February 2015

A Farm Without Fences

. . . Feb 23, 2015 | posted by Josephine
goats jumping the ice coated fence


With all the winter weather making gardening impossible this week we have been snuggled up warm in the house sipping hot chocolate, playing scrabble and watching movies.  No wait, that is my fantasy life.  In reality we’ve been scrambling in the wet and the cold just to keep chaos at bay.  It has been one of those treadmill weeks – running just to stay in place. 

Tuesday morning we awoke to a world made of crystal.  The freezing rain from sun up to sun down the day before had transformed the world.  Ice coated cedar trees and sage grass were all bending towards the ground.  The sun would be up soon, and everything would sparkle.  Also bending toward the ground was every electric fence on the farm.  Portable electric fencing is great.  It allows us to move animals frequently from pasture to pasture.  It is, however, absolute rubbish in an ice storm.

One obvious function of the fences is to keep animals on our property and out of trouble.  The pigs are of particular concern.  Once they get trotting they cover ground with remarkable swiftness.  The boys tend to raise their hackles and foam at the mouth with excitement when they get out looking for all the world like a rabid wild boar.  I have explained to them that this type of behavior is likely to get them shot should they venture onto someone else’s property.

The fences have another function, too.  They keep groups of animals separate from each other.  We had put Pratt, our buck goat, in a paddock separate from the does for bad behavior when the first doe went into labor.  He had seen the babies across the fence but had not met them face to face, or nose to butt as it goes in the animal world.  Likewise we are keeping Seth our breeding boar apart from the other four intact boars.  They were all friends in the past but Seth was moved in October to breed the gilts and pigs are not elephants; they forget.  Introducing boars is something we do carefully to avoid nasty and dangerous fighting. 

To the animals, Tuesday was Christmas morning, they woke up to find a farm without fences.  The goats were the first out, hopping over the sagging fence even before the sun was over the horizon.  But the pigs weren’t far behind, slip-sliding around on the icy road like they were trying to break a leg.  I was slip-sliding around myself, hurrying to bribe pigs to stay put with extra food, coming back down the road just in time to see Pratt trotting off around the trees towards the neighbor’s house.  No time to chase after goats, I still had pigs to deal with.

The four boars spent the day in the horse trailer, putting them back in their paddock without a working fence would be useless.  Randy called our neighbor Bill and he brought over a stock trailer.  By grace alone I got the goats to follow me up to the orchard and Bill helped me lure, trick and catch them all into the trailer.  It was 10 am before the madness had subsided enough for me to go open up the chicken coop, the final task of morning chores.  I spent the afternoon clearing ice off fence lines and hauling a 164 ft section of goat fencing up to the orchard so we could turn the goats out.  Of course the chicken fences were down too, hens and pullets everywhere.  Without crops in the field for them to damage we just let them roam.

Wednesday our attention turned to the plants.  The overnight low would be in the single digits.  [Or at least most of our attention.  We still had escaping pigs.  The girls took their turn being stashed in the horse trailer.  The solar fence charger that electrified the fence holding Seth and the five barrows went kaput so those pigs were running amok, too.]   With plenty of straw bedding, the animals would be just fine.  But we had been starting plants in the greenhouse for several weeks.  Losing the seedlings would mean money lost in seeds and soil mix but more importantly it would wipe out many days of work and set us back a month.  I covered everything with three layers of frost cloth and plastic and even up a couple heat lamps in the greenhouse.  The Freedom Ranger chicks in the brooder were just a week old so I covered the brooder with a blanket. 

Thursday morning afforded no time to check on the plants.  Pig chaos reached its peak as all three groups of very impatient pigs, twelve in all, converged on base camp looking for breakfast, undaunted by the frigid air.  Somehow, I managed to shove the boars in the horse trailer.  I had to put the girls somewhere so they went into the bunkhouse (that’s going to a fun clean-up job).  I had the five barrows squealing at my feet and Seth was nowhere to be found.  I grabbed a bucket of feed and led the barrows the near ¼ mile back to their pen where, to my relief, we were met by Seth.  A gash in his ear left grizzly looking bright red frozen blood all over his face.  My guess is he had a run in with one of the boars and ran away home and I am happy a torn ear was his only injury.

And that wasn’t the end of the fun.  Without electricity to the goat’s temporary fence, the baby goats were squeezing through and venturing dangerously close to the road.  I knocked enough ice off their paddock fence to move them back into their paddock on Friday, but it was too droopy to electrify.  This was simply too enticing for the goats who I found later behind the neighbor’s house with a couple of the babies in the back yard.  We are very lucky that her two outdoor dogs have absolutely no interest in the animals.   Seth and the barrows got out again later and spent several hours penned up in the yard before the new batteries for the solar chargers came in the mail. 

The weather was still unwilling to afford us a break.  Friday night the wind and rain were coming out of the south, which I didn’t realize under after evening chores.  So it was back out in the dark to adjust the pig shelters which, set up for winter weather out of the north, were exposed to the rain blowing in from the south.  Saturday was a day of torrential rain.  I wasn’t sure the pig huts would offer enough protection from the saturated ground so Seth and the barrows were moved to the horse trailer and the boars to the stock trailer.  I made sure the goat huts were on high ground with plenty of spent hay bedding and Caitlin and BonBon were secure in their hay bale chalet.  The amount of water on the ground was phenomenal.  But at least the warm rain finally cleared the fences of ice.    

On Sunday all the fences were finally charged up again, which is why we were surprised to look out the window after morning chores to see the boar we call Big Pig sniffing around the shop.  I hustled outside to see him trot off back to his paddock and neatly hop over the electric fence.  Pigs aren’t supposed to jump.  We resolved to add another strand of electric wire to his fence.   Later I found tracks leading all over the crop field.  Apparently Big Pig had gone on quite an extensive jaunt.

Monday morning I did chores and for the first time in about ten days, everyone was where they were supposed to be.  The only casualties from the week were some tomato plants destined for the high tunnel that got left in the greenhouse too long one evening and some froze.  And of course Seth’s ear.  We were a bit unprepared for the weather this week, never having asked ourselves “what do we do if we have an ice storm that takes down all the fences and doesn’t thaw for five days?”.  You can bet we aren’t going to let winter catch us with our pants down again!

Baby Goats Update and New Wednesday CSA pick Up Location

. . . Feb 10, 2015 | posted by Josephine
Baby goat hanging out in the shelter

Kidding season is complete with four baby goats on the ground.  Our four moms had one baby each, we have two baby boys (bucklings) and two baby girls (doelings).  The whole affair was pleasantly unremarkable, which was quite a relief for first timers.  And by first timers, I mean both us and the goats!  Pratt is a first time dad, each of the does are first time moms, and these babies are the first livestock born on our farm so it’s the first time for me and Randy, too.  The does are shaping up to be great moms and we sure hope everything proceeds as uneventfully as it began! 

Apricot and her babyWe were a bit surprised that we didn’t get any twins.  Twins in goats are common, and even triplets are not unusual.  After doing a bit more research, first time moms and young goats are more likely to have singles, and our does are both.  Nutrition prior to breeding also plays a big role in how many eggs a doe will ovulate.  Our ladies were bred shortly after arriving on the farm, so that factor was out of our control.  Oh, well!  We’ll hope for more next year and just be glad we’ve got four healthy kids! 

We have lots of baby vegetables, too.  The greenhouse is already filled with seed trays.  We’ve got spinach, lettuce, broccoli, bok choy and cabbage popping up, and even some baby tomato plants destined for the high tunnel.  Between all the rain we managed to get Rosie the tractor – complete with her new radiator and fan assembly – out into the field to start preparing the soil for spring planting.  She is running better than ever!  We hope to put onions, potatoes and carrots in the ground in late February, providing the weather cooperates.

Our CSA starts in just two short months, and as I look at over the frozen mud this morning I think, really?  Two months?  I know from experience that once spring starts coming it is a steamroller and the pastures and crop fields will be lush again soon.  But from where I sit that seems impossible.  It gets me every year.  I know that new life will spring forth but I just cannot believe it until I see it.  Starting seeds is a leap of faith every year. 

We will be delivering our Wednesday CSA shares to the Crews Center for Entreprenuership at 3618 Walker Avenue for the 2015 CSA season.  We will not be delivering CSA shares to GrowMemphis at their new location at The Commons in Binghampton.
Sorry to switch it up on you!  While we love working with GrowMemphis and are grateful to Carole Colter for hosting the CSA drop site in the past, we were mutually concerned about staffing issues that might make it challenging to maintain the drop site all season long.  We thought it best to change our plans now rather than having to scramble mid-season!
But we are super excited about our new site!  Many thanks to Mike Hoffmeyer at the Crews Center, just a stones throw from GrowMemphis's old location where members picked up last year.  Members will still be able to pick up anytime between 9am and 5pm on Wednesdays and there is on site parking as well as street parking.

To Cut or Not to Cut?

. . . Feb 03, 2015 | posted by Josephine
AGH cleaning up fall crops

Should we castrate our pigs?  Ah, such a deceptively simple question.  Castrating baby pigs sounds like not much fun.  Especially since I would be the one wielding the knife.  Unlike calves, lambs and goat kids, which can be castrated bloodlessly, pigs require surgical castration.

Some of our Guinea HogsAll things being equal, I would prefer not to castrate.  It is our general philosophy that less intervention is better and animals should be allowed to express their natures.  We do not disbud (de-horn) our goats nor clip chickens beaks and wings nor ring our hogs to keep them from rooting.  We weigh that idea against our responsibility as stewards to ensure that our animals have a life as free of pain and suffering as possible.  We make sure our animals have clean water, food, shelter and protection from predators.  We treat animals that are sick.  They are not wild animals, but neither are they pets.  They are livestock, a category of animal that we are still learning how to think about.  In the tension created by these two conflicting philosophies is where important management decisions are made.   

But of course, there are complications.  American Guinea Hogs are a slow growing breed.  We plan to raise all our hogs to 18-24 months before they end up on your table.  To prevent fighting, unintentional breeding and all manner of chaos, the girls and the boys would need to be kept separately and far, far apart.  This is what we are doing now and with just 12 pigs, it is manageable.  Over the past year of keeping livestock, we have learned that our pasture isn’t super-fantastic.  We have a lot of work to do particularly improving the winter forage available, and until we do that, it is hard to justify further limiting our grazing options by spatially separating male and female feeder pigs. 

More groups of pigs also means more expensive fence infrastructure, more time moving pigs around and more time doing daily chores.  In short, more management.  Our farm is plenty complicated already with over 30 vegetable crops, a small orchard, laying hens, meat chickens, and goats demanding our attention.

And then there is the issue of boar taint.  I have studied many a heated discussion about taint on the two piggy Facebook groups that we are members of.  Boar taint is an off-flavor of meat caused by certain hormones that produce chemicals stored in fat.  Taint has the terrifying potential to turn valuable, gourmet meat into a lot of very expensive dog food.  About 75% of people can detect boar taint.  Reports of the prevalence of boar taint range from 1% to 30% of boars depending on the study.  AGH munching down on clover

Both nature and nurture are responsible for the presence of taint.  Allegedly, pastured pigs are less likely to have taint than confinement animals.  Boars raised away from females are also less likely to have taint.  Some lines of pigs just don’t have it, and some breeds have a higher prevalence than others.  Guinea Hogs are supposed to be taint-free, but there are people who will tell you they have tasted taint in Guinea Hog pork.  Of particular concern for us is that we are raising our pigs twice to three times as long as is typical for pastured pork.  Some farmers are intentionally breeding taint-free lines of pigs by testing their boars for taint which is the direction we would like to head.

Fear of the unknown is powerful motivation.  Castration is cheap insurance against boar taint, which is one reason why so many people do it.  Until we have a better understanding of the genetics of our particular pigs I certainly like the idea of hedging our bets.  Better than losing $500-$600 on a full grown pig that is unfit to eat.

More important for us, however, is the management issue.  Keeping male and female pigs separate would be too complicated for us at this point in time.  Maybe in the future raising intact males will make more sense.  For now, we have decided to cut.