What do pigs do?

Well, pigs eat.  Pigs manure.  Pigs sleep a lot.  Pigs drink and wallow.  The best thing pigs do is dig.

This is a post about digging.  Pigs dig for fun and to find food.  This week we put them in the pasture near the iron pile where they discovered a small pile of odd parts that had been buried in the pasture over time.  These are probably things my grandpa dropped out there 20 or more years ago.

Here’s a view of the whole pasture they left.  They did more digging further away, less closer and almost none up close.

Looking the other direction I have drawn some lines.  The further line is where the fence was.  The near line is where they stopped digging.  Why did they stop digging?

They did not dig where they manured because pigs are clean animals.  They manured near the fence and did not dig in their manure.  There is almost no manure anywhere else in the pasture.  Just there by the fence.

The pasture will recover quickly where the manure is.  The pasture will recover slowly where they dug but, in the long term, the massive disturbance will allow opportunity for plant succession that would not have happened otherwise.  There is a seed bank in the soil that will now have a chance to come to life.  There will be grass.  There will be weeds.  It will be great.

When keeping pigs on pasture it is important to leave them enough room to play, to dig, and to take care of business.  If you place too many pigs in too small of a space or leave them in one place for too long, the whole area will be defoliated.  We try to manage things so when the pigs run out of fresh grass to eat they are moved to a new location.  By that measure the pasture has a reasonable chance to recover quickly.

Good luck with your own experiments with pigs, grass and portable fence.  Things may work out differently for you.

Bringing Up the Average

“Let’s raise a few hundred meat birds and try to sell them.  What’s the worst that could happen?”

That’s a pretty naive question.  I asked it once.  Lots of things go wrong but I’ll share the one I fear the most.  Chicken death.

Chicks just die.  They may die from being abused or neglected by postal workers.  They may be eaten by snakes or bitten by rats.  They can get any number of ailments; curly toe, pasty butt, coccidiosis.  Some of these can be prevented with diet and hygiene but sometimes they just die for no reason.  Chicks can get too hot.  Chicks get cold and pile on top of each other, killing the ones at the bottom.  Worse, the smothered chicks don’t die and you waste a few days nursing a dying chick along.  Then it dies.

Let’s say you got them through the critical first 5 days and they survived the two or three weeks before you put them on grass.  You kept things clean and kept them healthy and they are ready to go to pasture.  Once there they can die from heat, cold, raccoons, skunks, opossums, minks, cats or dogs.  Everything thinks a chicken is tasty.  I take precautions to keep the birds safe from predators with electric netting but nothing is perfect.  Even if the netting works buffalo gnats can suffocate them.  Hot weather or cold weather will kill them.  Heavy rain can drown them and wind can crush them under their houses.  A waterer can clog on a hot day and they’ll all die.  They can get run over by the wheels on the chicken tractor dolly.  They frequently die of heart attack, especially as they get older, though this is manageable.  Honestly I pray for safety every night my chickens are on pasture, pray every morning when I get up and pray every time I peek in the tractor.

I want to emphasize that these are fragile little creatures that taste good to predators.  Even with good management bad things can happen.  I lost nearly 30 layers to one mink in one night.  I can’t tell you how sad I felt when I opened the door to the chicken house and found all those chickens piled up on the floor.  Then, the next night, I saved the remaining 40 layers when I shot the mink in the hen house.  I’m not out in my field hunting down everything that shares my farm but I have an obligation to take steps to protect the animals in my care.  That mink found a way into my Ft. Knox chicken house two nights in a row.  That’s enough.

This is a part of why pastured products cost more.  Not only do my animals live normal chicken lives in the sun and grass, not only do they eat real, whole grains instead of leftovers from manufacturing processes, I expend a tremendous amount of time per animal watching over them.  A mass-produced, confinement bird can live or die.  A chicken that costs less than $1/pound was never cared for, let alone allowed to embrace it’s inner chicken.

To recap, it’s really, really hard to keep the meat birds alive for 7 or 8 weeks.  We are better at it than most but still have room for improvement.  It saddens me to find a dead bird, not because of the financial loss but because it means I failed in my part of the agreement.  I provide health and safety for a short time.  They pay me back with a meal.

Chickens like sunlight.  They like to scratch in the dirt, eat bugs and really enjoy eating greens.  These are things denied to all but a few chickens in this country.  Find yourself a farmer who is willing to make the chickens happy.  His chicken will cost more.  His chicken is worth more.

Maple Sap and Nectar

My grandmother planted three sugar maples in the front yard around the time I was born.  We do everything with these trees.  We play catch under their shade, we enjoy their fall colors, we jump in their leaves, we tap them for sugar and our bees buzz their flowers.  I want to discuss these last two briefly.

We are a seasonal farm.  We shut down most of our business for the winter and just catch our breath.  Yes, we try to stretch our garden as late into the season as we can, yes we raise replacement layers in the winter but for the most part we put our feet up and read or play scrabble.  This year we added something to our winter activities.  We watched water boil.  We picked up a tree tapping kit from tapmytrees.com.  The equipment we got wasn’t cheap but was excellent.  Also, you need to be aware that there are different kinds of maple trees and they need to be at least 12″ in diameter before you tap.  Those could be 30 year old trees at their first tap.  You might want to get them planted soon.  Also, this doesn’t hurt the tree.

Here are the steps involved to gather the sap.  I’ll post a follow-up on how we dealt with the sap and made syrup and sugar from it.

Using the drill bit supplied in the kit, drill a hole in the tree.  Drill up at a slight angle and 2″ deep.

Now, tap the …erm…tap into the tree.  It will be a snug fit.  There is probably a bucket hook that goes on the tap before you insert it into the tree.  Again, don’t worry, you aren’t hurting the tree.

The bucket just hangs from the hood and the sap should start running immediately.  We were surprised by the instant and musical drip into the buckets.

Pop the lid on to keep out the rain and check your bucket daily.  Some of our buckets filled in 24 hours while other trees weren’t as generous.

Here’s a shot of the sap.  Please notice it’s a clear liquid.  Once the sap turns milky you’re out of business.

Being out of the maple business isn’t all bad.  A few weeks after our maple season finished the bees were busy at the tops of the trees.  Where the buckets had been drumming, the bees were humming.  What nice trees.  Thanks Grandma.

So, if you have 30 years to wait for syrup, go ahead and plant your trees.  The bees like them, they produce dense shade and beautiful fall colors.  Let me know if you find any additional uses for your trees too.

I would also like to point the reader to pick up a copy of Scott and Helen Nearing’s Maple Sugaring Book.

Creek Sand?

My friend Darby and I were discussing things we do to ensure chick vitality.

Me: “Kelp, creek sand and restricted feed go a long way toward happy birds.”

Darby: “Kelp and creek sand?  Can you elaborate?”

Well, here is the skinny on creek sand.  I go down to the creek (well, the branch) with a bucket and a shovel.

I’m not concerned about getting pure sand, a specific size of the sand or even looking for dry sand.  I just fill the bucket.  The chicks will pick out their favorite bits and everything will be just dandy.  Further, there are small organic bits mixed with the mud and sand as well as small organisms the chicks seem to really enjoy.

It is important that my day-old chicks have access to sand as soon as possible.  They may totally ignore it.  That’s fine.  It will mix into the bedding or will be there when they dig around later.  But they will eat some, days later they will eat more.  The sand cost me only a stroll down the hill so I don’t mind if they seem to ignore it.  Further, this costs $0 in fuel and there’s no sales tax.  (insert evil laugh)

I also put small shovels of sand out for the young pullets and ducks.  Again, they pick out what they want and incorporate the rest into the bedding.  A little sand is a good thing in compost.

Because chickens don’t have teeth they use their gizzard to grind up the food.  The gizzard is just a muscle so rocks stored in the gizzard enable the chicken to utilize feed more efficiently.  By providing creek sand I’m giving the chickens a variety of rocks to pick from and additional nutrition at essentially no cost.  I don’t have to be stingy about creek sand as noted by my friend Darby after he tried it.

D: “Those chicks tore that creek sand up!  Thanks for the suggestion.  I’m also finding that I’m not stingy with it, since I didn’t have to pay for it.  I’m sure it will [make] a nice difference.”

All of this was detailed in Salatin’s “Pastured Poultry Profits” on page 45.  If you are considering raising poultry on pasture, be sure to read this book.

I Need More Carbon

A friend recently commented, “You talk about fecal material a lot.”  I do.  I appreciate manure and what it can do for my soil, the soil life and the world around me.  While most people just use it to pollute drinking water, I make it work.  In order to make it work I need carbon.  Lots of carbon.

The primary use is just to keep the animals warm and dry.  Carbon also helps to sponge up nutrients, preventing odors from escaping and holding nutrients in suspension for later use.  It soaks up liquids, helping to protect the underground water supply.  It adds structure to the soil.  It acts as a weed barrier.  I could go on.

We buy carbon in several forms.

Straw bales are the first thing people think of when they think of barns.  Why straw?  It’s a local resource and is available in quantity.  It’s a by-product of raising small grains.  It is a useful tool for bedding but has its limitations.  It mats quickly, it is not very absorbant and it takes up a lot of space.  On the plus side, it adds air space to compost and rots quickly.

What is better than straw?  Wood chips.

I cut a lot of brush and run most of it through my chipper…the smaller stuff anyway.  That, and chips dropped off by the power company, help me to accumulate large windrows of wood chips.

Wood chips are large and bulky.  They do a good job stabilizing a muddy area but are unpleasant to walk on or scratch in…if you are a chicken.  They are also of limited use absorbing nutrients as there is so little surface area per unit of volume.  But they do make nice paths through the garden.

But what’s better is hardwood sawdust.  Sawdust offers greater surface area per unit of volume and is comfortable to walk on.  Cows prefer to lay on sawdust over straw.  We use it to mulch our garden beds, to bed our chickens, cows in the winter and to catch rabbit manure.

Sawdust quickly soaks up water, urine and manure, it’s easy for the chicks to scratch into, it is easy to move around with a shovel and a wheelbarrow, it is cheap and can be found locally.  We use sawdust straight from the sawmill rather than from a wood shop.  The kiln dried stuff acts and feels different.  Also, we let a pile sit out in the weather for at least a few months before we really tie into it.

Where I am, these are the three easiest forms of carbon to get my hands on.  Each are useful as bedding, build great compost and help maintain soil health.  If given the choice, I would choose a truckload of wood chips over a truckload of fresh horse manure.  It has so many more uses.

Georgia’s Wall Part 3

Sunday morning we finished our regular chores and had a few minutes to spare before going to see John Carter with the kids at 9:00.  Four of us shoveled rabbit manure and bedding out of the greenhouse to finish up the raised bed.  The chicks found this activity particularly interesting.

8 Loads later we had 3-4″ of rabbit manure mixed with course sawdust across the entire bed and it was time to wash up and head out.

So, in review, we built a block wall, added in large bark chips and bits of odd firewood, layered course wood chips on top of that, course sawdust on top of that, a layer of composted horse manure, and a thick layer of rabbit manure and bedding.  I gave it a good soaking with the hose and it got surprisingly warm.

With the movie behind us, friends visited, chicken feed freshly ground and our Sunday afternoon swimming (cold!) out of the way we came back to work in the garden.  We were planting begonias and petunias along with herbs.  We spaced the herbs evenly across the bed and fit the flowers in between.  I layed out the bed and my daughter knew just what to do.

With that finished we gave everything a good drink, washed our hands and began the next project.

Now, you may think it’s silly to plant flowers so early, especially when my main vegetable garden isn’t in.  You may be right, but it was an excuse to work alongside my daughter doing something that helps her feel involved, helps her to make a positive contribution to our family and allows her to express herself.  We weren’t just doing chores that dad says need to be done.  She wanted to do this.  That’s more important than broccoli.

Mowing the grass part 2

The cows, as you know, get fresh grass daily.  Recently I made their pen smaller and I’m just giving them 144 sq. ft. at a time, moving them 5 or 6 times daily.  This results in excellent trampling and manuring as the grass is sheared off evenly and the weeds are either eaten or trampled.  The picture below shows a line I missed when I moved the pen a bit too far, then shows the progress beyond.  At the end of the day I’m putting something on the order of 90,000 pounds per acre across my lawn.  I could go heavier if I had more forage but since the grass is still short I have to move them frequently.

The stem in the center of this picture was a weed I watched Mable take a bite of then spit out.  I guess once they finished eating their ice cream they went back for their veggies.

Now, I want to be clear that I’m not starving my cows into eating the weeds.  They just like to eat.  Check the rumen on this beauty.  The indentation between the last rib and the pelvis sucks in when the rumen is empty.  Flo is looking full.

So what are they eating?  Well, they’re on the old driveway and it’s a weedy mess.

Here is another shot showing the line between what they finished grazing and what they are just starting.

Now, there really is a bit more to it than just moving a panel and waiting for them to eat.  You have to read their manure to see if they are getting enough protein.  This looks pretty good.  A little dry but not bad.

It would be more soupy if the fast-growing green was all they were getting or if I had more clover mixed in my pasture (yard).  I don’t have much clover yet, there is a fair amount of old growth still standing here and they get half a bale of hay every night just to keep things regulated.

Beyond manure I smell them.  Yeah.  Smell their breath.  That tells me a lot about the condition of their rumen.  It should smell sweet.

There are more things I could check if I was more paranoid but if they are laying down, chewing their cud, their manure is pumpkin pie-ish, their breath is sweet, and their coats are shiny they are OK.  The real point is…look at that lawn!  They mowed it, set the weeds back and fertilized it all on solar power.

I think that’s pretty cool.

One Day of Pigs on Pasture

Yesterday this was carpeted in grass and splattered here and there with cow manure.  Today it’s another story.

The pictures don’t show it but it’s surprising how much grass the pigs eat when they first move.

They dug out a little nesting site and moved most of the straw to the side.  I added more straw.  Even if they don’t want it the pasture will benefit from it.

Here’s the pasture they came from.  They were here for three days.  It’s a wreck.  Looks like a war zone.  Don’t they do a good job?

Like CrossFit, this is all about intensity and rest.  I may do a little raking and shoveling out there since it’s my yard but in a very short time the grass will come back thicker and healthier than ever before.  Here’s the pig pasture as of March 3rd.  It sat empty and bare all winter as the pigs were slaughtered in December and by December the hogs were creating some massive soil disturbance.  Obviously nothing would grow in the winter but things were in place for spring.

Here it is two weeks later.

It changed from barren to lush in short order.  Yes, there were things I could have done to cover the ground.  Maybe I should have put some straw out there.  But I didn’t.  I didn’t spread any seed.  I didn’t go over it with a harrow.  It just is what it is.  Recovery is rapid.  Nature hates a vacuum.  Things grow.  My only role is to coordinate the rest and disturbance cycles.  This area needs more rest.   Pigs aren’t allowed to return to the same square foot for at least a year.  But what a time they have while they are there!

Georgia’s Wall Part 2

I hauled 500 pounds of manure in eight feed sacks to put in the raised bed.  Initially, and before work, I just got four bags.  That didn’t go far enough but I was dodging raindrops and short on time.

Again, this is well-rotted horse manure.  Since the wife and oldest son are at the homeschooling expo in St. Louis, I took the three remaining kids with me over lunch to grab the rest of the manure.  Here they are on the trailer.

I dumped each bag then the oldest daughter spread them out in the bed while telling me how excited she is to get her flowers planted.  Yup.  It’s worth it.

After work we added a layer of composted leaves, chicken bedding and chicken offal.

Tomorrow we choreograph the pasture ballet and have a few appointments to keep so we won’t make much traction on this project.  Sunday when I clean out bedding under the rabbits I’ll add that to the top of the bed.  The plan is to have some full-sun annuals planted on Sunday.  Hopefully we’ll get a heavy rain in the next 24 hours to wash the nutrients all through the chips below and take some of the nitrogen out of the composted horse manure.  If not, I think we’ll be fine.  There should be a fair amount of residual warmth coming from the greenhouse and the composting action in the bed so we shouldn’t have problems if we get a light frost.  If winter comes for one last hurrah I’ll have to cover the plants.

Georgia’s Wall Part 1

Georgia was a friend of mine before I married her granddaughter.  I helped her build a water garden just outside her door and she kept the door open so she could hear the frogs.  Georgia passed recently.  She spent years collecting things…lots of things.  She had a nice pile of used cinder blocks she had collected from somewhere so I built a retaining wall out of them.

The South face of the greenhouse seems like a nice place for some added beauty and my oldest daughter wants a flower bed.  I started by trying to level out some of the ruts and wallows the pigs left behind.  Then I put down a row of blocks.

If I was making a taller wall I would need to do some foundation work but with just two blocks I’m not too worried.  If it falls over we’ll just stand it back up.  I’m not concerned about level since I’m using broken, partial, used blocks from all over the place.

I put in a layer of course wood chips and sticks equal to the height of the first row of bricks.  There is also a layer of large chunks of bark and odd firewood scraps in the bottom of the pile.  Then I finished stacking the second course of blocks.  To be completely honest, my lovely bride of 15 years stacked many of the blocks.

With the wood chips nicely leveled out we added in 3 or so inches of sawdust.  This brought our level to the mid-point of the second block.  Both boys were busy keeping the wheelbarrow employed while the rest of us leveled, raked, shoveled and lifted.  This job took all 12 hands.

We were an hour into the project and it was time for dinner.  The wall is not straight, the blocks are not perfectly level, the raised bed barely qualifies as a hugelkultur bed but the flowers should be happy.  Tomorrow we’ll add a layer of compost, composted horse manure and who knows what else topped off with a layer of straw.  I also have to find a use for a number of half blocks that are still on the trailer.