The Cold December Rain

My apologies to GnR for the title.

Contrary to what you may have heard we have had rain in December in years past. During a previous el Niño some years ago my bee mentor took me to check and feed his hives on a warm January 1st. I got so stung up my fingers were swollen like bratwursts. I hardly react to bee stings anymore.

Sometimes it rains in December in Illinois. Sometimes it snows…though not very often. A White Christmas is a big deal.

I have precious little control over the weather as evidenced by the 6″ of rain we got last night, 4″ of which are in my basement as I type. But I do have control over where my livestock are when the cold rain hits.

How do you feel about cold rain? Would you like to have a picnic outside in the grass when it is 36 degrees and pouring rain out? Do you think the cows want to picnic outside under those conditions? Do you think the pasture wants cows on it during those conditions?

What about the pigs? Pigs love mud…don’t they? What about cold mud? What about cold mud they can’t escape?

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I have learned to make a few adjustments to our routines to help our livestock and our pastures do better. This was hard-won information. It cost me a couple of vet bills.

In short, plan for rain in December. Heck, plan for rain in February. And ice in April. Last year it rained an inch every day in June killing all of our alfalfa and most of the clover. The year before it didn’t rain in June at all. Weather happens. We just have to plan for and deal with it.

Let me pull back a little bit. I frequently reference Mr. Salatin in my blogs. I do this first because it is relevant and interesting. I also do this because my readers, generally, know who Mr. Salatin is and have read at least some of his work. Yesterday I was burying a pet in the pasture, standing in the rain on Christmas day. As I was digging where we bury our pets I worried I might find another animal long buried and thought, “Alas, poor Yorick I knew him, Horatio…” Shakespeare is commonly read by our culture…his work is part of the foundation of western society. Similarly, Mr. Salatin’s work is foundational to the current generation of alternative agriculture. This allows me to reference his example as I explain our own position.

We pasture our animals as Mr. Salatin does. We built chicken tractors and a dolly like he uses. We buy fence he uses. We market like he markets.

We work to avoid confining livestock following his lead.

Saying that requires clarification. Mr. Salatin confines his hogs, cattle and chickens. But that confinement is conditional and worthy of reflection. The cattle are, in appropriate weather, confined to fresh sections of grass daily. In winter things change. When his herds were smaller and he first started writing he would use barns and deep bedding for his herds. Things may be a little different now that he has more cattle but for the pattern is valid for our needs.

Please notice I said “pattern” there. It’s a pattern. He didn’t publish plans we could follow. He lives in Virginia. I live in Illinois. He is a genius. I am rather ordinary. But by looking at his pattern and attempting to apply it here at home I benefit.

My cattle were in the barn on deep bedding during the heavy rains, not on our pastures. It wouldn’t do for them to freeze in the cold and rain while covered in mud and manure. They are, instead, warm and dry and eating hay.

I have stockpiled pasture to last us for months but it goes beyond those few coming months. It goes into next summer. If I graze heavily over frozen ground in January and February, piling manure densely on pasture, the pasture will look GREAT in May. If I graze heavily over muddy ground in December my pasture will wash into the creek and the sod will need most of June (if not years) to recover…mostly as a weedy mess. So the cows are in the barn for now.

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This thinking is even more applicable to hogs. Pigs love wet wallows in hot weather. Wet isn’t a problem. Cold really isn’t a problem. But wet and cold kills. Further, pasture won’t recover quickly when abused in December. Mr. Salatin moves his pigs off of pasture and into hoop houses for the winter. I don’t have that kind of space or setup in my hoop house. I have a hog floor.

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But there is a difference. I am currently missing part of the pattern. Salatin’s pigs are dry and out of the mud but they do get to dig. There is a limit to how much digging they can do because there is, ultimately, concrete under the bedding pack. But they can dig. That is missing in my solution.

Right now my pigs have a foot or so of bedding in their covered sleeping area. Otherwise, they have a concrete pad that is open to the sky and sloped slightly downhill. Will this turn into a sheet of ice in the winter? I dunno. I have never kept so few hogs here in the winter.

But right now, in the cold of the late December rain, our pigs are warm, dry and happy with room to run. All this without being concerned about the health of my pastures.

I can do better. I know I can do better. I can fill the runs with sawdust if nothing else. Or used horse bedding. But I have them out of the mud. And that is better for pasture, pig and for pig farmer…even if only a first step.

But I will never have Polyface farm. I will never be Joel Salatin. I can quote him. I can use him as an example and I can adapt his patterns to my needs but I can’t copy him exactly. Nor should I.

Feel free to analyze, criticize and improve on what I do. That is, I think, why any of us write and share. Not to brag, to find better solutions. I can’t solve rainstorms in December but we can put our heads together to establish better patterns…patterns that better meet the needs of our land, labor and livestock.

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The Hog Floor and I…me…I…umm….

There is a hog floor at the yellow house. The yellow house is the other house on the farm. The house my grandpa was born in, where my parents lived when I was born. A tree fell on the house recently and it’s really not habitable. Please don’t be impressed that I own two houses. The hog floor is similarly unimpressive. (The new livestock trailer is not mine. The old chickens are.)

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The picture above is the “good” end of the hog floor. That’s the end we use for our fall pigs. I do like to raise pastured pork but I don’t like to raise pigs in mud. So maybe I’m selling out a little bit. I don’t know. I have grass and trees and concrete. No mud.

I’m sure you have heard or said the phrase, “Happy as a pig in stuff”. Well, it usually isn’t “stuff”…

I don’t think pigs covered in “stuff” are particularly happy. Especially when it is cold. So I keep my pigs warm and dry…or at least make sure they have a warm dry option. This is the work-ey part of the show.

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I have five little pigs. These bays are built for 20-40. 20-40 pigs quickly learn to go potty outside. 5 pigs lack sufficient incentive. We have to clean the aisle but also we have to clean the bedding where it gets messy. You can tell by the wet.

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So we move the pigs to their new bay and clean the old one, making a compost pile at the front of the bay so we can shovel it out easily enough. I mean, as easily as one can shovel pig “stuff”.

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I’m not at all happy about putting pigs on concrete so I try to mitigate the damage I’m doing to my ego by giving them lots of fluffy bedding and piles of sawdust to dig through and manure in (hopefully in that order). I also work to make sure they have fresh, green grass in their current bay. You know…pasture.

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I would like to fill the entire floor with hogs just to have the manure. And maybe someday I will…just to express my inner Henderson. I need to figure out a more efficient way to deliver sawdust than just using a shovel though. This floor is very well thought out but in disrepair. With a little work I think it could be great again.

I said “again” but, to be honest, I don’t know if this floor was ever really “great”. I’m not sure this floor ever really lived up to its potential. Mom and dad moved away when I was under 2. The floor was built shortly after. There has always been some level of drama surrounding the hog floor. Interest rates rose, commodity prices fell, farmers went broke. During that cycle, this hog floor threatened to take the whole farm down. Grandpa held it all together in spite of pressures against him. Hogs were kept here until the mid-90’s. I kept open gilts here for a large producer in ’96. Then the bottom fell out of the hog market in ’98. Since then the floor sat empty. Gate hinges are frozen, fence rusted, wood rotted. It’s weird to know the history of the floor and what it cost my grandfather and to realize that it never met its potential. Even now I use it reluctantly.

The floor and I are roughly the same age. Have I lived up to my potential? Are portions of me decaying from lack of use? Is the farm better because I am here or am I just buying time for the next generation?

Challenging thoughts.

This was a post about the hog floor and I but it is also about the hog floor and me. I hope you will forgive the silly title.

Pasture is Always Better? Always?

I’m up against the idea that pasturing animals is always better. Always.

Better for what? Better for who? Under what conditions?

This may seem like a strange point for me to argue but I don’t think it is necessarily so. Let me skip to the end and say that at under certain conditions it may make sense to preserve your pasture and increase animal health and comfort by sheltering the animals.

There. I said it.

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What problem are we trying to solve?

I have been struggling with this question quite a bit recently, and mentioned it in a recent post. What problem I am really trying to solve by putting pigs on pasture. Am I solving a pig health issue? An ecological issue? A monetary issue? A pride issue? The answer to all may be “Yes” but let’s introduce the fourth dimension: Time. How long do you leave pigs on one specific pasture? Does a heavy rainfall change our management plan? Does incorrect timing hurt animal health, the ecology, our pocketbook or our pride? Yes.

Am I really concerned about animal health? Or am I primarily concerned about what people will think of me if I deviate from the pasture model for a few days? Do you think customers want to mess with explanations?

Q: Are your animals pastured?
A: Well, it depends…(and they roll their eyes and walk away.)

This is a little like the “Organic” question.

Q: Are you organic?
A: No. But…

They are finished with the conversation. The prospective customer has bought into the illusion that “Organic” is a meaningful term when in truth it is a government-owned monster with no teeth. Not only that but organic standards vary as you cross borders. What does it mean?

I could tell my customers, “Yes, my pigs are on pasture 24/7. No matter what. Why, just last week we had 20 inches of rain in 24 hours and 50 piglets were drowned when they washed down the creek. Further, the muddy wallow created by the herd washed out decades of topsoil but, by golly, we have pastured pigs.”

And it’s not just about pigs. There are times when the pasture is better served if the cows are in the barn and the chickens are in the greenhouse on deep bedding.

But not everyone agrees. And that’s OK. We don’t have to agree all the time. Right? Variety is the spice of life. Celebrate diversity and all that.

But it’s not cool to say that “All pigs are better off on pasture” without any qualifications. And because I’m so heavily immersed in P. G. Woodhouse at present I am inclined to say, “I rather believe my pigs are dashed happy on the stone floor.”

So let’s start at the beginning.

Q: What problem are we trying to solve?
A: We need to increase the farm’s fertility and water holding capacity.

Q: So what do pigs have to do with this?
A: Oh shoot! Pigs are the mechanism, not the problem.

The problem has nothing to do with pigs at all. I’m trying to solve a fertility issue. Pigs are a tasty solution provider. But if we’re going to use pigs to help increase fertility we had dashed well make certain their needs are met. They need to be warm, comfortable, well-fed and active. And I guess if I’m providing fresh bedding of sufficient depth it doesn’t matter if there is concrete under the pigs or not. The problem is fertility. The solution is husbandry…on or off pasture.

And I’m not alone in such thoughts. But maybe that’s why Salatin calls himself “Farmer” instead of a “Permaculturist”. Wanna see what he uses for winter housing for his pigs? It’s concrete. He puts concrete sidewalks in hoop structures so the pigs can’t “make huge craters that go all the way down to China“.The best picture I can find of it is on another blog.

Click image for source.

I don’t…can’t…won’t do everything following Mr. Salatin’s example but a big part of why any of us do anything we do is because we read a book or two of his. He is HUGELY influential to the current generation of alt. farmers. His video, Pigs ‘n Glens, shows, appropriately, pigs in glens. But it also shows pigs in hoop houses. He gives an example of an effort to get pigs off of pasture, being late, and having to wait out a heavy snow storm before bringing the pigs in. So for a short time his pigs were on pasture in the snow but that’s not the design.

Where are his pigs in the winter? On pasture? Nope. And why? I asked a friend of mine who met Mr. Salatin some years ago.

Pigs on dirt, might work in some places, and people only get to the first part of Salatin’s talk, hear the word pasture and that’s it.  Never mind there are photos of their hogs in barns or hoop houses during the winter.  I think I have a Smithsonian from 2000 and in it there’s a photo of Joel in a barn with lots of big hogs on deep bedding.  He values his pastures too much, and I’ve seen his pig glens up on the mountain, they are very small and only visited once a year.  No one wants to listen to that, it’s too extensive to only use that land once.

Well, things change. We learn. We adapt. Apparently he now visits pastures more than once but let’s let him tell us all about it. He leaves 50 pigs in on a half acre for “about 5-10 days” (at 1:30), returning 3 times/year (things change). That’s very different than a recent Acres USA article suggesting that you can just leave pigs in place for two months. Salatin specifically says “landscape massage” (5:00) when discussing managing the disturbance. Managed disturbance.

What does “managed disturbance” mean? Salatin says you don’t want too little disturbance. You don’t want too much disturbance. You want just enough. Just enough to encourage grass growth, not so much that you encourage weed growth (see the 3 minute mark).

So how do you do that? Well, it depends. But where I live I have to keep the pigs moving from pasture to pasture before they turn it into soup. If it is raining, they have to move more quickly…or not be there at all.

And that’s where I’m content to leave it. Where are my pigs? It depends. It depends on seasons. It depends on rainfall. It depends on heat. It depends how big the pigs are. It depends on what I need pigs to do. But I have no problem housing my pigs on fresh pasture, cattle bedding or asking them to work over the concrete slab. Wherever they are, it’s up to me to make sure their needs are met and meeting their needs every day is what is best for the pigs. I use pigs to help solve my fertility problem but that creates new problems for me to solve. Husbandry problems. Chasing dollars around a muddy pasture won’t save the world. Proper land and animal husbandry will.

The Adventures of Compost Calzone in the Wild West!

Julie used to make these amazing calzones with chicken, spinach and cheese. Something like this recipe except she would use our own ingredients and make the dough herself. Out of this world! Those are, apparently, not a part of the menu these days. Sigh.

So what is a calzone? It’s sort of a pie. There is a layer of bread surrounding the good stuff. Maybe more like a sandwich that is all sealed up.

Click image for source.

What is a compost calzone? Nothing you would want to eat. (I could have called this a poop pasty but, well…I think you agree…)

The pigs are currently cleaning up a poriton of an overgrown hog lot for me. There are 20 years worth of grass and trees growing and virginia creeper out there. The pigs do a good job of rooting through that mess and adding manure. My job is to clean it up and make the most of what remains so I am making compost calzones.

The pigs need a dry, warm place to lay down and take a nap so I fill the shelter with two bales of straw. That’s the bread of the calzone. When I move the pigs to their new pen I gather up the bedding into a pile in the center of the shelter. I do this because I want the compost covered so my nutrients stay where I want them. I can’t let anything wash away. So I make a little nest of the bedding material in the shelter. Then I begin scraping the concrete and pile the wet mess from outside into the shallow center of that nest.

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Shovel by shovel, scrape by scrape, I fill the nest in.

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Now, there is a little family secret to helping this recipe turn out well. I may as well tell you. Bring in a little extra material to cover the top. Today I used a little spoiled hay but whatever is handy works. With the pile covered, begin working your way around the pile with a pitchfork, folding the surplus material from the edges up over the top of the pile. This is not in any way a technique of my own design, I read about it in Just Enough (a book I highly recommend). Farmers would bring a wagon into town and fill layer after layer with straw and (Gasp!) humanure, sewing the edges of each layer up under the layer above, trapping all the…um…juices…within. The goal was to return nutrients to farms rather than allow farm soils to deplete while nutrients are concentrated and trapped in the cities. They would pay more to clean out the latrines of wealthy people as their diet was better and their manure was richer.

CompleteCalzone

So, following their example, I trap the moisture within to help it all compost nicely. Well…somewhat nicely. To be honest, this wasn’t the nicest compost calzone I have ever cooked but the end result tastes just as good. This is a nicely contained compost pile made of straw, pig manure, leaves, dirt, grass and vines under shelter and the concrete pad is clean for the first time in decades.

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Once the composting action begins the pile will heat through from the inside. When it begins to cool (3 days…maybe a week) I’ll tear it apart and put it back together again. After our compost pile goes through a few heat cycles I’ll send it out to feed our fields.

I know I can do better though. I know I can catch more nutrients, make pigs happier and do less work. We may even find a way to use this silly hog floor more frequently. I just have to keep applying myself to the problem. And buy a loader.

Good luck with your calzones, chicken or compost.

A Pig For All Seasons

Things vary from season to season and day to day on the farm. Weather changes. Livestock grow. I need help with different chores from time to time. My pigs are my favorite helpers. Julie laughs when I sell the pigs because I act so relieved but within 48 hours I’m racing to buy more pigs.

I can explain that several ways.

  1. Jordan’s Law of pigs: The relative danger of the pig is directly proportional to the weight of the pig. In some sources of that ancient family text it reads “nuisance” in place of “danger”.
  2. Pigs will magically turn garden waste, skim milk, acorns, etc. into bacon while also generating valuable muck.
  3. I just like pigs. They are pleasant animals to have around. They make fun noises and it’s fun to watch them explore the world, wondering what everything tastes like, wondering if they can push something over or not. They learn very quickly that we bring the food and we can scratch ears so they seem to want to be near us. Just fun.
  4. I am always relieved to sell the pigs because I’m relieved to have successfully SOLD the pigs to customers. Whew!

So I like having and selling pigs…and having them again. But that constant stream of pigs on and off of the farm means we change almost overnight from small groups with massive destructive power to small groups with massive cute power. From pigs that generate 25 pounds of manure each day to pigs that weigh 25 pounds each. These two groups have radically different needs and can exert radically different pressures on their environment.

And don’t overlook the change of seasons. Seasonality brings its own challenges and each batch of pigs takes 4 months to grow out. Small pigs do better than large pigs in hot weather. No pigs do well outside in wet snow. Care has to be taken when pigs are on pasture in monsoon season or the pasture itself will wash away. And that’s what we’re in now; Monsoon season.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Sometimes we just need the pigs to churn up the ground and add in a big dose of fertility as we did when establishing our garden a few years ago. Our garden is great now. It was initially compacted but a little row-by-row dose of broadfork and a covering of mulch provided all the resolution required.

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Sometimes we need the pigs to help us compost winter bedding in the cattle barns.

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Sometimes we put the pigs on the hillside and ask them to root up rhizomes and eat worms and dig wallows. But I’m tending to drift away from that last one.

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Keeping livestock is all about enhancing the soil. I have cows because cows help my soil to be healthier. Same with chickens. They cycle minerals through and dispose of vegetation that would otherwise stand and oxidize, shading out future growth. They provide a dose of bacterial activity in the soil to balance out fungal life…maintaining diversity in the soil. Pulsing organic material on the soil by way of trampled organic material, and in the soil by way of decaying root systems of mature plants grazed by the cattle. The movement of the cattle on the landscape enhances both the cattle and the soil over time.

Keeping pigs on pasture needs be the same. I keep pigs on pasture not to have pastured pork to sell but, instead, because it serves in advancing soil health. Throwing pigs on dirt and mud during periods of prolonged rain will cause soil loss and soil compaction. Putting pigs in cold mud will only hurt pig health, whatever customers say they want. The site Natural Pig Farming makes this point well. With this in mind, we use a number of techniques to both respect the pig, build the soil and make our customers happy, just as we vary grazing techniques with cattle.

This past year we have offered our hogs access to the nut crop in the forest, deep bedding in barns and, most recently, work reclaiming an overgrown hog lot. Our hog lot hasn’t been in use for nearly 20 years and has grown into a forest.

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Most of the bays in the building are being used for storage. I sticker and stack my green lumber from the sawmill in a couple of the bays, we have greenhouse parts and …well, who knows what else out there. Stuff. But the four bays to the west are unused. Because the weather has been cold and rainy for the last two weeks the last place I want pigs is on pasture. They would work up the soil and allow it to wash away. So instead, I’m putting them into the forest with the concrete floor, one bay at a time.

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Even here they can root and dig and eat grass. I have four pigs in one bay rather than the 60 or so it is designed for. Their job is to reclaim the concrete for me. I filled the sheltered area with straw so they have a comfy bed then leave them to work until the job is done (about a week). Then I come in behind them, shovel and scrape it all clean then compost the manure and bedding under shelter.

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I have all kinds of reservations about doing this but obviously I think it’s better than putting my pigs out in the cold mud. But it has me wondering what the limits are. Clearly hogs are adaptable animals. 99% of pigs are raised successfully on slatted concrete floors. Heck, Salatin has concrete strips running the length of his hoop structures to keep the pigs from rooting up the ground. He just covers it in a thick layer of deep bedding. And that, to my way of thinking, puts the pig closer to its roots. But I’m already somewhat close with the trees growing in my lot. In Dune, Dr. Kynes’ last words were “I am a desert creature!” I think of this when I look at my pigs. They are forest creatures.

So how can I go about making room for a forest where none was intended? How can I put deep bedding over a concrete floor that was designed to be scraped clean regularly? Won’t the litter wash out in heavy rain? Won’t it stink if it gets wet?

As long as the litter was kept dry, the temperature of the litter-bed was maintained and the odor of the pig farms was controlled. 

So I have this nice facility. It’s all paid for. And I can’t use it because it doesn’t have a roof. Again, Natural Pig Farming suggests I should add a roof, otherwise there is no way to install and maintain deep bedding. Animal Welfare Approved (not a member) suggests that:

7.6.1 When pigs are excluded from ranging and foraging areas they must be provided with sufficient material they can manipulate so that they can engage in rooting and foraging behavior.

They have that right now because of the organic material that has gathered and grown for 20 years. Beyond the goal above, I’m taking steps to keep uncomposted nitrogenous wastes out of our streams. There is a lagoon off of the hog lot. If anything from our four pigs should escape the lot it would have a hard time escaping that.

I’m saddled with a hog floor I didn’t ask for. It’s just here because of a decision made by the previous generation. But now that I have it, is there any way I can leverage it? ..even if only seasonally? I think so. But it’s going to take some tinkering. It’s easy to focus on muck and money. But we can’t overlook the forest creature.

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On the topic of hog floor muck, tune in later this week for The Adventures of Compost Calzone in the Wild West!

Trying my Patience

I love the Marx brothers. From Duck Soup:

Sir, you try my patience!

I don’t mind if I do. You must come over and try mine sometime.

Today the chickens were out. The milk cows were out too. Did I mention the pigs? Oh, you can bet the pigs were out. Yes-sirree!

You know what doesn’t work when you are trying to contain animals? Let’s make a list of things that don’t work.

  • Throwing whatever is handy
  • Yelling at the animals
  • Beating the animals
  • Yelling at your wife
  • Slamming the truck door
  • Yelling at the kids
  • Running and yelling
  • Standing and yelling
  • Crying and yelling

I think you get the idea. So, deep breath. Flora is in season. She didn’t settle last cycle. Sigh. So she found her way to the bull and took her friend and their calves with her. The bull.

DaBull

We grabbed a reel and calmly surrounded the cows then Julie led the way back to the barn building fence as she went. I followed behind. Before we could go we had to sort out which calves belonged with which group but that wasn’t a big deal. Everybody loves mom.

Just when we thought we had our problems all squared away we noticed three pigs in with the horses. Huh. Pigs. In with the horses. Three of them. Huh. “What do you think, Boo? Did the fourth stay in his pen?” Nope.

The pigs came running to see us. And why not? We bring them treats. They love to see us. But one pig couldn’t negotiate the gate to the horse pasture so I had to help him out. Then they just followed me to their pen. I thought it was kinda funny so I caught it on video. Sorry for the poor quality.

Again, no yelling. No running. No bad words or thrown objects. Listen to the noises they are making. Can you hear the happy in the noises they are making? The optimism? If they only knew…

Chickens were a little more difficult. I moved them to a new location this morning and about 20 of them moved themselves back. It took several sessions and some creative use of extra fence but we eventually walked the chickens back into their enclosure. They were glad to find food again.

I had hoped to catch a couple of roosters for dinner tonight but…well, no such luck. No lost tempers. No bad words. Just Julie and I…me…I…erm…Just the two of us and a flock of Silver Laced Wyandottes. Hmmm. (That could be a geriatric Flock of Seagulls country cover band.)

Since we already had fence in place, and since the cow was obviously open, we then walked the milk cows back to the pasture to hang with the bull tonight. Hopfully that’s all we need because the bull leaves in 13 days.

I find that patience is gained slowly. But I’m getting there. Days like today help.

Pigs Load Themselves

We are making plans to ship a couple of pigs next week. Plans include getting the animals loaded up as gently as possible. I suppose if I had a few thousand pigs to load in a single day I couldn’t do it the way I do. I would have to pay more attention to Temple Grandin. But I don’t have a few thousand pigs. I currently have four and they are working for me in the barn, cleaning up behind the cows and mixing old straw and hay into bedding that I will compost.

When it is time to move we take the feeder out of the pig pen, put a little fresh bedding in the trailer, back the trailer up to the pen and open the door. The pigs climb in and out, exploring the new space. It really is just that simple as they are naturally curious creatures.

We gave them access to the trailer for a few hours, feed them inside the trailer then close the door behind them. No sweat. We have done this with electric fencing on pasture too. If you’re not forcing the animals to do something they are unsure of they won’t push through the electric. Instead, they approach at their own time, sniff, put a foot or two up and go in. The pigs are on high alert when they first enter the trailer. By giving them a little time they settle down and the trailer becomes a comfortable and familiar space.

The trailer was a positive experience for the piggies. None so much as squealed. I didn’t cuss. Nobody carried a big stick. Nobody got bit. We just stood back, let them explore the space, offered a little feed and closed the door. No big whoop.

Sometimes it helps to build a little ramp behind the trailer so they can climb in more easily. We usually use a straw bale or just pile up some bedding.

At the other end we opened the gate again and stood back as the pigs unloaded themselves. There are no unhappy memories associated with the livestock trailer. Hop in, find food. Positive reinforcement. When their final date arrives they will be trained to hop in the trailer and will arrive at the locker without stress. I think that is important.

Internal Predation

We brought our pigs home late in January. They were 60 pound pigs at the time.

Because winter has been so harsh we thought the best place for them was in the greenhouse with the chickens. Salatin gave a presentation (The one I’m thinking of was at UC Berkley in 2005 but the link appears to be broken) where he says at 75 pounds the pigs get a hankering for chicken legs.

Pigs

Well, that only took two weeks. We now have one less New Hampshire pullet.

I can’t afford to feed my layers to my pigs. The pigs just aren’t worth it.

So off they go. We wheelbarrowed the pigs out to the shed with just two days of negative temperatures remaining in the forecast. We bedded them on the remaining bedding from the previous batch of pigs we shipped out about a month ago. There is a good pile of straw they use for a nest on cold nights.

They are dry. They have a warm place to lie down. They have food. They have water. They don’t have chicken dinners. I wish they were still in the greenhouse though. Maybe I’ll figure something out for next year. More that that, I’m counting down the days until the pasture thaws and firms up.

Just a Couple of Pigs

We shipped out last pig out on Tuesday of last week. We were scheduled to pick up a new batch of piglets on or after Feb. 1 but I couldn’t stand it any longer. 5 days without pigs was 5 days of misery. Julie saw it coming and laughed at me. She knows I love having pigs around.

Sunday morning we made room for and assembled a pig pen in the greenhouse. We use a big water tank for a drinker and it would freeze solid if we tried to keep the pigs outdoors. Since ice is a problem and frozen piglets are unhappy piglets I chose instead to ask the chickens to share space.

I made plans to meet Mike Butcher at noon for a couple of 60 pound pigs. Mike raises hogs for a couple of well-known major organizations, each with their own audits and specifications. His sows farrow outdoors and never see a gestation crate. His pigs are raised on deep bedding and he uses no antibiotics. Mike has a clean, neat hog business. He gives me a discount on pigs since they are, in his own words, going to a good home that appreciates their health. Not only do I appreciate their health, I appreciate their breeding. These are the best eating hogs we have raised and fatten quickly. Mike does it right.

Pigs1

Plus he generates mountains of compost.

pigs2Mike is justifiably proud of his business. He is also proud of his herd of large black hogs that he has kept for decades. He is always anxious to show us all around the place, look in any and every building, play with newborn piglets…whatever. I have never seen a sick animal on his place. Dad was with me yesterday and commented on how clean all of the pig pens were. Mike works hard and it shows.

We loaded up four piglets in a homemade crate (more on that another time), wrote Mike a check and headed off down the road. That sounds too easy. I caught 3 piglets, dad caught a fourth and we carried them to the truck. That still sounds too easy. I walked through groups of pigs, called out the one I wanted and we (my son and I) sifted through the group until I could get my hand on the specific one I wanted to take home while Mike’s Jack Russel Terrier worked to add to the confusion. But it’s not enough to get your hand on a 60 pound ball of muscle. You have to hang on to it. Ugh. Then, wriggling pig in hands, I climbed out of the pen and wheelbarrowed each pig over to the truck. Then I lifted each one, stepped up on the tailgate and gently lowered each into the crate. I still didn’t describe it well enough because I left out the amount of manure that gets all over me during the operation. But you could probably figure that out on your own.

The pigs are comfy in their own portion of the greenhouse where they will remain until April. They went to work digging in the bedding right away.

I have a lot more to say about pigs and why I found it so hard to go without a pig on the farm for even a full week but I’ll save that for another time. I do have to say, catching and wrestling pigs was just exactly the kind of workout I was discussing in yesterday’s post. I’m sore today.

Pigs: Where, How Much and What’s the Plan?

Eumaeus asked a series of great questions in comments for my recent post on taking pigs to market. I appreciate that. Rather than write a lengthy response in comments I thought it was better to just make a post.

You got the pigs from a farmer or at auction as weened piglets and how much per piglet?

I buy directly from my farmer friend Mike. Mike produces pork for a major upscale retail chain. He farrows on pasture and finishes in deep bedding, generating mountains of compost.

Piglet

I say “friend” but really, Mike is a friend of a friend and one heck of a nice guy. I never show up unannounced but Mike always makes time to chat. Mike was the childhood friend of Steve and best man at Steve’s wedding. I met Mike through Steve. I met Steve because I buy milk from him.

SteveI buy milk from Steve because I found out I was stealing his chicken customers (on accident), went to his house to say “sorry” and he stopped digging potatoes, loaded my car with vegetables and grape starts and forced us to eat peaches…oh, and the milk is great. True story. And Steve, like Mike, is one heck of a great guy (if you hadn’t put that together on your own). He came to AI a heifer for me once (25 minutes one-way), his wife brought us a pie and he didn’t charge me anything for the service and then he bought the resulting heifer. We send him all the milk and beef business we can. He sends us chicken customers in return. I think the account balance is strongly in his favor. I owe Steve a lot. Mike is just as giving.

Oh. Rabbit trail. Sorry. This time Mike charged me $1/pound. It changes with the market. I’m sure you can reach a similar arrangement once you locate a reliable farmer nearby. Mike doesn’t hold back his opinions about even his own pigs saying the red ones are the best eating…but we take what we can get. Hopefully your farmer will be similarly candid.

They come advertised docked with shots?

Mike doesn’t appear to advertise. Mike vaccinates for tetanus but that’s about it. I buy them castrated (my choice) but none of his pigs have their tails docked. Because of the deep bedding the pigs have plenty to do so cannibalism isn’t much of a problem. Long, wagging pig tails are very entertaining. I prefer to buy barrows (grow out faster) but I also buy a couple of gilts as some customers specifically request them.

GardenScrapsI don’t own a needle. I don’t doctor pigs, I eat them. Mike’s pigs are so healthy that I have never needed to do anything with them other than to add feed and water.

Then you took ‘em to processor and did you bring them all back home to freezers to sell as cuts or did you have mostly people pick their halves/wholes up at the processor?

I just drop the pigs off at the processor along with a list of names. This time I gave 7 buyers for the four pigs I dropped off, assigning each buyer to a specific pig (black, big red, little red and spot). The processor records the hanging weight for each animal and that tells me what I need to charge each customer. For example, I believe the spotted pig (Laverne) weighed 280 so the buyer owes me $560. Then they buyer calls the processor before Thursday (cutting day) and chooses what cuts they would like. I am not involved at this point. They choose spare ribs or country-style ribs, pork steaks or Boston butt, hams, ham steaks, ham roasts, pork chops, butterfly chops or loin, bacon or not, ground pork or sausage and how big to make the packages. It’s all up to them. They buy a whole pig they get a lot of bacon. Half a pig? Half the bacon. I usually get a chance to talk to the customer right after they call the processor. I guess it is intimidating to talk to the processor so they call to ask me questions like, “What is a pork catfish?” When they pick up their pork (week or three later) they pay the processing charges directly to the processor. I’m not involved. If I had a type 1 processor nearby I might be interested in having pork cuts in inventory as my chicken freezers are all empty this time of year.

Piggies

Last question, is keeping boar and sow stupid?

Nope. But keeping a boar for one sow is not economical and he would be bored. Keeping a boar for 8 sows would be OK. Normally, you buy a purebred boar from a known breeder and put him in with your sows. If you want to move your genetics along quickly, sell the sow after her first litter, keeping the best gilt or two. Rather than keeping or borrowing a boar for the two gilts I held back I plan to AI. Kelly Klober had quite a bit to say on this subject in a recent Acres USA issue. I haven’t read his most recent book Dirt Hog. Let me know in comments if any of you have.

I am happy to share more detail on farm activities. Sometimes I just don’t know what questions to answer. Help me know where I can be more clear.