Wednesday, November 30, 2011

If you buy an apple and feed it to a pig, is that solid waste?

In August the Snohomish county Health Department (SCHD) received a complaint about my farm. 
For background, I wrote about the original complaint here, and then a followup here, and then wrote about a farm visit here.    Farm visit:  I took the health department representative, two conservation district reps and my attorney, and we walked all over the farm and looked at anything they wanted to look at. 

This is the view of my side of the table.  Katherine is on the left, and Mike, her supervisor, is on the right, and we're talking about the complaint.   Not shown is my attorney, who is sitting immediately to my right. 
Solid waste on display in a supermarket

I think when I started my farm I had visions of growing things, and working with animals, and was a bit worried about flood season, and that it would be hard work.  The hardest part of farming for me is the constant regulatory activity.  Joel Salatin wrote a book entitled "Everything I want to do is illegal" and I have to say that I really, really agree with him.  There is nothing that I can do that isn't regulated by someone.

Ok, So we're sitting at this table, and we're talking about what I feed my pigs.  The health department doesn't like me feeding my pigs fruits and vegetables.  They'd rather I switch to a commercial feed; mike, the fellow on the right, made that suggestion.   If I fed a commercial feed, the health department would be just fine with me.   No violation, no enforcement, done. 
Ok.   You're skeptical.  I'm a little surprised too.  So I ask a question.  If I took a 50lb bag of pig feed, and poured it on the ground, would the health department object to that?  No, says both Katherine and Mike.  that'd be fine.  Ok.  If I took a ton (2,000lbs) of pig feed, and poured it on the ground, and the pigs ate it, would that be a problem?  Again, no.  Unanimous. 

So I asked:  "If I went to safeway, and I purchased an apple, and I took that apple and fed it to my pigs by throwing it on the ground, would you object to that?"  No, they would not.  " Ok, what if I got a 10lb sack of apples and dumped the apples on the ground.  Would that be a violation of any law? "  Yes.   
One of these is not solid waste.  Or is it? 

What law would I be violating?  "You would be improperly handling solid waste", says Katherine.  Ok.  I don't understand.  When I purchase the apple from safeway, is that apple solid waste?  No.  Ok.  I transport that apple in my car to my farm, and I feed the apple to the pig.  Is that solid waste? 
We have crossed the solid waste line.  Or maybe not.  No one knows. 

"Mr.  King, we'd like you to comply with the law.  This discussion is getting us nowhere.  We will not discuss this matter further." 

Commercial pig feed is made out of mostly corn and soybean meal.  It's processed vegetables.  I can feed as much of that as I like, where ever I like, and it's all ok.   I can throw processed vegetables on the ground.  Is the health department paid by Cargill?  

But apples are solid waste.  Well, somehow they become solid waste.  Somehow.  But they can't tell me when, where or how they do. 

Actual picture of the fruit I fed my pigs an hour after the meeting.  I am thankful that there are only 2 apples in this picture. 

Oh dear.  There are three apples. 

UPDATE:  It's not just Washington State.  Here's a story from Missouri about a fellow who was not allowed to feed vegetables raised on his own farm to his pigs.    His blog entry about the situation. 

Monday, November 28, 2011

I sure wish it would freeze

We're out of the growing season now; any greenery that we have on the farm is what we'll have until next spring.  This is the time of year that we start breaking out the hay, and putting the animals into sacrifice areas or barns for the winter; to prevent the sod from being cut up by hooves. 
When it freezes life on the farm actually gets easier for me.  Yes, there's the chore of breaking the ice off the trough and getting water to various animals, but it makes the ground solid and the tractor doesn't sink in or make ruts.   We are very close to the sea, so we get a marine climate.  A hard freeze is usually a day or two, and then back to the refrigerator zone -- about 40 degrees f, the temperature you keep your refrigerator at. 
When it's a hard freeze it means the animals bedding stays dry, in better shape.  I think that they sleep better; the piglets stack themselves and squeal and grumble a little.  If they're chilled they cuddle up to mom; who is 400lbs of sleeping piglet love. 
The main pig herd sleeps together, touching sometimes, but out in the open.  Given the choice between a shelter and the open sky, when its cold, the pigs sleep under the stars.  Even if it's snowing, which surprises me.  You can see the frozen ground in the upper left hand corner of this picture.  It's cold, but this is what the pigs prefer. 
We also get a fair number of sea birds and migratory birds that use our fields for sleeping.   These swimming birds can't really roost, and I think that they come in and sleep on the fields because it's relatively safe from predators.  These seagulls have chosen a field that is entirely surrounded by field fence, and they're a good 100' from anything that could hide a coyote.  About the only thing that could get them are eagles.  These might be migrating, but I don't think so.  I think they're just resident gulls that are taking a break from their usual haunts.  Wish that they'd eat some starlings. 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The story of the turkey buying club (part 2)

This is my first experience with raising the broad breasted turkeys -- I've been raising the heritage turkeys for the past few years -- and they're a bit like the cornish-cross meat birds.  You have to watch to make sure that they don't overeat, and they're generally not as oriented as the heritage breeds. 

We feed the turkeys a higher-protein feed, usually called a "game bird starter" or "turkey starter", from a local mill, and in July we were about done with that.

So far so good:  We're in July, birds are due end of November; only 4 more months. 

We had a predator issue in August, four turkeys committed suicide in September -- and now I'm getting worried about having enough turkeys to fill the order.  I started watching them carefully. 

Feed prices spiked in the summer; what we used to pay $300 a ton for was now $450 a ton.  The problem with contract growing is that this risk is pretty much on my end; I didn't think to negotiate an escalator on feed prices, which I'll do next time. 

We're into October now, and things are looking good for the delivery.  But I'm noticing that the broad breasted, as they get larger, are starting to sit on the ground most of the day.  This is wearing the feathers off their breasts, which doesn't look good, but doesn't harm the birds, but it's different than the heritage breeds. 

Finally we get to November; and I staff a turkey processing line, and get the equipment in order, and schedule it.  Unfortunately the pickup date for the buying club is the same as for my other customers, which complicates things for delivery.  Hmmm... have to work out the calendar together next time.

We started processing this batch of turkeys and found that the tub plucker we used wasn't doing a very good job of removing the feathers, and it ripped the skin on a couple of birds -- which is not what you want.  You want to deliver a perfect bird, so we had to pluck these birds by hand.  Every one. 

Hand plucking a turkey takes about 3 times as long, and the problem with the broad-breasted birds is that where they'd worn off the feathers on their breasts we had to, one by one, individually pluck out each feather with tweezers. 

Oh yea.  One of my guys called in and said his car was dead, couldn't make it. 

Three days of tediously detailed hand-plucking and processing turkeys. 

Oh.  And during this time we're getting 4 inches of rain.  And we're outside during most of this.  And it's truly miserable.  I mean really bad.  Sean and Dan get full credit for showing up for work; heck, I own the farm and I didn't want to get out of bed.

So we get a call, and I explain that I'm running late, and I actually am about 2 hours late for the pickup, but to make things better I dispatch a truck of turkeys to the buying clubs other pickup point (30 miles southeast) and drive the turkeys myself to the main pickup point. 

So I'm soaking wet.  I've been up to my elbows in turkey blood and guts and feathers.    This little turkey flock has been more work than any other turkeys I've ever done, and they're mad that I'm late.  I apologize, and they ask me if I can do anything to make it better. 

And I look at the woman, and I think about it, and I realize that I'm not going to make a dime off this whole 7 month experiment; between the extra labor costs for plucking, the slower gain, higher feed costs and so on...   and I say "yea, I can take $5 per turkey off". 

Here's my take-home lesson: 

  * $3 a pound for a delivered turkey is too little.  I should have charged $3 a pound for the turkey and then another $100 for delivery for each location.  Or maybe just say $4/lb.  At $4/lb I would have had another $600 margin to play with, which would have covered my feed and unexpected labor costs. 
  *  8 months of work isn't really appreciated if you're a couple of hours late.  Next time I'll slaughter earlier and keep the birds chilled.  No missing deadlines.  Being on time is important. 
  * Heritage birds are easier in all respects for my farm and staff to deal with.  And the margins are better. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The story of the turkey buying club (part 1)

I got a call this march or april from a lady in Seattle who wanted to arrange a basket of local products from local producers, and was interested in whether I could supply the turkeys. 

I get this sort of call all the time; lots of people are interested in local food, and the idea of a group purchase seems to make sense.  Often times you'll get a better price, but the downside is that you have to agree to buy large quantities. 

So I talked with her for a while, and she said she was after 30 turkeys; I told her that we usually don't take orders for turkeys before October 1st, but if she was willing to put down the $20 deposit per bird that I'd order extra poults and raise them for her project. 

Now that's where most of the people vanish; hundreds of dollars tends to make it real, and I was surprised when I got the $600 a few days later.  Guess I'm raising her turkeys. 

I called her back and we talked a bit more about the turkeys; did she want heritage ($6/lb) or broad breasted ($3/lb), and she wasn't sure.  So I asked what weight people wanted.  In my area, for a young bird, the heritage turkeys top out at about 16lbs, and the average is probably closer to 12. 

This is particularly true when we have cold, wet springs.  And speaking of that, 2011 was the coldest, wettest springs ever recorded in Western Washington.  The long term forcast for 2012 is the same, so I'm expecting more of the same this coming  year.

So she thought about it, and said 16-20lb, and that the broad breasted was what she wanted to go to keep the costs down, and I noted that, and then upped my order of turkey poults to cover that. 

Now lets talk a little about turkey poults from the hatchery.  We've had batches that have arrived with no problems, and we've had batches that have had 75% mortality.  I'm talking about dead in the box on arrival, or within 24 hours of arrival.  It's been my experience that we will get a bad batch from hatcheries randomly, which is a bit of a problem for me.  I'm aiming to produce a fixed number of birds, and I really don't want to over-order.

So what I do now, for the broad broad breasted, is I buy them from a local feed store at their asking price.  I did the math, and even marked up by the feedstore, it's cheaper on average for me to buy them than it is to deal with the random mortality.  The feedstores in my area must think I'm an animal hoarder; I'll walk in, find a bin of likely looking poults, and buy them all.   A short trip in the cab of the truck, and they're warm and safe in the brooder, and the turkey slog begins. 

I call it the turkey slog because it's a marathon, and it starts on the day the turkey poults arrive.  As I put each into the brooder I dip their beak into the water, and then watch to make sure that they're walking around, and then move the next poult.  After they're all in the brooder, I'll tap at the feed container, which sounds like pecking to the little poults, and they'll all gather around my finger and then peck at the feeder.  Some of them miss, and accidentally get their beaks into the feed, and you can see the little turkey wheels turning in their heads.  Once a couple have figured out how to eat, they teach the rest. 

If the batch of turkeys is particularly slow, I'll put a chicken chick in with them, as a learning aid for the little turkeys.  Chickens don't have to be taught to eat or drink, and the turkeys will do better by imitating the little chicken. 

I want to put the turkeys on pasture as soon as I can, and the weather this last spring just did not cooperate at all.  Not one bit.  Cold.  rain.  Rain.  Cold.  Little turkeys do ok with cold once they're feathered out but they cannot get wet; you can lose your entire flock in a rainy night.  It's a myth that turkeys look up and open their mouths in rain and drown.  it's not a myth that a wet turkey will probably not make it. 

So I struggled with the turkeys in April and May and June.  June, when it should be warm and sunny, wasn't.  Better housing for the turkeys, more bedding, bringing turkeys indoors when they weren't doing well, this little contract flock took a lot of individual attention.  More so than my usual heritage birds.  A lot more. 

Next:  A summer of discontent

Sunday, November 13, 2011

"young farmers", subsidies and enabling

The new york times has an article today about the difficulties of young farmers; particularly the difficulty they have in getting land to farm. 

It's not just young farmers. Land, which is what farms are made out of, is expensive to people of all ages.   I'd much rather they said "new farmers" and not focus on the "young" part. 

I think that struck me about the article is the feeling that someone should, by virtue of a desire to farm, be helped to farm.  Now while I'm generally for people getting into farming, I also get the echo of the housing bubble we just went through.   The desire to own a big house isn't reason enough to loan you the money.

I feel that you also have to have the experience and commitment to farm.  The article points out that apprenticeships are valuable to young farmers, and that's great, but it comes in many forms.   One way that it works is that you go out and make a living doing something else while you save up the money to start your farm.  A fellow I know worked as an electrical engineer to put himself through medical school.  Took him 10 years, but he came out a new resident with ZERO student loans. 

Oh yea.  He had to earn a degree as an electrical engineer first.   I'll let you imagine how he paid for that.  Amazingly talented guy. 

Most of the farm blogs that I read are written by people who made enough with off-farm jobs to be able to afford to farm -- because, as the old joke goes, to make a small fortune farming, you start with a large fortune.  I feel like you have to be able to afford to farm; and that's something that the "people should be able to farm if they want to with a lot of help" crowd hates. 

Most American farmers farm as their second job.  The "town" job provides the health insurance and a steady income, and covers the bills when the farm doesn't, and makes the mortgage payments. 

In their example they cite a couple who grossed $60,000 by their third season.  By small business standards, that's below tiny.  And they do that on 49 acres that were subsidized by two conservation groups. 

What I find most wrong about that is that the conservation groups are, in effect, enabling this couple to lead a life that, based on that gross, is probably below the poverty level.  I certainly don't want to have to compete against them. 

How about we work with the couple to come up with a plan to make market rate land pay a living wage?  Because when we can do that, we won't have to pay people via subsidies to farm.  It'll be a way of life and living, like any other occupation choice.

You'll find the new york times article here

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The downside of hiring farm help: Isaac Dozier

[UPDATE Jan 27, 2012:  You'll find the resolution of this issue in this blog entry.  I had to sue him to get my stuff back; I did get my fence charger and weed burner back from the guy, though.   ]

I hired Isaac earlier this year to work on my farm.  He did well in the interview, and seemed like a nice enough fellow at the time. 

Now I've had lots of experience with hiring and firing folks, and when folks call me for a reference, what I can say legally is a bit constrained.  It's a my-word-against-their-word sort of deal, and I don't really want to get into a pissing match with someone, so I don't say much. 

Isaacs last day was in July sometime, and as usual I got the paperwork from the state about his application for unemployment benefits, which I thought was a bit odd as he'd only worked for me for a month or two, but whatever.  I filled it out accurately and sent it in.  There are good reasons to make sure that you're paying people above the table.  I use a payroll company to figure the deductions and so on for just this sort of situation. 

Somewhere around then I was looking for an electric fence charger, a big 200 mile beast that costs around $600.  I had hung it on a peg and I couldn't find it, and a brand-new weedburner, too.   Come to find out that both items were last seen with Isaac, and that had been a few days before his last day.  So I emailed Isaac and asked him for it back.  No response.  I then called him and asked him for it back.  No response to voicemail.  I wrote a letter (US MAIL) and sent that to him, with no response. 

Finally I drove out to his house - he lives with his mother, and there was my charger.  Hanging on the fence, right next to the house.   Fine.  I walked up to the door, and knocked, and when he came to the door I said I'd come for my charger and could he go get my weedburner?  I walked over to the fence and unhooked it.    Well, it didn't go over very well with his family.  His mother is screaming at me:  "You touched me!  I have witnesses!  You touched me!  His brother Paul is doing the chest bump with me (which is kinda funny as the top of pauls head is nipple high on me, and I had a hard time not laughing at that) and Isaac just stood in the background "I'm calling the police".  Please do, Isaac.   I told his mother that this was my fence charger and that I wanted it back.    Paul ripped the charger from my hands, and I thought about it, and then got in my car and drove to the end of their driveway.  I called the Skagit county sheriff, and talked to the officer who'd been assigned, and asked what he thought i should do. 

"Well, " says the officer, "I asked them why you were there.  They said they didn't know, and something about equipment" and I explained about the charger and then said "well, I'd be happy to have my charger back and call it a day" and the sheriff said "yea, I told them that it'd be simpler just to return it". 

Ok Sheriff.  What should I do?  Can I file a theft report with you?  "No, you have to do it in the jurisdiction where the theft occurred.  How much is the charger worth?  "  $600.  "Oh wow.  That's a felony case, then.  Why don't they return it?  "   I don't know, officer.  In my opinion they appear to be an entire family of nitwits.  The sheriff laughed. 

So I wrote a US MAIL letter and mailed it, requesting that they return my charger in the next 7 days or I'd be forced to file a felony theft report, as I had no other option.  I waited 2 weeks for a reply.  Nothing. 

I then got a wage complaint from L&I, where it was claimed that I'd shorted him on his pay.  I checked his paychecks, and the hours worked, and then again, and I'd paid him for all of the time he'd worked.  I sent the state the copy of the paychecks Isaac had cashed. 

So a couple of days ago I got several comments on my blog. 

Is this the "Humane Pig Farm" Bruce speaks so highly of?

 And I looked at those photos that are a mix of photos that I've used in my blog and some other photos.  The timing of the photos is right... yea.  It was when Isaac was working.  And the photos aren't what I'd consider cute farm photos.   From the data on the photos I figure it it was Isaac who took them, and the stuff that he's taking pictures of he's supposed to be taking care of.

But that's not really enough, so I go over to facebook and look at Isaacs facebook page. 

I then look at where the pictures came from, via the IP#.  It's from the mobile carrier that Isaac uses.  Pictures that were taken on a day he was scheduled to work during his shift, from his phone, and posted on his facebook page.   

So I write Isaac an email.  Hey, if you want to say something to me, or to the folks on my blog, why not just write it?  I promise not to edit or censor anything you say.  Say whatever you'd like, and I'll publish it.    No response, as usual.  So I send a message to his girlfriend asking that she get ahold of him and let him know I'm interested in whatever he has to say.  No response there, either. 

Isaac, farming is a pretty small community.  Most everyone knows everyone else.  I was out on the tractor one day when I got a call. 

"Hey, is this Bruce?"

  Yes, who's this?  This is xxxx from the yyyy dairy.  You run a pig farm down there, right? "

  Yep, I do.  Whats up?

 "Did you have a kid named Isaac work for you?  "

Why.  Yes.  I.  Did. 

"Can I ask you about his work".  

gosh, I'd love to, but I can only say his hire date, and last day.  But if you asked me, I could tell you whether we'd rehire him.

 "Ok then.  Would you rehire him? "


"Is there anything else that I should know about him that you can tell me?"

  You near a computer?  "yes".  Ok,  his facebook profile name is idozier4509, I'd look at the entry on his wall on May 20th. 


  yea, that's what it says.  I'd ask him what he means by that.

"Horse tranquilizers?  He's kidding, right?" 

I can't say what this guy is thinking, honestly.   You'd have to ask him.   

"I think I have what I need.  Thanks for your time, Bruce.  "

  No problem. 

Isaac, I'd really like my fence charger and weed burner back. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Hoophouse - bending conduit, attempt 1

 I've been working on the hoophouse, and specifically on bending hoops to the right diameter.  I want a continuous, smooth curve from one side to the other.   So I took a smaller, thinner pipe, 40' of it, and bent it into a smooth hoop, shown above.  I then used a pencil to trace the curve onto a piece of plywood, and found that in an 8' run, it was 8" from the top of the curve to the edge of the plywood. 

What I'm going to do is cut multiple curves out of that plywood or any scrap wood I've got around.  Anchor one end of the pipe, and then bend it to that curve. 
I borrowed a friends hydraulic tube bender to this bend.  It's a $400 tool, but if you want to make gates or hoophouses or anything else that requires corners, you'll probably want one of these.  In this case this is the bend from the base of the tube straight down to the ground.  You do this so that you can put up your hoophouse by driving larger pipes in, and then just slipping this pipe into it. 

The pipe shown here is galvanized fence top rail.  I don't know if it'll work with the heavier rigid conduit, but i'll be trying that tomorrow.  I think that it will -- because of leverage. 

Bending a 2' length of pipe is very difficult.  Bending a 20' length of pipe is much easier; the moment arm is so much longer. 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Progress on the farm

I've got to give a hand to Dan and Sean.  With their help, Andrea and I have made real progress towards getting rid of the clutter around the farm.  Let's take a look at some before-and-after pictures. 

March 2011

Ugh.  Lets see.  Two trailers (big white one to rear, small white one on right rear) silo, and random stuff in no particular order. 
November 2011; silo moved, and trailers parked.  An untidy pile of buckets on the right, small trailer disposed of (My brother Bryan had me store it for him, but I finally got him to get rid of it).  The trailers provide work areas for stuff we do.  We use them like big work tables.  the double decker stock trailer in the rear of this picture doubles as a dog kennel -- it's 8' wide x 30' long, and so it's got more room than most dog kennels, and it's easy to clean. 
A major cleanup project was the front pasture.  My property was  junkyard about 50 years ago, and there's still quite a bit of metal in the ground.  Every year something else surfaces, so I decided that I'd get serious about cleaning up the front paddock.

 These big springs must have been really popular in the 40s.  this is about the 15th one I pulled out that day. 
Differentials haven't changed much.  Maybe this one is to a model T.  Don't really know, off to recycling it went. 

After plowing, raking, tilling, raking and then rolling, it's flat, level and pretty darn clean.
The final step was to plant it, and I'm gratified to see the new grass coming up. 
 It should be beautiful pasture next summer. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Question from Email: 

"Hi Bruce, I have 4 pigs; 3 sows and a boar, and we just had our first litter.  Unfortunately, none of the 11 pigs that were born survived.   We have them in a shelter on pasture, and I'm wondering what your experience has been with giving birth on pasture?

Thanks, Mike"

Sorry to hear that you lost a litter, but don't blame yourself too much.  If you have and keep animals you'll lose some despite your best intentions.  I've written quite a bit about my experiences with losing pigs.   Do a search for farrowing (upper left hand corner of the blog window) and you'll see at least 50 entries about this.  I've thought about this a lot, and I've had a lot of experience with it on my operations. 

Fair warning:  We are talking about piglet mortality here -- so there will be pictures of dead piglets in this entry. 

Farrowing in a shelter
 This is a sow that farrowed in an 8x16' shelter that I constructed from plywood and heavy timber.  The bedding is dry and warm, and relatively level.  There's plenty of room for the sow and the piglets.  But she's managed to lay on most of her litter overnight. 
There's still a live one back against the plywood behind her, and she's protective of it -- but she's pressing it against the plywood too.    This shelter might be improved with "pig rails" - boards that are nailed to keep the sow away from the walls by 8" or so so she can't press the piglets against the wall, but the three that are dead (center of the picture, above) got squished in the center of the shelter -- probably under her as she rolled over.   

Farrowing in a calf dome

Before I build that shelter, I tried portable calf domes.  They weigh about 100lbs, they're 7' across, and about 5' high.  Bedded with hay or wood chips, they provide excellent shelter. 
 But the problem I've had over and over again is no matter how well I bed them or try to stake them down or block them down, the sows love to move them around.  A sow is in a different world from a piglet -- she's hot on all but the coolest days, insulated by a thick layer of fat.  So she pushes the dome around until she can find some mud and then typically lays down in it.  It's a disaster when she has her pigs into the cold mud. 
It's heartbreaking. 
 So what we've switch to is farrowing crates.  The sow is confined for a week or so while her piglets get big enough and agile enough to dodge her.  Once we're sure that everyone is doing ok they go to a transition pen -- a fenced pen with a calf dome in it. 

Here's a sow in a transition pen.  After this we wean the piglets and them usually put them in a sale pen until they're sold.  For those that we're going to be finishing we wean them, put them in separate housing for a couple of weeks to make sure that they're weaned, and then out with the rest of the herd they go.  If we let the piglets continue to suckle on mom past 6 weeks they take her out of condition -- takes quite a few calories to feed 10 growing pigs. 

We've been gradually increasing the number of farrowing crates to be able to handle the groups of sows farrowing.  Having a sow in a crate is actually more work for me than having them in a pen or with the herd.  I'm not doing this because it's easier, I'm doing it to save the pigs lives.  I've picked up too many buckets of dead piglets.  I'm done with that. 

Retiring the herd boar

Saying hello at the fenceline
Nose to tail, about 8'.  Probably 800lbs. 
Socializing with th pink boar at the fence line. 

All good things must come to an end.  My main herd boar past his prime in the last couple of years, and while I'm fond of him, it's time to go.   He's sired more than a thousand nice pigs, and his genetics are well-represented in my herd. 

I never did name him.  He was always just "The Boar", and I've always been careful around him, but he's given me no reason for concern during his time here. 

For the last 6 months or so he's been pretty sedentary; preferring to sit in any mud he can find, and while he'll occasionally mate, he's not as into it as he was when he was a few years old. 

At this point he's one of five boars we keep, so we'll be well-covered as far as boars go, but what I'll probably do next is get a good berkshire boar to replace him, to increase the percentage of berkshire in our herd. 

I do appreciate this animal, and hate to see him go, but it's time, and past time. 

Thank you, Boar. 

Hoophouses are generalists

One of the reasons that I'm interested in hoophouses as a basic farm building is that they're darned useful.  If you need a roof over your head, or to store stuff, or to grow things, or to shelter animals, they're pretty nice.   In the picture above we've got an earlier batch  of replacement gilts in the small hoophouse.   My only problem with this particular hoophouse is that we have to rebed it by hand.  You can see that it gets a bit wet around the water dishes, and in this case the pigs have chosen to dung against the back wall, so that's a bit sloppy, too. 
 Later, some laying hens that are molting.  We bring in 2x4s to provide roosting for these girls.  Without feathers it gets kinda chilly.  They appreciate the shelter. 
 That top picture was a while ago; here's the same pig, about 3 times the size and about ready to become a mom. 
and her buddies.    They all got a great head start by having better shelter when they were younger.  That's one of the reasons I'm working on another hoophouse.  Better winter housing. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Replacement gilts / marking pigs / breeding / handling

 We sorted through 800 piglets to find the 15 that will be our replacement gilts; and when I say sorted, I mean we got down and counted nipples and inspected every inch of those 800 piglets.

 This little group of pigs has been getting very special treatment.   A gilt is a virgin pig; when she has a litter, she is then considered a sow.  We actually sorted out and selected 17, but 2 of those didn't make the cut this time, and so we're ear tagging 15 of them.  Andrea is carefully leaning over to tag the left ear.    We tag the left ear as a standard.  If the tag falls out there's a hole in the left ear, and we check that before we take pigs to market as a fail-safe.  We raise the breeders with the other pigs and separate at market time. 
 We tag the pigs so that we can track their progress, health and litter characteristics.  If you're going to be breeding, you want to be able to identify each animal, and since we've got 5 people who work with these pigs, we need to be able to say "hey, #57 looks like she's about due; can you look at her?"

We use the hog panels you see in these pictures pretty much everywhere.  They're the duct tape of hog operations.  In this case the pen itself is formed with hog panels, and then we've brought a spare one in to form a temporary pen inside the larger pen, so that we don't have to chase the pigs around while we're tagging them. 

When you have 200 to 400 pigs around at any given time, it's hard to remember the details of each ones history.  Records are important. 
Marking pigs can take many forms; ear notching is pretty common.  In the bigger hog farms, tattoos are used.   We don't tag the majority of the animals; just the breeders, and we don't retain very many.  15 out of 800 is about 1.8%, which is in keeping the the philosophy that you only breed the very best. 

It's pretty common on pig farms, especially on those that are raising heritage breeds, to believe that anything that comes out of a sow is breeding material.   If you're going to be serious about saving a breed, I think you should be serious about improving it, too.  And you do that by learning to evaluate a pig at various ages, and by tracking your results. 

Your desired results can vary.  For me, I want calm, good mothers who work well on pasture and wean a large percentage of their litters.  A couple of these pigs were chosen because they were particularly friendly; temperament is important to me, too. 

These guys are F1 yorkshire/hampshire cross piglets.  that means that two purebred animals were used to produce them.  I've found that they make good mothers, and I'll be crossing them with a purebred berkshire boar to produce my market piglets. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Building a hoophouse from scratch: Initial design

I've been looking at temporary buildings to house my pigs during the rainy season, and a hoophouse seems to be the best candidate. 

For my purposes, a building that can be used for multiple purposes is ideal.  In the fall and winter, housing livestock.  In the spring and summer, growing things.  As a bonus, the deep-litter system that I'm going to try will produce (in theory) good compost, which, helpfully, will be placed right where it's going to be used -- in the greenhouse.  Sounds good, right? 

I'm going to go a little more expensive in my design by having the greenhouse itself rest on ecology blocks.  I'm going to do that so that I use my tractor to move materials into and out of the greenhouse.  The easier I can make the maintenance the better it is -- and the more likely that it will get done.

So the project breaks down into three parts: 

1) Initial design.   How big will it be, what materials will I use, and what will it cost?  How much of each material will I need, and where do I get them from?  

2)  Fabrication.   Taking the pipes that form the framework, how do I bend and form them so that they form the hoops that I need.   Addition of additional pipes and bracing to make the structure stronger.   Placement of the ecology blocks and anchoring the structure to them.  Covering the whole thing in plastic.  Securing the plastic. 

3)  Pig prep:  Additions to the building that make it likely to survive curious pigs and amenities to make it easier on the farmer -- food and water handling, access doors, and so on. 

Initial design
On my farm I have never said "gosh, this building is too large".  Ever.  With that said, the cost of building a bigger building, or the biggest you can afford, is often well worth it.  If nothing else you'll have extra space -- and that's often pretty handy for things you didn't know about.  Extra space in your greenhouse means you can store your soils and amendments there, for instance.

Choosing a hoop size
With hoophouses the limiting factor is the size of the plastic cover available, and basic math.  Here's an example of a supplier of greenhouse plastic in my area, and from that I can see that I can get plastic sheets in sizes up to 100'x48', and no bigger.  Here's a table of greenhouse sizes and the maximum hoop size for each one: 

Plastic cover width/Max hoop size

Other covering choices considered:
You can get larger covers; they're called hay tarps, and you can order them in any size.  there are also fabric barns that get their fabric from somewhere; I chose to do a transparent plastic covering because I want to use it as a greenhouse, too.  If I were doing a permanent pig barn, I'd seriously consider figuring out who makes the coverings for fabric barn resellers and getting a light colored fabric cover made. 

I'm assuming that the plastic covers the entire arch, from end to end, as well.  You could shorten it a bit with a pony wall. 

The shape of the hoop is strongest if it's a smooth, even arch all the way across.  These calculations assume that the shape of the hoop is half of a perfect circle.    Here's how I calculated it: 

Width of desired hoop / 2 * 3.1415 

Note:  You might need ladders or scaffolding
This also means that if I have a 30' wide barn, the top of the hoop in the center will be 15' tall.  Assembly will require some way to get up there to do the work of putting it together.  More on that later.  With a traditional use as a greenhouse it would be very difficult to use that extra height.  If I were designing to only grow plants and had smaller equipment, I'd consider a shorter greenhouse.

Will it work with the tractor?
With a circle, as you get closer to the edge you'll loose ceiling height, which for me is important to note.  I want to get pretty close to the edge of the building with my tractor.  The ceiling will be 10' tall 5' in from the base of the hoop.  which means that if I put the hoops on 2' ecology blocks, I should be able to get within 2 feet of the wall, which is close enough for me. 

(How did I figure that out?  The old fashioned way.  I drew a circle on graph paper using a pencil and a piece of string.   Each square on the graph paper represented 5', and after I drew it I could look to see where the pencil line and graph paper line intersected.  You can print graph paper online. )

How much material do I need? 
I cheated a little.  The picture at the top of this entry is a commercial greenhouse that I bought used, so I've got it as a reference point for building this one;  it helps that I've already put one of these together and pretty much know what's involved, and that the design has proven durable enough for my climate. 

I'm going to use a 4' hoop spacing, and I'm going to NOT use the truss system that the other greenhouse used.  I'm going to try using a heavier, larger pipe to eliminate the need for trusses for tractor clearance purposes.

So here's the math: 

Length of complete hoop house / hoop spacing = number of hoops
Width of each hoop / 2 * 3.1415 = length of each hoop
length of each hoop / pipe length = number of feet of pipe you'll need.

For this project:  80' long / 4' spacing = 20 hoops
30' wide hoops / 2 * 3.1415 = 47.1 feet per hoop (round up)
48 / 10' pipe length = 5 sticks of pipe per hoop (round up)

100 10' long pipes will form the hoops

You'll also want purlins -- pipes that run the length of the structure, usually one on either side, and one along the top.   The design I'm looking at (see picture at top) has 5 of them.  Two on each side, one along the top.  I'm going to copy that directly. 

80' x 5 = 400' of purlin, or 40 10' lengths.
Purlins can be smaller than the hoop pipe.  I'm going to be using 1.5" or larger pipes for the hoops, but the purlins will be smaller: 1 3/8" pipe, or 1" pipe.  The purpose of the purlin is the keep the hoops in position to stiffen the structure. 

One thing that the greenhouse design doesn't have is diagonal bracing at either end.  I'm going to add diagonal braces to strengthen the ends of this structure, one on each corner.  I want the braces to be attached to 4 hoops, so I'm going to make them about 20' long, each. 

80' of purlin-sized pipe for diagonal bracing. 

Prices and sources; next entry. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The new tractor!

 Just bought a (new to me) tractor, a Kubota M125x.  It's a 2008, and has 300 hours showing; to me that's a brand-new tractor.  As part of the proof the paint hasn't been worn off the front loader... 

It's pretty close in size to the Kubota 9580 we've been using as our farm tractor, but the 9580 is in the shop getting a new clutch installed, and I ran across this one local.  After a bit of haggling we settled on a price that neither of us were thrilled about (I thought it was too much, they thought it was to little) and sealed the deal by adding 3 finished pigs to it.  So for some cash and 3 pigs, the tractor is mine.   It's pretty hard to price tractors.  Even the same year and model will have asking prices that vary by 25%. 

 The front loader is rated to lift 4,000lbs, and there's a forklift that quick-attaches on to the loader so that you can handle pallets easily -- which I'm looking forward to.  The bucket in these pictures is 8' wide and 30" high, which doesn't seem like much...
until you get the scale of it by looking at the picture above.  That's Dan standing in the bucket, loading some 33 gallon garbage cans of chips.  A heaping load in the front loader seems to be about a cubic yard, or maybe a yard and a half, which means moving the chips around just got a lot faster. 

For areas where we want to rebed, but cannot get the tractor in, we'll fill garbage cans with chips as chore buckets, and then move the chips in the can to where they're needed.  In this case the chicken coop needed some new chips.  Toss the cans into the bucket, drive the tractor to the chip pile, fill the cans, load them on the front loader and return to the chicken coop. 

The rear tires are filled with calcium, and that provides extra weight to counterbalance the front loader.  So far I'm pretty happy with the tractor.

Unfortunately for me, a million small birds decided to roost on it last night, and I'm going to have to pressure wash it off.  I really need a garage.