Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Death on the Farm

Spring, the season of rebirth, is officially here, which means that it is time for a post about death.  It may seem like an odd choice, but Spring on the farm means babies, and babies season brings with it a higher mortality rate on the farm.  Piglets, chicks, and rabbit kits come into the world skin and bones, basically blind, shivering, tiny, with poor motor skills, and in urgent need of nutrition and dry warmth.  It's easy to see how sometimes things can go amiss and a new life fails to catch hold of the world.

The Reds enjoy one of the unseasonably warm days we've had recently
 (R to L): Missy and Little Red, Tramp Stamp
In the last two weeks, we've lost half a dozen piglets, over a dozen chicks, and sent one hog to the butcher.  The piglets, approximately four of them dying from farmer-made infrastructure problems, were the most upsetting from an emotional and a financial standpoint.  I think it is easy for folks to visualize what it is like to run down to the barn, at midnight, holding a warmed up piglet in your arms to return to the warm hay of the stall and the warm teat of the sow, only to find said sow wedged into a crevasse along the side of her pen, with bits of three motionless piglets sticking out from under her.  Horrifying, right?  And indeed it was.  The sow was forced up, the dead piglets unceremoniously removed to the barn compost pile, the infrastructure issue mitigated by approximately one million pounds of hay.  Mental notes were made to prevent similar catastrophe in the future, but ultimately it was a sigh and a shrug and fervent vows to do better, and a return to life as usual.

Unidentifiable bone fragments on the barn compost pile.
The chicks are fragile beings from the very start; in fact, I think that eggs might be more sturdy and strong than a chick is.  There are always a few dead ones when the box arrives (they are over-nighted right after they are hatched), and in the first few days some will fail to learn to drink, eat, move appropriately; or a cat might peek into the brooder and send them into a panicked frenzy, leading to trampling deaths.  A night might be chilly, a day might be overly humid.  They too are transferred to the barn compost pile.

Goat skull, bird foot on the barn compost pile.
When a litter is born or a batch of chicks is delivered, we expect there to be a mortality rate of greater than 0%.  For chicks, it's somewhere around 15%, and for piglets it's similarly somewhere between 10% and 20% (litters of 8 or 9 will usually lose 1; litters of 12, 13, 14 might lose 2 or 3).  We do all that we can to keep that number down, and what we achieve is far greater survival that what would happen in nature (sows would manage to keep probably 1-3 piglets from every litter).
Barn compost pile in early spring.
Similarly, but separately, people seem to get confused about how one can send an animal to the abattoir.  I figure this is because the only animal-human relationship paradigm that they have experienced or seen to any real extent is the owner-pet relationship, which is to say: not the kind of animal-human relationship we have on the farm.  These animals are not pets.  We do have relationships with them, in that we look after them, and work with them, and appreciate aspects of their individual personalities.  We are empathetic to their needs, we enjoy them at times and are annoyed with them at times.

The fact of the matter is that humans have been dealing with this sort of daily death, animal and, yes, human, for as long as people have been people.  It is only now, and only in certain parts of the world, where eating meat does not involve the meat eater or the meat eater's immediate social group actually killing the animal themselves; most people in the USofA have not killed an animal for food, or experienced the kind of routine unplanned deaths that we do on the farm.  Deaths of the young and unplanned deaths are certainly never happy occasions, but they are anticipated, and while we continually working to minimize them, we know that such events will always be a part of animal husbandry.  Deaths via butchery are also, obviously, an integral part of our business.  But these, too, fit into the ethical logic of the farm.  We strive to give them the best lives possible, which means letting them live as animals, and not as humans.  In that process, it becomes difficult for us to personify them to the extent that humans seem to want to do with everything (see Charlotte's Web, The Secret of Nimh, fables from nearly every culture, Watership Down, Animal Farm, Peter and the Wolf etc. etc. forever).  The pigs, if left to grow large, slice each other with their tusks and intimidate the weaker members out of the herd, the meat chickens will eat until they kill themselves if allowed, and turkeys are so severely lacking in brain power that it is incredible to me that they are still around today.  What we write and think about animals and their personalities says more about us, as humans, than it does about them.  I'm not saying that personified animals in literature is a bad thing at all, in fact I quite like all of the above-cited literary works.  But I do think that such depictions complicate and obscure people's ideas about raising animals for meat in a time and place where may people experience these animals only through such literature, and then maybe as dinners, but never as anything in between.

It is also interesting to see how the animals themselves respond to death.  Clearly, they do not have the brains to understand completely what happened, that the black pig driven off in the truck will shortly be an entree at a Brooklyn restaurant, that the piglet that stopped moving will, after some time, become rich soil and part of a corn patch.  Sometimes, though, in the grand human tradition of personifying animals, I wonder if maybe they aren't smarter than we humans.  Maybe they do see the piglet become the grass, and they do not think of life and death as mutually exclusive categories.  Maybe they, unlike most of us, understand the small and fleeting place that they occupy in the world, and are comfortable with that.  Perhaps they view the rueful way we remove the dead from their stalls with amusement, and pity, that we can't manage, however hard we try, to move ourselves out of the way and see the bigger picture that has terrifyingly little to do with us.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Big Man's Pig Plans


While I've been busy planning the garden and fretting about climbing up a 40-foot-tall apple tree with a chainsaw to reclaim it, Big Man has been plowing ahead in planning out our 2012 Meat Season.  He wrote up this blog post to sum up where he's at in the scheming department, which is, as always, as on top of it as someone who's never done this possibly can be.  Which is to say, pretty on top of it:

Well, the temperatures are climbing above freezing and daylight savings time is right around the corner, which means it is time to rouse ourselves from winter-mode and hit the ground running. We are in full out planning mode, busy busy busy in our minds and already feeling behind. Here's a short list of our immediate to-dos:

- Get final tank for whey storage

- Make sure truck is ready for frequent NYC trips

- Build the infrastructure for a buyers club (More on that later)

- Fence the rest of our acreage

- Start bringing pigs to market

- First chicks arrive this week

- Rope in a few WWOOFers for the summer

- Marketing marketing marketing

This year the farm needs to support itself and one of us, which means we are planning on selling LOTS of pork and chicken.  We have them both set up on regular schedules so that we can slaughter throughout the season and keep money coming in, which is a huge change from last year's Months of Negative Money followed by a couple Months of Lots (comparitively) of Money. Not only will the supply be more consistent it will be much larger: we are going from 150 chickens and 8 pigs in 2011 to 2,000 chickens and 75 pigs in 2012.

First, our pigs. We have 46 grower pigs right now, with staggered births, ready to be slaughtered at regular intervals from 3/15 to 10/1. We have had 12 piglets born in the last week, and hope for 8 more in the coming month (if they aren't born we'll buy them to keep to our schedule.) Then another set of litters is scheduled for around 4/21, which bring us to about 75 pigs to sell between now and 1/1/2013. Now, to keep this simpler in my head, I think of it as 6 pigs per month for March, April, May and June, then 8 pigs per month for July, August, September, October, November and December.

This is a ton more than we've raised before and it's easy to imagine scenarios where we don't sell many of them at all, or where we have the opportunity to sell much more. It's a delicate balance. We have one restaurant buying 2 pigs a month starting in March, I'd like to find another to take the same quantity by May or June. There's 34 pigs right there, a big bite of the total. Last year we sold 7 pigs as halves and wholes through custom butcher and Slaughter-Your-Own; I hope to triple that to 18. We're going to start a buyer's club like Joel Salatin's (here's a sneak preview) and while it's sure to start off slow our goal for it is an average of 2 pigs per month from May-December, which'll take care of 16 more. We're now left with a remainder of 7 pigs, or 10%. This is a pretty good fudge factor, if all these marketing plans are going gangbusters we can slip those 7 into them, if they're not then we have a few extras laying around to try something else. It also gives us the freedom to sell a few roaster hogs, keep a few for breeding, lose a few to small disasters (an unfortunate reality), teach a butchering class or whatever we like. Absolute worst case we can send them to the auction barn, where we'll break even.

Wish us luck!!!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

2012 Piglets

Big Man gets water as a big pig eats dinner at dusk.
The first piglets of 2012 have arrived.  Scar had a litter last Saturday in the wee hours (she is now two for three in delivering during a power outage), such that I found her Saturday morning with eight new little ones.  Seven of them made it through the first three days of their lives.  The First Three Days are viewed, by us, as a sort of gray area where they aren't really piglets yet, merely almost-alive potentialities.  For the first three days or so, piglets can't produce their own body heat, nor do they possess much in the way of rational thought, and it is not uncommon for them to wander into cold corners and curl up for a nap, and either fade back into non-piglets or get snatched up by a watchful farmer to be brought indoors for a couple hours of warming up on the hearth.  Likewise, their need for warmth can lead them to burrow too deep into hay or under the sow, who, upon slightly readjusting her significant heft, swiftly snuffs out the life-to-be.  They know only "warm sleeping" and "nursing" and they haven't much in their tool kit to assure those things save a watchful sow and a watchful farmer willing to lend a hand when she can.  Mostly, though, you have to trust the mother, and for a 500-pound animal dealing with minute three pound sacks of skin and bone, she usually does exceptionally well.

Piglets in the creep.
For the first few days, we help out by training the piglets to use the creep for all their warm napping purposes, by getting into the farrowing stall and tossing them under the heat lamp in the barred-off corner every time we walk past and they are not nursing.  Most of them get the picture within the first couple days, resulting in happy, warm piglet piles in a corner where the sow cannot smoosh them.  Often the mama pig lays with her nose a bit into the creep, the better to smell her little ones.  The smartest moms will lay with their belly parallel to the creep wall, so the piglets can venture out for short trips to feed and then retreat back into the warmth.  It's a system that's been working well for us so far.

Sometimes, though, the little things make a big difference.  Spot was in a farrowing stall that had an uneven floor, and she unfortunately got into the habit of wedging her large frame in a narrow valley next to the wall.  Her piglets arrived on Tuesday night, eleven of them, and a combination of her wedging and teetering on a high point resulted in three potentialities swiftly losing their foothold on life (I was away for about an hour with a cold one.  Leaving ten healthy potentials and coming back to seven makes for a rough night).  As soon as we realized the topography was the problem, we threw down nearly half a round bale's worth of hay to smooth things out and stayed up until 3:00 am until we saw that she'd settled down and picked a safer place to sleep.


She lost another one on the second night; it disappeared, we assume, into the hay somewhere (disappeared piglets happen sometimes, which is not pleasing at all, but is just part of the deep bedding way, I suppose).  Another one slipped away on the hearth just now, the same cold piglet from the first night, who never, it seems, figured it out.  Sometimes an almost-piglet or two from a litter is not all there in the head; these are the ones that most often end up crushed, or huddled in a corner.  We don't get that down about those losses; especially with an animal that has such high litter numbers, some of them just aren't made to cut it.

Eleven to six is the worst piglet outcome we've had yet by far, but oddly enough it is about normal, or better, than lots of folks who are raising pigs the way we are.  A local farmer went from fifteen piglets in two litters to three piglets from both litters combined.  Another local farm is pleased when they get four or five survivors from a litter.  Given that this batch was mostly infrastructure/farmer error, I still feel strongly that our way is better for moms, piglets, and herd than farrowing crates.

We have two gilts (lady pigs who have never had piglets) who were bred at the same time as Spot and Scar, but are a month or so behind in gestation.  It will be interesting to experience births with new mothers again, but we are very excited to see what come of them.

Despite the poor showing by winter this year, everyone is ready for some time in the sun.