Monday, December 29, 2014

Gun for killing rats. Lots of rats.

I've got a little hand-held thermal ocular.  It's a bit of military gear that has come in handy; if you want to see what it the display looks like, you can see a bit of it in this youtube video

What I use it for is quickly locating animals that are out after dark, or even in daylight; they stand out clearly from the (usually) cooler background, and it makes finding the cow after dark much easier - you can spot a cow-sized animal from hundreds of yards away, even through vegetation, and it's made it possible for me to watch a lot of wildlife that is otherwise hard to follow -- coyotes after dark, for instance.
My rat killing setup

Walking around the farm after dark, the thermal ocular is showing me I have a large population of norway rats.  They're grey with white bellies, and they get pretty big.  They think that they invisible after dark, and it's possible to walk right up on them, and that's where the BB gun comes in.   I dont' want to use poison for fear of one of my dogs eating a poisoned rat, and I don't want to use lead-based ammunition out of the same concern.

I wanted to be able to kill the rats with the least-cost possible as far as ammunition, and the smallest chance of over-penetration -- which is the complicated way of saying I don't want the ammunition to go very far past what I'm shooting.

So the selection was for a pump-action BB gun that shoots steel BBs.  Each BB cost about a third of a cent ($0.003) and being steel, there's less issue with it being ingested by the animals than with a lead-based shot.  The cows have magnets that will collect them if th ey eat them, and they'll just pass right through pigs.

The next problem was that in the low-light situations I couldn't see the sights to be able to aim the gun.  the solution was to purchase a cheap laser-flashlight combo (you see it mounted on top of the rifle) that comes with two pressure switches.   You velcro the switches where your hands are when you aim the rifle, and you can swith on or off the flashlight or laser.  20 minutes sighting the laser in (I chose to sight it at 30' because that's the longest shot I would make, and the BBs from a smooth barrel aren't all that accurate) and I have my basic rat killing setup.
laser/flashlight combo packaging.  
The BB rifle has a 3/8" mounting rail for scopes, and I bought a converter from 3/8" to 20mm Weaver Picatinny rail mount.  I did that because I could get cheaper laser/flashlight combos that mounted to the 20mm rail than I could for the 3/8" rail.  the adapter was about $8.

the laser/flashlight combo was $27; the bb rifle was about $60.  So the entire gun setup purchased new totaled $95.  6,000 BBs cost $20.

The basic technique is pretty simple:  Pump up the rifle and load a BB, and then using the thermal site walk to within about 10' of the rat.  Put the ocular in a coat pocket, aim the rifle, flip on the laser site red dot, aim the rifle where the rat is, and then flip the flashlight on  The rat will usually freeze when hit with the light - zap! - bb hits rat, off the light goes, pump the gun up, and look for the next rat to kill.  

The first night I killed 9 rats, the second 12 rats, the third 8, and then I've killed 5 to 10 rats each night since then.   They started hiding in their holes, but they usually sit with their heads sticking out about an inch so that they can see what's going on, and that's plenty for me.  The thermal site shows me which holes have rats - flash, zap! dead rat in hole .   I can count the number of rats with the thermal site (I can see them for hundreds of feet as bright white blobs) and I have about 200 or so that live in or around the barns.  The thermal site also makes it easy to hunt them in the rafters and along the beams of the barns.  They'll usually just freeze up there, spotlight, shoot, rat falls, move on.
I'd sure love to be able to own a thermal rifle site for this.  In my dreams I'd put it on a semi-auto pellet gun sighted for 50', and since I wouldn't have to show any light at all, I could probably shoot 5 or 10 rats at a time without them h aving any clue I was there - but I can't justify the $3 to $5k for the site.  But they sure are cool.

Back to the future

Way back in 2006 a local celebrity chef wrote a blog about raising four pigs and then slaughtering them and serving them; you'll find Ms. Murphy's blog in its entirety here

She raises 4 pigs over the course of a few months to a slaughter weight of around 100lbs.  Now for me, that's a light slaughter weight -- we sell pigs for consumption at that weight, but we call those BBQ pigs and they're usually spit-roasted whole.
A more traditional use of a light pig

Ms. Murphy procured her piglets through whistling train farm, who seem to have gotten out of the pig business for the most part since this article.   They apparently have a single sow that they breed for piglets at this point, but somewhere between 2006 and here they had 6 sows at a high-water mark.
What's interesting about this to me is that I started farming in earnest in 2007, and the market for piglets has been great every year since then.  So it's not that they couldn't sell all the piglets they produce, it appears that  Whistling train  focused on vegetable and egg production as their primary products.

In the second-to-the-last entry of Tamara's blog she talks about the slaughter day, and I'm left with the impression that she didn't witness the slaughter of her pigs, choosing to spend the kill time in the office - here's the quote:

"Shelley, Mike and I went into the office for the business part of the day. They said it would be fine if we went into where they were working.  After all, they were our pigs.  We were in the slaughter house aproximately 15 minutes after we arrived, and the pigs were already being put through a machine to clean and remove the bristle "

Which I am a little dissapointed at.  In her last entry she talks about her emotional attachment to the pigs as she breaks them down, and says something about having taking pictures, and honestly this is the real crux of pig farming for me, personally; I'm sorry that she didn't follow it through.

In my own farming I choose to shoot and stick the pigs that we sell whole to customers to make sure that the pigs have the respect due to them, and that it be as quick and painless as possible.  It's not a chore I relish; but it's part-and-parcel of raising animals for food.   Yes, I can delegate that, and I do for those folks who want to go the cut-and-wrap route with a whole or half pig, but for the small, the old, and the traditional, we take care of this right here.

For the same reason I don't sell my old boars at auction -- the herd sires that are past their prime are treated with all due respect, and given a quick clean end right here where they lived.  It's unfortunate, but when you dispose of animals at auction they can meet their end in many different ways.  I'll forego the profit to ensure that all of mine end respectfully.

Tamara Murphy is sort-of a neighbor mine, too.  A local farm was purchased by a non-profit group, and the acreage was converted into wetlands and other projects.  Tamara coordinates/hosts an annual BBQ as a fundraiser, which is very popular but the farm itself seems to be withering on the vine; I just don't see much from them recently, other than the BBQ fundraiser.

It'd be interesting to see what she's doing 8 years later -- is she still raising her own, or sourcing her meats from local resources?   There's no clue on her latest menu. - yes, it says that they source ingredients from local growers and artisan producers,  but how about you support the farmers in a more concrete way by mentioning the source?    I'm sure your customers would like that, too Tamara.
And if you're looking for local pigs, I'd be happy to set you up.  Give me a call sometime.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The 2015 farm plan

This is the sketch of the plans for 2015.  

The cow herd  
Going to increase my dairy herd by 10 cows this year, from 20 to 30.  Hopefully finding some good heifers in the 300 to 600lb range.  This set of cows will probably be the last that i purchase -- from next year on the normal calf production should cover my replacement animals and produce steers for sale as meat, so I'll be set there.    We are carrying 7 steers now, and I'll sell those as grass fed cattle in 2015.  

I'll be certifying the whole cow herd as organic, so I'll start that process in 2015 and we'll be organic about the same time as the pastures are certified. 

The pig herd
The pig portion of the farm continues to be a strong earner; margins are good, and we're still selling every animal we produce at a good price.   The primary emphasis for the farm will continue to be weaner pig sales.  I'm increasing my sow herd by 20 in 2015, and I'll be reserving a larger percentage of our weaner production for sale as finished animals.  

The land
It takes 3 years to have pastures and planting land certified organic; i'm on the 2nd year of that.  I'll be able to be certified organic in 2016, with will coincide with the start of commercial milking. 

Forage and crops
The alfalfa and orchard grass production was good last year, and the stands look to be in pretty good shape going into winter.  We'll see if the alfalfa survives the rains, but I'm sure that the orchard grass will.  We'll aim at producing another 100 to 150 tons of forage this coming year.  I will probably buy an accumulator and bale grab to reduce the amount of labor needed to pick up the bales in the field.  

I'm going to grow more human vegetables this year; I was happy with the size and quality of the acorn squash and various types of pumpkins grown, this year I'd like to experiment with plastic mulch so that we can keep the weeds down and continue to grow organically.  

House and barns
Bluntly put, the house on this farm sucks.  It's a typical farm house, which means that every time they had a good year they added another room to the house, so that it ended up being a giant L shaped house that is basically one long hallway.  Each room has a door on either end, and you have to pass through every room in the house to get from one end to the other. 

I'm probably going to work on making the house more livable by moving some doorways and doing other modifications so that it works better.  I've already rebuilt one of the entrance porches, and I'll be added a roof over each doorway.  Long term I'd probably be better off to just save some money by doing nothing and tearing the house down and starting over, but for the next few years I'd like it to work better, so I'll do a little towards that.  

On the barn front, all of the gutters on the barns need to be repaired and the clean water off the roofs directed away from the livestock housing.  It'll probably mean figuring out a system of drains and an outlet somewhere.  This is partly due to regulation - dairy farms are required to do this - and partly due to liveability.  We get 5 to 8 feet of rain a y ear, and the gutters are dumping the roof water all over the driveways and walkways and so on, and it makes the ground soft and muddy.  

I'll also be looking seriously at a couple of the barns for either replacement or repair.  There's a fair bit of rot and damage, each building is a seperate case.  Next spring I'll go through each building and make a punch list and figure out the plans.  

I'll be tearing down and rebuilding the wellhouse on this property, and installing better water filtration for drinking water for staff and house.  The well water here is high in iron and calcium, and has a little bit of manganese and arsenic in it.  Tolerable, but I'd like to have better water, so a new wellhouse will make the installation and maintenance of the water system easier, and bring it above any likely flood level.  the current wellhouse flooded with 2' of water in the record floods that they had on this property in 2010.  

Towards the end of 2015 we'll be putting the dairy parlor back into commercial shape and having it certified as a grade A dairy again.  it's been certified in the past; it's just a matter of getting everything cleaned and repaired and approved.   We don't need any new equipment, but may need to repair some of it.  

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Calf and horse prices, auction videos

Was at an auction on Saturday; horse prices are abysmal. $10 horse, and a $600 mule, that the owner either decided not to sell or had already sold. Wasn't clear. The steer and heifer calves are the same size and age as the ones I was buying for $5 each in 2008.  Same time of year, too.

The market for calves is very, very strong.  Hate buying at these prices.

heifer prices
026 from bruce king on Vimeo.
Steer prices
025 from bruce king on Vimeo.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The river

You'll find the live site by clicking here
I live next to a river and have about 1300' of frontage on it.  It forms the northern boundary of my land, and is quite pretty.   At this time of year it rises and lowers pretty fast, and pretty dramatically.  I can get 9 to 10 vertical feet of water rise on this river over a 6 hour period.  It's the closest thing I've come across to a flash flood sort of situation in washington state.

It's caused by very, very heavy rainfall that hits the mountains to the east of me.  This river is the drainage for an area that in the fall, winter and spring will get 5 to 10 inches of rain in a 24 hour period, over and over again.

The worst combination is when we get colder weather, and a few feet of snow.  Follow that with warmer weather and heavy rain on top of that snow.  At first the snow just sheds the water, but if there's enough rain, all of the snow and all of the rain all come down the valley at once.

One of the local indian tribes is looking to relocate their reservation because of this sort of pattern; they expect it to worsen over the next few decades, and I cannot blame them for not wanting to be washed out to sea.

Mostly I can watch the river do its thing without it bothering me.  Sure, my fields may get some water on them, but nothing there is hurt by the seasonal flooding, and maybe it helps the soil.  it's been happening for thousands of years.

The only issue i've got is in the corner of my property with the red circle.  The river is coming down a straight section there and hitting the bank pretty hard, eroding it.  What's there is hard blue clay -- pretty water resistant stuff, but every year it looks like it loses a few feet.

here's a closeup of the  river bank, and the red line is where the shortline used to be at some point in the past.  The tree that is at the top is actually about 25' out from the bank, on its own little island.  It'll be floating downstream pretty soon.

Traditionally the cure for this sort of erosion would be to reinforce the bank; dump rocks or rip-rap or  other stuff into the river at that point to make it resistant to the water, or at least slow the process down, but that practice is now outmoded.  I can do something like put coconut husks there (really.  that's what they will approve) or I can plant stuff according to the department of ecology.  But I got a more interesting suggestion from the corps of engineers.

"Well, you know what an ecology block is, right?"  yes, the large concrete blocks that they make at concrete plants when they have extra concrete.  But I thought I couldn't put those (or any other impervious stuff like rocks) into the river.  "You don't put them in the river, you stack them at the edge, and if they happen to fall into the river because of flooding erosion, well, that's too bad.

I guess it's all in how you look at it.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

"How would you feel if someone came to your farm and told you how to raise pigs?!?"

I did run for office this year, and I did lose that election, although as my rival put it "... I won with a much smaller margin than my two previous victories."

But the reasons that I ran are still there, and in all fairness Mr. Aldrich has been gracious in allowing public comment about various issues related to the PUD.  

But I had a funny exchange today that is farm related, and that's what I'm going to relate here.  

So I'm asking the board to consider various directions, and an objection came up from a non-board member, "How would you feel if someone came to your pig farm and told you how to raise pigs, or kill them, or operate your farm?   ", basically saying in the context that of course this utility knows what it's doing and that it's a little insulting that I might dare to offer an opinion about the operation.  

To answer that question, I get non-farmers who opine about my farm all the time.  In fact, of all the industries that I've been involved with over the years, farming is the one that people seem to feel comfortable weighing in on no matter what sort of experience they come from. 

I think that there's an assumption that if you farm you, well, you're just a little slower than the average person, and you could benefit probably from someone elses opinion.

When I started farming I actually sought out other opinions, and I learned all sorts of stuff, and I found that the hardest people to get to pin down on an opinion were other farmers.  I think that old adage "fools rush in where angels fear to tread" applies here.  People with experience in farming know enough that they don't offer their opinions much, if at all.  At most  you'll get an eye squint and a slow nod...

But contrast that to the people who just got their copy of the latest Micheal Pollan  book, and are very passionate about their views -- theres no stopping them.  Whatever practices you have they know better!  They're going to tell you how it should be done, to guide you, poor wretch, to the path of goodness.

So Yes, I get this all the time.  And do what I consider to be an excellent farming practice:  I listen to what they have to say, and if it makes sense I'll use it.  Sometimes, after giving me their opinion on my farming practices (and how I should change them) there's a pause.  They look at me, and I say what I always say "I heard what you said; thanks for the input", and they stop and...


Is the time I can say something that they can hear.

You see, when they come to you with that sort of enthusiastic energy, it's all about the broadcast.  What I wait for is that part when the wave crashes on the beach, and then withdraws, building up to the next wave of advice...

I then have a little tiny window where I can explain my farming practices.  Sometimes I use this window -- for the folks who are interested in farming, for instance, and might actually use what I tell them, or, honestly, sometimes for the folks I think I might have a problem with -- a neighbor, or someone in a regulatory position (Looking at you, Mr. Kaufman of the WA department of Ecology)
but most of the time I just smile a little, and let that moment pass.

So yes, I get people who tell me all about my farm.  And I hope I have the grace and ability to seperate the wheat from the chaff and the patience and tolerance to maintain my composure while I do so.