Archive for November, 2012

price for pigs

Friday, November 30:

Report on feeding five hundred-pound pigs:  that is, (5) one hundred pound pigs:

Three hundred row feet of table beets lasted them about a week, with supplemental feed in the form of about two gallons of skim milk a day, plus about a pound of corn, free choice hay (not of the best quality), and whatever scraps came from the monastery, where the Franciscans waste very little;

sugar beets seemed about as popular;

turnips don’t seem quite as palatable.

Another change is that the pigs, like the chickens, are getting grain according to the dietary precepts of Weston A. Price, that is, the grain is soaked for some time before being offered to the animals, the soaking liquid generally being raw skim milk or whey, although sometimes vegetable broths or the cooking water from pasta is also used.  Not that we set out to put our pigs on a people diet; rather, those sources we can find for farm animal diet prior to the twentieth century most often cite some version of grain or grain-wastes soaked in dairy product.  Ask John Seymoure; ask Wilbur the Pig.

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taking risks

Sunday, November 25:

It has been cold for several days now.  When we go up to the monastery to feed the pigs we check the calves’ water and break the ice on top.  Their winter coats are thick and woolly, making them look like Montana cattlemen in fleece jackets, and they push up close to nose against our sleeves and lick our knuckles.  A sudden turn of one of their heads could catch a horn in the front of our jackets and take us for a sudden ride, and we remember why cowboys wear shirts with snaps:  so when they catch on a horn or a hoof or a PTO, they come off.

There are risks in every job.

Snow has been falling for the past two days, but with the ground as yet unfrozen and the wind allowing nothing to settle, very little snow has stuck.  Nevertheless, there are two pint-size snowmen in residence on the roof of Arthur the blind rat terrier’s box.  Miss no opportunities is the children’s motto.  When the ground was only frosted they were snowboarding down the steep slope above the barnyard where every cow pie is a mogul.

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Wednesday, November 21:

Last Wednesday, November 14, at approximately two-thirty p.m., we Arrived.  We became one of “us”.  No acceptance into the most elite country club can compare with this membership; more meaningful to us than the most exacting background check and black-ball vote was our unsolicited, untutored enrollment into a native farmer’s first person plural.  V., our feed man and source of wisdom in all things pig, gave us our admittance.  We planted our pig turnips at his advice, and now we were telling him how they were working out.  “Most people don’t have time,” he observed.  “Better for them they should just buy the formulated feed and put it in the hopper.  I don’t tell them all the things they could be doing; they aren’t like Us, they don’t want to know the real way.”

Our heart swelled like that of a girl given her first dozen roses.

V. learned his art from a man born before the turn of the nineteenth century, an old hillsman named Arnet Buzzard (I’m not making this up); Arnet knew V. was listening to him, and would talk to him by the hour.  “I never laughed at Arnet.  Folks thought he was crazy; he’d just shut up and let them think so, but he had been raising pigs since before their granddaddies were born, and he knew all the ways to do it around here.”

“Arnet told me to feed the pigs coal.”  (Coal?  Yes, coal, just plain black coal, about as big as an egg.)  “Just throw it in, he said, and let ‘em eat it; gives them their sulphur.  I threw some coal in there and it sounded just like a rock grinder.  The old ones taught the younger ones to eat it; pigs do that, learning from one another like people do.  Arnet would feed them oil, too, ground oil from the wells around here.”  (“Pour it on ‘em, too, for parasites,” agrees V.’s brother.)  “Yes, he would give them oil for minerals, thick and sticky; if he had to he’d just scrape it up with the dirt in it and give it to them.  People thought he was crazy, but old Arnet sure could raise a pig.”  Arnet is in his grave now, but we will throw some coal in to the pigs from the heap by the forge in S-1’s barn, and ground oil, too, if we can find any.  V., our wise man, is our link to a hundred years ago and more; we will catch each piece of knowledge from him with anxious fingers, hoping when we lift these from the top more will rise to the surface.

And treasure as our costly university diplomas that unsolicited inclusive pronoun.

In this world, in our experience, few things are an unqualified success.  The five pigs foraging on the big monastery garden, while they demonstrate their good appetite for beets and turnips are going through the root vegetables at such a rate that soon all the beets and turnips will be converted into pig.  We resolve next year to put out the seeds for our pigs’ winter food much earlier, and to have the right sort of seeds:  mangel wurzels instead of sugar beets and table beets, shelling beans instead of Kentucky Wonders and Blue Lakes, and Golden Bantam field corn, and winter cabbages.    In fact, when the people crops are harvested from either of the big gardens we want to set out fall and winter fodder crops for the pigs in long parallel rows; then in late fall when we put the pigs into the gardens we can just move a line fence up the rows, letting them feed on the array of crops free-choice.

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Wednesday, November 21:

This life comes with disappointment and discouragement built in.

The dairy cows in the home pasture, where the grass ran out in late October, pacing the lane from sliding manger to milking barn, turn the turf to mush and mud.

Lost a calf and a pig the same week; in neither case do we know why.

When the sun strikes at an angle through the south window in the kitchen it shows up the dust on the floor like the fuzz on a peach, and every smudge and drip on the cabinets.

With the onset of cold weather our fingers tend to split at the tips, making it hard to type.

In justice we refer to the other side of the ledger:

Hmmmm — we can’t see ourselves going anywhere else?

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Monday, November 12:

An afternoon at the auction barn is entertaining and informative.  Cattle prices are down, farmers unloading extra animals now to avoid feeding them expensive corn and hay over the winter.  Nice first calf Holstein heifers, bred, were going for something between seven and eight hundred dollar, good family cows if someone wanted an animal that gives the volume of a Holstein – this herd averaged about eight gallons a head per day – and didn’t mind the low butterfat.  Buy one of these girls and a couple of pigs and you have milk, pork, and, if she drops a bull calf, beef for the next year.  Find a stock or security that offers such dividends.

Looking down into the lanes of animals from the elevated walk leading into the auction arena is like looking over a solid sea of furry backs, red, black, black and white, brown, and an odd dull grey-brown that looks like teddy-bear fleece.  Many men in ball caps, sweaty shirts, jeans, and thick leather boots chivvy them around, opening and shutting gates, urging the animals along with a brisk “come UP, boss,” or a quiet “move, dumbitch,” directing their courses with long switches like a blind man’s cane or a conductor’s baton.  Men and women of few words lean against the wooden rails of the elevated walk, seeming to absorb information from the scene without the need for words.  Lunch may be purchased in the coffee room from sneakered waitresses with tiny veils pinned over hair drawn up in smooth buns:  chili soup, coney dogs, burgers, pie.

Brought in singly or in groups, cows and heifers are touched up with the long canes so they turn and turn again, giving potential bidders every chance to take a good look at them.  We sit on tiers of wide wooden steps or bleachers, the intent observers hunched forward, elbows on thighs, those for whom nothing is new leaning back, one leg cocked up on the other knee.  Only eyes move, heads nod the slight nod that commits the nodder to another twenty-five dollars on the bid.  It is interesting to learn how much we actually know about dairy cows now; the cows we like go high, the ones we think look wry or pinched or spooky bring lower prices.  One or two proud beauties bring considerably higher prices than their only adequate sisters.  Not a few are knocked down to men in the front, regular bidders from the locker buying low price animals for the burger mill.

Home at four-thirty to milk, we find the high tunnel over the spinach, covered only yesterday with six-mil plastic sheeting, half-collapsed by the high winds of the early afternoon.  Now rain puddles fill the sagging folds of plastic, weighing the cover down.   It is obvious that the stock-panel hoops will need some reinforcement, a dreary thought in this chilly rain.  More pleasant to find the cows waiting at the dairy stall, to thaw chilly hands on their warm udders; a dairy cow radiates heat like a stove, uncomfortable in the summer, delicious in cold weather.  The girls are making dinner up at the house to be ready when the milk is strained, the buckets washed.  It is growing dark out.

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Once upon a time there were two very impractical and impoverished young people who got the wild idea that they wanted to marry and raise a family on a few good acres where they could grow their own food, spend lots of time outdoors with their children, and live in contact with nature and the seasons.

There is no limit to the fanciful dreams of the young.  They knew, of course, that only professional people with very good incomes and a great deal of disposable wealth could afford this dream.

They themselves had very little income and almost no disposable wealth, so they rented a house on the poor side of town and grew tomatoes in a little bed in the back yard.  They made compost in a little compost bin in the back yard.  They grew babies on a mattress on the bedroom floor.

And they saved a little money so that in about seventy-five years they would be able to buy an acre or two of rural land and then they could start saving money to build a farm house.

They were very impractical people.  After all, both descended from grandfathers with second-grade educations who had had the same dream.

Come to think of it, the grandfathers had had farms as well as dreams.  And babies.  And tomatoes.

The nature of Nature has changed, of course.  Where once a small farm was a nursery from which people and domestic animals derived the necessaries of life, nowadays it is a money sink which swallows up cash as fast as a Manhattan subway swallows up commuters.  Lumber for barns and fences, tractors, four-wheelers, registered livestock, hay, commercial feed and vet bills come with a substantial price tag.  Faced with costs like these only the commercial farm of gargantuan size can hope to pay for itself.  The cute little mom-and-pop farm that sustained itself with a garden, a cow, a few chickens, and a pig grunting in the pig sty is an icon of a pre-inflationary and medieval past.

In the Middle Ages, after all, commercial animal feed cost only pfennigs a day.

Back then cows ate grass and had baby calves, chickens scratched in the manure in the barnyard and laid eggs, and pigs rooted in the pig pen and ate clabber and had piglets.  Hay was extra summer grass cut and dried and stored.  Vegetables where what was in season in the garden, and fertilizer was what you cleaned out of the barn with a shovel.  Gardens were plowed with a garden fork and feet took you where you needed to go on the farm.  If a job was too big to do by hand it was probably just too big.

Today, when we have rototillers to churn the garden soil, it would obviously be a waste of our modern educations and our valuable time to turn it by hand.  Likewise now that there are four wheelers to take us anywhere over rough terrain it would be foolishness for a person to walk all the way out to the barn to feed the registered quarter horse.   Besides, it might make him late to the gym.  Payback on hours and hours in the garden is no more tomatoes than could have been bought with just a single hour’s pay at the city job.  Chickens are chi-chi right now, but they smell in wet weather and after all, Walmart sells pastured eggs with brown shells for just three dollars a dozen.   Nowadays who can afford the small family farm?

And so the two Foolish Dreamers went on taking homesteading magazines and learned to make logs out of wet newspapers and spent their savings on football uniforms and orthodontics until their children grew up and got corporate jobs just as far from the compost bin and the tomato garden as they could and for lunch they ate grilled heritage pork in trendy locavore bistros.

The End.

Thank goodness.

*  *  *  *

Once upon a time we met and after a lot of fighting and a certain amount of hand-holding and snuggling we told one another of our dream to marry one another and have babies and live in the country and raise our own food.  After all, our grandfathers did much the same thing and it seemed to work out all right for them because after all, here we were, weren’t we?  So we went to church and got an apartment and raised a garden in a vacant lot and chickens too, before they were all filched by someone of admirable skill and enterprise, and we took homesteading magazines and shopped garage sales and talked about what we were going to do when we found our dream farm.  And one day after a kissing a great many frogs we decided maybe a frog was just what we needed because it was definitely all we could afford.  So then there we were in a decrepit little shack on seventeen steep, stony acres of some of the worst land on the continent but it was paid for and mortgage-free.  And we bathed the children in a bucket under a maple tree but only for a few weeks because while it was picturesque there was really no reason not to go ahead and fix the bathroom plumbing, and we hand-dug our gardens and put some chickens in the shed and Shawn went on with his city job so we could afford things besides eggs and tomatoes.  Every year or so we built a shed or bought a second-hand tiller or chain saw and every year or so we had a baby.  We read books about how to raise the babies but the babies seemed to raise themselves, and we read books about how to farm but the books all assumed that farm animals have to be fed commercially formulated feeds with bone meal and feather meal and rendered beef tallow in them.  The feeds got to be expensive and we began wondering what people fed their animals before commercial animal feed was invented because of course we knew they didn’t really have Purina Layena in the Middle Ages.  But we could find no books about this so we thought we would see if the animals would show us themselves like the babies did.

This blog is about what we found out.

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Sunday, November 11:

Despite days like today when the wind blows from the south and the sunlight warms us regardless of its declination, winter is definitely coming.  Last week the pasture was frosted almost every morning, and the calves’ water tank rimed over with half an inch of ice.  The rows of beet tops in the big garden at the monastery are hanging dejectedly, and those few tomatoes left on the bare ground are pale and flaccid from repeated freezing.  The dogs’ breath rises in clouds like cigar smoke.

Two steers which spent their summer on our friend Dale’s off-grid sheep farm west of here were brought home at last, to save Dale hauling their water in five gallon buckets and rounding them up every time they broke through the polywire in search of greener pastures.  The steers were suspicious of our rope halters, and suspicious of the red stock trailer, but S-4 got them loaded without bloodshed and we brought them back and unloaded them into the calf paddock, where they squared off with the other two-year-olds – the small-fry weren’t worthy of their notice – and then settled down quietly to enjoy the good clover in the monastery pastures.  They are sleek and fat, although still with the pronounced hip bones typical of dairy breeds, and they assure us that our family and the monastery will not go hungry this winter.

All of the winter vegetables are under at least one layer of cover now except the cabbages, and they will get a layer of six mil plastic sometime next week.  The winter greens stand with military exactitude in short rows across the garden beds; the carrot tops look like a Lilliputian forest.  Although these plants are not  so far in danger from our light frosts they will grow better in the protected environment under cover.  We will be grateful for the thinning in another weed or so.

The five pigs in the monastery garden got an unexpected treat on Saturday when the sisters mowed and raked their soccer field.  The half-cured grass is stacked outside the pig fence and forked over  a bit at a time, and the little pigs gobble it up.

Our quest for the essential pig diet continues.  It is obvious that until not so long ago pigs filled the role of end consumer – humans excepted – of all the wastes on the farm.  Those items which were not fit for human consumption were almost always acceptable to the family pig, who would convert them to bacon, sausage, ham and lard.  This conversion was the pig’s particular talent and what made him so valuable a part of the farm system.  Today, however, the books we find on pig raising assume the goals and methods of the commercial model.  Young pigs are to be grown as fast as possible to slaughter weight so that another lot of pigs can be raised in the same space, and another, and another.  Speed is imperative since the selling of pigs is what pays the mortgage on the expensive superstructure.  Therefore pigs are fed as much high-protein food as they can be induced to eat so that they will attain marketable weight quickly, usually within about four months.  Pigs as recyclers, as waste converters, are simply not considered.

We followed this model – it is the only one we have found articulated in our books, if you discount people like John Seymour, whose accounts of raising pigs on farm wastes are glowing, but somewhat lacking in practical detail – until a few years ago, when increasing amounts of garden and dairy waste made us wonder whether pigs really needed commercial pig food at all.  We wondered what was in the commercial feed we were giving our pigs?  What, we asked ourselves, were pigs fed before the gods gave us Purina?  How fast did these old farm pigs grow?  Did rushing a piglet from two pounds to two hundred and fifty pounds in one hundred twenty days really result in the healthiest porkers and the best pork?  Was it, in fact, in the best interests of pig or pork-eater that the animals should be so raised?

Presently our farm pigs are fed a mixed diet, two meals a day of skim milk, buttermilk, or whey, table scraps, and whatever is going on the farm:  windfall apples, pulled-up bean plants, extra root vegetables, waste bread from the monastery kitchen, weeds, or, as now, grass clippings.  Sometimes we give them corn, but when we run out we will not buy more until we find a reliable source for non-GM corn.  They always have access to some round bales of low-quality hay, and they eat this as well as playing and sleeping in it.  The farm pigs do not grow as quickly as the ones in our neighbor’s barn which have access to unlimited quantities of commercial pig pellets; it remains to be seen whether we want them to.  The farm pigs definitely cost less to feed, and it may be that their far more varied diet is as much better for them as it would be for us.  It’s obvious to the observer that it is more fun.

We are trying what it is like to raise Slow Pigs.

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