Pastured Pork Reader Questions

I maintain and encourage offline correspondence with readers.  Many of you all around the world read my blog regularly but don’t comment.  Who are you in the UK, Australia, Hungary, Pakistan and the Netherlands?  What about you Singapore?  India?  Get to know me!

Anyway, this was in with Jesse’s comments about chicken processing:

Jesse:

I also wanted to ask how many sections of electro-netting you are using for your pigs.  My three pigs are in one 100ft section of the premier fencing.  I am moving it once a week, which is taking me about 4 hours total since I have to clear/mow where the fencing is going, then cover seed the old paddock.  I’m thinking of getting more fence and giving them two sections of that fence.  I was curious how much you are using for your number of pigs.

I own 4 sections of pig quikfence.  I use two at a time so I have an empty paddock set up at all times.  I do tear down and set up in my free time, long before I move the pigs.  I’m behind on seeding where the pigs have been but I’ll get it before the next rain.  I need to haul wood chips to fill in the wallow and I need to rake the rough spots smooth.  I also need to cut some brush before I seed.  I’m sold on that deer food plot mix I found with rape, turnip, daikon radish, etc.  Pretty cool.

Jesse later:

4 sections of pig fence, that’s exactly what i’m thinking of doing.  i only have two right now, so when i set the second one up adjacent, i still have to make this awkward temporary chute out of cattle panels because the gates don’t line up.  plus with only 1 100′ section and the three pigs, i’ve been moving the whole thing weekly, and i’d like to be able to let each paddock go at least 2 weeks.  what is your typical rotation time?  do you use a non-electric gate as a door between the paddocks?  or just the break in the pig fence?

where did you find that deer plot mix?  it sounds good, only with my rotation and small number of pigs, i don’t think i’ll be re-using paddocks this year, so i’ve just been seeding with rye grass.  one of the guys at the farm bureau did recommend rape.  man i hate that plant name.  i really just don’t like ordering 10lbs of rape.
There are a couple of ways to set up your fence.  We tend toward setting up an hourglass [two squares].  All four fences join in the middle.  [Jesse later said this wasn’t clear so I drew this
[]
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to make it more clear]  We just peel back two posts and feed the pigs on the other side.  When they find their way through we close it up.  While they are eating I move the fence charger.  As time allows I roll up the fence, usually immediately.
Rapeseed looks like kale but is sold as canola.  Pick your term.  I bought the mix at my local farm supply store.  It’s this stuff right here.

Though I like it, I don’t think I’ll buy the mix again.  No promises though.  It’s not difficult to come up with winter rye, cowpeas, clover, chickory, etc and make my own mix…hopefully for less money.  Even planting turnips behind the pigs would be great…especially if I let the turnips grow then put my chickens over the turnip patch after frost.  I’m also spreading raw aragonite behind the pigs.  No, they won’t return to the same ground again but, like the turnip and chicken example, I’m creating forage opportunities for other animals (including wildlife) and establishing groundcover.

I realized later I didn’t answer his question about rotation time.  I’ll try to answer it now.  Ready?  It varies.  I know that is a terrible answer.  Sometimes I just want them to eat and manure a bit.  Sometimes I want them to tear everything up, kill everything and work in wood chips and straw like last winter in the garden.  Sometimes I count on them to clean up weeds and tree nuts but not destroy the pasture.  Sometimes I want them to wipe the pasture out so I can re-seed with a variety of forages.  Sometimes it’s so stinking hot and dry we can’t drive a fence post in the ground with a hammer so we just sacrifice an area.  Yesterday I moved the pigs because they were nearing the end of forage in their pasture and a rainstorm was moving in.  I didn’t want them to create a mud volleyball pit so…off they went.  Here’s Joel Salatin aswering the same question.
Key points:
  • It depends
  • For his pastures, it’s time to move the pigs when they eat 2 tons of feed.  Pigs can create a lot of disturbance on their way to 2 tons of feed so go back to point 1…it depends.

And from Stockman Grass Farmer:

He currently has three pig finishing pastures and another one under development. Each pasture is about two acres in size and is divided into eight smaller paddocks. These pastures are each stocked with 30 to 50 pigs.

He said it is very important to leave some trees in each paddock as pigs are very susceptible to sunburn.

I should also point out that pigs wallow.  Big pigs make big wallows.  As stated above, I fill their wallows in with wood chips, compost, sawdust or old bedding…basically, whatever is laying around.  You might think this is a nuisance but I think it’s a valuable part of pasture renovation and of allowing the pigs to be pigs.
I’m not a pig farmer.  I’m a farmer with pigs.  I’m learning with you and am happy to help discover the answers with you.  If you need real expert help, write a letter to Salatin.  He always writes back.  Also, check out Sugar Mountain Farm.  Walter does things a little differently than we do but he really knows his beans…er…pigs.  Better than that, find someone who pastures pigs locally (yeah, good luck with that!).
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Poultry Processing Reader Questions

Our friend Jesse is just starting his farming adventures and regularly shares his experiences with me in email.  He makes some valuable observations and asks good questions.  Here’s our recent coorespondence concerning poultry processing:

Jesse:

We just finished up our first day of processing.  21 birds, ha.  We are  slow, BUT we didn’t have any problems.  It was actually really smooth.  Took us about 9am to 12 for the evisceration, then a break, then we shrink wrapped.  A lot of learning took place, but the equipment all worked well, and we didn’t hurt each other.  We are tired though.   Well I had to share that with you.  I do need to ask you, do you remove  the kidneys?  We did, but every evisceration video I watch says nothing  about it.  Also do you leave the necks on?  We did, but it looks a bit  unorthodox in the shrink bags.  Thanks again!

I replied:
We leave on the neck.  We leave in the kidneys.  Just make sure to scrape out the lungs.  We used a bent butter knife when we started but found that to be unnecessary.  Now we just run our fingers along the keel till we start feeling ribs.  Then we run one fingernail between each rib down to the spine.  The lung just pops right out.

Glad you started small.  Salatin makes it look so easy.  You’ll find your groove.

Jesse wrote later:

Our days 2 and 3 of processing went really well, so we finished our first batch of 100 and they are beautiful.  We sold some fresh and some frozen, and we hope the quality of those first sold set off a wildfire of new customer referrals.  We’re still trying to find our rhythm working with the featherman equipment.  We did about 40 in 3 hours on Sunday morning.  I killed, scalded and plucked all the birds, then put them in cold water.  Lesley [His lovely bride] started the evisceration, table top, and when I finished all the plucking I joined her.  We feel we’re getting a little faster each time.  Any tips on improving processing speed?  One thing that slows us down is picking the few pin feathers before we start eviscerating, especially on the tail and at the base of the legs.  Also I had the pilot go out twice on the scalder, not sure why, the weather was good.  How long does a normal propane tank last you?  We did have about 3 broken or dislocated wings.
Our birds were on Sunday were nearly all at 4lb or over, with one or two even at 5lb.

I replied:
A 20# propane tank lasts several processing days if I don’t light my fire too early.  I don’t know why the pilot light won’t stay on sometimes.  You can tell by my blog posts I find it frustrating.  I suspect I’ll be indoors next year.

I know you have read this before but I’m going to write it out so I can think it through.  If it’s just Julie and me I pull four birds out of the plucker and put them in a dry stainless steel sink (2 more should be in the scalder with more bleeding out).  These birds are already headless.  One at a time I cut the feet off and cut out the scent gland.  While the bird is in my hand I reach for my plyers and pull out any remaining tail feathers.  Then I check the armpits of the birds and pass the bird to Julie.  I have to finish two birds before the scalder finishes its work.  Then I unload the scalder into the plucker, load the scalder with two birds again, finish the other two in the sink, unload the scalder, turn on the plucker, load the scalder, kill two birds, turn off the plucker, kill two birds, put 2 in the scalder, grab the birds out of the plucker and start again.  WHEW!  It helps if you can make a little triangle of equipment around you but lay it out so dying birds don’t flip their crap on the evisceration table.  Julie cuts the skin at the neck to pull the crop and windpipe then eviscerates the bird, removes the lungs, rinses it out and drops it in the chill tank.  She also maintains the ice in the chill tank.  She can do all that faster than I can type it so she sometimes waits on me after cleaning her work area.  It really helps if you have children who will grab the birds out of the plucker, remove the feet, pluck the feathers and hand the bird to mommy…lol.  I know we can do 80 in an hour but 60 is a lot easier on all of us.  Just the two of us are probably limited to 40-50/hour.  When we have even unskilled adult help we can quickly push to 100 birds.  I just need somebody to keep the kill cones filled so I can focus on keeping the water hot, the scalder full and the plucker cleaned out.

—-

Re-reading that response I realized I missed his comment about broken wings.  Lots of things can go wrong in the plucker.  We see broken wings, broken legs, broken ribs and torn skin but all of these are fairly rare.  Out of 100 birds Jesse saw three bad wings.  When we have a broken wing we usually salvage the leg quarters, breast meat and tenders for customers then keep the broken wing for ourselves.  There’s nothing wrong with the bird, it’s just not up to the standards we want to present to our customers.  Just know that it does happen.

I want to emphasize several things Jesse said.  His first time out of the gate he needed 3 hours to do 21 birds and was tired when he finished.  He needed 10 minutes per bird his first time out.  That’s why I recommend you start small.  This stuff is hard.  His second and third times he needed 3 hours to do 40 birds.  That’s a lot better but still a hard way to make a dollar.  Play with your equipment setup, kill more birds and you’ll figure out a process flow.  Just keep doing it and finding ways to get better.  I still watch Salatin eviscerate.  I have never figured out how he grabs the crop as quickly as he does.  I have shaken his hand.  I don’t think he’s that much stronger than I am.

I would like to know how long it took Jesse to package the birds in the shrink bags each time.  Hopefully Jesse will let us know in comments.  In fact, maybe he’ll do some guest blogging for me now that he’s an old hand at processing.

Good luck with your bird processing.  I hope you, like Jesse, won’t hesitate to ask if you need help either in comments or through email.

Swalerator…or…Outsmarted by the Wife Again

So I says to me wife, I says, “Honey, What  does this look like to you?”

And she says to me, she says, “Looks like the pigs dug a swale.”

And I says to her, I says, “Well I think it looks like the….pigs….du….oh.”

And so you see, kids, it’s a good idea, from the standpoint of your future genetic line, to marry someone both more attractive than you and, more importantly, more intelligent than you.  But in practice it sucks.  Not only does she run circles around me intellectually, everywhere we go people look at us like, “What’s SHE doing with HIM?”

So, while I work to determine how much of a swale I can hire the pigs to build for me on contour and sulk about being continually outsmarted by my lovely bride, here’s a video of the pigs enjoying fresh pasture.  Ever seen a pig eat grass?

Fall Planting

We have big plans for our fall garden.  We are currently reading through The Winter Harvest Handbook by Eliot Coleman, a very inspiring work.

We moved the two outdoor chick brooders out of the garden area as we are finished brooding chicks for the year.  We spread the manure and bedding around and are planting a large area of beets to feed the cows through the fall/winter.  Then we began moving the hill material out of the potato beds onto a compost pile nearby.  We spread sifted 2-year old compost over the bed as we planted carrots, spinach, radishes and lettuce.  We will continue planting down the 30′ row, week by week as long as we can.  Eventually we’ll be forced into the greenhouse.  Can’t wait.

We limed the other potato row with raw aragonite, spread compost and began planting broccoli.  This row will eventually be home to cabbage and cauliflower as well.

The compost is mostly the bedding and offal from chickens we harvested two years ago along with garden waste from the same time period.  This is my first effort at a compost pile we didn’t turn.  As you might expect, we found a fair number of chicken bones and quite a few undigested wood chips.  Those were sifted out and added to the current compost pile.  No sign of the mountains of feathers I loaded into the pile.

I have high hopes for the fall garden.  We are planting in a hybrid of Jeavons’ methods and Coleman’s.  Broccoli gets staggered in the hex pattern.  Carrots in tight rows.  We’ll see how it goes.

What’s in store for your fall garden?  Getting started yet?

Drought, Death and Discouragement

It’s hard to get it all done.  Some of the things we do really turn out well.  Some of the things we do could turn out better.  Some of the things we do go as badly as possible…worse than we could imagine.

My wife, parents and even extended family are generally supportive of our efforts here.  Even within that group I am no golden boy.  Outside of that group it is easy to find criticism.  I’m going against the grain.  I am defying convention and tending toward worse offenses.  But it’s easy to get past other people’s opinions of me.  Sometimes there are real problems.  Sometimes you make a mistake.  That mistakes snowballs into bigger problems.  Standing there, with my back against the wall, I ask myself, “Why can’t I do anything right?”

This blog has become more of a “how-we” than a “how-to”.  If you want to defy convention, I want to encourage you.  If you want to try your hand at raising a few chickens or pigs, I’ll tell you what I have found works…and what I have found doesn’t work.  I like to make specific mention of what doesn’t work so you don’t make the same mistakes.  I’m not just spouting off about my experiences/abilities on the blog, I’m sharing my adventure with you…even the bad parts.  Now, before we get too far along here, let me reassure you that I’m fine.  I’m OK.  I’m not frustrated or angry or thinking about quitting.  My goal here is not to depress my readership.  My hope is that by opening up here I’ll encourage you to keep going.  This stuff is hard.  You can do it.  I’ll get through it.  So will you.

OK?  Let’s go.

I do everything wrong.  Not just wrong but as badly as possible.  Experience is a harsh teacher and I am a slow learner.  Let me give you a few examples.  Here is a picture of me, dressing a pig.  You can see from my sweat that it was hot outside.  You can see from the dirt on my back that I carried the pig up the hill on my shoulder rather than kill it in a more convenient spot.  If you could smell you would know she peed on my right shoulder as I carried her.  I had to remember not to wipe my brow with that shoulder.  Why did I carry a hog across the pasture on my back and dress it out on a 95 degree evening in July?

Because we screwed up.  Hot weather is a problem for pigs.  Hot weather without water is a serious problem.  When I realized what had happened 7 of our 8 pigs ran to the drinker to get their fill.  The eighth pig just looked at me.  Poor Zing.  I carried water to her, attempted to cool her with buckets of water over her body and held the bucket down so she could drink out of it.  A few minutes later we lost her.

There is an agreement between me and my livestock (and my tomato plants too).  I provide everything they need.  They provide everything I need.  I dropped the ball, I lost a pig.

Now, there’s only so much I can do to manage the heat.  I can’t save every chicken, no matter how hard I try.  There are things I can do to lessen the stress on my animals.  Some of it is falling into a routine.  Some of it is overcoming personal inertia.  More than anything it’s time management.  But the truth is I don’t have this all figured out.  Some things I do work really, really well.  Other things could go better.  As I get better I’m more able to manage my time.  As I can manage my time better I’ll get more of the things done that I need to do.

Please don’t read this blog thinking I have all the answers.  I have some answers.  I have found some things that work reasonably well.  I don’t think I’ll ever exit the discovery phase.  I don’t think I’ll ever be “good” at this farming stuff.  Not only do I have a lot to learn, sometimes bad things happen.  Sometimes the cows get out.  Sometimes a raccoon eats a chicken.  Sometimes people make mistakes.  All of our safeguards failed poor Zing.  It was a busy, hot day and nobody checked the water.

If there’s a positive outcome here, the next day we wrapped and froze the meat and discovered one of our freezers was beginning to thaw.  If not for the pig we would have lost around $1100 worth of chicken.

Farming and Total Recall

I know this is a chronicle of our efforts toward sustainability.  I blog here about farming issues.  Well, we’ll get to that.  I want to tell you about the new Total Recall.  It was so bad I’m going to rant about it on my farming blog.  I’ll bring this back around to farming in a little bit so just bear with me.

I haven’t read Phillip K. Dick’s version of the story.  (I did attempt Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep recently.)  Of course I saw the version that came out when I was a kid.  That version was also terrible but in a lovable sort of way plus I tend to like Verhoeven’s work.  I mean, if you want to go see it, by all means, go see it but go in knowing it’s Len Wiseman’s best effort to make a Michael Bay movie.  You’ll see 110 minutes of explosions, gunfire and rediculous technology with about 8 minutes of attempted, unsuccessful plot.  I mean, how the heck can you climb a ladder when you’re on a structure that is accelerating out of a gravity well?  But, without giving anything away, let’s look at the premise.  The earth has been reduced to two habitable regions; roughly Britain and Australia.  They are connected by an elevator.  Yes, an elevator…going through the core of the earth.  The rest of the world is a wasteland brought on by chemical warfare.  Then <SPOILER> our hero kisses the girl, shoots some people, some stuff blows up and they all live happily ever after.  Nevermind the fact that you’re transporting slaves 8,000 miles through the Earth every day to build robots instead of just building them where the slaves are.  Has no one studied basic economics?</Spoiler>

So back to chemical warfare.  Now, I’m sure they took certain liberties with PKD’s writing though, again, I haven’t read his work.  What if they had said, “Chemical Farming destroyed the world.”?  How awesome would that be?  I mean, on their map North and South America are totally uninhabitable.  Africa, gone.  Asia, poisoned and uninhabitable.  We’re not talking about Nuclear fallout like in On the Beach, we’re talking clouds of poison that somehow don’t come into the inhabited areas, though they are in the suburbs…  Anyway, it would be much more fun to retain Britain and Australia as the last habitable areas because permaculture activists preserved and maintained the soil fertility and improved the water cycle while the rest of the planet fell prey to the evil machinations of agricultural chemical companies (Mwa ha ha!) with or without the elevator through the core of the planet.

Anyway, don’t poison the planet with your chemicals.  Work to improve the hydrological cycle of your land, improve biodiversity and, as a consequence, increase soil fertility.  And if you have a hankering to see Total Recall, see the one about terraforming Mars instead of the one about the elevator.

Apples and Raindrops

Let’s start with the apples.  Wife took the kids to pick up apples at Aunt Marion’s house (sometimes the kids get confused and call her grandma aunt marion or even Maid Marion…lol). 

They filled three bags, barely making a dent in the supply.  Aunt Marion filled two buckets with apples that were good enough for applesauce.  Please notice the top of the tree broken and laying on the ground.  Yup.  She didn’t let me prune that tree.  Maybe this winter…

Kids had a ball.  Aunt Marion refuses to slow down.  She was convinced my 7 year old son couldn’t lift the bucket of apples.  Wife was convinced Aunt Marion couldn’t lift the bucket of apples…wheezing as she was.  It was a hot morning but everybody worked hard.  The pigs were pleased with the fruit of their labor.

Then…wait for it…..wait for it……IT RAINED!

It rained and rained and rained.  Four and a half inches in 2 hours!  The pond filled up and there were even puddles in the driveway!  But nothing comes without a cost.  It cost us our computer and our phones.  Lightning struck the phone line outside of our home somewhere and our DSL modem sparked inside the house.  Though the hardware checks out I can’t get the PC to boot.  I’d say that’s a fair trade for a full pond.  Oh, and the roof leaks!  Isn’t it wonderful?!?!?  Merry Christmas Mr. Potter!

Look for before/after pictures of the pond on another blog post if I can ever get my PC to boot up again…

Converting Apple Drops into Ham

My hogs weigh in around 150 pounds now.  They are slower in growing out than their floor-raised counterparts for a number of reasons.  First, though they eat roughly the same amount, they don’t have access to food all day long.  Because they don’t have access to a snack any time they want they tend to be a bit leaner than they would otherwise be.  Also, they have room to run, exercise, fight and play which, not surprisingly, results in a leaner animal.  Finally, my pigs are expected to work for a living.  They aren’t laying on slatted concrete relaxing in the shade, inches away from feed and water.  They are out on the sun-baked pasture.  There are goodies buried in the brick-like soil and they work to find them.  After they work the soil I plant a few seeds.  They are happy with the work they accomplish.  They are happy to live life in the sun with a chance to fully discover the purpose of their design…well, not the reproductive parts.  My customers are happy because I deliver a lean, healthy, happy and, consequently, tasty animal to the locker.

Let’s make it even better.  Right now immature apples are falling from the apple trees at Aunt Marion’s house.  It is important to remove the drops from the orchard to control the pest population and limit disease vectors in the orchard.  The kids and I pick up a few bags full of apples each evening.  Later this week they’ll work with Aunt Marion (who recently celebrated her 94th birthday) to sift the good from the bad under the early ripening apple trees.  For now we just harvest from under the mutsu apple tree.

The pigs get a 5-gallon bucket of unsorted apples each evening for dinner which is the same as saying they get unlimited access to apples.  They really make pigs of themselves.  This will add flavor to the finished product giving a lean, healthy, flavorful pig you just can’t buy anywhere.  By the way, we’re sold out of fall pork.

Jailbreak

[Cue Bon Scott] – I ain’t spending my life here.  Gonna make a jailbreak.  Oh, how I wish that I could fly.  All in the name of liberty!

So there I was…fast asleep (had been for at least two solid hours) when the phone rings.  Dad says, “Your cows are out.  Come help me put them in.”

It’s 1:00 in the morning.  I’m asleep and my parents have been out partying with friends.  What kind of geek am I to be in bed when my parents are out?  And why are my parents driving home from a social event at 1:00 in the morning?  I don’t know but thank God my parents are driving home from a social event at 1:00 in the morning.

I step outside and see dad walking behind the girls around the curve in front of my house.  Of course the cows don’t want to be caught.  They are fat as ticks with all the stuff they have eaten along the road but still ornery.  They know they have pulled something off and are not anxious to be caught.  Such children!

Dad walks to their right as we go down the road, I follow behind.  Mom follows with the car in case another car comes around the curve.  They have already opted not to go to my house so now we’re headed to the yellow house where the high-security corral will contain them.

We almost get to the driveway and they decide they’re going to run.  I don’t care if we run, walk or jog.  Just don’t miss the driveway for the yellow house!  Dad races alongside of them to turn them in.  In the dim light the cows see the chance to take a left and, miracle of miracles, they do.  Now they’re in the alfalfa field.

I would like to pause for a moment to say that my father isn’t new anymore.  Along with knee surgery and various other problems he lost a toenail recently and it’s causing him to favor his leg.

OK.  Now the cows are in the alfalfa field.  The good news is they are already fat as ticks and they’re only stopping for a quick bite here and there but they are no less spirited.  Mom and dad go ahead in the car to the barn lot to open up the corral.  The wife (who just caught up to us) and I are following the cows on foot to the barn.  This can’t be more than 1/4 of a mile.  The girls know what’s going to happen.  They lived at the barn all winter.  Every day we would walk to and from the pond in the center of the alfalfa field.  At this point it’s routine.

Then the routine breaks.  They don’t want to go to jail.  We get as far as the barn lot and both dash to hide in the giant hackberry that recently fell.

Great.

That led to a couple of rounds at the circus maximus around the barn lot before finally getting them corralled in their jail cell.

Now, I have to admit, I’m not at my best when woken from a sound sleep.  I’m not at my best when woken from a sound sleep and asked to run a marathon in the dark.  I’m not my best when woken from a sound sleep and asked to run a marathon in the dark chasing my cows and all their various liabilities.  I was ready to sell.  2 springing jersey heifers, best first offer.  By morning I was feeling more reasonable.  Because of the drought we’re out of feed.  We have been moving the cows around the yard and into shade every day trying to keep them away from flies and manure but moving them around doesn’t magically make more feed appear.  We’re down to a little bit of dried johnsongrass and baked red clover along with some dormant fescue and maybe a bit of lambsquarter here and there.  Not much to write home about.  I can’t blame the cows for being tired of eating grass hay we baled out of the ditch with a flake or two of alfalfa.  But if they want to protest their treatment they should do it when it’s daylight.  Is that too much to ask?

Nope.  No cows for sale.  I do need summer to cool off so I can build some fence.  Then I can at least contain those girls in a hot perimeter fence and keep them off of the road.

Had another rodeo on Sunday when we tried to move the pigs to a new pasture but that’s another story.