Tuesday, April 30, 2013


I received my packages of bees last saturday, and hived them the same day.  Here's a picture of my 4 hive setup.  .
 I get the plastic pallets from shipments of food that we receive.  I don't really have a very good market for them; I sell them for $1 each for folks to put under their hay, but they work great for holding up hives; pallets can hold up thousands of pounds of weight, and give you plenty of roof for two hives and a place to work.  I put down 4 pallets so that I don't have to bend over too much when I'm working with the bees, and only 4 so that I don't have to reach too high when I'm putting the supers on for honey later in the year. 

The hives are the green boxes.  The white boxes peeking over are extra supers that I'm storing there next to the hives.  The white "cap" is actually two parts; a thick styrofoam lid and a bee feeder.  These packaged bees come in with no food stores at all, so to give them a good start I feed them a simple syrup that is 1 part water to 1 part sugar, by weight.  Actually, granulated white sugar is about the same weight as water, by volume, so you can get pretty close just by measuring out the same volumes of water and sugar.  
 This is what the inside of one of the feeders looks like.  There's a clear plastic guard that is L shaped, and the bees crawl up and then over a wall to get to the syrup.  It's pretty normal to see a couple of hundred bees doing this when you open it up.  A feeder will hold about 5 gallons of the syrup, but I only put in a gallon at a time to keep it relatively fresh. 
 One of the hives just isn't figuring out the feeder though; only a few bees sipping it.  So I took the guard off and then scooped up some of the syrup and poured it down the crack that the bees enter through.  An hour later and they'd found it.  If they don't find and utilize the syrup it will really slow down their growth. 
 I hived them on Saturday, make sure that the queens had escaped their queen box on sunday and removed them, and then on monday checked to make sure that they were utilizing their syrup.  They were flying pretty well, and seemed very interested in pollen; there's apparently several sources nearby.  In the picture above you can see some yellow pollen on the legs of the bee. 
 In the picture above you can see some florescent orange pollen that they found somewhere.  I think it's salmon berry; that's the only thing that is that particular color of orange that comes to mind.  You can see several bees carrying it.  Click the picture for a bigger version. 
 I did notice that several of the bees were fanning; which is what they do when they think that the hive is too hot, or that it's too humid, so I removed the hive entrance limiters for a couple of hours to allow them to adjust their temperature and humidity more easily. 
Looking forward to working with the bees again this year. 

Still life, with dogs

When I thought about farming, I had a lot of ideas about what it would be like.  One thing that I really enjoy, a simple pleasure, is just sitting still somewhere on the farm; and it's exactly what I need sometimes.  So today I sat out in one of my fields and looked at the growing grass and watched my dogs play.

Friday, April 26, 2013

New farm purchase -- 10 days and counting to close?

New farm purchase
I've been working on closing on the new property for the last two weeks, and in the last 7 days it's gotten more complicated.   I've purchased property before, and like property as an investment, but what I'd do in the past is save my money until I had enough to make a purchase, and buy the property with cash.  

Yes, it takes a while, years, but when you're talking about property cash has its own magic powers, and it's nice to not have to pay for private mortgage insurance, points or other costs associated with getting a loan.

With this property, I've supplied all sorts of documentation to two banks now; bank statements, proof of funds, explanation of where the funds came from, proof of income, tax returns, credit report (and I paid the $47 parking ticket I'd forgotten about) and so on.  I've signed affidavits, releases, consents and a variety of other documents; and at this point we are probably within 10 days of closing.  It's frustratingly slow, and it seems like I have spent weeks chasing around this paper, or that one.  
visualize farm.  focus on farm.  farm will close.  the white dots on the left horizon are round hay bales.  this is about 40 acres.
It's complicated by the fact that I see the planting season slipping away week by week.  I've worked out an agreement with the fellow who leased the land last year for him to put corn in on 55 acres, and he's been out there plowing and discing the field in preparation, and I have to say that I'm really, really looking forward to having that much space to work with next year.  

My original plan was to close in February or March and have this field in pasture by the time summer rolled around, June or July.  Leasing it for this year means I'll probably frost seed it after the corn is chopped.  I will be doing some test plots to see what I can grow here; I'd really, really, like alfalfa (Lucerne to you, Brett!) and there are various strains that grow well, but no one else is growing it, and there's probably good reason for it.  Most folks around here use orchard grass as their primary pasture grass.  

I've already got the survey in hand, and as soon as I can close I'll start the boundary line adjustment for phase II of the farm acquisition plan; putting the house on a couple of acres, and the refinancing the house.

Part of my concern is that I'd like my dairy cow to have her calf on this property.  The cow facilities here are great -- it was a 300 cow dairy farm, after all -- and it'll be easier to keep and maintain her and the other cows here than it has been on my current farm.    

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Conversations about farming

I drove up to the feed mill in Conway, about 20 minutes north of my farm, to pick up a sack of feed, and stopped in at the conway pub for lunch.    Washington state has great seafood at odd places, and the oyster basket, pan fried oysters at the conway pub, are a favorite of mine.  Crispy and fresh, served with cocktail sauce and tarter sauce on a bed of fries.

It was pretty crowded, and I looked around, and decided I'd eat at the bar, and I ordered.   I feel like if I'm seated at the bar I have a bit of a license to listen to the conversations around me, and I heard the tail end of one...  "yea, when I got out of the navy, I was milking 40, and you just don't see anything under 500 any more.  "

The speaker was a white haired man, mid to late sixties, with the leather face that comes from being years in the sun, and he was dressed like a farmer, boots and baseball cap, with the name of a ship on the cap.  It's the sort of baseball cap worn by crew members for the ship they served on.  It was dark blue, and well-loved, that cap.

He was talking to a younger man, maybe mid 40s, and they went back and forth over various dairy related topics as I listened, and at an appropriate pause, I told them that I was working on buying a farm that had been a dairy, and had heard them talking about dairying.

Turns out that they owned a distribution company that distributed milk products to various stores in the area; their business card listed various brands of ice cream that you'd recognize, and that I did.  So we talked about dairying.  "If I were you, and I had a pig business that was profitable, I'd stay the heck out of dairying!", says the younger man, as the older nodded.  "It's a tough business, and I don't know any new dairies.  If you're not in it already, you really can't get into it."

We talked a bit about price; he knew what the price was for darigold, the biggest cooperative dairy organization around here, and I knew the price for organic valley, and he cautioned me that it might seem like I could compete with the big dairies, but that I would "have to buy milk at the same price as them eventually".

It took me 20 minutes to get what his thinking was.  Here's a summary:  He believes that a new dairy can only compete on price with larger dairies, and that all milk is basically the same, and further that anyone who gets into dairying wants to get as large as possible as quickly as possible.  The American dream, milk style.

One thing that I know for sure is that all milk is not the same, particularly drinking milk.  There's a pretty substantial difference in taste between milk brands, and there's absolutely a market for milk that tastes good. In fact, I won't buy mainstream  brands of milk anymore.  Once you know what good milk tastes like it makes the  other stuff completely unappealing.  

The basic concept, that a new farm can only compete on price, is what a lot of farmers think, and in fact, it's the easiest way to compete.   And size is the holy grail of farming for a lot of farmers.  They want to have a farm that is big enough to be able to work solely on the farm.  That's one reason we get huge, specialized farms.  They get really good at whatever they are doing and blow themselves up to do a lot of it.

Not making enough money on Sugar beets?  The solution, for a lot of farmers, is to get more acres and plant more beets.  That's not the only way to go, but it is a very popular choice.

I explained that I think that there's a market for quality, and that I would never compete on the basis of a lower price than some other farm.   I do that because I cannot beat our American specialist farms on price; there's a guy out there who raises 10,000 pigs with a fraction, a very small fraction, of my labor costs.   He can shave a penny thinner than I can any day of the week.  Fight the battle you can win.   I'm local; you can see how my pigs are housed and fed and treated; they have great lives doing pig things the whole time, and I'm absolutely local; all of my supplies are purchased locally if at all possible, and I support the local feed stores and farm infrastructure, and the folks who buy from me like that.

I could see this guys eyes glazing over, and I realized that I wasn't getting my point across.  I'm not sure that he understood my point.  

Friday, April 12, 2013

Buying a farm - financing and debt

I've been working on purchasing a new farm property for the last three months, and what I'm going to write about here is based on that experience; if you're looking to purchase a farm at some point, you might find this interesting. 

First, this may not be news to you, but it is to banks:  Farms are comprised of land.  With my farm purchase this became an issue because there's 70 acres of land.

This causes three problems:  First and foremost, the lenders in this area, and I suspect all over the country, are all set up to make mortgage loans on houses, and because of this specialization, anything that isn't a house on a small lot causes them problems.   Second, banks don't like to lend on bare land.  Third a large number of acres may make it impossible to finance due to fears that it will be an income-producing property. 

The banks role in a mortgage, in a simplistic sense, is to find the borrower and then make sure that the borrow conforms to various standards that are now in place.  They do this primarily so that they can take your loan and sell it to various entities that use them as income streams.  In order to be attractive in this secondary market, the loan has to conform to various standards, and the one that bites you with farm properties is that most of the loans are limited to 10 acres or less. 

Specialized Agricultural Lenders
What that meant in my case is that it restricted the lenders who could make the loan in the first place; either to a specialized lender, like Farm Credit Services or Janus Ag Finance, or to a local commercial bank like Coastal Community Bank

The terms offered by these specialized lenders are typically worse than any mortgage loan you can get.  For example, Farm Credit Services gave me a rough guideline of 35% down at closing, 15 year amortization and 5.5% interest rate, fixed.   The other financing options were similar in price; some had a little lower down payment (never below 30%) some higher (as much as 45%) and various amortizations, but never anything over 20 years. 

Some lenders -- Farm Credit again -- offered a rebate of the interest you paid as a dividend.  In their case, they offered .75% back, lowering your effective finance rate to 4.75%, which is actually a pretty good rate for this sort of loan.  

In this situation a local commercial bank can be your best bet.  They will often know the community and the situation, and can make a loan with that knowledge that a national or multinational bank can't or won't.  In my case the bank that owns the property has a name that seems like it's local, but it's actually a gigantic Japanese bank.  I asked them if they'd finance this purchase:  I got a flat NO; which I felt was odd because they already own the property, and it shows on their books as REO; we could have closed a loan months ago if they had. 

USDA programs
The USDA does offer loans and financing directly, and at rates that are at or below the rates offered by specialized ag lenders.  For more information on these, click here.   Some of these programs require that you be turned down by other lenders prior to applying; some have age restrictions (is that legal, btw?) and so on.  I chose not to pursue this path because I could qualify for a loan using standard resources, and the word is that these programs are both paperwork heavy and take a long, long time to close.    In retrospect, since I'm now at month four of my own loan process, maybe the wait is normal when you buy farms.  When I talked to folks they gave me a 4-6 month timeline,  which I thought I could beat with a conventional financing scenario. 

House and Land
I'm going to use numbers from my own property; they're public record, so there's no real secret there.   It's 69.5 acres of land, split into four tax parcels.  One 15 acre parcel has all of the buildings on it; the other three are mostly clear cropland, with maybe 2 acres of woods.  The county assessor calculates that these four parcels are worth $788k, including land and improvements. 

  I'm purchasing the property for $420k, and putting $170k down, leaving a balance of $250k that I'd like to finance.   Yep, 40% down based on purchase price.

What's it worth?
  In this area the county assessor actually does a pretty good job of calculating the value of the land; if anything they are a little conservative; when you look at sale prices vs assessed value, the sale prices are usually around 10% higher than the assessed value.   So there's an argument that this property is actually worth around $866k.

( If you'd like to read a pretty informative article on property assessments in this area written by another farmer, click here. She saved $250 a year by doing a couple of hours work. Pretty good pay. )

So the LTV (Loan To Value) ratio, based on assessed value, is pretty good; I'm actually only looking to finance 28% of the value of the property.  Since most residential loans will finance 80% of the value of the property, or 90%, or 95%, this is a pretty safe bet for the bank.  

But banks don't like bare land, and they don't use the assessed value, and if it's an income-producing property, or could be, our looks like it could be, or has more than about 10 acres, you are pretty much limited to the specialized ag lender or commercial loan territory.

The trick to getting a better rate is to separate the house from the acreage, and if there are structures that look like they could be income producing (like giant barns or milking parlors or whatever), having those be on a separate lot. 

Boundary Line Adjustment
Even though this land could theoretically be worth the assessed value or more, it's sat on the market for months without a buyer.  Part of that is the finance issue;  as it sits, in order to buy this property you have to either have all-cash or go through this financing maze I'm talking about here.    In my case I've chosen to go with a commercial loan for a couple of years.  That closes the sale, and I can start working the ground there.  After the sale closes, I'll do what is called a boundary line adjustment, or BLA for short.    There are four tax lots included in this purchase, so I'll take one of those lots and redraw the line so that it includes the house, septic field and the well that serves the house, along with any appropriate buffer space, and nothing else.    In this area, a house on 5-10 acres sells for $300-500k.  Houses are very expensive in Western Washington.    This house will be towards the bottom of the scale.  The 15 acre parcel with the house and barns appraised on a residential appraisal at $460k.  

The house shuffle
When the house is on its own lot I can then refinance it as a conforming mortgage loan; effectively lowering my interest rate to current mortgage rates, from 5.5-6% commercial loan rates to around 3.6%, knocking my payment down from $1900 a month to around $1200 a month.    If it does end up appraising for $350k, at 80% LTV that'll yield about $280k.  The refinance pays off the commercial loan completely. 

So in about six months I'll have a 250k mortgage on the house on a few acres, and I'll own the other 64 acres, barns and outbuildings free and clear. 

Debt - why borrow?
  Normally I'm against debt, but I think that in the next decade or two that we are due for inflation.  Our economy has been sputtering along, but we are doing very well compared to the rest of the world.  The US dollar has become the reserve currency for the entire earth; when you're in any other country on earth and your local currency, government or situation is unstable, US $100 bills are what you buy.  When you do so you basically give the US a $100 loan, and it's widely reported that over 75% of all $100 bills are outside the USA.    This has meant that our currency has been stable, recognized and valued as an island of stability.  But I think that as the years go on we will see more and more countries dropping the US dollar, as Australia recently did

  Our reserve currency status has kept inflation at bay -- when the US dollars leave the country they're not chasing goods and services here.  I can see a time when they come back, and there are billions more dollars chasing goods today than we have ever had before.  And that says inflation to me. 

So for me, money in the bank earning .1% per year isn't an attractive option.  I much prefer land as a long term investment, and so I'm buying more land, as I have for the last decade.  I skipped the housing bubble, buying my last house in 2000 and selling them all between 2004 and 2007 because I thought that house prices were outrageously high, and then started purchasing again after the big crash in 2008.    I still think that there are bargains to be had in housing and land.   Like the farm I wrote about here.   I still think that property is a bargain, just liked this one better. 

Our current inflation rate is somewhere between 2 and 3% right now; and it's considered to be acceptable to be at that level.  So a 3.6% loan is really a 1.6% loan, and if inflation goes up even a tiny bit that's free money.  Interest free loan.    And there's always the mortgage interest deduction, which easily makes it profitable to borrow the money.   You get paid to borrow this money.  That's a pretty sweet deal.   


  Properties which have the house on a separate tax lot from other structures like barns or acreage over 10, are more expensive to purchase, but cheaper and easier to finance. 
  Properties that are not easy to finance can be bargains if you can figure out a way to buy them
  Once purchased, you can often re-arrange the property so that it becomes easy to finance or sell in the future, and by doing so probably increase the value of the property.   
  Your lowest cost financing is often in the form of a mortgage, so the more you can borrow in the form of a mortgage the lower your typical cost of finance will be. 
  Specialized lenders will finance properties that traditional lenders won't, but at a higher cost, too.
  It's worth working hard to get the lowest possible mortgage payment. 
  If you feel that inflation is likely, owning hard assets is a traditional way to protect your net worth.
  I particularly like farmland as an investment because it's taxed at a far lower rate than most other land.  Which means that the carrying costs are either zero, or profitable if you choose to lease the land to another farmer. 

   If you are not comfortable with the math, or even if you are, please do sit down with a CPA, land use expert and an Attorney and double check what I'm saying here against your own personal situation and finances.   I'm not an attorney, and I'm not a CPA, and I'm certainly not a land use  professional.  I'm talking about what my personal thoughts and opinions are about finances and trends. 

Professional BBQ circuit question from email

Hi Bruce,

I came across your company and thought perhaps you would be the persona that can help me.

I compete on the Professional Barbecue Circuit across the USA and I'm seeking to improve my pork category. I cook Boston Butts that are typically 9 lbs. I've been thinking of trying a piglet in the hopes it may be more tender and juicy. We smoke the butts for 8-9 hours. There is a rule that states all Pork Butts or pork shoulders must be a 5 lbs. This said, if I choose to cook a piglet, I'd probably have to cook the whole shoulder (butt & picnic).

I travel a lot and it's easier if I call you. Please let me know if there's a convenient time where I could give you a call.


I am not sure that I understand what you're asking, but I'll take a stab at it.    

Most pork, including the shoulders that you are cooking, are from relatively young animals; usually 6 to 7 months old at slaughter.  They're raised to a live weight of 250 to 280lbs and slaughtered.

The shoulder roasts you're cooking now are from animals that size.  

You can eat a pig at any age; and many people do BBQ whole pigs; i sell a lot of 80lb to 120lb dressed weight pigs for that reason; any bigger and it's difficult to get the pig to cook through without the outside getting too dry or burnt.  A lighter pig like that will result in smaller roasts, and I really haven't noticed a difference in taste & texture between them and the roasts on larger pigs of the same breed.  

Random pork from normal retail outlets will tend to be either blue butts (a hybrid pig, hampshire x yorkshire) or a duroc based pig.  They are popular with industry because they produce a large amount of lean pork and a favorable conversion ratio of feed to meet.  

Pigs that have been popular with BBQ competitions are a different breed; take a look at the cochon555 competition, for instance.  http://www.cochon555.com/

What people have been doing is picking breeds that aren't the usual lean pork choice, like berkshire, or red wattle, or mangalitsa, and by doing so they get a result that tastes better than the leaner pork than is common.  My experience has been that people who haven't eaten heritage breed pork just don't know what they are missing, and after they've had a chance to taste what pork can taste like it's no comparison.  

That's why i raise a berkshire-centered pig herd.  I did so on the basis of a taste test when I was choosing animals to raise; berkshire pigs were the tastiest I was able to find, and that's held up.  

It's easier for me to respond to email than phone; I have stuff I have to do, and email can be handled in the time between tasks.  Plus it provides fodder for the blog.  

Thursday, April 11, 2013

beehives illegal? Laws and beehives in WA. state

Picture courtesy of  cowles syndicate, inc
I was reading an article in the local paper, and in that article, the following comment was made:

"...It is illegal to raise bees with a skep today. "

A skep is a traditional form of beehive, usually made of woven straw.  You see them in traditional representations of beekeeping -- and in childrens books.  Winnie the Poo would raid a skep hive.

I've put a picture of one, below

Picture courtesy of martinanewton.com
By the way; if you're interested in the construction or use of skep hives, martinanewton.com covers that pretty well, and sells them, too.

I'd never heard of any law related to beehives, and certainly I've never heard of any particular beehive being illegal in Washington State.  So I did a bit of research.  

The best overview of the laws related to bees in Washington State is a web page maintained by the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA).  You'll find that page here.

There are various laws related to beekeeping and honey production and sales.  One law establishes the honey bee commission, whos principle activities I've quoted at the bottom of this post.

That's interesting, but what about illegal bee hives?

Digging a little further, there's a statewide licensing requirement for bee hives, and you'll find the registration form for your hives here.    I'm going to confess:  My hives weren't licensed.  I called Jenny Miller at (360) 902-1901, she being the designated contact, and confessed; my packages don't get here until april 20th, I was surprised that there was a licensing requirement, what's the late fee?

She laughed, and said no problem, just send in the license amount, and they'd waive the late fee.  Ok, so now I'm not a bee criminal, but none of that makes swep hives, or any other sort of hive, illegal.

The city of buckley does have a regulation that requires moveable frame hives, so if you live in the town of buckley, it wouldn't be legal to keep bees in a swep hive...  unless it was for educational purposes, per Buckley resolution # 9.15.030 (2).

Digging further, there's laws related to the sale of honey, and it's pretty specific about things like how full the jars can be, and whether you can re-use jars, and all sorts of other particular.   But no part of that law talks about the type of hive, or makes any particular hive illegal.

So I think you're safe keeping bees in a skep, but you probably don't want to.  Removable frame hives allow the easy maintenance and inspection of the combs for disease or parasite, and you don't have to destroy the hive to harvest the honey, as is typically done with skep hives.  so you have the chance to have your bees live multiple seasons.

Principal activities of the honey bee commission:

    (1) Increasing the consumption of products of the honey bee industry and promoting the use of its services and stabilizing the honey bee industry within the state and nation is a valid and necessary exercise of the power of the state to protect the public health, to provide for the economic development of the state, and to promote the welfare of the people of the state;

     (2) Honey bee industry products produced and services provided in Washington make an important contribution to the agricultural industry of the state of Washington. The business of researching, marketing, and distributing such products and the promotion of its services is in the public interest;

     (3) It is necessary to enhance the reputation of Washington honey bee industry products and services in domestic and national markets;

     (4) It is necessary to promote and educate the public regarding the value of honey bee industry products and services, and to spread that knowledge throughout the state and nation to increase the awareness and consumption of honey bee products and the use of honey bee services;

     (5) State and national markets for Washington honey bee industry products may benefit from promotion of honey bee products through education and advertising;

     (6) It is necessary to stabilize the Washington honey bee industry, to enlarge its markets, and increase the consumption of Washington honey bee industry products and services to assure the payment of taxes to the state and its subdivisions, to alleviate unemployment, and to provide for higher wage scales for agricultural labor and maintenance of a reasonable standard of living;

     (7) Providing information to the public on the manner, cost, and expense of producing, and the care taken to produce and sell, honey bee industry products and services of the highest quality, the methods and care used in their preparation for market, and the methods of sale and distribution is in the public interest;

     (8) It is necessary to protect the public by educating it on the various benefits of honey bee industry services, the food value of its products, and their industrial and medicinal uses.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Do green bee hives get warmer than white?

Dave made a comment on my post about assembling bee hives: 

"Bruce, hives painted a dark green actually do better in the snohomish climate, during the winter on sunny days the green absorbs more heat and they will actually get active even on the coldest of days, while the white hives will remain dormant."

 "forest green"

 The two hives are set up identically.  Same bottom, contents, top.  I chose to use deep hive bodies because they present more square inches of surface area.  In the winter most hives are two boxes in this area.  With four deep hive boxes any heating experienced should be amplified. 

 Chose a probe thermometer so that I don't have to open the hive to check temp. 

 Both thermometers display the same temperature; both accurately read boiling water at 212, and freezing water at 32, so I'm pretty sure that they're accurate in the range I want. 

 The probe is hanging between frames, not touching anything, and placed in the top of the hive, where the warmest air would be. 
 After four hours on a semi-cloudy afternoon they're reading the same temperature.   Darker paint makes no difference today.

If bees were in the hives it would be impossible to isolate the heating benefit of darker colors -- the bees maintain the hive at a temperature that is comfortable for them, by consuming honey and exercising to generate heat, or collecting water and evaporating it in the hive to cool.  The original "swamp cooler".  

I'll leave this up for a week or two and check the temperature periodically.  It really doesn't matter what the temperature is -- what I want to know is if there is any difference in temperature between these two hives.  

When the hives are full of bees and honey, they can weigh hundreds of pounds.  that's a huge thermal mass, and I think that all of that mass would make the hives slower to warm up.  With the hive bodies empty except for sheets of wax in the frames, the air inside should benefit from any heating faster than it would if they were full.  What I'm saying here is that if darker colors make any difference, we'll see them.  

Guns & Slaughter

Article in spiedel.de about german farmers who are shooting their cattle at the farm prior to transport to the slaugtherhouse.  The basic idea is that the cow is killed and has less stress than the usual load on the truck and transport to the slaughterhouse and then the stress of the slaughterhouse.  Interesting take on quality of life for food animals. 
Picture courtesy of  http://www.spiegel.de

You'll find the english language article here


Apologize for the poor quality pictures, but was working in the barn today and only had my cell phone on me.  Someone asked me what sort of camera I'd recommend, and for blogging my suggestion is one that is small and light enough that you have it on you all the time. 
piglet, all grown up
 The large dark sow in the picture above is named 'piglet' -- she's been here since she was born in late 2009.   You can see her as a little pig about 2/3rds down this entry, or you can see her as a bottle fed piglet in December of 2009.   She is an experienced sow now, having produced 5 litters of piglets so far, and still going strong.   That's one of the nice things about having a blog that spans a few years.  I can look back and see things like this. 

Blue butt sow and piglets
 The sow above piglet is nursing her babies and grunting softly.  This is inside the hoop barn, but we find that the sows prefer to have a semi-private area to farrow in, so we provide the calf domes so that they can go into a smaller, enclosed space if they wish. 
A life of ease with the mothers
 The large black pig had an abscess on her foot, so she's in with the nursing mothers so that we can monitor her.  I'd rather not put her down.   I've drained and cleaned the abscess and she is using the foot more now; I'm hopeful we can put her back with the main herd in a bit. 
Small pig, big litter.  Definition of a good sow. 
This little pig did really well with her first litter.  She produced 9 piglets, all of which are doing great; the others are wandering around with piglets babies, trying to figure out who's the boss piglet.

Piglets spend about 1/3rd of their time sleeping, 1/3rd nursing, and 1/3rd fighting with other piglets.  Social status is very important with pigs and they take it very seriously, from an early age. 

When you have a number of sows in an area like this, you have to watch that the bigger piglets aren't stealing milk from the smaller piglets; there's always some of that -- the sows will generally allow any piglet from any other sow to nurse -- it can be at the detriment of smaller pigs.  So while we have these guys all in group housing, what I am working on is providing better separation of the litters.  Some sort of pig roller in the temporary shelter might do the trick.  meanwhile I just watch and make sure that everyone is having a good time. 

These three sows have 28 piglets between them.  I've got another 5 sows that will be due in the next week. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

preparing for bees - assembling hives

I spent most of today assembling the beehives in preparation for keeping bees this year.  It's a pretty long process; to save a few dollars I buy the un-assembled hives and put them together myself. 
Assembling the hives:  I use a narrow-gauge stapler with 2.25" and 1" staples
 The tailgate of my pickup truck is a handy, mobile workbench.  It would be perfect if it was flat, and I may screw a piece of plywood onto it so that it is, but right now it's ribbed, which doesn't matter much when you're assembling the boxes, but does make it harder to put together the frames. 
I assemble the boxes with 2.25" staples and frames with 1" staples.
 The white lids are a heavier form of Styrofoam, which I'm trying for the first time.  It's lightweight, lasts a long time, and is an excellent insulator.  In this picture you can see two sizes of boxes, "deep" supers, which are in a stack on the far left of the photo above, and "standard" supers, which you can see one of at the bottom of the two box stack second from the left, above. 

The "deep" boxes are used to house the hive and its store of honey, and most hives in this area are reduced to two deep supers to go through the winter.  When nectar is flowing and honey is being produced, the standard supers are added to the top of the hive to give the bees room to store the honey. 
That's a lot of acres of boxes to fill with frames. 
 Bees grow their hives upwards; I order a 3lb box of bees for each hive; market price for 3lbs of bees ranges from $75 to $105 this year.  Enclosed in the box is a queen bee in a queen cage.  I'll house each package of bees in a single deep super with a feeder on top initially.    I want the bees to build out that box a little before I add the next box, and a hive-top feeder is a way for me to provide food for the hive while it draws out the honeycomb and the queen begins laying workers.  After a week or so I'll add the second box so that there's plenty of room for the expanding hive.  Other folks just start them in two boxes, and then rotate the top and bottom boxes.
Beekeepers dreams:  Skyscraper hives
 As the season progresses you add additional supers to the hive to provide more storage space.  To keep the supers for honey or pollen only, a queen excluder can be used.  It's got a mesh that is just a little too small to allow the queen to pass, which keeps her in the bottom two boxes, but worker bees can move up or down as they wish. 

At the end of the nectar flow what I usually see is a complete deep super of honey and pollen and a brood chamber with honey and pollen and larvae.  Bees do not hibernate.  They huddle inside the hive and consume their stores and wait for winter to end.  You'll see them flying around if you have a warm spell, but most of the winter they're just waiting.  The difficult thing is that you really cannot open the hive up unless it's a warm day; larvae die from cold, the queens laying is disrupted, and the bees are agitated and their production goes down.  So it's a bit of a waiting game in winter; you want to look to see if they're ok, but have to temper that desire with the stress it puts on the hive.  An infrared thermometer is what I use when I want to know; the bees will heat their hive and maintain that heat by body movement, consuming honey.  
1 gallon of exterior latex later, white bee equipment
I painted my new hive bodies with the traditional color - white.  With the hives assembled and two coats of paint on them, I'm ready for the packages which will arrive in about 2 weeks. 

I'm planning on keeping 4 hives; each hive consists of : (From bottom to top)
Bottom board
Varoa mite screen board
2 deep supers, each containing 10 frames of stamped beeswax
2 standard supers, each containing 10 frames of stamped beeswax
1 hivetop feeder
1 inside lid
1 telescoping lid

For each hive, I have also purchased all of that equipment except the 2 standard supers.  These extra boxes are used to catch swarms; either from my hives, or from feral bees or other hives. 

The goal of a bee is to make bees.  the goal of a beekeeper is to make honey.   The bees, after being fed and housed comfortably will tend to produce another queen midway in the nectar flow.  That usually happens in the first half of June.  Half or so of the bees in the colony will leave with the original queen as a "swarm" and leave the hive.  The other half of the bees and the newly hatched queen will stay in the fully stocked hive. 

By having the extra boxes ready to go and being observant, I can catch the swarm and house it in a new hive.  that hive probably won't have enough time to fill any supers; in fact, it'll be lucky to make enough honey to last the winter, so two deep supers will be more than enough space for the new hive. 

I don't really want them to swarm, and will prevent them from doing so if I can, but an early enough swarm can be a strong enough hive to last through the winter, and as with lambs and calves, it's doubling your stock, so it's not all that bad if it happens.