A brief missive tonight, on the eve of what is hopefully the last night of this, the Great War for Chicken.
At present, the count stands thus: Foxes -- 78; Farmers -- 35.
In the beginning, we didn't even notice. Two chickens missing from 50 doesn't make an impression. Two more chickens missing from 45 doesn't either. It isn't until wounded chickens start showing up and a head count is done that the farmer realizes that something big is afoot.
Weeks later, after traps, repositioning fencing, and the like were unsuccessfully tried, on a dog walk, Dart the Farm Puppy/Gloriously Nosed Scout discovered a small pile of white feathers -- one mile away from the farm, near the lake. Said feathers are suspiciously familiar to the farmer. After encouragement, the Glorious Nose ran off, bounded about, and the farmer saw not only familiar feathers, but a ripped-open stomach filled with familiar feed. And still Dart raced on. She finally stopped short at a fox burrow, and proceeded to furiously dig. It took great effort to get her away. On the way home she found five other burrows.
The enemy now identified as foxes, majorly plural, we get down to business. More traps are engaged, some of which are sprung, none of which trap anything (except for one time an errant chicken, who was quite perturbed at being stuck in a cage with a dead chicken).
We decided that such terrorism on the part of foxes not only justified but required small ethical lapses for the greater good. Fernando, ancient, fat, one-winged meat chicken who lives in the barn, was called to sacrifice himself, if need be, for chickenkind. He spent the night two nights ago tethered to a picnic table in the front yard, while farmers with a .22 sat in the dining room, watching through the window.
Despite Fernando's generally kerfuffled, "there's-a-fox-coming-for-me" manner that kept adrenaline flowing for the would-be shooters, that night the fox waltzed past Fernando to take 2 chickens and leave 5 dead in the pasture.
Fernando was returned to the barn and given much corn.
A platform was constructed and set up in a giant pine tree overlooking the chicken tractors. Watches were divvied up. A small gap was made in the chicken fortifications to tempt the fox. Helpfully, a 60 pound pig coated himself two inches thick, orbitally, in mud and then required medical attention, meaning that all sharpshooters were coated in a mask of pig-mud smell after bear hugging him into the pickup truck, and then into a recovery stall in the barn.
And so we will sit, one by one and unshowered, stinking of pig poop (for this is the primary component of pig-mud), from now until past dawn, hoping to catch the fox(es) at it. We have all the power of human ingenuity (firepower, meditation poses, thermoses full of coffee and kahlua, amatuer astronomy practice and the discovery of new constellations, composition of couplets in various amusing meters memorized and silently recited to our chicken protectees and fox adversaries, etc.), at our fingertips, but the fox is hunting for its life, and it will be a close match.
I thought it might be interesting for y'all to see how we make pigs, from Day One.
Well, to be extremely specific while not trying to be political at all, the beginning of a pork on the table is Day Negative One Hundred and Twelve, the day of breeding.
The breeding herd, made up of 16 females and 1 extremely lucky male specimen named Harvey, has it good. We always make sure they have access to lush pastures, shade, and water, the latter in both drinking and wallowing form. We don't rotate them aggressively, instead letting them roam two acres until it looks like they are bored, and then opening up another two acres of fresh browse. We seed their pastures with extra goodies: peas, oats, and brassica mixes.
In return, they make piglets. Lots and lots of piglets, if the farmer is doing it right.
This spring, through a series of unrelated catastrophes all stemming from the chronic farmer evil of Not Enough Time, we did not do it right. Our spring breeding resulted in a whopping SEVEN piglets from three sows. We had to buy some in to maintain the herd. It was depressing.
I am pleased to report that as of this summer, we are, in fact, doing it right. We currently have forty-one piglets nested in the barn with their mamas.
Here is how we manage the piglets, ideally: When a lady looks close to giving birth (there are many signs for this; mostly we monitor their teats for milk inflow), we move her from the breeder pasture into a private 8x10 stall in the barn. The stall is filled with fresh hay, and outfitted with a "creep" in one corner: a little section where the sow can't lay, with a heat lamp overhead. The heat and light attract the piglets and keep them from being crushed by their mom, who is basically two hundred times their size. It doesn't save every piglet -- particularly those who are slow on the uptake of being in the world -- but it does do a lot, combined with breeding for good mothering, to keep mishaps at a minimum.
The sow, newly ensconced in her private chambers, is monitored for imminent signs. Once she chews up the hay, piles it into a giant pile in one corner, and fullfils other necessary physical signs involving female anatomy, we turn on the heat lamp and begin the wait.
Oftentimes, pigs give birth in the the early morning hours -- say 2 AM. But other pigs schedule themselves at more convenient times, and then it is easier to monitor them. Most of our pigs don't need assistance, but every once in awhile a farmer needs to be around. A lot of universities have done studies that say that the presence of a farmer results in one more surviving piglet per litter. It is one of the few university studies that I actually believe applies to us. But still, sometimes it is an uphill battle; pigs have large litters because they expect some (or many) to die. We do our best, and our best is always getting better. We pay attention, have meds on hand, and try to be ready for anything that nature throws our way.
After the first three days, a piglet is pretty likely to survive. They sleep, nurse, and start to play with each other. They go to the bathroom in the bathroom corner, snooze under the heat lamp, nose about in the hay. They generally grow increasingly curious about their surroundings. At nine to fourteen days, we combine whatever groups of new piglets and mamas we have in a bigger area (otherwise the sows get depressed or angry), castrate the males and give the family a general once over. At six to eight weeks, depending on how the piglets are thriving, we wean them. The mamas get vaccinations if they need it, isolated if they need to gain some weight (nursing ten+ piglets can really slim a lady down), and then put back into the breeding herd.
The piglets get a round of vaccinations (the pig equivalent of the MMR shots) and moved down into the pasture in a hard fenced pen with an electric wire running around the inside: that's how we train them to electric fencing. They are near enough to the rest of the grower herd to smell them and grunt to them, so when we combine them after a week it isn't a completely blind date. Then they run free in the swamp/forest/pasture, eating all they can stomach of grass, roots, grubs, and feed, fighting and wallowing and snuggling and sunning, until they are seven or eight months old.
Every Sunday, us farmers drive the truck and the tractor down into the pasture. We plan it so that they run out of food on Saturday, so the whole herd is lazing about by the feeders, waiting for us. We scope out the largest two or three pigs, and sort them into a little crate that we can attach to the fenced area.
Then we put the crate in the pickup and drive them up the hill and into the barn. They hate that part, so they get extra feed, hay, and water overnight. The next morning they are pretty blissed out and comfortable, and I drive them to the USDA slaughterhouse 1 hour and 15 minutes away. I unload them into the hay-filled pens there, chat with Kathlynn, buy a giant bone for Dart the dog, who accompanies me, square up the bill, and drive away.
To be honest, I don't really like leaving them at the slaughterhouse. After being so in control of their lives until now, it seems strange and somehow cowardly to back out at the end. But, it is a necessary thing, for both legal and time management reasons, and I do trust the family who runs our slaughterhouse to do the job well, with respect, and with due consideration of the comfort of our animals. But I do always feel a bit grouchy for a few hours after dropping them off, even though they seem pleased to investigate the new barn and potential new neighbors.
Tim, our farmer partner at Autumn's Harvest, picks up our animals from the slaugtherhouse, along with his, and takes them back to his shop. There, Smitty the butcher cuts them up to our specifications and loads them into our refrigerated truck. Farmer Nick picks up the truck, brings it back to the farm, we pack the CSA bags, and Farmer Nick himself leaves for the city on Wednesday afternoon, ready to start deliveries at first light on Thursday while I hold down the fort upstate. He spends eight hours unloading meat, varying from neat little CSA bags to storefronts, to entire half pigs and 200 pound beef primals to restaurants.
And that's the womb to table of Clawhammer pork. If it seems like a long process, that's because it is, made ever more complicated by laws, and the accidental pig getting out, and power failures, and tractor maintenance, and sore shoulders, and floods, and boots that leak, and designing new feeders, and disagreements, and so on. It would seem endless, but for the pork that keeps populating our delivery truck. Because of that, we know that it's both very finite -- lives beginning and ending, and very infinite -- the cycle of lives beginning and ending. Stuck in the thick of it, as we are, it seems at the same time to be an unusual and grand thing to be doing, and to be the most basic and simple of human endeavors. We do ponder on that, when we are not busy blissfully relishing in our busy day, sore muscles, a setting summer sun, and the tantalizing smell and crackle of pork on the grill.
We've spent the last two years pasturing our pigs. Pasturing, meaning, putting our pigs in temporary, rotating pens on the pasture. Pasture, meaning, a grassy, outdoor area, sometimes including trees, shrubs and hedgerows.
We moved them every 9-14 days...it was necessary to keep them from rooting and compacting the land into being unproductive. That involved setting up a temporary fence, convincing them to move into the new area, moving their food and water, observing them to make sure they stayed put for the next couple days, keeping the fence lines from being buried by their rooting (a constant issue), and keeping track of the quality of the land.
Instead of doing the intensive rotation this project-heavy summer (the name of the game these days is work smarter not harder and also work less in general), we set up temporary fencing over the lower portion of our property -- the spot where two streams meet, beavers have taken up residence to wreak havoc on the aspen and apple groves, and scrubby brush creates a barrier to man and machinery alike. It includes at least ten acres of land. We fenced it all up tight. Then we put the entire grower herd in it.
It was a bit of a crazy move. After all, every week like clockwork, we have to sort out the biggest pigs to send to the abattoir. We routinely have to check the pigs for illness or injury. How would we do that if the herd is running wild through impenetrable dense brush and woods, criss-crossed with streams, bogs, swamp, and beaver ponds?
Three reasons made Pig Paradise v. 1.0 a no brainer. One: less weekly chores; Two: super happy pigs; and Three: we are actually getting quite good at intuiting how to handle pigs. Thus, the sorting of two or three choice animals from ten acres into one 3x5 crate was no longer an insurmountable issue.
One is obvious. We've got a bucket list for the summer a mile long, and we need to minimize the routine farm chores to get it done. We now have the experience and a bit of the money to make both the list and the pig paradise possible -- streamline processes and invest in some infrastructure upgrades so that we, for example, don't have to carry, by hand, 350 pounds of feed down the hill, bag by bag, twice a day to feed the herd (I wish I was joking when I say that we did this, but I am not and we have the shoulder muscles to prove it).
Two is also obvious. We've long since learned that happy pigs are better pigs (they are like humans and all other animals in this way). They are healthier, safer to handle, and better for the soul of the farmer and the consumer. It's one of the major reasons we are farmers; since the beginning one of our mantras has been "let pigs be pigs." The way to let pigs be the piggiest they can be in the hot summer months is to give them a wet, shady, green, sprawling area, full of flora and fauna to explore.
Three is a little trickier. We had some ideas about what would work; how we would be able to sort pigs and do a general head count every week. Thankfully, it's worked out great so far (meaning, we are one for one).
Pigs love a home base as much as they love to wander, and with pigs, home is where the food is. We built a short alleyway leading out pig paradise and into a flat, dry area of the pasture. There we constructed a movable hard pen, where each side can be disconnected and opened or closed. Thus, it can be a "U" shape, or it can be an "O" shape (really it's more of a hexagon, but there of course there isn't a hexagon-shaped letter on my keyboard), just by moving two panels slightly. Because of its location it is accessible by tractor and pickup truck from three directions -- key for maneuvering in the sometimes treacherous wet of our land. We strategically placed their feeders: one in the alley, and one in the "U". When we moved them down into their paradise, we moved them into that area first to establish a sense of "home."
Now, all we have to do is time their eating so that they run out of feed the day before we need to load up pigs. That guarantees that all the pigs will be hanging out, if not in the pen or alleyway, in the immediate vicinity. Then we simply size them up, close the pen, and herd the chosen ones into the crate that we can clip into any corner of the pen. Easy peasy. At the same time, we can do a once over of the herd. Pigs are made of steel; if someone is hurt or sick, us farmers have a couple weeks to notice and intervene before they are beyond help. (Sheep are a different matter. As our neighbor said a few days ago, "a sick sheep is a dead sheep!". Our experience thus far bears him out.)
The locals who love to drive by the farm slowly to check out the pigs are likely disappointed, but for us farmers it feels amazing to know what the pigs want and to be able to provide it for them, all the while making less work for ourselves. For the pigs, it feels amazing to have acres and acres of varied, pig-friendly environment at their disposal for exploring throughout the summer. Here's hoping it continues to work!!!
After the breeding non-start of two weeks ago, I was feeling pretty down about our pig herd expansion project. We were, after all, supposed to be increasing the size of the pig herd; instead, we had our least successful spring birthing ever (SEVEN. Seven piglets from three sows. It still hurts.). Then, we were excited about the accidental pregnancies in the grower herd -- free piglets! We can make up for lost time! But Myrtle's litter of -0- living piglets left us discouraged -- what if the other 5 accidental pregnancies were the same?
Well, this past week has shown that not to be the case, in the cutest way imaginable. Black and, um, Other Black (we need not only names for them but a way to tell them apart as the only ascertainable difference between them is that one's ears are slightly floppier...) had textbook farrowings -- no stillborns, no interventions needed, no injuries, ideal first-time litter sizes.
Now we can be a bit more excited about the other new pigs we are waiting on.
We bought in three new breeders, unofficially called Phantom, Hamspot and Little Missy, from Farmer Tim. They are a solid unit, but have integrated well with our old breeder herd. They know their place, don't pick fights, and defer to the old breeders in matters of territory and feed.
The other three accidental pregnancies from the grower herd -- Patches, Goldie, and Blaze -- are also a unit, but they don't seem to get on with the old breeders very well. Patches was the queen bee of the growers, and she wasn't willing to stand down without a fight. She got pretty bruised up in the first few days, so her team tends to set up camp away from the other group. These days that means hanging out at the far end of the breeder pasture. They found a nice patch of clover on cool, moist ground so they have a good setup even though the old herd took the primo area around a little brook and crabapple trees.
Spotbelly and Little Red are now the two oldest pigs by a whole year, and their children Victoria, Striper, Chilly Bear, and Stamp round out the old herd. They have the routine figured out: find a tree, take some bites off of it, clear the area around it, sleep, eat some greens, wallow, spar with the younger upstarts, root about, reign in peace, sleep. It's a good routine.
Or rather, I suppose I should refer to the second as a "hands in" birth...
But first, the first: The sheep are a relatively new addition to the farm, so we're still learning our way around them. This results in a lot of surprises, from how to catch them when they are roaming 30 acres (apparently, you need a dog), to how they view Beulah the milk-cow-in-training (as a threat if you are a nursing ewe, as a playmate if you are an older lamb), to how to hold them when you trim their toes (stand them on their rump and cradle them and they calm right down).
I found two very cute surprises of a different sort last Thursday.
As I was working on morning chores in the barn, I heard a sheep making a low grumbly baaa...not the normal, conversational baaa, and not the insistant, I-want-grain baaa. I had heard it before. A mama was introducing herself.
Pregnant sheep are very obvious...they look like they have basketballs glued to each side. But we don't yet know the "lambs within 12 hours!!!" signs, the way we do with pigs (in order of operations: "bagging up," nest building, giving milk when you squeeze a teat, swollen nether regions, loss of apetite, laying on their side and breathing deeply, discharge).
So, I had, in fact, noted in our sheep spreadsheet five days prior to surprises: "Q looking extremely pregnant." But it still took my breath away to find Ms. Q cleaning off two very spindly, shocked, pink nosed fluffs in the chill, rainy morning. I sat for a good long while and watched them to make sure everything was proceeding well. My reading indicates that the ewe-lamb bonding process is important; they have to learn each other scents and noises so they can keep track of each other. I didn't want to get in the way, so I just watched, mystified, as Quagmire cleaned them off and guided them toward her udder. They were nursing feverishly by the time I went back to the barn.
I noticed something else that morning. Myrtle, an accidentally pregnant gilt, was not hungry.
On friday morning, I went down early to check the lambs (seeing them laying in a white heap from a few yards away I steeled myself to find dead lambs, but as I approaced they both arched their necks up and looked at me, unconcerned) and Myrtle. I found her with one fresh stillborn piglet. The umbilical cord was still inside Myrtle, which was odd: usually (93% of the time, the internets informed me later) stillborns are stillborn because they have detached from the placenta. I noted the time and determined that if another piglet weren't out in 45 minutes, I would investigate.
It was also a very bad sign. If the first piglet is stillborn, it likely took awhile to birth (live piglets help somehow in the delivery; most of the time we've had to help out, it's been with a stillborn). If it took awhile to birth, all the presumed piglets behind it, lined up in the birth canal and detaching from the life-giving placenta would be suffocating. I decided to only give her 15 minutes before investigating.
15 minutes, it turns out, passes almost instantly. Long enough only to brew coffee and drink one sip.
When I checked on Myrtle, my coffee evilly cooling on the table back at the house, she had passed a placenta. That was very odd.
Pigs have more than one placenta; in our experience, they usually pass two, one for each of the two "horns" of their uterus. The fact that she had passed one meant that it was likely that a horn was already empty.
I gave her another 15 minutes of pushing before I donned the shoulder-high gloves, liberally doused all things pig and human in baby oil, and did some investigating. Usually, just the presence of a hand where a hand should not be strengthens the contractions; only about 40% of the time that manual intervention has been initiated have we had to pull the piglet.
This piglet though...was STUCK. I found it wedged right behind her pelvis, and I could not get it over and through.
The worst part about the ordeal, as I was feeling around, twisting and pulling, was the growing certainty that this piglet was also already dead. Just as it is easier for the sow to birth a live piglet, it is easier for us to manually extract a live piglet. This piglet's unwillingness to move or rotate combined with the first being a stillborn made it likely that it was a stillborn as well.
I called in Big Man to help out. He spent a very draining hour and a half wrestling with Myrtle and the piglet, which was indeed most certainly very dead. What can be such an awe-inspiring ordeal -- there is no piglet, then her tail flicks and there is suddenly something gooey behind the sow, and then the gooey starts to move and kick and squeak and it is suddenly a piglet nursing -- was just two cold, slimy bodies, with two cold, slimy farmers morosely staring at them.
There is not much more emotionally draining or depressing than a rough delivery of stillborn animals. But then, there is not much more uplifting than an animal that has a hands off delivery of super healthy lambs that thrive despite the grumpy weather -- despite the fact that the day they were born consisted almost entirely of rain, and despite the fact that overnight it dropped to 35 degrees and it sleeted throughout the morning, despite the fact that every time I stepped outside to let the dog in and felt the chill air I was positive that anything as fragile-looking as a lamb must certainly be dead, both of them have been thriving. Quaggy has been a perfectly attentive mother, staying near but somewhat separate from the wandering herd, and both lambs do a good job of sticking close to her. I check on them every day to make sure they are doing well, and they always reward me with their waggling tails as they nurse -- probably the cutest thing ever in the entire world.
As we say so often here: life goes on, but sometimes, it doesn't. As farmers we have to do the best we can to tip the scales in life's direction, but we also have to be accepting that death always follows on life's heels -- sometimes, quicker than we would prefer.
We put the pigs out on pasture last Tuesday, the day we got back from a long weekend vacation (farmers need vacations too! That way we can worry about the animals from far, far away, instead of worrying about them from the farmhouse just across the street).
When we first opened up their gate to the pasture, they spent the first 5 hours just staring suspiciously.
The pasture is set up like Jurassic Park (although we do lack the benefit of being an island). There is a main perimeter fence that runs all the way around the pasture land. We set up smaller temporary pens out of either polywire fencing or polynet fencing. We rotate the pigs through the temp pens so we can manage how long they are on each section of pasture; it keeps the land healthier and the pigs busy.
The advance guard heads out to explore.
As of last week the plan had been to fix up each line of perimeter fence as we moved the pigs along. This would mean that the whole perimeter fence would not be up and running until mid-June, which would have been fine if the pigs stayed in their temporary-fenced pens.
Yes, "would have been."
Unfortunately, a mere 27 hours after putting them out, I happened to look out a bedroom window and see a group of seven or so way across the valley, heading with great purpose toward the unfinished perimeter fence separating our property from a neighbor's. Upon promptly freaking out and sending farmer Nick in a car to intercept them, I went down to discover and round up yet another group of seven who had breached the temp fence and were hanging out in the gully on their way to neighbor Nola's delicious lawn.
Back in deep bedding for a week. Still curious about cameras, though.
Apparently they had tested the temp fence and found that its electric jolt was not strong enough to deter them from slipping through.
And so the two groups of wayward pigs were rounded up by extremely grumpy farmers, and herded back into winter housing to languish until we finished the perimeter fence, a more sturdy ordeal that packs a bigger punch than the temp lines. That has been at the top of our to do list for the last few days, and we are making great progress.
Fence-fixing kit! Everything is more fun on an ATV. I will stand by that.
Some lines were snapped and needed repaired. Some brush had overgrown and needed cleared. The entire line needed mowed. More posts were needed where the lines sagged or where the ground was uneven. Power switches needed installed so we can turn on and off sections of the fencing. And one entire section needed to be built.
The site of the back line -- cleared with chainsaw, blood, sweat.
As of today, all that has been done. The only thing that remains is patching up little holes where the ground dips down, like it does in a riverbed in one spot, and in a gully in another. Hopefully the velociraptor pigs will not find them.
Placid, happy sheeps.
The sheep and goats and Beulah the cow, by the way, have been placidly munching the best pasture we have (where the meat chickens were last season) for a week now. Beulah and about 5% of the sheep got shocked exactly one time each during the first hour they were out; since then no one has even come close to a fence. We could likely fence them in with unplugged wire or even just string. The velociraptors would be onto that trick in half a minute.
The grass has arraived. 8 inches tall at least in this spot.
There has been enough rain to swell rivers and lakes, but not (aside from the inevitably unavoidable two week period in March) enough to turn the farm into a morass. The temperatures have been slowly and steadily increasing, with no blossom-killing jumps below freezing. Daffodils are in full bloom. Lilacs and peach trees are heavy with buds. Radishes, peas, and spinach are popping up in the garden.
And still, the animals are inside. And they are starting to get resentful.
The grower pigs can smell the green from just beyond their winter yard.
It's not that we are evil farmers. Much like the parent who has to deny their child their eightieth candy of the evening, or the dog owner who refuses to allow their puppy to lick up the spill of bleach (me, recently), we have to take the long view.
Until the last spate of rains, pleasantly interspersed with ever-warmer sunshine, the pasture was still mostly brown. What green there was was short and new.
Sheep could go out without ruining the land, but even then, the nutrition they would get from two inches of grass hardly justifies the two weeks less of barn time.
I can haz grass?
Pigs, however...pigs are a disaster on an unread pasture. They do not delicately nibble, they nibble (undelicately), and root, and flip over large chunks of sod so they can nibble (equally undelicately) at the roots and grubs and mud beneath. They hollow out and compact areas around their waterers to make wallows. They sometimes dig deep holes because of a tasty vein of rocks or an especially beguiling cool mud patch.
Spotbelly the Sow gives a knowing look. She knows pasture is coming.
They are not, this is to say, naturally easy on the land.
We are planning this year's pasture rotation with that in mind. Their first spot this year will be on the slope, so that the growth has the rest of the summer to come back. You want strong roots on a hillside to prevent erosion during the winter and early spring rains.
The sheep are a bit easier. We're sending them out where the grass is thickest and longest -- not coincidentally it's the spot where we ran the meat chickens through last year. The grass there is insane -- greener, thicker, and longer by far than anywhere else on the property (unless you count some of the weedier areas of the garden...).
New goats! In quarantine (just in case) and making goofy faces in the livestock trailer.
And, it's not only sheep now. We picked up some young female meat goats at the big spring auction. We're hoping that they play well with the fencing and can be a permanent addition to the farm.
Farmers are ready for the pasture, too. It is still work, but working in the sunshine in a t-shirt is so very different than working in the chill of the barn in a one-piece. It is time to squint in the afternoon and wonder if we forgot sunscreen and grill outdoors in the evening and put tired bare feet in the lake and laugh at the chickens as they meander through the weeds.
The long walkway from the pigs' current yard to their new pasture spot.
Pigs are very social creatures. They are also very hierarchical. Herd order for pigs is just as important as pack order is for dogs. It's important for humans, too, but we don't like to think of ourselves as animals all that frequently, which creates all sorts of problems (but that is another story).
This little social pig (the little nose on the right) decided to spend some time in the feeder.
On Clawhammer, the grand suidaen hierarchy is easiest to observe among the breeding herd, although it exists in the larger grower herd as well. How to observe the hierarchy is easy; one does not need to be a scientist. A farmer will do. The investigating farmer simply makes x+1 piles of food on the ground a couple feet apart from each other, where x equals the number of pigs in the group. For some reason, a pig cannot just eat from one pile if there is more than one pile on the ground (and there must be more than one pile or no one plays nicely; this is just the way of things); they must shuffle around maniacally from pile to pile. Lower order pigs will not try to eat from the pile that a higher order pig is eating from. Higher order pigs will eat from lower pigs' piles with impunity, and the lower pig will scuttle off to an empty pile or to take over an even lower pig's pile. The alpha pig will browse from all the piles, scattering other eaters as she moves without so much as a glance or a squeal of protest. Once the order is established, the food ballet is seamless; there is not a single scuffle as long as everyone remembers their place in the order, and they are very good at remembering the order.
Despite being so pretty, Delilah is the second from the bottom in the hierarchy.
The breeders have an extra rumple in their hierarchy in that sows are constantly leaving and reentering the herd as they are split off to give birth and nurse piglets, and then returned 6-8 weeks later. Because of this, investigating farmers get an opportunity to observe the different ruling styles, from benevolent aristocracy to bloody despots.
Queen Red flanked by her handmaidens Striper and Victoria.
Right now the herd is in a period of peace with Little Red as Queen. After the first day of integration, when she was moved in and snapped at a few shoulders to claim her rightful throne, there have been no scuffles. Victoria, a bigger pig than Little Red, has no interest in challenging her. The younger ones all stay in line and mind the piles. They are harmonious, even on rainy days when all seven of them must crowd into the pigloos together, and even on the exciting New Round Bale Day, where a bossier ruler might claim rights to the entire bale herself. Little Red simply manages the dismantling of the bale and resettling of the loose hay into the bedding areas. She even helps.
Victoria the big white pig.
Then there are the bloody despots: theTwins, Spot and Scar. They are currently in the barn raising up some piglets (which is why peace now reigns), but when they are with the breeders they co-rule with an iron fist. They do not let a single opportunity to establish their power pass them by. They get to eat from ALL the piles. They get an entire pigloo for themselves, even if that means Delilah and Striper have to sleep in the rain. And they do not establish that power with a grunt or a a nudge; rather, they use the full force of their necks to whack offenders in the belly and nip at shoulders and flanks.
Despots with their littles.
Even the rule of despots can be put up with in the short term, but there always comes a time when they go Too Far. The Twin's Too Far happened a couple months ago. They are on the same breeding schedule as Chilly Bear, so a week before their due dates we pulled all three into a pen in the barn. They were in there for a few days while we got singleton stalls ready. At some point, the two of them ganged up on Chilly and beat her up very badly. She had contusions all down her right side, and a terrible wound at the base of her tail that soon got infected. A lot of the damage was to her belly area -- and she ended up having a lot of stillborn piglets a week later as a result. She was also feverish and out of it for a couple weeks (and extremely protective of her 'lets and nest, such that treating her was not even an option), so she lost even more piglets in the first week.
Poor Chilly Bear in her recovery ward.
It was the last and largest of several straws. The bloody despots must be broken up; one kept on the farm, the other sent for sausage. It has been a capital-D Decision; they are the last two of the First Pigs that we ever bought. But the investigating farmers have decided that the peace and wellbeing of the breeders certainly ranks above a farmer's nostalgia.
This is the time of the year, in the weeks when the birds go from silent to cacophonous, and the snow that has been our constant companion, sometimes a friend and sometimes a foe, finally relinquishes the land, and the sun is warmer than the wind is icy, this is the time for exploring our land.
We own 30 acres; roughly 25 of them are pasture. Because of where the farmhouse is situated, halfway up the hillside, with the pasture lands sloping down and away and spreading across the valley, it is very easy to think that we can see the pasture from the bedroom window, and that we can investigate it by standing just outside the barn. We look at our land all the time. But very rarely, especially in the off-pasture season, do we explore it. After all, it looks pretty boring in the winter, white on white on grey; and in April, brown grass with some grey trees and reddish grey shrubs scattered around.
It is also easy to feel like it’s not that much land. Which it isn’t, especially in the Big-Ag world. We barely register to the farms around here, mostly dairies that own thousands of acres of land (to grow the corn and hay that they later drive to the cows -- the cows themselves, of course, are in barn complexes that take up only about 5 acres, including a large manure lagoon that is emptied routinely and, yup, driven to the corn and hay fields...).
But now that it’s the month of heavy prep before we hit the ground running on pasture and in the garden in May, it’s time to investigate how the land is recovering in the areas where we had stock last year, and to note any potential problems in moving stock in this season. And so, armed with the puppy and the camera and boots, I descended the hill.
Last year we used temporary electric fencing to rotate the pigs through the pasture. We had about 60-70 pigs at the time, and moved them every week to ten days. The above spot must have been a place where we left them for a couple days too long; perhaps it was raining (not a good mix with electric fencing) or we were off the farm. It will need extra livestock-free time this spring, and I may have to reseed it a bit.
Here’s a section that looks perfect, seeing as it’s where the pigs were at the very end of the season last year in November. It looks like a tractor has run over it with a plow -- the sod is flipped, but not compacted, and there is still a hearty bit of root and grass and raspberry canes scattered about. This section we will probably leave as-is, with no seeding, and see how it recovers.
The majority of the land down here was unused last year. There are still some nice flat pasture lands. There are also a few acres of scrubby brush that we will use the pigs to clear paths through so we can access the area. There are two streams, babbling now, but that will be mostly dried up in August and September. There are some thickets and patches of old apple trees and pines. There are a couple swampy areas next to groves of hawthorns and crabapples that will be perfect for the herd in the hot months. Pigs hate the heat and don’t have much in the way of natural physical adaptations to deal with it; it’s just hard-wired in them to make wallows and sleep in the shade when it’s hot. For the farmers, it’s worth nothing the wet, shady areas now so we can set it up for the pigs wait out the hot months there. They will be happier, and the more comfortable they are the better they grow. Everybody wins.
Here’s a really great area just down from the barn -- shady, apple trees, cool mud and varied vegetation. I want to use this area for the breeder pigs in the hot months. Pregnant sows are even more susceptible to the heat than other pigs; if it gets much over 80 degrees they can miscarry or have a high number of stillborn piglets. This area will be cooler than the main breeder pasture, which is mostly sunny, and it is close enough to the barn to be able to move sows to and from the barn as they give birth and wean piglets. Knowing that the breeders will be there means I can plant in some sections of higher protein crops for pregnant mums to nibble on.
For now, though, the only grass the animals are getting is last year’s. They like it well enough, although the warming sun is making them long for fresh ground. Not yet, though -- we will need to hold them off the pasture until probably the second week of May. It’s been colder than a usual spring, and while we would normally aim to have the animals out by May 1st, this year it’s going to take longer for the grasses and forage to get established. Hopefully, the pigs will be patient.
Despite not selling eggs from our farm (the eggs we sell are from Autumn's Harvest, our beef and eggs partner), we do have a small flock of egg birds wandering around. They are extremely useful farmhands; they scratch through and turn the compost pile, control insect populations, maintain the garden in the off-season and eat the bits of corn and edible detritus that would otherwise collect and attract rats. They are nearly free to maintain -- we buy an $8 sack of feed for them about every other month -- and the eggs they provide are extremely high quality since they have endless forage. Between their excellent eggs and their odd and funny personalities, they are a treat to have around.
We have seen our fair share of roosters come and go here on the hill, as is their rooster way. We started with five of various breeds and sizes, which were whittled down to one over the course of a winter. Bernie the Roosterslayer, later called Bernie Farmersdread, was killed by a sow a year later, likely for getting aggressive one too many times with her (I used to have to carry a broom with me every time I ventured into the barnyard to beat him off; visitors were warned of his wrath, but such warnings often only elicited amusement rather than the intended watchfulness. Without fail such visitors would dare to turn their back on Farmersdread and we would see them, red-faced and terrified, sprinting across the barnyard like their life depended on it -- which it did). Bernard II Son of Bernie was killed by a coop intruder in the night, protecting his hens. The likely culprit, a possum, was later shot on charges of killing and maiming upwards of a dozen meat chickens.
At the death of Bernard II, I was content to let the hens run the barnyard themselves for awhile. After all, I thought, the roosters did seem to torment them a bit, herding them here and there, squawking and charging at them when they got out of line, and claiming their rooster-right whenever a poor hen looked appealing. And there was the crowing, that started at 4AM...let the ladies do their own thing, I decided, and prepared to sleep through the night peacefully.
Nick and I, feminists, assumed that the hens could indeed handle themselves. Alas, it was not to be. Without a rooster to keep them in line, the hens scattered all over the barnyard and the fields, in groups of two or three or even alone. They did not seek cover when a hawk flew overhead. They did not head to the coop when the shadows grew long. I watched them from my bedroom window and sighed. It turned out that the paranoid bossiness of a rooster was necessary after all.
We got twonew roos, actually, more sons of Bernie that we had outsourced to a relative as chicks (he had ended up with 3 hens and 5 roosters --way too many -- so we took two back). One was golden-topped and regal, with deep green tail feathers that trail on ground and sharp orange eyes: Bernard III the Golden. The other was white-topped and...well, goofy. His noises as he skitters around the barn resemble nothing so much as the "wakka wakka wakka" of fozzy the muppet, so he is called Fozzy the White.
After knowing and fearing Bernie I so long, and how hot the blood ran in his veins, I was sure that these two roosters would kill each other within a fortnight. But they have persisted as co-rulers, through the easy days of summer and into the dark days, when they lived together in the coop and then, after the Great Storm of December, in the barn rafters where they still live in exile with their hens.
They lead the hens on their rounds throughout the day, first to the grain wagon to pick for bits of corn, then ambling around the barn in small groups to give the early morning layers time to settle into one of their known or as yet unfound nests to lay their gifts, then out to the distant compost pile, then to the drier pile near the sheep and rabbits, then back into the barn to pick up the grains spilled from morning chores, then to take dust baths under the barn, and so on. The Golden and the White often lead separate groups about, coming together for the most exciting events (the compost piles, usually), one of them keeping watch while the other scratches and searches.
There is also Kirby, the third rooster. A fat white cornish cross, he is a meat bird leftover from the summer. He escaped on the last slaughter day and disappeared into the barn for a couple days, finally to be found sitting on a pile of feedbags. He was mercilessly picked on by the hens, and they still will not let him take a rooster-right with them, but he does now wander with the group when they are in the barn. He looks like a giant battleship compared to the egg-birds' slender frames. The Golden and the White ignore him. Sometimes I imagine that he is laying plans, and someday we'll find the beautiful roos gone under mysterious circumstances, and Kirby will be solemnly leading his harem about.