Monday, March 28, 2011

Refugees and the New World with Others

In the odd world of chicken relations, the war is over; only sparsely feathered refugees remain.

Victory was predictable and swift. The leghorn rooster, with his overwhelming force and entrenched power structure, quickly stifled the rebellion led by the newly empowered modern game rooster with his small and ragtag force of young hens. There was no no-fly zone established, no aid to the splinter group, no delicate diplomatic workings behind the scene. In fact, when the rebels attempted to move into the barn and secure the stockpile of resources therein, we put the barn on lock-down, chasing out illegal infiltrators with long poles and loud screams. You see, even tacitly allowing them to use our territory to further their cause, we felt, would signal a level of support for the rebels that we worried would be misinterpreted. The leghorn, it is important to remember, had the best egg-layers on his side, and we have become so spoiled with a readily available and seemingly endless supply of eggs. A sunday without omelets seems so bleak, so un-American...

And thus, early one morning, the modern game rooster was found dead, unceremoniously dumped in a box of trash. His followers were nonchalantly grazing about with the leghorn, taking care to stay in line. He watched them all with his haughty, glinting eyes, as he is wont to do.

But while one might suppose that "to the victor go the spoils," these heartless winners have forsaken their homeland, the coop, instead electing to move into the fittingly apocalyptic environs of the milk room of the barn, which we had been using to store scrap metal. So there they roost, at dusk, on an old grill, a pile of thin metal bars, a heap of wire, peering out of glassless windows when anybody slinks by. It is unsettling, but we still get our eggs.

Chickens are interesting because of how cruelly foreign they are in instinct and philosophy; pigs are interesting because of how accessible their motivations are.

Last Friday we moved all the sows and piglets into the large stall, with a door, always open, to the outside pen. Chaos immediately took control, as giant, agitated sows circled each other, braying and barking in a show of force to claim the best territory. Piglets were overwhelmed and confused by the sudden explosion of teats and teat competitors, and swarmed on any prone lady who happened to leave a hint of teat exposed. In the ensuing competition, ears, cheeks and backs were bloodied. Squeals reverberated in the barn rafters, much to the annoyance of snoozing barn cats. Every possible relationship had to be tested: friend, foe, accomplice, snuggle buddy, flirting buddy, wrestling buddy.

As of today, thankfully, things have calmed considerably. Besides settling into an uneasy but stable hierarchy, the sows have figured out that nursing in sync saves them from the starving mob, and the piglets have found distraction in ripping off bits of bushes to teethe on and batter back and forth, and they are still very much in the run-in-circles-then-sleep-all-afternoon stage. Piglets who prefer to snooze complacently found each other; piglets who prefer non-stop contact sport found each other. Despite the unseasonable (horrid) March temperatures we've had, there is a determined corp that ventures outside to nap and nurse in the sun afternoons. A good portion of them delight in moving dirt around with their noses, for no reason but the pure joy of molding the landscape. They are almost as interested in corn and oats as they are in milk...they grow up so fast.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Open Finances, 2010

As tax time approaches it seems fitting to revisit our finances. This post documents the spending we have done to support ourselves as individuals, and has nothing to do with our investment in the farm or our property, although it does include routine maintenance. As an example, it does not include the new duct work for our heater, but it does include two new toilet seats that replaced broken ones (they don't make 'em like they used to, especially considering one of the new ones has already been broken.) There are a few areas that are hazy, and those will be addressed later, feel free to ask for clarification or anything else in the comments.

A breakdown by category, from simple to complex.

Eating out ($468): We only do this on special occasions or when we're having a particularly bad day, and considering it's statistical insignificance I'm not complaining.

Garden ($299): This is one of those categories that's confusingly documented. The garden was split into recurring costs (seeds, soil amendments, etc.) and infrastructure (fencing, trellis, etc.) In theory we can get a lot of the recurring stuff down to nothing, producing our own manure, saving seed, etc., which is why I chose to keep track of those things here. As it stands I think we got our money's worth out of the garden, even including the $620 we spent on irrigation, tiller repair and other infrastructure costs.

Taxes/Insurance ($3693): Unfortunately these costs are fixed, and climbing. Our homeowners/auto policy went up 10% this year, so I called around to other underwriters and found it was still the cheapest. Our taxes are low for the region, although we will qualify for an agricultural assessment, and the associated reduction, once we produce more than $5,000 in goods, which may be this year!

Utilities ($2,586): This represents our costs in electricity, phone, internet and propane. Notice we don't pay for water or sewer, as we have our own well and septic system, albeit a pretty outdated one. We were able to get our phone costs down substantially in 2010 by switching from one Iphone (~$95/month) to two disposable "burner" cell phones ($3/month) and an internet based landline, ($7/month, now free through Google.) We plan to install a passive solar hot water heater within the next few years to cut down on those costs, but the others are pretty much fixed.

Things you can buy at Target ($1998): This category is self explanatory. Clothes, dishes, dog food, soap, etc all ends up here. Also, Christmas gifts which take up a fair portion, along with home maintenance costs like gasoline for the lawn mower, and medication. Not much we can do here either.

Diesel fuel ($1702) and WVO/Auto Maintenance($2754): These categories are a constant source of contemplation for me. We use diesel fuel for a few different things, starting and stopping both of our vehicles, running the tractor, and starting our heater each morning. To Illustrate, another graph (please excuse my rounding):

Diesel Usage:

Maintenance Costs:

These variables need a bit of explaining: Guaranteed costs are those that we'd spend regardless of what cars we owned: oil changes, windshield wipers, fluids, etc, along with tractor maintenance. Grease costs are those costs associated with filtering and storing Waste Vegetable Oil for fuel. Suburban and Benz are the costs associated with those specific vehicles and their well thought out or poor designs. WVOBurban is a subset of costs that are both WVO and Suburban related, due to the Suburban's distaste for WVO. This number is included because if we just ran on regular fuel the cost wouldn't exist, but it's also the Suburban's fault as a more robustly designed vehicle wouldn't need these repairs. It is also important to note that these costs are for parts and supplies only, as I do all of our repair work myself. As you can see, the Benz is a lot better designed than the Suburban, as after 30 years it only had $111 of unexpected maintenance needed.

All together we spent $3,323 on fuel this year, and if we had just used Diesel we'd have spent $5,687 which represents a savings of $2,365, or $200 a month. Of course this does not include all our labor, which I'd estimate at 15 hours a month. I could see costs in the "Grease" and "WVOBurban" categories going down, but I could also see them staying the same. Any way you slice it $210/car/month isn't too bad, I know people who spend that much filling their tanks. Another way to look at would be that anything we could do to drive less would lower this expense as well, especially if we could get down to one car. Currently I'm shopping for a pickup truck with a much more robust WVO friendly engine, a 1994-1998.5 Dodge with a Cummins engine. We really need a pick up to cart around stuff, and 4WD to get to the places the stuff is.

Debt ($11,855): This ones a doozy. This number represents the minimum we are expected to pay each year, between our mortgage and student loans. This represents 25% of our pre-tax income!! While most of it is at favorable interest rates, we push all of our available cash into this category, in addition to the minimum payments we put $8,000 towards Becky's student loans in 2010, which is nothing to laugh at.

Groceries, including adult beverages ($5295): Without doing a full analysis I'm willing to bet that 1/3 of this is just adult beverages. We like our drink at TBA farms, and with all the entertaining we find ourselves surrounded by alcohol consumption. We do make as much of our own beer and wine as we can, and we have plans to scale up in 2011. This doesn't necessarily save us a lot of money, but it does allow us to have much nicer beer and wine for a much lower cost. Meat and produce that we have grown here on the farm is not included in this category, and while produce can be seen roughly in the Garden category the meat is not accounted for. This year as we begin to sell meat I'll be able to put a price on it, and most likely it will get it's own new exciting heading.

In summary, I'm proud of how we've managed our money. We went without in some cases, and when it was time to treat ourselves we did it sparingly. We cut what few costs were left to cut, and in 2011 I hope to keep going, with significant cuts in WVO/Diesel costs, and groceries. Our minimum debt payments have been reduced as well, so we hope to pay off even more principal.

As a reward for those who have made it this far, videos of piglets nursing violently and trying to crowd surf!!

Nursing with furvor

Surfing the crowd

Monday, March 7, 2011

The End of the 'lets and Separatist Chickens in the Snow

Separatist chickens seek the feed bin in the barn

Piglet season for this spring is officially OVER.

The svelte Little Red astounded all, when, miraculously, she started producing milk last Wednesday, not even 24 hours after the giant and obviously pregnant Spot popped out seven little piggies. Turns out she was not three weeks out, as assumed, but Imminent. A stall was hastily constructed for her, and, at 8 PM that same day, I noticed a strange piece of poop in the hay behind her that turned out to be a just-born piglet. She was the first pig that I was able to observe after having only one (Scar had had 4, and Spot, all 7, by the time we showed up), and she seemed a bit mystified by the affair. There was some confused hopping and wary stares on her part, as the little thing staggered around and mewed. Hay was shuffled into protective mountains as Little Red attempted some distance, but the living poop seemed intent on following her. Eventually she put her nose on it long enough to become oddly interested in the survival of such a little, shrill thing, and she let it curl up under her armpit to nurse, although she still made sure to keep her head buried in the hay so it wouldn't bother her too much.

No matter the heat lamp; Little Red's piglets prefer to cuddle, and she prefers to let them.

She also seemed to be more comfortable without a human presence, so we huddled in the house with some stew (it was a -4 night) and watched 80s flicks ("Number Five ALIVE!!!!"), running down to check on her every half hour. For the first couple checks, there were no new 'lets, and we wondered if she had indeed only had one in her petite belly. But a check around 9:30 found 3 more, and the 10:30 check another four, with a ninth completing the brood at 11:30. Nary a bruise, nary a scrape, no help with the birth, and the largest litter with the shortest and calmest labor.

One died in the first night, but it was cold, and they are squiggly little paper ribcages, so we don't hold it against her.

Her eight have now made it past the 4-day threshold of "probably viable beings". Meanwhile, Scar's ten-day-old brood are getting downright plump and mischievous.

Watch the background piglet go nuts 20 seconds in.

Most amazingly, Spot's doomed brood has mostly healed of its chills, listless legs, confusion, bruises and scrapes. The piglet with the stitches is still an iffy little thing, not growing as fast as the others, not healing as fast as we'd like; but the cold piglet, the one with splayed back legs and horrid sense of direction, and the one with the cut on its neck have all recovered into normal little squealers. We are keeping our eyes on her stitches and neosporin and antiseptic spray constantly in our pockets.

Stitches is the small pink spotted pig, Cold pig is the black pig to the far right, bunny feet is the orange-pink pig with the subtle color band in the middle, and the one with the cut neck is the pink one in the back.

Meanwhile, in chicken land, a splinter group has developed. Six chickens have moved out of the coop to haunt the barn and its environs. We are not sure what spurred the walkout, but even when locked out of the barn and thrown back into the coop, during a blizzard, the separatist chickens forged their way back up to the pen behind the barn for the night, and developed little ice cubes that encased their combs until the sun warmed them up late morning. I think it must be some sort of power struggle between the roosters, with the Separatists breaking off with the smaller rooster to start a new colony. All well and good, I mean, we support democracy here on the farm, but we continue to sponsor the coop chickens with our resource drops of feed and water. It does, after all, serve our interests in the region; but we watch the splinter group warily, and with interest.

A lookout Separatist Chicken roosts in a tree at twilight.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Perfect, and the Less So

Scar had her piglets last Thursday.

She had 8 perfectly healthy little ones. She started farrowing, very conveniently, when I was on my way home from work. She looked perfectly normal when the Big Man did his 3:30 check; by the 5:30 check there were four piglets nursing.

She was very gentle with them, even as she struggled to get the rest out.

A long pause between numbers four and five meant that the shoulder high glove and baby oil were called into service; a little one was found, and the presence of a hand where it shouldn't be inspired Scar to push all the harder. Another followed that one quickly. Then she quieted, and we watched her for a while and went up to make dinner.

When the Big Man went down to check about half an hour later, number seven was sitting on her head. Number eight popped out within ten minutes.

nursing is hard work for sleepy babies

Amazingly, they all knew to turn toward her belly as soon as they were out; not one turned toward her back. Scar managed to keep them all alive through the night, even though the power went out and the piglets were thus without a heat lamp. The Stupid One predictably died the next night (having failed to understand the extremely critical difference between lying next to warm mum, and trying to burrow completely under 450 pound crushing mum) but the other seven are strong, alert, healthy, and definitively out of the thickest part of the woods. It was a perfect first farrowing experience, for farmers and pigs. And, Scar seems like the perfect mom, very responsive to any distress noises, gentle, and smart at orienting her teats toward the heat lamp for easy, cozy access.

And then, Spot had piglets.

She must have started about 1:00 or 1:30 this morning, because when the Big Man went down just after 3:00, there were seven piglets milling about. One was in a corner, near death with cold. One had a giant gash on its upper back leg (its future ham). Another had a smaller, but still deep, cut on its neck. One didn't seem to be able to use its back legs properly, and, like Stupid Pig, preferred to try burrowing directly under mom to any other course of action.

Spot's deep in the woods brood

This is a lot to take in at such an impolite hour.

Our first step was the cold pig. She looked dead, tongue out a little and everything, but like Wesley of the Princess Bride she was only Mostly Dead, which is indeed a very different thing. Ten minutes in a pot full of warm water in the kitchen sink revived her (just like this); another forty minutes in a box, wrapped in a blanket on a heating pad, seemed to do the rest. (She is the white-faced black pig in the photo above.)

Then there was some light surgery on the kitchen counter -- out came the Big Man's sewing kit. The leg was stitched up pretty quickly, and looked a lot better, but this piggy is definitely on watch. We're going to keep our eyes on the wound for signs of infection, and get some antibiotics on hand just in case. But for now, he's just as active, whiny and hungry as the rest.

The pig with the smaller cut, and the splay-legged new Stupid Pig, are on their own for now. There's not much we can do with them, save a 24-hour watch to continually yank Stupid Pig out from the crevasses made by mom and the floor, and the cut is too small to effectively be sewn. But, there will be many walks to the barn today.

Spot seems to be okay, but she's on watch as well. She seemed too tired to remake her nest after birthing, so her stall is a bit disorganized and damp. It's hard to tell how much redecorating intervention is necessary -- damp is definitely not good, but fluffy hay isn't necessary good either as it's hard for the piglets to navigate through. For now, at least, the piglets are nested under the heat lamp while mom undertakes the odd and somewhat unsavory task of eating the afterbirth, and the more normal task of trying to get some brief shut eye. The deepest part of the woods for these little guys is not going to be over for a few days yet.