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.