale is 200' long and about 30' wide, with the deepest area being about 24" -- that is, the dirt mounded on the left side is 24" taller than the lowest point.  I'm providing that much water capacity to be able to handle the runoff from a major storm, or several storms, and to filter the water that's generated through the soil.

It's not all altruism.  The manure and runoff from the fields contains nutrients and fertilizer that I don't want to lose, and I certainly don't want the soil to be lost to erosion if there's ever bare dirt.  A swale allows that dirt to settle out and kept on the property. 

The soil test says that I need 3 tons of lime per acre to bring the acidity to pasture or some row crops, and I'll be applying that tomorrow, along with the grass seed.  By next May or June I should have a very nice, perfectly level pasture with good stormwater handling built in. 

Monday, September 26, 2011

Farm inspection by health department

Last month the health department of Snohomish County sent me a notice of violation, and in subsequent talks we scheduled an on-farm inspection by the health department and by representatives of the Snohomish County Conservation District

So today was the farm visit and inspection.  I show a lot of people my operation, and today wasn't any different than any other as far as normal workload.  The health department, in the person of Katheryn
 The health department representative was pretty formal in her hardhat.
 The conservation district a little less formal.  Everyone watched as we went through the whole process of feeding the pigs, from trailer to trough (or ground). 
 Todays load was very carrot-heavy.  Pigs aren't big fans of carrots but they do eat them eventually. 
I'll be working with the conservation district to see what their proposed farm plan is.  We'll see what they have to say.  I'll write it up as it happens. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Petting a brush

 If you've ever shopped for a brush you know that some of them are made with natural bristles.  Let me introduce you to their source. 
 The texture as  you run your hand down is pretty rough; it feels a lot like a hairbrush.  The bristles are probably 3-4" long, and are spaced pretty widely.  More guard hairs than warm fur coat. 
The pig in this pictures was completely unfazed by this.  I'm Eating!  she says.  Don't bug me. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Lets talk piglet selection: Your boar

 I get asked about boar piglets maybe 10 times a year.  And the issue that most folks have is that they want a boar to be gentle and nice, and to know them well.   Many people who are starting with pigs aren't equipped or capable of loading and transporting a full-sized boar, and so for all of these reasons, I suggest that they start with a boar weaner pig and raise it themselves.  Grow your own boar. 
 If you want to do that, you'll have to choose a pig at about this age.  Many farmers castrate the male pigs very young, and while I understand their reasoning, I feel that a an older weaner will show you more of what you need to know about its potential than one that is only a week or two old.  So talk to your farmer about holding off castration, or find someone that castrates later so that you can assess the pig at a little older age. 
 The first thing to note about any pig that you're looking at is its overall state.  Is the skin clear, and free of lesions, wounds or scabs?   Is there any sign of any injury or lameness, and is the animal alert and bright-eyed? 
 Standing still is one look, but you want to see the animal moving, too.  Does it move easily and quickly?  Do both eyes work?  does it veer towards one side or the other?  Is the head kept level? 

You'll also want to check the feet of the piglet.  This little guy will grow to be 800lbs, and it'll happen pretty quickly -- less than a year from today.  So if there's any issues with his feet, they won't really have a good chance to get better.  Any foot defect -- cracked hoof, abscess, anything -- is a reason not to take this boy. 
Look at the rear of the piglet, too.  Here it looks like he's got a case of runny stools.   For this particular pig it's because he's transitioning from mothers milk to solid food, but for most weaners you want to see a solid poo.  If it's not solid they're not fully weaned, and you may have to supplement their food to get them to make the weight you want.  A half-pint of yogurt will often clear up runny stool.  Live culture yogurt. 

You want a good, wide stance for front and rear legs.  Indicates good muscle development.  You want symmetry -- the more symmetric the animal the better.  Compare right and left front shoulder, and right and left hams.  
  And finally, look at the father for total size and conformation clues as well.  In my case I prefer a boar with very big front shoulders and medium sized hams. 

What I've said here is not the only way to assess an animal, but it's what I've found to be a good set of attributes to help make the decision.  For me there's a second decision point, at about 8 months old, just before it starts to breed.  I'll sometimes cull at that point, mostly based on temperament.  I'm very conscious that these animals get huge, and I will not tolerate a mean animal in the herd. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Reworking a pasture

 This year has been very late, in terms of weather and working season.  Working season is the time of year when I do yearly tasks, and the yearly task that I've got now is to cultivate a pasture that will be next years pastured poultry and pig area.   The first thing to do is to remove all of the metal that's surfaced in the last few months.  Todays harvest is a big spring and a car differential.  Or maybe it's a truck differential.  No matter. 
Once I've got the auto parts out of the way, I can work on the next parts.  I've found that its a good idea to have a faucet within 200' of anyplace I'm going to keep animals - hauling water is a major chore, and fresh, clean water is one of the simplest ways to maintain your animals health.  So below you'll find a picture of my waterline rough-in. 
 In this case I dug a ditch about 450' long, about 5' deep.  That's a little deeper than normal, but I want to make sure I'm not going to hit this waterline at some point in the future, if I'm plowing or cultivating.  The other issue is that the pigs, if they get ambitious, can easily get 3' deep in their wallows.  I run a 1" water line down the bottom, and at the end I put an 8' 6x6 post.  It doesn't look like it's 8' long, but it is.  For the water line posts I use pressure treated lumber. 
  Later I'll come back, dig down a couple of feet, install a frost-free hydrant (fancy term for one of these) and then secure the hydrant to the post with plumbers tape.  I'll use the tractor to pull or push the post to the required depth.  I like the posts to be 3-4' above the ground so that I can see the post over medium-tall grass.

After refilling the trench I work over the surface so that it's smooth and relatively firmly packed.  I use a box blade mostly.  I want it smooth so that the chicken tractors will not have gaps under the edges that will allow birds to escape, and because it's always nicer to have a smooth pasture than one that has lumps or furrows.  I'll use the harley power rake to put the final finish on it. 

I will also put in a couple of swales -- Since we get a lot of rain, I'm going to put in shallow depressions in the otherwise-smooth ground, to direct the water to the places I want it to go.  I'm using my knowledge of the various soil types to direct the water to more-permiable soil types, in the hopes that I won't have as many puddles in the winter as I usually do.   

The reed canary grass that is the predominate grass in this area is a root-based grass.  that is, with the cultivation and so on I expect it to bounce back pretty quick.  I'll plant some oats and a tall fescue based pastured mix in it, along with some clover added in for nitrogen fixing.  the goal is to have a grass mixture that will over a variety of diet components to the animals next spring and summer. 
This little boar will be one of the beneficiaries of the grass next year.  He's 7 weeks old, and has been watching with interest as I move dirt around wit the tractor.  He'd like to move the dirt around, too.  Soon, little boy.  Soon. 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Natures Harmony farm: how & why you farm

One of the farms that I watch with interest is Tim and Liz Young, over in Elberton, Georgia.  They used to write a blog, but decided that they didn't want to do that, but do talk about their farming experience in a podcast

It's been interesting to watch their farm evolve because, well, I think that they're pretty darned radical when it comes to their views of animals and husbandry.  They've killed thousands of chickens and hundreds of turkeys and various other animals as they try to get their operation to work in the way that they think it should work, and that's been kinda amazing to me.   In farmcast #34 they mention the poultry deaths.  There's also been issues with sheep and cows and so on.

It's amazing because that's something I run across quite a bit in the farming blog community.  There's a reason that farmers do what they do, and to go into an occupation and assume that some idea you have is just as valuable/useful/credible as the existing practices is a bit silly, actually.  What I've found interesting is that they've been pretty open about their struggles, and actually, their operation is getting closer and closer to industry practices every day.     At this point I think that they're reducing their farm down to a level where it's not an economically viable unit; they talk about a total production of 36 pigs a year, and eliminating all but homestead quantities of sheep, turkeys, chickens and rabbits.  I don't know what the numbers look like for their cheese business, but I have to say that dairy is one of the hardest types of farming, and I'll be interested to see what they make of it.   

So Tim and Liz are now reccomending that when you buy animals it'd be pretty good practice to give them the care that they got from the previous owners.  Yep, I'd agree.  That's pretty sound advice. 

So I'm listening to #34, and they're talking about apprentices and employees, and customers, and how they started farming to spend more time in nature, and that actually struck a chord with my experience. 

Around here the primary push for agriculture is about being an agri-tourism business.   The county government promotes farm tours, and hay rides, and all of the stuff that people associate with farms.  Corn mazes.  Petting zoos. 

That's not really my vision of my farming experience.  Mine is more about producing food that people like, value and that tastes good.  That the animals at my farm have a good time, are well treated at all stages of their life.  That my personal contributions are things that I enjoy doing, and that I find someone who enjoys doing (or will do it for pay) what I don't want to do.  And if I have someone doing work for me, I'll pay them a fair wage, and above-the-table -- with all the appropriate taxes and so on, because while I hate taxes like the rest of us, it's part of the deal that we pay them to support all of the stuff that our government does.  Sometimes does to me.    No interns, or apprentices or whatever folks call free labor these days. 

So Tim and Liz talk about getting rid of customers, and stock, and downsizing their farm to the point where I'm not at all sure that I could make it pencil out as a business, all on the basis that having people work for them takes time and effort. 

And I had to laugh a bit, and shake my head, and think to myself, "yep, Tim and Liz.  Welcome to small business administration"
You'll find the natures harmony blog here


Saturday, September 17, 2011

The volunteer garden

This year I haven't planted a formal garden, and I was regretting it a bit, when I noticed that I had a garden already. 
 Most everywhere I've fed pigs produce has some sort of vegetable growing in it.  Here's a patch of tomatillos having a riotous good time. 
 Tomatoes have made a huge showing.  I probably have 500 tomato plants of various sizes. 
 Mixed in with the tomatoes are various volunteer squashes.  Some of them have squash growing.  given the time of year, it's unlikely I'll get any mature squash, but I've got to say, this is the easiest garden ever. 
 Lots of green tomatoes.  Most of them are the plum tomatoes, some are beefsteak.  Tomatoes are probably the most common. 
There's also some smaller squash vines.  I think they're cantaloupe or cucumber.  They have that look to them. 

The plants are really growing well on the edge of the pig paddocks, which is a good sign.  The mix of wood chips, composted veges and pig manure is producing good quality soil. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Corn Syrup is evil

I have one major vice -- I like soda pop.  In particular, I like coca-cola. 

In my personal consumption, I've switched from the corn-syrup sweetened version to the sugar-sweetened version, and after doing that I've noticed that I've lost weight.  Same consumption, "same" product. 

So then I read a report from princeton university that points that that rats fed the same number of calories in the form of corn syrup gain more weight than sugar-fed rats. And the industry is trying to change the name of the product (High Fructose corn syrup) to something shorter (Corn Syrup)... 

Our american culture has consumed a lot of sugar for the last 100 years, and we haven't had the obesity problems that we now have.  It's only in the last 20-30 years that our weight has ballooned.  And my opinion is that corn syrup is the major cause of that gain.  It's inescapable if you each any sort of processed food. 

Mind you, I have nothing against eating corn direct.  I like corn. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"will work for food"

The pasture that the pigs are in used to be a junkyard in the 60s, and as a result, there's quite a bit of metal debris still remaining.  All of the stuff that will biodegrade in 50 years has done so.  That means that the vinyl seats and a lot of the sheet metal is just gone.  What remains are the larger, more substantial pieces of steel, like this wheel, engine blocks, axles and, of all things, chrome trim. 

The chrome trim is just as bright and shiny as it ever was, and it's pretty common to see a pig running around with a few feet of it.  They think it's cool.  But what I find really interesting is how much the pigs seek out the iron and steel. 

The pig in the picture is my main herd boar at this point.  He's 700lbs of pretty good natured boy.   He was walking along while I watched him, and then stopped, snuffled at the ground a couple of times and then dug this wheel out of the ground in 30 seconds.  No part of the wheel was visible before he started digging -- I think he smelled it.  Flipping it around a few times, he decided he'd seen enough and wandered off to do boar things.  (which mainly involves finding another pig and moving them for the heck of it.  "my wallow now, I'm the boar!" )

I'll periodically walk the fields and pick up the metal that the pigs have unearthed, and when I move the pigs to another area, I'll bring out the tractor and dig anything I can't get out by hand.  Over time I'm cleaning up the land. 

In the last 3 years I've removed 18 tons of steel from 12 acres. 

Friday, September 9, 2011

Farm infrastructure

 I've been working on my materials handling facilities.  I'm starting to handle serious quantities of wood chips, and I'm having to get a little more formal about where I store them so that I get more use out of them.   So I had 36 ecology blocks (why are they called that?) delivered to my driveway.  Actually they came 12 at a time on a semi truck.  I rented a backhoe to unload and move them, as they weigh more than even my big tractor can lift.  These blocks are 6'x2'x2', and weigh between 4 and 6 thousand pounds each.  I really don't know what they weigh; they are very heavy. 
 You can see the pile of wood chips in both of the above pictures -- actually, that's about half the pile.  We had to move a bunch of chips to make a place for the block wall.  The blocks will allow us to stack the wood chips higher and scoop them up more efficiently.  What was happening was that the mountain of wood chips was slowly creeping into my equipment parking area. 
You can see the basic tools I'm using in this picture.  Notice the baling twine at lower right.  I use that so that I have a reference to make a straight line for a neat wall.  The blocks all interlock, so a half-block is required to get a smooth end to the wall.  The key to this is to make sure that the bottom block is level and plumb.  After that one it's just a matter of carefully stacking the blocks.

With a block wall that's more than 2 blocks high, I like to brace them so that when I push on them they don't fall over.  So that I'll do is do a couple of blocks every 20' or so to prevent the wall from getting out of plumb even if I smack it with equipment on the other side. 

Tomorrow I'll write up my pig barn idea using ecology blocks. 

These blocks are $15 each, and it cost about $7 a block to have them delivered.   The backhoe rents for $260 a day, or $1k/week.  Takes about a day to build a 60'x6' block wall, with careful placement of the initial course of blocks. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Fall is coming

I'm well into my fall preparation, with a few items left to do.   The hay barn is full, stuffed to the rafters.
I'll be installing a feeder panel and a shed for the cows -- this year I'm going to do what Matron of Husbandry  does with her cows in the winter.  It saves wear and tear on the land.  I'll even adopt a couple of her ideas (which I'll duly credit as I write about implementing them. 

On my list: 

Rotate the pigs to a new pasture area
Finish the planted buffer and fencing
Repair the fence at the county road
Make final chicken culling choices

So much to do. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


 This is what my pigs were eating today. 
 I can sort-of tell the season by what is around.  Blueberries to me were always late summer, and so were peaches.  Strawberries are July.  Lemons? 
 It looks like a lovely fruit salad.   I had some food on a plane that looked like this. 
 Tons and tons of this food.  The peaches are luscious.  They slice neatly when I scoop them up with the bucket of the tractor.  The strawberries kind of mush up though, when you move them. 
This is what I feed my pigs.  40 pallets of it today.  about 8 tons.   

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Pink with Orange highlights

We normally use livestock crayons for this sort of thing, but we couldn't find any, and we needed to keep track of who we'd vaccinated, and who we had not. 

Most of the pigs we produce we don't treat in any way; they're here for 6-8 months, and honestly, we haven't had a problem in the last 6 years, but the sows (and the replacement gilts) we do vaccinate against the pork diseases that are common in this area.

When you're working with a bunch of basically identical pigs, it's hard to keep track of who you've vaccinated, and who you haven't.  We use a syringe gun; you fill it with enough vaccine for 30 piglets and just grab them and mark them as they go.  With this batch we're giving two different vaccines that cover different diseases.  So we mark each pig as we go through them, and then mark them a second time as we complete the batch. 

No one likes shots; there's a lot of scampering around and squealing as Andrea and I work through the piglets.  A hog panel in a corner of their pen helps with this, bunching them up.  Reach down, grab the rear leg, flip the pig on its side, inject, mark, repeat. 

These pigs are the best of the best -- perfect in all respects.  They'll be the new breeders next year, and if things go right they'll be around for a long time - 4 to 6 years. 

They aren't named yet.  We wait until they get pregnant to name them.  There's always a few that don't get pregnant, and they get slaughtered in due course - nothing wrong with the meat, just not working out for breeding.  I wonder sometimes why they don't, and the vaccinations are one way to eliminate variables, but from a empirical view, it doesn't matter why they don't get pregnant; it just matters that they didn't, and by making this sort of choice, I'm steering my herd towards better overall fertility. 

Friday, September 2, 2011

Getting closer to my food

When you read about the life of a farmer no one mentions laying on your back in cold mud as a sow does her best to tear your jeans off.   I lay flat on my back just outside my hay barn, where the sow had thrown me. 

No mention of the bark and hay working its way into my waistband as i crab-scuttled backwards, watching the open mouth of the sow pass my knees as I frantically backpedal.

No, the reading I'd done before i started my farm was all about the satisfaction of getting closer to your food.  I thought about this as my food (in this case, a sow) got closer to me.   The mud was firmly packed into the back of my jeans when she decided that I was far enough from her piglets to back off.  I debated sitting there, but then decided that I wanted more distance... and a bucket of water to get the dirt out of my, ah, pants.   

It reminded me a bit about a joke I'd heard a few days before.

"A pirate ship appears on the horizon. The captain says "Men, bring me my red shirt!" The first mate fetches the shirt and the captain successfully leads an attack on the pirates that sinks their ship.

 One of the sailors asked the captain "Why do you wear a red shirt in battle?" The captain responded "because if I am wounded, you will not see blood and will continue to fight as if nothing is amiss." The crew was astounded at the bravery of the captain.

Later, twenty pirate ships appeared on the horizon. The men looked to the captain, waiting for the request that brought everyone so much strength. The captain looked at the horizon and said, "Men, bring me my brown pants!"

This was definitely a brown-pants episode. 

In the accounts I've read, there's nothing but a contented sow, joyfully suckling her pigs and grunting in deep satisfaction. 

I stood up carefully, trying to figure out whether I'd gotten hurt by something, and found no damage but my pride.  I watched the sow as I stood up, not sure if I'd provoke her into another charge by doing so, but she was content to watch me, and as I took a couple of steps backwards, turned and nosed her pigs. 

I'd been trying to move her out of the pen in the hay barn, where we'd put her a few days before, to give her piglets a roof over their heads.  Piglets have very tender skin, and sunburn very easily.  It's plenty warm enough in august, but the sun can be hard on the little guys. 

This particular sow, normally calm and placid, was very protective of her pigs, and when I stepped into the pen I thought a little gentle persuasion would be sufficient.