Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Pigs' Garden

First off, sorry posts have been a bit straggly and irregular this summer; I am not writing as much as I'd like. I may have declined to explain that aside from being farmers and homesteaders this summer we are Big Man and Johnson, Professional Home Renovation Specialists: First Floor Edition. Thus far, this has included ripping off all the old drywall on the first floor, removing walls, building walls, installing giant steel and wooden beams in treacherous ways that I will in no way be describing to my parents (sorry), ripping up old flooring, repairing rot along the sill, rewiring, raising windows to accommodate future counter tops, jacking up and leveling the floor, removing and installing doors, patching holes in the floor and the walls, and insulating. It is all very exciting, and is teaching me yet again about the glory that is a cool end-of-the-day shower.

Anyway, on to the farm.

It is time for a garden update. Not of my garden, which for reasons of my sanity is off the table for discussion currently (unless someone can tell me WHY my IDIOT tomatoes are refusing to set fruit, and why in general EVERYTHING seems to be moving two weeks slower this year than last year despite getting in the ground the exact same weekend with the exact same soil amendments and the exact same irrigation system), but of the pigs' garden.

This is the compost pile on the west side of the barn. It's where we put all the hay that was used during the Feb-March farrowings earlier this year. You may notice the giant squash plant growing in the middle. Also notable is the large stalk of corn, and the little clump of oats growing on the left.

I do not know why they planted their crops in an area where only Scar, a brief escapee, has ever visited, but so they did.

This is the "sacrificial pen" behind the barn. It's the spot that gets heavy use during the winter months, and fairly regular use throughout the other seasons. It's called a "sacrificial pen" because we don't manage it like we do the rest of the pasture (which, to be honest, we aren't really "managing" at this point..we are more "muddling through and trying to figure out what the land needs from us to remain verdant"), we just use it as a hard-fenced area to train young ones to the electric fence, and as a spot to stick animals when we need to interact with them more regularly. It gets far too much hoof traffic to keep the soil light and fluffy, and I'd hazard to guess that it gets far too much nitrogen from animal "outputs" and not enough of anything else to keep the soil balanced and healthy. I assumed it would be a brown patch of hard-baked dirt for the rest of its life with us.

Well, shows how much I know. Besides the corn, oats and squash popping up here as well (the pigs got a fair bit of my absurdly prolific zukes last year when I got tired of them, and the oats and corn are from their feed), I found a few tomato plants in the mix from my generous sharing of end-of-the-season green tomatoes last year (before I discovered how much I care for green tomato salsa, chutney and preserves). I had always assumed tomato plants were fussy little things this far north (see: this year's garden), and was startled to see them happily growing after sitting as a seed in a pile of poop all winter long. Yet another example of Big Man's admonishment to all my frettings: Things Want To Live.

My 2012 garden plan is now: eat tomatoes. Poop outside. Repeat next year.

The Large Ladies have recently been moved into their garden with their male escort, and I was pleased that it was full of greens for them to frolic in. Their time is very close, the sun is very hot, and we wanted them in a sheltered, shady spot close by to our watchful eyes and their farrowing stalls. The fresh, organic garden access is a bonus, although it seems that they are much more interested in lounging among the greens than eating them to the soil line, so it is even possible that they will end up with some of their very own squash and tomatoes -- pig-raised for pig eatin'. Perhaps they were planning ahead for all the new little mouths they will have to feed...*

Also, brought to you by popular demand -- some pictures of cheepy new additions and a baby bunny:
Turkey, Meat Chicken that will only be cute for about 3 more days

Yes; it is exactly as soft as it looks.

And, for those interested in the Sneaky Hen's Chicks: they are growing very fast, as babies of all species apparently do. Last week they moved into the nesting boxes, as in the above picture, and just tonight, she managed to move them....yes. Into the secessionist hen tree. Because if you can't win converts to your cause: make them.

*"Piglet Watch!" proclaims the calendar this coming Sunday. "112 days," it announces a mere week from today. Ho boy.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Life Happens, and also, Sometimes Not.

Almost by definition, farmers deal in life and death in near equal shares. The boar meets the sow; "piglet watch!" is penciled on the calendar 112 days later. Piglets are born, the miracle of life is observed and relished; a slaughter date is penciled in some months out. Thanksgiving turkeys are hatched in July to be of an appropriate eating poundage in November.

Surprise Life, Doting Mother on the lookout

Some lives and deaths, of course, are not the calendared type. A chicken secretly hatches a brood, and thirteen unexpected souls are added to the farm. Accidents happen; predators happen. It all contributes to an oddly satisfying balance -- there is unexpected life, and there is unexpected death, and so it goes.

Electron Cloud?

Sometimes, Nature times these events poetically, apparently to appeal to the human sense of drama. Such a thing happened last Thursday. On the same day that we solved the Mystery of the Disappearing Eggs, there was a bloodbath in the leporaria.

A month ago, determined to move away from the Big Three of Amurican Indistural Meat Production (the beef-chicken-pork trifecta), we got some breeding rabbits and put them in a very elegant and classy antique hutch in the barn.* We had them in separate cages at first, but the buck (following in the tradition, begun by the boar, of the male animals determining that neither our best laid plans nor our best laid fencing are enough to discourage them in their pursuits of female companionship) determined that he needed a lady, now, and he managed to bust out the wall that separated them. So, we put them all in together on a full level of the contraption. They seemed to like that.

Of course, 30 days later (as the calendar dutifully noted for us) the fruits of their labor were ready to show up,** and show up they did. Brown Bunny had seven happy little squirmers, which she nervously protected from us in a tall pile of fluff, maniacally wiggling her nose whenever we got near to them. They are a week old now, which means they have grown in their soft coats of fur, but have not yet opened their eyes. Their ears seem to grow faster than any other part of them.

Baby bunnies can be very cute

And then, Top Floor Gray Bunny had her set. And something went wrong. There was a mighty gnashing of teeth on her part, and Big Man had to carry out one of the jobs that farmers have to do occasionally and do not ever enjoy -- putting an animal (or six) out of its misery. Two uninjured kits hung on for a few days, but it seems that she declined to feed them, and they departed a couple days ago.

Top Floor Gray Bunny makes mustache joke, eats young

We aren't sure what went wrong. It might have been that she didn't have a nesting box and couldn't handle mobile youngsters. They might have been sick or non-viable, and she was trying to carry out the unsavory job of ending little lives for us. Perhaps she was not comfortable yet in her new surroundings (one of the reasons we didn't want to breed them right away) and had a panic attack. We'll never know (rodent brains are different than people brains, or even chicken brains), but we will be watching her closely to see if Attempt Two goes any differently, and doing all we can to stack the odds in her favor.

*They are in cages, albeit antique cages. We do not like that they are in cages. It goes against several of the things that we feel obligated to provide for our animals (sunshine, community, conditions close to those they would experience in nature....). Should we decide to scale up rabbit production, we will absolutely look into other management techniques, but rabbits present a unique challenge due to their burrowing prowess. The Romans used to build extensive rabbit gardens, with large and intense partially buried cement walls. Queen Elizabeth I had "warren islands" filled with rabbits for plucking up and placing on the royal table. Daniel Salatin, son of Joel Salatin, pastured meat enthusiast, does his rabbits in moveable outdoor pens like chicken tractors, but with slatted floors. Even so, for the 12 weeks of their lives the meat rabbits are only on pasture for the last five, and then only if they happen to be coming of age during the pleasant weather of summer or fall.

**Everything you've heard about rabbit reproduction is correct. They are professionals. One doe produces enough kits (babies) in a year to equal an entire cow's worth of meat, each female of which can go on to produce her own cow's worth of meat by 6 months of age. Multiply that out for just a couple generations and it is suddenly understandable that various locales throughout human history have had to deal with rabbit overpopulation.