Friday, April 27, 2012

Feeding zombies

I got a call a couple of weeks ago with an odd request.  Could I sell a lamb?

That's not what was odd; we sell lambs all the time.  Our lambs, this years lambs, are pretty small yet, but we'll sell a few here and there to folks who want a small lamb.

When people ask about it, they're often a little skittish about asking if I'm ok selling it to eat.  It's not as bad as with chickens -- apparently, eating chickens is a touchy subject -- but as you guys know, I'm all about raising animals for food. 

But there was more than the usual amount of hesitation when she asked if she could have the head.  "yes, of course.  you're buying the entire animal".  But they didn't want the head. 

They wanted the sheep brain.  Fresh.  Within 5 minutes of death. 

Honestly, the first thought that crossed my mind was zombies. 

So today was the day; I met three graduate students at my gate, and asked them if they were the zombie crew.  They looked startled, and then laughed, and said yes. 

I'll skip over the killing method; suffice it to say that it was humane and legal and quick.  They used a hand meat saw to slice the head open, and then carefully scooped out the brain, rinsed it in some liquid, and then froze it in liquid nitrogen, and then packed it in dry ice. 

This particular sheeps brain was going to be used for research at a local (big, huge, GIGANTIC) cancer research institute that had its headquarters in Seattle. 

"you're not at all what we expected", says one of them sheepishly.  What do you mean?  "Well, you seem very science friendly and you were all set up here to make this easy to do".  Well, yes, I'm a science kinda guy.

But if I were you, I'd delay my research for a few more months.  The lambs are bigger and you get more to eat, but do come again!

Sellin' weaners

health dept: You cannot raise pigs on your 139 acre farm...

A recent rule change in Massachusetts has made many existing barns and animal pens illegal -- and the local health department has been enforcing this rule and prohibiting people from using their barns and fields to raise animals.

King County, Washington has the same sort of rule.  You can't keep pigs less than 100' from any property line, which has meant that people with less than 2 or 3 acres usually cannot keep pigs.

Business wise, it's been a mixed bag for me.  It has put a lot of 2 and 3 sow small producers out of business, but it's also meant that customers who would normally have purchased a couple of weaners in the spring don't because of concern over fines or enforcement action.  So the supply goes down, and so does the demand.

that in turn means a smaller income from the local custom slaughter and custom cut-and-wrap shops, and that's infrastructure that I really must have to keep going.

Any time a town makes a change like this and discourages agriculture it makes it just that much harder for everyone else to continue.

You'll find the full story here.

Thanks to SteveP for the story.

Picture requests and usage rules

My blog is picture-rich, and I write about all sorts of stuff on it.  As a result, pictures from my blog are used all over the place.  My latest picture request is from someone writing a thesis in mechanical engineering in iceland, who is apparently involved in the design of small scale animal slaughter plants.  The picture he'd like to use comes from this blog entry.

I get quite a few requests from veterinary students, who are apparently fascinated by my piglet hernia treatment pictures, like in this blog entry.

Sometimes they're after pictures of a specific type of animal, like  the new hampshire red rooster.  That picture has been particularly popular; I've gotten 8 publication requests for it.  Now it is a good picture of a nice rooster, but I just don't think it's all that good. 

A fellow interested in food waste and recycling wants to use pictures from this blog post -- his comment?  "Your pigs are eating better than most people!"  yes, they are.  And you're welcome to use my picture. 

The basic rules are that you can use pictures from my blog as long as you credit them  to the original source (this blog, and ideally to the specific blog entry they came from) with a link and a text credit. 

The second is that the pictures are for non-commercial use -- that is, you can use them to illustrate a blog entry or to talk about something that I've talked about, but if you're going to use them in advertising of any sort it's not a free use.  I'm cheap, and have a price, but there is a price. 

and the third and final rule is that you must ask for and receive permission to use my pictures.    Generally speaking, this is so that I can look to see how they're being used, and since I took them all, I'm interested in the subjects that they cover.  So if you're writing about pigs or farming or sheep or whatever I've taken a picture on, chances are pretty good I'd like to read it, too.  So by asking and providing a link to the finished product you make it easy for me. 

So yes, you can use it in your thesis.  And yes, you can use it in your alternative food publication about food waste.  And yes, you can use my piglet hernia to talk about your veterinary courses in scotland that you're taking.  And you're welcome.

And I'm glad to help people think about their food and their animals and their connection to both. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Closed on land purchase today...

I found a 2 acre parcel that is adjacent to some of my flood-plain acreage, but it is *shock and awe* off the flood plain!

it has a 24x36 pole barn on it, concrete floor and electricity, and is a little rough yet, but I think will work great for me.   I'll post some pictures in a couple of days. 

$30,000 for it.  Very happy with that price, as a pole barn of that size goes for about $10k, and the concrete floor is another $3k, and electrical hookup $3k.  So I really paid 14k for 2 acres of useable land.  Around here, that's cheap. 

  Really looking forward to having a barn with electricity.  I've been in a sort of self-enforced off-the-grid kinda mode for my farm as I don't have electricity there, and while I've proven I can do it, having some power will make some things MUCH easier.  Like brooding chickens.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Friday, April 20, 2012

Eagles and sheep

Bald eagle on the ground in my flock of sheep. 
 You're going to have to click on the picture to see it, but there' a bald eagle right in the middle of the picture, on the ground.  I saw the eagle fly by, see something, and the dive in.  I was horrified.  It landed right in the middle of my sheep flock, where I'd just moved them to rotate their grazing area.  I grabbed my camera and ran out towards the sheep. 
The eagles are fairly shy and this one flew off when I got a hundred yards away, but not before I saw it reaching down with its beak and grabbing something on the ground, several times.  It was eating something, and since my lambs are out there, I figured it was a lamb. 
 The lambs weigh about 20-25lbs at this point, but look bigger than they are because of their wool.  The adults are looking a little ragged because they're shedding.  I quickly counted my lambs and I wasn't missing any.  hmm..  I counted the adult sheep.  All there.  So I worked my way around to the part of the field where the eagle had landed, and found...
It looks like the eagle is picking up the wool that my sheep are shedding, a beakful at a time.  My sheep shed every year at this time, and there are patches of wool all over the place.  I could see a nest being pretty warm and comfortable when lined with wool. 

Now the eagle might have thought that there was a dead animal under the hair, but I definitely saw it picking up stuff from the ground.  It flew off an perched on a cell phone tower a half-mile away.  I'll have to look at it tomorrow to see if its building a nest there. 
Possible bald eagle nest location:  Cell phone tower

Fertility is the opposite of sterility

I was listening to an interview today.  A huge farm that grows thousands of acres of lettuce, organically, had a big problem.  In 2006 they had a bacterial outbreak in spinach that they produced, and many people got sick, and at least one died. 

One of the people who work for this farm (for this company, ) talked about the fact that they really didn't know how the infection got to their lettuce; that wild pigs a mile away had tested positive for it and that it had been found at a supplier to their farm, but the couldn't figure out how the infection had gotten to their field. 

They went on to say that they had taken all sorts of measures to try to reduce the contamination; they have raked bare dirt areas around their field so that they can detect animal tracks; they don't plant under powerlines because birds like to roost there; they don't harvest anything within (5, 25, 50') of any suspected animal contact, and so on, and at the end, they admitted that there wasn't really anything that they could do.  At some point, unless they grow the food indoors; that would reduce the chance of contamination. 

A few months ago I was talking to a cherry grower in eastern Washington.   He had an equipment trailer that I was interested in, and I drove out to his orchard to take a look at it.   As I looked over the trailer and the tires and thought about it, I asked him about an odd fence that I'd see around some of his cherry trees. 

The fence was high -- maybe 8' high, but it was only around some trees.  Why was that? 

He explained that he'd put it up a few years ago because deer were coming into his orchard to eat the cherry trees, and then explained that he should have taken it down, but he hadn't gotten around to it. 

Why?  Are deer no longer a problem?  "No", he said, "I was required by the company that buys my cherries to exclude all animals from my entire orchard, so I built a fence around my entire property.  "

What do you mean, animals?  Deer -- anything else?  "All animals, " he said "I can't even let my dog run through the orchard; we can't graze cattle there anymore, and in fact we're required to keep records of animal contacts".  

I visited a containment hog farm in Nebraska in the early 2000s; and I was required to change my clothes, shoes, and wash before I could enter.  It was almost an operating room sort of situation.  "We have good biosecurity here! " the farmer explained, and said because the immune systems of the pigs he was raising had not been challenged that his growth rates were between 10 and 15% better than similar pigs with immune challenges.  But the other side of this was that if ANYTHING got into that barn, nothing would have any resistance to it at all, and there would be terrible consequences.  So he scrubbed in and out each day to maintain that sterility. 

In the first two examples here I talked about our food system being modified to remove "challenges" from our diet; sources of contamination that might cause illness or death. 

In the third example I talked about a system that has reached that nirvana of naivete; a confinement pig operation, where none of the animals were bothered by contagion or challenge of any sort. 

When we as a species get to the point where we are too clean, there are unexpected results.  I'm going to point to Polio as a good example of that. 

Polio is an extremely ancient disease; it's been around for a very long time.  At the start of the 20th century we had a population that became the cleanest, most hygienic that the world had ever seen, and Polio was  major scourge.     It struck with more frequency, and with more ferocity, than it had ever before in history.  Polio had mutated...

Or had it?  "Polio is a disease of cleanliness"; it turns out that the virus was present virtually everywhere, and prior to modern cleanliness standards, most children got it very young, as an unexplained fever which quickly left, and left little or no permanent damage. 

When we get too clean we are the pigs in that barn in Nebraska.  We become susceptible to things that people who aren't quite as clean just shrug off. 

It turns out that if your immune system is exposed to challenges at a young age it is much more robust than it is if it is exposed to the same stimulus at a later age, and in fact, it never matches the immune system of earlier exposed individuals. 

Fertility is the opposite of sterility.  The next time you see your child covered in mud, smile and know that asthma is being held at bay.  If you see a little dirt on that carrot -- accept it.

If you see a recall of spinach... well...

Accept fertility.   It's a natural part  of our existence.  Accept the risks that are included, too. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Customer feedback

 Kyle bought some bluebutt piglets from me about 6 weeks ago, and is pasturing them on his farm.  He's got a family milk cow already, and these guys are getting 5 gallons of milk a day (that's surplus milk; Kyle has a large family and they drink a bunch, too.

 "hi bruce
the pigs are growing really well. we've had them for 6 weeks so they are about 12 weeks old
they are in their 5th paddock of grass and drinking about 5 gallons of milk a day
the felmley family in bellingham "

I like his setup -- simple and easy to maintain.  Electronet for electric fencing, a hog panel bent into a U shape with a tarp over it, and grass.  Lovely. 

Thanks for the business, Kyle.  I'm glad you're enjoying your pigs. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

market notes, April 2012

This last 7 days have been pretty packed; we've sold 173 weaner pigs to a variety of individuals; the biggest single sale was 12 pigs; the average is probably 4.  A week ago I was thinking I had too many pigs, and now I'm thinking I have two few.

We have people waiting on 300 more weaners, which we should be able to fill around the first of the month, and then we're pretty solidly in BBQ pig season; delivering the first pig May 19th, and then two or three a week after that all the way through august.   That part of the business is growing, too. 

To have this many weaners I had to make a guess what the demand would be last year, and it looks like I guessed correctly.  If anything, I was conservative; the demand for weaned pigs is huge this year.  I have people driving 5 hours to get pigs.  

I haven't written about the sheep recently because, well, there's not much to write about.  They eat grass and suckle their lambs and generally take care of themselves on pasture.  I look at them every day to make sure that they're ok, and once a week I look at their hooves and think about trimming them, but they're doing ok.  Our lamb survival this year has been excellent; fingers crossed, we haven't lost any.  The eagles haven't been showing interest, and our coyote prevention measures seem to be good so far. 

I reached an agreement with a nearby landowner that I could graze their 17 acre parcel this year; so I purchased 10 steers at the auction to put out to pasture.  The steers are 400lbs or so; I'll graze them into the fall and probably sell most of them.  I am finding that I prefer an older cow for beef; 2 to 3 years old is a pretty good age, so for me, raising beef is a bit like putting a bottle of wine away to age.  It gets better with time. 

The landowner agreement is pretty simple:  I fence and run the cattle, and at the end of the year, I give them a half a beef.  So my cast cost for a 17 acre parcel is about $200 for a year.  That's a good deal. 

The weather this year is supposed to be neutral; not la nina, like this year (cold and wet and rainy) nor el nino (warmer and drier) but somewhere in the middle.  That sounds good, but it's in the neutral years that we get the biggest storms for reasons I cannot figure out.  So I've intensified my search for evacuation land for my animals in the event of flood, and surprisingly enough, I've found a 2 acre parcel that comes complete with a concrete-floored 30x40 barn, electricity and water for a price that I like.  Best of all it's adjacent to some of my property, but off the flood plain.  Perfect.  I'm making an offer this week. 

At the end of this week 7 pigs go to the custom slaughter shops, sold to customers who want local pork. 

Compared to last year at this time, our gross sales are up 30%.  I think that people are starting to feel better about their finances and the economy; I'm starting to see more spending, and a little less price resistance.  It's a welcome change from 2008 or 2009.  We're still not well, but it feels like we're on the mend. 

"farm-dreams guide to profitable homesteading"

I've written about Natures Harmony farms / Tim and Liz Young a few times; basically that they talk a lot about farms and profits when none of their ventures appear to have made one; and that their animal husbandry choices aren't what most farmers would choose to do,given the same choices.  You can read more details if you'd like here.

So they've written a booklet this time, "The farm-dreams guide to profitable homesteading" and they're peddling it on amazon.  I wrote the following review:

"Dusty Bottoms" is a pseudonym of Tim and Liz Young. While they have many opinions on farming and have dabbled in it for a few years now, they've never had any of their ventures last more than a year or two, and as near as I can tell and in my opinion, none of them have produced any profit.

It's a lot easier to talk about farming than to actually do it. Take what is written here with a grain of salt, please.

You'll find my review (and some very critical comments about me and my review:) here.  (link now broken, see updates, below)

Update:  "T.J", who appears to be Tim Young, has deleted his comments about my review and has now purchased his own book so that he can be an "amazon verified purchase", after I pointed out to him that it was a little embarrassing to be "reviewing" a book you'd never purchased.

Update 2: Tim has managed to get my review, above, deleted.  Amazing.  It even erased it from my amazon profile; that's very sneaky, amazon.  If you delete peoples reviews, what good is what is left?
At the time of deletion, 5 of 7 people found my review helpful.  The next-most-helpful review had 2 votes.

Update 3:  I've reposted my review.  link broken, see update #4  Wonder how long it will last?   Amazon support emailed me and said that the removal of my review was "due to a technical error" and that the review was within their guidelines.  And it seems that most folks agree with it.

Update 4:   My review was removed,  here's the email from amazon support:

Your recent review for "The Farm-Dreams Guide to Profitable Homesteading" was found to reveal personal information that is not publicly available. In order to help customer make informed choices, we encourage them to review the product and information related to it. However, reviews which violate our guidelines or conditions of use will be removed.

It's a big secret that Tim and Liz are really dusty bottoms and farm-dreams, eh?  Ok.  Shhh!  Don't tell anyone!   

In my opinion half the reviews written are by the authors; no "real name" tag on their names, none of them have any other history or reviews, and they're all glowing reports.  Tim has a lot of time on his hands, I think.  Maybe you should make some more cheese there, Tim.  Idle hands and all that. 

Monday, April 16, 2012

Profitable farming: Sausage scheme (continued)

To see the previous sausage scheme entry, click here.

In the previous entry, I talked at length about bringing pigs to market in a way that made the farm more money.

Kelly Johnson made a very astute observation, which I'll quote here (from the comments section of the first post)

"...Let me first say I have no experience in marketing pork to consumers (yet). With that said I believe a major factor in your decision that was not listed in your blog is what would you get for the hog without going the extra step in making it into sausage...."

When you raise hogs, your choices become either wholesale, or retail.

  I have advised many people not to take their pigs to auction; the results in this area are highly variable; and the market isn't big enough to even it out.   A good pig at auction will get between $0.60 and $0.80 per pound, live weight. 

So for a 280lb live weight pig I'd expect to get at auction somewhere between $168 and $224.  If i had purchased feed and a piglet, that pig would have cost me at least $271 (see previous post) to produce.  So selling at auction would net me a loss in raising that pig of between $103 and $47

I have sold pigs at auction, and still do, from time to time.  They are often animals that have some sort of issue that makes them unthrifty for my farm (slow to grow, inefficient gain, physical defect like hernia, or treatment that makes it unsuitable for sale at my farm), and it is possible to make money at auction sales, but in terms something that I would count on, I'd rule auctions out as a regular market for my pigs. 

The prices at auction represent a recognition by the market that the pigs being sold may have some sort of issue.  You see good animals at the auction, too -- but the market can't tell the difference and prices them accordingly. 

I do not recommend that people plan on selling their production at auction except in limited circumstances.   If someone told me that a farm was regularly selling at auction I would immediately think that they needed to change something about the farming to make that less likely.

Whole or half, direct to consumer
  This is how I currently sell the majority of my production.  I charge $2.25/lb hanging weight for the pig, and the customer pays the cut-and-wrap and kill fees.  

  A 280lb pig will yield a carcass that is 210lbs hanging weight, which I get $472.5 from.  Subtracting the cost of raising the pig ($271) I get a gross profit of $201.5

This is where another comment from the previous post comes in.  Bill Gauch said:

"Seems like you're missing a big cost item in your math. Labor cost is missing."

The additional labor required for this particular method of sale is very little.  We select the pig to be marketed, schedule in the farm kill guy, and the farm kill guy and the meat shop handle the rest.   Having many retail customers is perhaps the most stable sales platform you can build your business on. 

Whole or half, direct to the meat shop
What happens with most of the area meat shops is that they get customers who want a whole or half pig, and call the meat shop seeking one.  The meat shop doesn't have pigs; I have pigs.  So I become basically the "house brand" pig.  One of my pigs gets customer slaughtered for the customer, who picks it up at the meat shop.   The sale is arranged by the meat shop and they pay a lower price than the consumer does; usually around 30% lower.  Using the same 280lb pig, I'd  have a gross profit of $140 per pig. 

Each of those methods has its advantages and disadvantages.  The auction is the most certain way to sell a pig.  If you have a customer cancel an order and suddenly have too many pigs, if you have a pig you can't sell at your farm, if you need to liquidate some animals for cash, it's the pawn shop of farming.

Whole or half direct to the consumer involves marketing and salesmanship, which many people don't like; it often involves creativity, and can involve quite a bit of handholding.  Customer expectations for levels of communication, questions, people who can't make up their minds; all of the stuff involved in retail sales come into play here -- and all of that is labor cost.  You earn the extra money.
Whole or half to a meat shop gets you a profit, and the meat shop handles all of the customer interaction.  I am now supplying pork to three meat shops in the area this way, and it is a relatively painless way for me to sell my pork; I can concentrate on my farm and practices and not so much on retail sales or customer care.  Um, strike that.  I go from many customers to a few.  My customers become the meat shops.  I still have to care for customers, just different customers.    I don't have to explain my product to the meat shops.  They know the value of meat, and they know I need to make a profit, and it's mutually beneficial that we treat each other fairly.   There is also a risk in having fewer, large customers. 

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Progress on the milk cow (family milk cow project)

To go to the first dairy cow entry, click here.
To see the previous dairy cow entry, click here.
To see the next dairy cow entry, click here.

My little holstein heifer

I should probably name this little cow, but I haven't yet; it's funny, but that's something that I carry over from pigs.  I try my best not to name the pigs because I get too attached to them.  It's a little different with a milk cow; I expect her to be here for many years.

She's used to the halter now, balking now and then at things that only cows see.  lines on the ground are a problem.  Shadows sometimes.   The biggest breakthrough was developing a daily routine and sticking to it.  Not a problem for her, a problem for me.  Most animals I think are comforted by knowing what is going on, and have things become routine.

For this little cow, the routine is that I come and find her, and clip on her lead, and then lead her around for a while, eventually leading her to her ration of grain.  The routine is to be led around by the lead; I don't really want her to associate a particular place with feeding right now, as it's handy to have her just trustingly trot along behind and wait patiently when tied somewhere.

She does have horn buds, and having experienced full-sized cows with horns, I'm not a big fan.   I'm going to call a veterinarian in to dehorn her because I've never done it myself, and I'd like to have someone show me how it's done.

They are not particularly mean with their horns, but full-sized cows don't realize how big and hard their heads are sometimes, and you can get knocked out by her swinging her head around to get rid of a pesky fly.  Having her have horns just makes it worse. 

I did call the vet in to check her, vaccinate and worm her; that cost around $140, which seems high, but I'm a believer in vaccines.  One of the vaccines was for tetnus - which takes about 10 days to work.  So I put off the dehorning until that shot was effective.

So I've invested about $650 into this little girl so far; and I'm having to convince myself that spending money at this stage is wise, that it's a long term investment.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Profitable farming: The sausage scheme

For the most part, my farm and procedures have settled down to a fairly stable routine.  Over the past 6 years I've worked out how to feed the animals, where to feed them, how to treat them, house them and how to sell them. 

Each part of that chain feed->house->care for->sell has  gone through revisions; I'd try something, and work with it a while to see how it went, and then if it works I'd adopt that practice.  if it didn't, I'd go back to what worked before. 

Part of that is the engineer training, where you do a lot of work refining an initial idea.  In software it's called version1, version 2, version 3 and so on. 

I've been working up to a new direction for the farm for the last two years; the area that I'd like to improve is the sale of animals.  I don't really want to produce more animals; I'm about the size that I'd like to be, but I would like to make more money per animal sold -- to increase the amount of money that the farm makes as a net profit. 

Lots of farms choose to keep their profit per animal the same and just increase the number of animals that they produce, and there's a logic in that argument. 

If you increase the number of animals produced, you don't have to do anything different.  The same procedures and technology (and make no mistake, your farm procedures are technology) remain the same, you just have larger numbers.   

That's fine, and in fact, is how our agricultural industry has moved to a confinement style of farming; the basic argument is that you can then minimize the amount of land (one of the more costly things on your farm) used to produce your product.  Less capital, more revenue, better ROI

In my type of farming, expansive, I  provide the animals with much more space and habitat.  So for me to double my output would require, if I were to do the same sorts of things I'm doing now,  that I double the amount of land I'm farming. 

It's a pretty seductive argument, and is easier than what I've been contemplating; let me give you a little more background to what I'm thinking: 

Instead of producing more animals, lets look at what we really want to do:  Make more money.  And in fact, we'd like to so in a way that is as invisible to the customer as we can.  Ideally, we'd like to make more money and have the customer think that the product is either the same cost or even to have the consumer think that it's cheaper than it used to be or cheaper than the alternative food supplies.  If we can convince the customer that it's cheaper and better the chances are good that they'll stick with us for the long haul.  And happy customers are the basis for any business, including farming.  

Kevin Kossowan wrote a blog entry the other day where he talks about upgrading his families food  to much better quality than he could buy at the supermarket, and the the fact that it actually REDUCED his food bill by doing so.  Now that's the reaction that I'd  like my customers to have.  That is the ideal reaction.  That's the reaction that I'd like to have for my customers, too.

So I don't want to raise customer prices; or better yet, I'd like to reduce their prices, but I'd like to make more money.  For me, the answer is pretty obvious:  I have to sell direct to the consumer, and  in fact, I need to concentrate on a product that the customer will pay a high price for that has margins big enough that I can play with pricing a little as a marketing tool.

Up to this point I'm talking about the general concept; what I've said above applies to any agricultural product you might produce; eggs, milk, cheese, beef, pork, poultry...  now I'm going to get specific about pork.  

If you ask someone to talk about the best part of the pig, you'll get a list.  It goes something like this:
  1. Bacon
  2. Ham
  3. Ribs
  4. Everything else
Bacon and hams are easy to sell.  And then there's the rest.  Sausage, for me, is the clear winner.  Most of the pig can be made into sausage, and fresh sausage is relatively easy to produce.  The recipes are simple, and the equipment pretty straightforward.    A bowl chopper, a mixer, a stuffer and a workspace.

But even better the consumer pays more for sausage in most cases than they do for the whole cuts.  Let me repeat this:  Sausage often sells for more retail than any part of the pig other than the hams and bacon.  So just converting the pig into sausage gives you a boost in revenue.

Much simpler inventory, too.  

So I've been exploring sausage, and there are various companies that will take my pigs and produce sausage from the pork, but I just haven't been able to make the math work yet. it just doesn't pencil out.    Here's some real numbers from my experience, assuming that I purchase the feed at current cost to produce the pigs. 

1 pig takes 800lbs of feed at $0.22/lb to produce.  The pig itself retails as a piglet for $95 around here.  So my cost of production (ignoring land, equipment, labor, fencing, bedding, etc etc) is at least $271 per pig with purchased feed. 

For $271 I get a 280lb live weight hog.   To produce a value-added product, I have to have it slaughtered at a USDA inspected facility, which costs $60 (I'm ignoring the transport costs; maybe I have a mobile trailer come to my farm). 

so my cost is now $331, and that gets me 220lbs of inspected pork. 
I then have it cut-and-wrapped at a USDA inspected facility, which costs me $0.61/lb.  Since I'm making sausage, I have them trim the hams and belly, and convert the rest into sausage. 

220lbs * $0.61 is an additional $135.81. 

My cost is now $465.81, and I now have 165lbs of mostly boneless cuts.  Lets say that the hams are 40lbs of that, and that the bacon is 30lbs of that.  That leaves 95lbs for sausage. 

The hams and bacon have to be cured, and then smoked.  Local costs for that are about a dollar a pound.  Add $70 to my cost, and then the place that produces the sausage charges $2/lb to do that.  Add another $190. 

Still with me?   My total cost is now $625.81, and for that I have 70lbs of cured meat, and 95lbs of sausage.  My average price  per pound is a minimum of $3.79/lb

...Which isn't bad at all when you look at it from a consumer point of view.  Good quality pastured pork that is completely cut and wrapped and cured, cook and eat.  Yum!

What I've talked about are the hard costs to produce this.  I'll need to mark it up to make a profit;  so with a hard cost of $3.79 a pound, what would I have to charge to make a profit?  What's a reasonable margin? 

Friday, April 13, 2012

farming unicorns - no input farms

My input pile - discarded fruits and vegetables

A term that is used online to mean "something that is very, very difficult to find" is sometimes called a "unicorn".  

There's a popular theory on farming that I consider a unicorn -- that is, a farm that requires no outside resources.

Sometimes this means just that they raise their own animals; sometimes it means that not only do their raise their own animals, they also grow their own feed.  Taking it one step further, not only do they raise their own animals and feed, but they take the manure or other stuff that they produce (whey, waste vegetables, anything that the farm produces) and use that to create more fertility, closing the cycle.

People who talk about this sort of unicorn do so with a sort of reverence.  The closer you get to the complete cycle, apparently, the most holy your farm.  The more correct.  The more ecologically sound.

Low input is a source of pride for some farmers.  You see this a lot on folks who raise grass fed livestock;  grass grows, animals eat it, manure is produced, which goes back into grass and the cycle repeats.

The problem with this idea is when you remove the grazing animal and eat it, or sell it, you're removing a big bunch of fertility from your farm.

Cutting hay off your fields and selling it removes nutrients.  Raising a crop of lettuce and selling it does, too.  In fact, if you sell anything off your farm you're breaking the cycle.

Farms cope with this sort of slow leak in a variety of ways.  On the larger farms, fossil resources are used to put nutrients back in.  Petroleum based fertilizers; mined potash from ancient deposits, manure from a variety of sources.

 On a small farm, like mine, I take great pains to collect and compost as much organic material as I can, and I'm very successful at producing great soil.

Human societies are interdependent.  Trade has been a way of life for hundreds of thousands of years.  Modern farming is a form of that ancient trading.  I buy hay from them, they buy pigs from me.

The disconnect in our modern society is that our waste products no longer go back to the farm.   2,000 years ago when someone ate a pig, I'm pretty sure that most of the time the nutrients from that pig stayed pretty close to where the pig was raised.

Now those waste products go into the sewer, and out, and away.  My farm will never see them again.  And isn't that a little bit sad?   

And truth be told, I'd be a little afraid of modern sewer sludge.  Drugs, hormones, pollutants... yucky.

So I don't know how to fix the big picture, but I do know what I'm doing.  For the vegetables and fruits and other food that I feed my pigs, I'm closing the cycle as much as I can.  I'm taking those good nutrients and putting them to good use, and building the fertility of my land. 

I think about the rice paddies in asia that are fertilized with human manure, which sounds bad, right?  But it's the perfect cycle.  It's what worked for tens of thousands of years.  And we can do that again.    And we probably should.

One other point that all of these "no input farms" seem to miss is that, well, there are all sorts of inputs to their farm.  Start with their shoes.  Unless you grow rubber trees, the latex in them is probably an input.  The house they live in -- did they grow the trees, too?  Mill them on site?  And if they did so, did they use energy that they made themselves to run that sawmill?  And how about the saw blade itself?   The driveway gravel?  The doornobs on their house?  All inputs. 

No input is popular speaking point, a politically correct point of view.  And a unicorn. 

Here's an editorial in the ny times, "The myth of sustainable meat", which basically complains that unicorns don't exist.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Retail weaner pigs - odd question

This is the HOT time to be selling small pigs.  A "weaner" pig is one that has just been weaned off the sow and is eating solid food -- ready to go to its new home.    We have 500 weaner pigs that are a few weeks from being weaned, and I'm working on selling them to all sorts of different folks who want to raise their own pigs.   Busy time. 

I think that I've answered 70 weaner-pig related emails today; most are pretty simple; what breed of pig, how old are they, how much do they weigh, do you have any pigs left..  all sorts of questions.  But one email stood out because I just didn't understand what they were looking for. 

"Have your pigs been vaccinated, and how are they housed?" 

Ok, the vaccination question I understand, but this is the first time I've been asked that by maybe 200 people who've emailed me this year.   About the only reason I can think of to ask that is if the farm that is buying the pigs has an issue with something and needs animals that are vaccinated against that.   Most people who buy pigs don't ask that answer.  In fact, this is the first time that I've been asked that question by anyone, and I've sold hundreds of weaners this year already. 

" are they housed?"

This is an odd question.    I explained that small pigs need shelter at this time of year, and that the pigs are only a week or two old (the ones that I'm advertising) and that they need shelter and warmth because they're just little guys. 

I also included a link to the blog (Hi if you're reading this!) but I'm not sure what they're asking.  What response would make them happy?  What would make them unhappy? 

Odd question. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

growing a milk cow (Family milk cow project)

To see the previous cow entry, click here.  
To see the next cow entry, click here

When I read things on the internet, I can't help but be a little skeptical about what is written.  Anyone can write anything they want, and there's often no way to tell what is someones opinion and what is fact. 

Who can you trust about animal information? 
When I'm looking at information about animals, I tend to rely heavily on articles or studies that are written by either universities or SARE.  Universities because they are usually the least financially involved in the subject being studied, and SARE because the topics that they study are often closest to the small farm situation that I'm in.    What I'm going to write about here is drawn from a number of sources, but mostly from this study, from the Virginia Cooperative extension, a publication of Virgina State University.    I mean no disrespect to anyone, and in fact, the study confirms a lot of what I've read on blogs about dairy cows. 

First, I need to figure out a way to easily weigh my cow.  Since I don't have a scale, and I don't want to pay $600 to $1000 for a scale, I'm going to use a $5 cow measuring tape, which I think is a good solution.   Since I purchased this cow at auction I know the weight of the cow -- they weighed it prior to sale.  Which is good, because I'd like to verify that the tape really works. 
The dairy cow weigh tape is basically a cloth measuring tape with information printed on it.  In the top picture I'm measuring her heart girth, 2" behind the front legs.  In the bottom picture you can see that the tape is indicating that this cow is between 421 and 444 pounds.  (Click on the picture for a bigger version so you can see the numbers)

Dairy cow math - warning!  cow geek information follows

That compares well with the auction-reported weight of 415 pounds, so as an estimate the tape appears to be pretty good.

The reason that I want to be able to track the weight is so that I can manage her growth rate.  If she grows too fast, or too slow I'm going to want to change her feed situation appropriately.  I'm also going to be breeding her by weight, not by age.

I'm making that decision because I don't know her exact age.  The seller reported that she was born in October, about 6 months ago, and in fact, she's right at the average weight for a 6 month old holstein heifer.  From here on I want her to have steady growth, not too fast, not too slow, until she reaches a good breeding weight.   And during her pregnancy she needs to continue to gain weight at about the same rate while growing the calf. 

I'd also like to breed her so that she calves at at time of year that works for me, and for my farm, and for my grass; so I've got a little bit of a deadline, too.

At a weight of 420 pounds, I have another 310 pounds to put on her before she's bred.  But it's not as simple as that.  From the study:

"There is a critical period when overfeeding can have a detrimental effect on udder development. This begins at about 3 months of age and ends at puberty or approximately 9 to 10 months of age. This is referred to as the allometric period of mammary growth. During this period, udder growth and development is 3.5 times that of other body systems. Studies indicate that when overconditioning during this period occurs, mammary secretory or milk producing tissue in the udder is greatly reduced and replaced with fat. Temporary periods of rapid gain after puberty are acceptable and may allow compensatory adjustments for weight gain to our target at 24 months and weighing 1350 pounds the day of calving. However, ADG's should be limited to not exceed 1.7 lbs. per day during this 3 to 9 months of age period. "

ADG is Average Daily Gain.  I need to manage her so that she doesn't gain more than that per day.  So I need to add 310 pounds to her at a max of 1.7 pounds a day, which gives me a rough goal of 182 days from now, or 6 months.  Which means that the recommended time I can breed her will be in October.

Having learned this, this is a reason that you might consider buying a calf that is 3 months old if you want to control its milk-cow potential during this critical period.  My little heifer looks like she's right on the average growth line for holsteins, so I think I'm good there.  

So if I breed her in October, I'll be calving in  July.

Is that a good time of year to calve?    That's a question for you dairy cow folks.   In a commercial dairy I suspect that they'd just calve as soon as they could given the limitations above.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Animal health and treatment

I was reading another blog, and the author was promoting the idea of having animals live a "natural" life -- which to that author means to allow the animal to die if it gets sick.   They went on at length about this, and said that they'd lost more than a thousand chickens and turkeys while they came up with a flock that doesn't have any disease. 

Is that a choice that you would make?    Would you feel comfortable with a farm that did that?  Buy their products, for instance?

Would your opinion change if you could vaccinate the flock and not have any incidence of that disease? 

Would it change if it was something other than poultry?  Sheep, goats, pigs, cows? 

The author claims to be open to different opinions; says that, but never actually allows them.  Since there's no discussion there, I'm interested in hearing your opinion here.  

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


I was turning my compost pile and noticed... worms!  Lots of worms.  Thousands of them!
I was a little amazed; I don't see this sort of worm population in the other soil.  Glad to see the little critters; for me, it's a sign of good, rich soil. 

Welcome, worms!

Monday, April 2, 2012

My heifer and I see eye to eye (Family milk cow project)

To see the previous post from the family milk cow project, click here.  
To see the next post in the milk cow project, click here

An inqusitive nose and rough holstein tongue

I think I should talk a bit about my experience here.  I have NO experience with dairy cows.  I've never milked a cow.  I've never bred a cow.  I do have a few steers around that I bottle fed, and that I eat, but a dairy cow is different, so what I'm talking about here is my theory about cows, but you can rest assured that there are lots of folks who know a heck of a lot more about dairy cows than I do.    I have a basic understanding of cows from having kept those steers for a few years, but dairy cow management is new to me.   

With a steer, if you have good fences, you wean it, and then put it out to pasture.  Some minerals, some basic care, look at the trough every now and then, rotate the grazing area.  Its pretty straightforward, and you really don't have to get very close to them.  Since my calves were bottle babies they were pretty friendly -- too friendly -- but I don't have to get close to them, nor do I really have to handle them much.  There's the grass, go enjoy yourselves, steers!

With a dairy cow it's a much more intimate relationship; you'll be handling her probably twice a day for 10 months of the year for the next 5 or 10 years.  I want her to be sweet and gentle and trusting because I don't want to be kicked any more than I have to.  and I'm guessing I'll get kicked anyway, but I'm hoping I won't be. 

This little cow has had a pretty stressful auction day; I didn't get her back to the farm until long after dark, and so I gave her some hay and water and left her in the trailer until morning. 

I don't own a horse, and never have; I've never used a halter.  I guess it's fair, because this little cow has never seen a halter either.  A trip to the feed store and $10 later, I've got a halter.  I chose 20' of 5/8" poly rope as a lead rope.  It's soft, has a working load of about 300lbs, and holds knots well.  Plus I know that 20' gives me the chance to do a body belay if I need to.  The cow does weigh 400lbs, after all, and if she gets going, that's a lot of force. 

The goal of this is to teach the cow to respect a halter and a rope.  My plan was to put the halter on, tie a rope to the halter, and then snub the rope off something in the trailer.  She'd find out that she was being restricted, and pull on the rope, and hopefully learn pretty quickly that this was a bad idea. 

She's a pretty curious, friendly girl, and after a few minutes I was able to stand beside her and scratch her ears and back; she seemed to enjoy that; and I reached over her head, and slipped the halter onto her from the bottom; a little surprise jerk, but it was on, and a couple of seconds later...  I found that the halter was much too big. 
My high-tech halter modification tool:  A heated nail

I got an idea of where it needed to be adjusted, and then used a heated nail to melt new holes for 3" on either side of the halter strap.  Back to the little cow who had an idea of what I was after, and a couple of tense minutes later I had the halter back on and snug.  Ok.  That wasn't too bad. 

Mind you, this is the first time that she's ever had a halter, and I let her get used to the idea for a while, and then tie the lead rope on.  I use a bowline because it's easy to untie after its been stressed, and for some reason I think that it might get some stress. 
Whew.  No one got hurt, she's calm, I'm calm.  Life is good.  Now for the education time.

I tie her off to the middle gate in the trailer, and gradually shorten the rope until she notices that she's tied.  I watch carefully to make sure that she's not hurting herself, because I'm not sure how she'll react.  She might panic; I just don't know.  There is some frantic backing up, and then some side to side and she clearly doesn't like it at all, but after about 15 minutes, she calms down, and after another 15 minutes seems resigned to being tied.
So out of the trailer we go; I'm walking my cow!  Well... she's walking me!  She's got a pretty strong pull with her four legs, and I'm doing the body belay, and I'm really glad I got 20' of rope. 

We have a 10 minute discussion via the rope about appropriate cow behavior, and when we come to an agreement, she seems to have learned that fighting the rope is useless.  So far this has been simpler than teaching a puppy to be on a leash.  I'm pretty surprised. 
So I lead her over to a nice patch of grass in the pasture, and tie her to a handy telephone pole. 
So here's where she sits for 90 minutes.  She doesn't like the rope and spends part of the time pulling against the telephone pole and part of the time grazing.  I watch her the entire time; I'm worried that she'll get the rope tangled around her or will bolt and hurt herself, and she does get tangled a couple of times, but nothing major, and after 3 hours, I'm very happy with the progress. 

I'll work with her every day until I'm confident that she understands and respects the halter; later I'll use the halter to hold her while I'm milking her.  I want her to be used to being tied and led. I want her to recognize that when she's haltered its time to be calm and relaxed. 

Repetition and consistency will get me that result.  I'm pretty happy with day 2.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The family milk cow project

To see the next post in the family milk cow project, click here

What I'd like to have is a cow that is basically a family milk cow; to experiment with cheese making, to feed babies that can't be with mom - we end up with piglets from time to time that we need to bottle feed - and to provide fresh milk and butter for my family.

I haven't done it before because I needed to concentrate on the pig part of my farm, to get that under control and running smoothly, and to spend the time it took to really understand pigs; 5 years later I've got a pretty good handle on it, and things are running smoothly.  Time for a new project. 

A family milk cow is a long-term project; a good cow will give you gallons of milk every day for many years; a calf every year to raise, and I just like the idea continuing down the path of raising all of the food that my family eats.  We've got the meat part of the diet covered right now; I think it's time to do the dairy part. 

I've been interested in the idea of having a dairy cow for a few years, and have been watching Matron of husbandrys' blog as she has worked through the process of raising her milk cow, and I'm going to give it a try myself.

Matrons situation is that she had a milk cow that died, but the latest calf from it was a heifer, so she has been raising it as her new milk cow, and talking about the process.   It's been interesting to read about her progress on her blog.  At this point her new milk cow is about to calve, which is the point after which it'll start to produce milk for her. 

I don't have an existing milk cow, so I'm going to take a path that I think will be easier for others to follow.   Here' how I started. 

Spotting a likely heifer
I took a trip over to eastern Washington on Friday; I was buying some grape plants for a grape vineyard (I can't think of another word for a field of grapes, but I'm not growing them for wine, more on that later) and I stopped by one of the larger auctions on my way back. 

When I go to a livestock auction, the problem is that you often have no idea what you're buying, so what I do is arrive an hour or two early, and I watch the animals being unloaded.  When I see something that I'm interested in, I can grab the driver/owner/farmer and ask them about their animals.  Now you have to take what they're saying with a grain of salt, but for the most part you can get a feel for the animal from their owner, and from looking at the condition of their trailer and the animal itself. 

So I noticed three started holsteins being unloaded, and one of them looked like a heifer -- a young female cow.  Holsteins are the black and white cow that you see a lot as an iconic dairy cow.  Here's the little girl I saw:
There's a couple of things I liked from a distance:  She's clean; no manure on her butt; in good form, bright eyed and alert.  Moves easily.  So far so good.   I watched the guy unload, and then walked over and talked to him about the cows he'd unloaded; how old they were, where he got them, if he'd treated them for anything.  The story was pretty simple; he'd purchased three cows from a neighboring dairy that was retiring its herd, and all three were bred.  Two were boys, one a girl, and this little girl is 7 months old.   What are you doing with the cows?  Milking them, he said, but he shared the milk with the new calves -- so this girl was raised by her mother.     Why sell her?  Feed is expensive, three cows is all I can handle, he says.   Why sell at the general animal auction, and not at the dairy auction on Tuesdays?  I work, he says.  I can't get here during the week.

It rang true, but I did ask the name of the dairy, and checked it out with my iphone when I walked away.  Yep, newspaper story about the dairy closing, date matched...   So far so good. 

The risks of buying cattle at auction is that its pretty anonymous; you don't know who you're buying from; by catching the owner and being able to ask some questions, I had a big advantage over other bidders.  Alls fair, right? 

Started holstein heifers that weigh between 300 and 500lbs are selling right now for between $1.20 and $1.45 a pound; I looked this up on my phone as I watched a stream of goats and sheep and pigs get auctioned.  When this cow came up her weight was listed as 415lbs, which at the low end of the scale put her at $498 at auction, and at the high end put her at $600.  She was separated by the auctioneer from the two steers that she came with, and the bidding was on. 

Starting at $200, there were 8 bidders.  I wasn't happy to see that, but it had dropped down to 3 at $350, and then to two at $400. 

$475 bid and she was mine.   At that price I'm paying a little less than the lower end of the range, but it drove home that my initial price range was accurate, and I probably saved $50 or so vs going to the dairy auction.  Since I was there anyway, I figured it paid for the fuel.  Not a bargain, but the seller was probably happy with the transaction, too; hope he was.  Seemed like a nice guy. 

A good, active livestock auction will have consistent prices; there's no free lunch.  Yes, we all get a deal every now and then at an auction, but the reason that we all remember it is that it's so rare.  People who claim to get great prices at livestock auctions are like people who go to casinos and claim to win every time. 

If we'd made a deal in the parking lot there's always the suspicion that someone didn't get a fair deal; having gone through the auction, the seller is assured that they got the highest price they could have that day.

Next:  My little heifer and I see eye to eye