Thursday, September 30, 2010

Sometimes, being lazy is a good thing

...even for farmers.

Last Saturday I was grumpy over breakfast.

We had spent the weekend before with some of our most practiced and talented Movers of Piles of Trash, moving piles of old hay out of the hayloft. We moved 7 trailer loads of the stuff, shoveling it down from the hayloft into the trailer waiting in the lower barn below.

It was A LOT of hay -- dusty, sweaty and gross, mixed with just enough pigeon poop and rotten dolls to make it particularly unappetizing -- and just when we thought we had hit the homestretch, we realized that the last bay of the barn was actually full of piles of sawdust, carefully concealed under a small layer of hay.

This was discouraging. Old hay is dusty and itchy, but you can push about relatively big piles of it with not too much effort. Sawdust however...this was a shovelful at a time sort of thing. We managed to fill up a trailer with the dust-hay mixture, but could not empty it. It was dusk. We needed our well-deserved sausage and beer.

The trailer sat for the week in the barn, full of Hell. The lower barn itself was coated in a layer of fine dust. The boar was grumpy about it and moved his bed outside.

And I, the next saturday, was equally grumpy over breakfast. I wanted to spend time poking in the garden, investigating bugs and such, and giggling at geese and pigs. Maybe finding the energy to bake a honey cake, or read the Sports section of the Times. Looking into my granola, I warily remembered what it was like to shovel out trailers of trash with the Big Man last fall. There would be no honey cake, and no Times. Only short tempers and protesting shoulders.

What if, I proposed to the seemingly-resigned-to-his-fate Big Man, what if we took the tailgate off the truck, and just drove around really fast over bumps and up hills? I envisioned Mr. Toad's Wild Ride meets hayride.

No reply. Just the tip tip tap of the keyboard.

What if, I tried, we built a ramp to drive the tractor up. A steep ramp! Or, we could get the pigs to push it out!

Tip tip tap.

What if, (getting desperate now), omigod, what if we chained the front of the trailer to the bucket on the tractor, and lifted the bucket up realllllly high?


Success. A DIY dump truck.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Lonely Boy

Life is hard for Romeo, when he is courting Juliet, Juliet, Juliet and Juliet.

We were wondering how we would be able to tell that the Boar had matured enough to be a threat to the, you know, "Midwestern values" of our ladies prematurely. Turns out, he made it pretty clear. He developed a very lovable affection for rubbing their bellies (raw) and trying to, you know, spoon them (when they were trying to go about their lives).

So we, with the help of our versatile (and apparently totally safe for everything but Skittish Pig) electro-net fence, have divided our pigs into three groups.

One is Lonely Boy. He has to live all by himself in the only pen we have that is more than a just a mental barrier. Because, clearly, when you need to rub bellies and spoon, only actual physical barriers can stand the heat. Especially when you love making out so much.

And have such a strong nose.

So then, the welded wire mesh is barely enough. Especially with such tempting getaway sticks on the other side.

He does have an advantage in having the best available scratching post (the door into the barn). Others have to use less hardy means to rub their heads. But the Big Pigs, at least, are very assertive about these rights.

The Juliets have also been separated, according to size. The Littles (Stump and Little Red) are in the pen adjacent to the Boar, with as much food as they can eat 24/7. The Bigs are on a diet. They are at the point where they convert food to body mass at a fairly inefficient rate, so we figured we should turn them out to the pasture for a while. They are already at breeding size, so now we just need to sustain them.

They are doing well at it. Very vocal when they see the Little Juliets getting piles and piles of food. But also content to nap under the burdocks and root up every inch of their space, transforming the matted, overgrown pasture into 8 inches of loose tilled soil. Which is, of course, exactly what we want from them these days.

Monday, September 13, 2010

When the farm gives you lemons...

Well, we've had our first mammalian death. The backstory is long but integral, so bear with me and we'll get to the juicy stuff soon.

As many of you know, we have two outdoor spaces that are predator proof, the pig pen (1/16th of an acre) and the pasture (4+ acres). In our learning process we always try the thing that is easiest for us first and work backward until we find a happy balance. As soon as we had the pasture up we wanted all the animals to get a chance to live free on the grass, so we moved in the birds and opened the gate for the pigs, providing everyone had free range. It worked fine for a few days, but then the pigs began terrorizing the birds, eating their food, eating one of them (RIP Black Turkey) and generally running amok.

Our long term plan has always been to rotationally graze the pasture, 4 acres is more than 6 pigs need. Electronet fencing is a type of temporary fence that works well for all the species we might want, and it's a perfect blend of rugged and nimble. We'd been holding off to buy it until I could figure out how much we needed, but the pigs poor behavior inspired me to figure that all out. Unfortunately, the fencing arrived on a very rainy Thursday. When the sun came out on Friday I set it up in the pasture, making three separate paddocks so I could divide the pigs up, something we've been meaning to do for a number of reasons. I attempted to separate them into the three groups I wanted, but when that proved too difficult to do alone I just let 'em loose. Later in the afternoon I noticed the boar alone in one of the paddocks (they were all set up but had a short section open) and I decided to close him in. Johnson came home soon after and we set to work canning an epic load of tomatoes --14 quarts, a new record for us. Johnson was excited to see the new fence but the canning has a lot of prep, so she didn't get a chance to look for about 90 minutes. She came back and said the boar had gotten out and some of the fence was down. I went down with her to investigate, and discovered that one of the Tamworth gilts was caught in the fencing, had run for her life and died.

I went into action, and sent Johnson to get a few knives and my rubber boots, since I was already in my messy clothes (surprise surprise!!). Naive Johnson assumed the knives were for cutting the pig free, so she was right surprised when she returned and I was dragging her up the hill already. It was just getting dark, which proved good for photos but aggravating for the Big Man. (A quick note on the photos: I was busy, as you can see. If I had taken them I would have gone for more descriptive clinical images, but Johnson's artistic take really capture the moment, you readers are lucky she was there.)

I've been researching slaughtering and butchering in my free time, so I was pretty much ready for this. I slit the throat to bleed as much as might come out, and started assembling a makeshift table so I didn't have to work in the dirt. Becky set up the hose (constant rinsing is key) and started water on the cooker for the scald and scrape, more on that later.

I needed to gut and clean the carcass in order to save the meat, At that point I wasn't sure what I'd want to do with her in the long term. This pig, from now on known as Skittish Pig, was probably about 110 pounds when she died, which is half the size of a butcher hog. That means she has tiny bacon, tiny pork chops, and tiny everything else, limiting our options.

The most important part of gutting is to remove the digestive system intact, no one wants shit on their meat. I was unable to go through the rear since I didn't have the proper tools, so I elected to go through the middle. The belly is impressively thin, and I knicked an intestine just the teeniest bit as it spilled out of the body cavity. All in all it went well, and it was a nice dry run for the next time as I know exactly what tools I need to make it easier. We opened up her stomach to see what she'd been eating, and it was a healthy mix of grasses and grains. The process was blood free for the most part, something that impressed both of us.

The final step was to scald and scrape the skin. A pig is special among non-avian livestock, as you have an option when it comes to the outside. Some prefer to skin the pig, while others scald the skin with hot water and then scrape off the hair and topmost layer of skin. both are a similar amount of labor, as skinning a pig is much more difficult than skinning a cow or goat, so in my mind it boils down to whether or not you want to eat the skin. Scaling and scraping was the biggest unknown in my research, everybody does it a different way. Some dunk the whole carcass in hot water (150 F) while others ladle much hotter water (210 F) over the animal.

In our haste we did not have the time for the former, so the latter it was. The first couple tries were rough, but I eventually got the hang of it. The process was made even more difficult because I had gutted the pig first, leaving a lot of skin that was on the edge and thus hard to scrape off in long, broad strokes. If I had been there when the pig died I could have scalded and scraped first, but with the delay it was important to get the temperature of the meat down as fast as possible.

All in all it took 4 hours to arrive at the end point, a tidy package in our freezer. Upon further reflection and discussion we agree that there isn't anything we could have done to prevent her passing, accidents and death are inevitable on the farm. We were lucky it happened when it did so that we could salvage something. Even Ursula got a treat, although she wasn't quite sure what to do with it.

I can hear the question on the tip of your tongue: If I come in October can I eat some of this pig? Most likely. At this point we've decided that we still want to remove Stump from the herd, we hope to slaughter and process her the week before the party when we'll have some extra help on hand. Skittish pig is a great size for spit roasting or pit cooking (about 80 lbs. dressed, 60 lbs. of meat), and if you happen to have experience with either please let me know as I'd appreciate some input. The only question left to answer is whether we'll buy another gilt to replace Skittish, or if we'll just breed the three remaining, hopefully we'll have an answer soon..

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Planning ahead is what I do best

So, this thing with the inconvenient name is coming up quick, 7 weeks from Saturday which is nothing in my book.

A few things are up in the air, and I need some input in order to pin them down. First though, a list of new developments/changes that are settled.

-- Remember how I said we'd make a whole bunch of stuff, as much as we could? I listed things like cheese, veggies, beer, cured meat, foraged mushrooms, fruit, etc. Well, some of this is too much, at least this year. At this point we're on track for beer and wine, a ton of produce, and pork. Maybe some chicken, although a two meat meal seems odd. We're not going to push it by trying to make some blue cheese just for this, or take a chance spending a weekend hunting mushrooms when we could jeopardize the bigger picture.

-- Even though the date for dinner is Saturday, October 30th, Becky and I will be taking the week before off to get shit done. A few people that I know of are coming out for the whole week, and if you're lucky enough to be flexible enough to do that we'd sure love to see you. There will be a lot to do, the more the merrier.

-- Exciting group events will be planned for the weekend at least. We're talking haunted auction barns, capture the flag, hay wagon rides, chicken fights in our pond, if it's fun we'll do it.

-- We're going to ask you for money. Not a lot, just enough to cover expenses. If you stay from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon I'd guess it'd be in the $60 range, including all your food, beverage, etc. We're not trying to be inhospitable, just practical. Of course, if the money is an issue for you personally we can work something out. We're going to play it by ear for the week previous, if you work your ass off we'll take care of you.

-- There was a lot of debate here at TBA about where people should sleep. I've mowed a big patch of grass atop our little hill for tents, and it should be possible to drive up there for those with RVs or vans or whatever. Assuming the party is based around the house I figured it'd provide a dry, though potentially breezy, place where people could sleep without being interrupted. If weather is horrible we can stay in the barn, it's water tight although the floor is harder. Beds in the house (we can sleep 8 including the air mattress) are reserved for people who need them. I'm excited to camp out, should be fun. If for some reason you'd prefer to stay nearby in a hotel, there are a few about 25 minutes away. Inquire with us if that is the case.

Things that need to be sorted out:

-- We have no idea how many people are coming, at this point we're guessing somewhere between 20 and 100. If you're coming, please let me or Becky know. If you're bringing people, please let us know. If you're bringing a dog please let us know. If you need a tent, or if you have extra room in a tent, let us know. If you need a sleeping bag or have an extra one, let us know. If you have any bizarre dietary restrictions, let us know.

-- We're going to eat some pork. How much depends on the head count. It's convoluted, but here's the gist. Stump's gotta go. She's growing slower than all the other pigs, and she's obviously not as worm proof. The original plan was to slaughter on 10/1, cure a ham, and eat that. That would necessitate a slaughter weight pig on 10/1 (225-300lbs according to personal preference, I'd like the higher side) where Stump will only be 150 lbs then, if she trends along her weight gain as she has for the last month. The other complicating factor is that I would like to get 6 months worth of pork for us from the same slaughtering event. We could put off Stump's slaughter until 10/28, when she'd be approx. 230 lbs., or the third option is to buy a whole other pig from someone else and slaughter it in addition. Point is, I need a head count, because the total consumption could range from Stump's hams to Stump entirely, and if we need another pig I'd like to buy it sooner than later. I could go on and on about this, but suffice it to say that being a small producer is more complicated.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Water Water, Here or There (but not both, and not when we want it)

One of the first things the pigs did when we moved them to the pasture was root up a spring. And I mean, they didn't like, FIND a spring. One day there was a hill, and the next day, in the midst of the little tufts that pig rooting creates, there was a flowing spring, running down the hill. The pigs were very pleased with themselves. They line up and lay down with the cold water running under their bellies, head to tail, single file, like sausages. Which, of course, they are.

I was quite pleased with their spring discovery. Especially coming after the troublesome well problems that flared up out of the blue a couple weeks ago. Well, I figured, maybe we can just use the spring.
Except that it didn't flow all the time. Some days it was like a brook, and some days it was just a streak of mud.

Likewise, the well only worked sometimes. Perfect for days, and then all of a sudden -- no pressure. This was especially frustrating because we were trying to move the animals to a new watering system.This is the pig waterer. It is made out of an old tire filled with cement. The Big Man made it. There are apparently some more nuanced facets involved (I am being over-the-shoulder edited as we speak); perhaps the Big Man will elaborate for himself at some point. Anyway, the hope is that we can roll it around to wherever we have the pigs parked, plug 'er in, and the pigs will have fresh clean water. There is a similar contraption for the chickens, which is especially exciting because they tend to, erm, contaminate their water pretty quickly with all their...fertilizer. A couple problems so far. One is that the pigs are not really giving the chickens the appropriate and polite personal space that they need. First, they like to chase them. Second, they discovered that the dripping chicken waterers can be used to make all new wallows around the chicken coop. This results in a muddy patch full of happy pigs outside, and a bunch of riled up chickens squawking in the rafters inside.
Chickens to the left being herded by a piggo, pigs wallowing on the right.

And then the stupid boar figured out that he could go actually inside the chicken coop, tip over their hanging waterer and make a shady all-weather wallow! We hated him for a good hour, but he is just so goofy and cute, with his little man belly.

So we had to re-adjust some plans.
Movable electro-netting fence is in the mail, for an impermeable pig-chicken barrier. More on that later.

As for the waterfowl and turkeys, they just drink a LOT. The one gallon waterer they have now lasts only for a couple hours. And the ducks need a deeper water source to keep their beaks clean and clear. All problems to be solved, ideas tested in the next couple weeks. They've been faring pretty well...they can come and go from their little pen, squiggling under the chicken wire in a herd, or flapping over it (turkeys) but the pigs don't think it worth the effort to get through to bother them.

The biggest complication being that sometimes the well flows. And sometimes the spring does. Never both at once. Always one or the other.

We have yet to figure out how, exactly, that works. But it is certainly annoying.