Monday, January 17, 2011

Time to breed!

Yesterday I was at work and got a call from my wife about our sow, Guenevere. She told me that she was totally freaking out in her pen and acting crazy! The pig was foaming at the mouth and knocking over the feeder, chewing at the fence, and charging the walls of the pen! She eventually broke down one of the panels and escaped! She was walking around the driveway when my wife saw her. She recruited my younger brother to help corral the pig and repair the fence. We have had some difficult times trying to figure out when she was ovulating. It usually manifests itself in the form of erratic and extra needy behavior, but I usually only see the pigs at morning and at night and sometimes its hard to monitor behavioral changes. So the sow made it very clear that she was in heat, now we know when her cycle occurs! It's necessary to know this so that we can breed her again. We don't have a boar yet so she has to be taken out to another farm and stay a while during her cycle. So now I mark the calendar and 21 days from then she will have a week long say at Ebey Farm (this is where we got her from). When she returns to our farm she will be impregnated and ready to start putting on weight to supply milk to her new litter.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Dealing with winter

I don't know about where you live but up here in Arlington its been frozen solid for two weeks. We got a few inches of snow and the temp hasn't rose above freezing so it has remained a literal ice field. The pigs don't seem to mind the snow, they go about rooting in the pasture all the same. But it has presented me with a water flow problem. Two weeks ago I installed a couple of automatic hog nipples alongside the back of the barn so that I wouldn't have to haul the hose out to the pen and fill the water bowl. The nipples are pretty much like a giant Guinea pig watering device, connected to a hose, connected to a deep ground spigot. The spigot is buried three feet in the ground and has a plunger shut off. Its great for when it freezes because I can still get running water. But I can't say the same for the hose. So for now I'm back to hauling buckets of water out to the pen, which is pretty lame. The pigs are getting big fast, so they need a lot of water...quite a chore. Another problem with the cold is that they are eating a lot more to stay warm, which means that they will be packing on lots of tasty fat! That is one benefit of raising pigs through the winter...which a lot of people don't do. Some farmers just purchase weaners and raise them through the warmer months and sell in the fall. But we've decided to breed and raise a herd. This takes a lot more commitment...and I'm still trying to figure if its cheaper. The calculation goes something like this; is it more cost effective to buy weaners at $100 each and raise them to market weight? Or to have a sow and let her give birth to the pigs you raise? Lets say that your sow gives birth twice a year, assuming she has an average of ten piglets per litter, you'll have 20 piglets a year. Then you factor in a 80-90% survival rate for the piglets, you should have 16-18 pigs. That is 1,600-1,800 bucks if you were to buy them. So the question is, how much is it going to cost to keep that sow all year? This includes food, bedding, and any vet care she might require. The problem is that I can't tell exactly how much food she is consuming because she is fed along with the rest of the herd. So it's not a precise calculation, and I don't yet know the answer. But I'm really enjoying watching the little guys grow up! I really think that I'll keep up with the herding just to see those week old piglets running around the farm. But for now I'm just hoping for some nice temperate weather.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Consider the vegan.

I want to talk a little on the subject of the vegan/vegetarian choice. I need to tread lightly here because I have a history of offending people when I speak on this subject. Lets be clear though. I am an unashamed, proud omnivore! We humans have been blessed by evolution to be able to eat pretty much anything we want. The evidence lies in our teeth (we have incisors to cut into an apple, canine teeth to tear at the meat, and molars to do the mashing of all it all). So I was having a conversation with a co worker in which I found out that she was a vegan (it's very strange how these people identify themselves with their diet choice) and I made the comment "I don't think you and I will be friends, I'm a pig farmer". Well she responded with "I actually respect that, if you have the balls to raise and kill your own meat then you should. I just have a problem with the American meat industry." I have heard this explanation from so many vegans/vegetarians that it makes me wonder why. Why is it so hard for these people to understand that if you are selective about the meat you purchase and who your farmer is, you can avoid all those terrible things big meat has to offer (which is to say that, it really has nothing to offer). However the vegan is all too willing to drink the soy milk, that was produced from genetically modified soybeans, patented by Monsanto in the eighties! Where is that strange line drawn? I don't understand. How is it that a person could say they wont consume a certain product because they disagree with the farming practice but then consume a different product that is very similar in it's production (if not same) as a meat product. I've also met a large amount of vegan smokers that drink in excess while touting the health claims of their diet, they are usually quite pale and appear under nourished. My point here is: if you want to eat locally and with a conscience, it's on you! You are the only one who can decide what and how you will eat! But please don't bring your misunderstandings about meat production to the table...because there a lot of people like you that have decided that the American meat industry is a festering and repulsive entity...but a lot of us have decided that mother nature and evolution were right. We are omnivores! To deny that is to deny our own evolution as a species...and I'm not willing to do that! Meat is a cornerstone of our culinary history! Lets not forget that.

So the farmer, who is the farmer(s) in your area? How many farmers do you know? This question is the most important one. So many people have become so disgusted with how meat is raised that they have quit eating it all together! This saddens me. Because it is a simple fix, as long as, a person is willing to be diligent about what growers they buy from.

The internet is a great resource for finding great local food producers! You have many of them in your area! Do some work and pay a little more and you'll be rewarded with some of the best food that you never thought was possible!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

To cut or not to cut?

I wanted to talk a little about a completely unpleasant subject if I could (and I can)...castration. This is something that every farmer that breeds his own herd will have to address at some point in his time on the farm. Lets start by asking the question of why. Well there are a few reasons why. One reason is that an uncastrated male pig can become more aggressive because of the higher levels of testosterone in its body. This can lead to something called "boar taint", a musky flavor in the meat that is detectable when cooked. Mind you I have never experienced this, and Ive eaten lots of wild boar (obviously uncastrated) and if I was tasting boar taint then I guess I just thought it was a nice gamey flavor. But apparently only about 1 in 20 boars will have this that...I'm not really worried about. Also, if you separate the males and females about a month before slaughter, those hormone levels drop. So then I thought that it was important for them to be castrated so that they don't breed with their siblings or parents..."we don't want inbred pigs". But I was wrong there. It turns out that this is a type of husbandry practice called line breeding. All you are doing is giving the litter a double dose of recessive genes. So then why do we castrate? I have no freaking clue!

I can tell you why not to however. It turns out that an uncastrated pig will grow at a rate of 10% faster than a castrated pig. It will put more energy into growing lean meat and less fat (we have already chosen our breed for nice fatty pork so that's not a problem). This means that it will reach market weight faster, so the pig will consume less food, and you will save money on the feed your farm a slightly higher profit margin. Which is not really significant on a farm as small as mine right now....but I hope to have 200 pigs in a few years and that margin will need to be as big as it can be! Finally, the most important reason that I have found for not cutting is; it could be the single most horrifying experience I have had in my life! I really thought I was prepared on castration day...I was not. It took a serious mental toll on me and my wife. For the rest of the day I was so worried that I did it wrong, that it ruined my whole day! I did everything right and the pigs recovered just fine. But the problem is that unlike a cow, the pigs testes are inside the animal, instead of hanging down outside the body. So castrating a pig is more like performing surgery...and I'm no surgeon! Not to mention that the pigs now have a healthy fear that at any moment, I might climb into their pen and start cutting into experience they most definitely do not want to repeat.

So we have decided to try the uncastrated route and see how it goes for us. Everything for the new farmer is trail and error. I have lots of books and the internet and a really good mentor...but what works for some folks might not work for me (kind of like religion).

Sunday, December 5, 2010