Archive for October, 2013

castrating pigs

Wednesday, October 30:

   We had seen young male pigs castrated before – once – forty years ago – and there is nothing to it, at least, not for the party of the first part.  We had, however, a little trepidation about doing it for ourselves.  Our beloved vet, while admitting that she herself would do it with the help of anesthetic and stitches, reluctantly advised us to watch a farmer do it as a field operation.  We watched a video.  Nothing to it:  cut, pinch, yank.  Twice.  The first little guy was so outraged at the time, and looked so discouraged post facto, that we left him to the sympathy of his family and let the others wait, until we could see for ourselves how he recovered.  Lo and behold, two days later he could not be distinguished from his fellows, not at a casual glance.  So, today the men finished the job.  Three more little pigs joined the ranks of those “not needed for breeding purposes”.  We learn a lot of new tricks on this job.

   Now I’m going to go bait the mousetraps in the kitchen; something has been gnawing the baseboards.

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black frost

Monday, October 28:

  We brought up the pumpkins and summer squash to cure in the yard where we can cover them at night from the black frosts.  The squash vines, which had run amok until they covered the whole garden, we pulled up and piled in windrows to be fed to the pigs over the next couple of weeks; frost burns those on top, but the vines below are still leafy and the pigs devour them.  The beans were pulled and the last ten gallons or so are waiting to be canned; the bean plants, like the squash, are windrowed for pig fodder.  Soon the gardens will be empty except for the low tunnels, long hoops of plastic sheltering carrots, lettuce, spinach and beets, and the straw-mulched rows hiding late-planted garlic.

   We buried Eric on Tuesday.  After the pine wood coffin was placed over the grave, Mike filled shots with Jim Beam and toasts were drunk before the men secured the coffin lid with fifty ten-penny nails, the hammer going around the circle like a loving cup to friends, brothers, sons.  Mike held up the youngest son, shielding the child’s face from the hammer’s claw.  “Careful, Clemmie,” instructed a waiting five-year-old.  The wall of men in suits surrounded the grave like a posse, concentrated, purposeful.

  There is that about these people makes death transparent, as though they can see through it to something on the other side.  It is related, somehow, to the cold, black, star-pierced mornings when we tramp down the field leaving a path of deeper darkness in the frost, to break ice in the stock tank and lead the cows up to the barn for milking.  It is stepping out into what is inhospitable, even hostile, to fill our hands with warm, nourishing life.

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Sunday, October 20:

   Something killed a ram lamb at the bottom of the pasture.  Parallel slashes across the ribs and a single bite, low on the shoulder, from a small set of sharp canines, do not look like the signature of the coyotes who sang to us this morning at five-thirty while we were milking, nor do they explain why, when we skinned the lamb for the hogs, the abdominal cavity was ruptured in three places where the hide was still unbroken, evidence, it would seem, of heavy blows.  Three new tunnels on the hillside, with three long heaps of clay and rock, like tailings spilling from a mine shaft, inform us of new neighbors, but as of even date no one has seen them, and we are left to speculate without adequate information.

   We hung the carcass in an empty box stall to keep it from the dogs until we could find time to skin it out, which being two days later the thing smelled pretty high, but we quartered it and boiled it in the big slop kettle, which will take care of the hogs’ protein needs for several days.

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five thirty a.m.

Sunday, October 13:

Since July we have been watching as Jupiter transits the constellation Gemini.  At five-thirty in the morning it is the brightest object in the night sky excepting the moon, when there is a moon.  Gemini at that time is something south of east, and now, in mid-October, maybe fifty degrees above the horizon, as the Earth moves toward winter in the Northern Hemisphere; the long spearhead of Castor, Pollux, and Alhena is aimed directly at the Hunter’s head, forever poised but never launched. Jupiter is just passing out of this long triangle.   His passage across the Twins has been ours to observe every clear morning, one of the fruits that fall to the hand of the early riser.

By half-last five the Big Dipper stands on its handle above the Northern Horizon, tossing a cupful of stars westward into the scoop handle of its little brother.  The tiny dipper, the Pleiades, is near zenith, but so dim that when there is a bright moon it may be hard to spot if you don’t know where to look.  We can identify Cassiopeia, high in the west, and Canis Major, crouching beneath Orion’s feet where they are planted firmly in the southern quadrant, but many years of study will no doubt make only a small dent in all there is to see with the unaided eye.  Nevertheless, it deepens our sense of belonging to the Universe, and reaffirms our belief that Nature is more than tolerant of our presence, to find that the world is knowable, and beautiful, and orderly.  The bright, unchanging constellations are peaceful companions in a darkness that once, in our imaginations, only harbored the macabre escapees from ghost story and slasher flick.

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Euphorbia, that tall, spare weed with red stems, variegated, oval leaves, milky sap, and long, thin brown pods full of fluff, is not supposed to be good forage for cows, in fact, most of the Extension sites we have looked at inform you unequivocally that spurge, to use its common name, will cause blistering in cows’ mouths and irritation of their intestinal tracts.  No one told our cows this, and by the time we did the research and discovered that it was supposed to disagree with them, the cows had already let us know that it was one of the tastiest forages in the pasture.  Rotational graziers are reporting the same experience:  turned into a short-duration paddock of mixed forages, cows relish spurge and show no ill effects from eating it.  Interesting.  The weed is a recent invader and is spreading rapidly across the country; in some places farmers are even fighting it with Roundup and bulldozers.  Judging by our cows’ preference for the weed, we wonder if, under conventional grazing, where large areas of forage are available to the animals, cows gorge on the tasty weed and then suffer ill effects from an excess of it.  Our twenty-four hour paddocks allow the cows access to a limited amount of any one forage, resulting in a naturally balanced diet.  What’s good for the grass is good for the cows, too.

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Our unofficial survey of keepers of laying hens continues to return the same result: no one’s hens seem to be laying well.  People consistently report that they have not seen fifty percent lay (half as many eggs as hens, daily) in, oh, a long time, yes, it might be two or three years.  Not scientific data with a double blind, but anecdotal evidence at least, supporting our own experience that hens have  been laying unsatisfactorily for quite a while. We suspect GMO’s and soy in the feed, as both have been indicated in low fertility in lab animals.   In the interim we have tried a number of tactics to increase production, including: demolishing our old scrap wood-and-recycled tin shed and replacing it with a dry, clean (relatively), airy and light shed with adequate, not to say ample, space for all our birds; trying new breeds said to be better foragers; feeding more, feeding other, feeding oftener.  We have carried them warm water on cold mornings and set a timer on their light so they had an extra three hours of sunlight in the winter.  None of these tactics has significantly altered the basic outcome, that, while we get a reasonable number of eggs, approaching fifty percent lay, for a few weeks in the early summer, by mid-summer the rate of production has dropped off significantly, and by October it is almost non-existent.

Numbers are not official but a rough estimate says that there are rising sixty hens and about seven roosters sleeping in the hen house every night and showing up for scratch and layer mash at mealtimes.  At 2 oz. of feed per animal per day — half a hen’s ration, with the other half available in the form of grass, clover, bugs, worms, and undigested grain from the pigs’ manure — or about fifty pounds of feed a week, that means we are spending something in the neighborhood of fifteen dollars a week on chicken feed, and all we have to show for it is a couple of dozen eggs.  Free-range eggs at seven-fifty a dozen is too dear a bargain, no matter how good they are.

Consequently, we are on a campaign to overhaul our chicken department, and it’s about time. Who was it said, “The best revenge is revenge”?  Fifteen assorted hens were decommissioned this morning.  Our selection process was simple:  as each hen exited the little chicken door this morning, we examined her for signs which should indicate whether or not she is laying.  These you can look up for yourself, and if you look up more than one source you may even find contradictory advice, as we have in the past, such as that a hen which is laying will be scruffy and have a dry, scaly comb, or, conversely, hens which are presently making eggs are smooth-feathered, glossy, and have red, full, moist combs.   We find this sort of research strangely unhelpful, and will tell you here that while we cannot from our own experience inform you whether either piece of information is true, we can say that we get a fairly high average of eggless birds if we cull for hens with vents small and puckered, not full and moist; pubic bones close together (less than two average fingers’ width); legs bright yellow rather than bleached — but of course this is not helpful with black-legged birds like the Australorps.

It was no trick at all to collect fifteen or so hens of the above description.  We brought them up in the old wooden hen crate and dispatched them with a big cleaver, dunked them in a canner of one-hundred forty-five degree water with a drop of detergent in it, and tossed them in the picker the boys built two years ago, a wonderful machine, not fancy, but saves us about fifteen minutes a bird because they come out almost perfectly clean in about ten seconds and we can gut them and cut their feet off in another five or so

.  We are determined to reduce the flock to a couple dozen of the youngest birds and three roosters.  When this is done we will take a time when they are all out foraging and thoroughly clean the hen house, whitewash it inside, scatter half a bale of cedar shavings on the floor, and cover the windows for the winter with six-mil plastic sheeting.  We will order expensive, GMO- and soy-free chicken feed, and barley for sprouting, and perhaps install a sound system in the hen house and pipe in classical music.   Bach seems appropriate, somehow.

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Saturday, October 12:

Integrated, diversified small-scale farming is like Carroll’s White Queen:  to stay in one place you have to keep running as fast as you can.   Catching each cow in heat and getting her bred is one of the jobs that makes this time of year surreal.  Imagine spending thirty minutes a day staring at a pasture full of cows — well, eight cows — hoping to see one of them jump on another.  This, if it occurs, will tell you, well, nothing definite.  Even if it occurs several times.  Unless, of course, the cow on the bottom, instead of scooting out from under her pasture-mate, possibly one thousand or so pounds of  bovine flesh and bone, stands still for it.  Or as still as a cow can stand when half-a-ton of shove is applied from the back.  In this event, and only then, you are justified in assuming that the nether cow — she on the bottom — is in heat, “standing” heat, and it’s time to call the AI tech or limber up the nitrogen tank because she needs to be bred in twelve hours.

This is especially fun if you catch her in standing heat at two in the afternoon.  Who’s getting  up at two ack emma?  Not me, not my AI teck (son of twenty years).

The young piglets are doing well, having tripled or quadrupled in weight in the last three and a half weeks.  They are beginning to join Mamma at the feed trough, an event for which she has limited tolerance, so we are hurrying the construction of the outer pig pen so that we can provide another trough in a different space.

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