When Free Range become free reign

Its been busy on the farm with setting up the breeding paddock, houses, water and electric fencing. Just a few days ago I managed to finalise the gravity fed water pipes to the main paddock and we are ready for breeding stock to arrive. And here is where the problem lies.

Buying pigs is not difficult, TradeMe (the ebay of New Zealand) has hundreds of them available, but to get the right breeds and bloodlines is very difficult. So I was very pleased last week to see an advert for a purebred Berkshire Sow in pig to a purebred Berkshire Boar for just $350, I made the call immediately and a little over a week later I had borrowed a trailer off Kapiti Free Range, enlisted Reuben and set off on the 3 hour journey to the Hawkes Bay to pick up the start of my breeding herd. The advert stated the pig was between 12 and 18 months old (they had some cross breeds for sale at the same time) and a little research showed the sellers were registered with the Pig Breeders NZ association, I was excited and eager to get her in the back of the trailer.

Unfortunately the reality of pig farming is not always the free range dream that we see in pictures, on packaging and even on the websites of reputable companies. Upon arrival at the host farm we were confronted by a yard of dogs, farm equipment and the stench of poor animal husbandry but no farmer. After a few calls and emails I eventually got a call to say that he was off site but could come back in a few minutes. Having spent half an hour on site Reuben and I had made a few observations which were not making me want to buy any pigs:

– The Berkshire sow was laying in a makeshift hut and looked older than her 3 years old than the owner had now decided to tell me she was. She was undernourished, had no water was being kept in a very dirty enclosure and was having to share the space with an ill boar.

– The images on the Trade me advert were clearly of the batch of pigs in the second paddock (who were closer to the 1 year mark), these pigs however had no water, were very dirty and a Berkshire Sow was bleeding from an incorrectly fitted nose ring.

– There was a very ill looking boar laying on the floor with an open wound on its back legs and a displaced hip, the wound had been open long enough for maggots to form. In addition to this the boar was malnourished and its skeletal structure clearly visible.

I quickly told the man on the phone that I was not interested and that we would leave the farm, he said nothing and I hung up. We left almost immediately, right after I took a few photos (the worst of which I have not included in this post).

The pictures above show the farm we visited on the left and my farm on the right, my pigs have about two acres to wander, lots of grass and water, his have about 10 square meters of space, no water and did not look happy. So there is most definitely a difference between true free range and many peoples understanding of what free range is. I would ask that you don’t just buy meat based on marketing, you buy it based on evidence. Ask for pictures, ask for a farm tour and always insist on happy pigs.

I want to leave you with a little video that I like and thought I would share it with you. Progress comes at a cost and sometimes you need to go back to the start if you value the true cost of your food:

Death on the farm (warning graphic images)

At the end of last week we had some horrendous weather and the rain coming off the hills behind the house flooded the river so that the level rose by over a meter and this in turn stopped me from driving across the river ford. Being new to this piece of land I was watching with interest to see if the water was going to reach the paddocks where the pigs live. Luckily the river stayed a good 50cm below the river bank and disaster was averted. I do have an emergency flood plan in mind and would be able to get the pigs to higher ground but just the thought of moving the pigs back and forward are enough to make me sweat.

On Monday morning after the river had subsided I decided to cross over the river and build a waterproof house for the three goats that we inherited. They live wild in the 12 acre paddock at the top of the hill and, apart from a bit of foot rot, they seem very healthy and happy. I have been planning to move them over to the house side of the river so they can help me get rid of some of the weeds in the river flat but, without a trailer, it was looking like an impossible job. I digress. I built a house out of seven pallets and some old carpet type material just in time for the rain to come back again on Monday night. The rain subsided again and on Wednesday morning I headed over the river in Landy, I drove up the hill to the paddock and was pleased to see the goats around the new goat house. As I got closer it was apparent that one of the goats, generally the most skittish one, was not running away or moving at all. I pulled aside the carpet door and sadly found him motionless and recently dead. With no signs of illness or injury I am not sure of what killed him but the simple fact of the matter was that one of our animals had passed away.

Not something I wanted to deal with on the farm at such an early stage.

Not something I wanted to deal with on the farm at such an early stage.

Not knowing if the death was suspicious or not I called the Vet for advice, the receptionist told me that I should cover him up and the vet will call me back. Given that he was on the other side of the river and at some stage had to be moved anyway Claire and I decided to get him onto the Landy and cover him there till the vet gave us advice. Firstly, this is not a small goat, probably around 70kg, and the back of the Landy is a good meter off the floor so it took the two of us (Claire seemingly trying to imaging the goat was just a sack of harmless potatoes) to get him into the back of the truck. Having accomplished the deed with as much dignity as possible we headed back to wait for the call from the vet. When the call came it was just to tell us that it didn’t look concerning and the only thing left to do was to bury him. Damn, I knew I should have bought a tractor.

Two hours later I was standing by the Landy at the very back of the property having just dug a big hole out of clay soil and singlehandedly moved the goat from the truck into the grave. His last resting place.

It might seem odd to write a blog, one so graphic, about the loss of an animal but this was another seminal moment for me as I become a farmer. I have never had to deal with death like this before and needed to know I could, I also needed to know that I could do it with dignity and afford ANY animal the life and death that they deserved.

Rest in Peace white goat, your friends will miss you.

Rest in Peace white goat, your friends will miss you.

Our white goat is now at rest and for company he will have the sound of the stream and the beautiful Kiwi bush for his view:

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The inmates of Gul’egg’ A

Whilst the search for more breeding sows and boars continues I got to work on the chicken housing. Following my chosen path of recycle and reuse I found a design for a chicken house in the ‘Build it with pallets’ book and got to work. Unusually for me I have decided not to bore you with the details and images of the chicken house build but just skip straight to the good bits – the pictures.

A chicken home fit for a king.

A chicken home fit for a king.

Here are some more images for you to marvel at the new chicken house.

As you can see the chicken house is marked with a big A on the roof, this allows me to keep track of the number of chickens in each house (this is just the first of many) and how many eggs we get each day. In true soviet fashion I have named this house Gul’egg’ A and plan to have a whole camp of Gul’egg’s in the paddock just in time to sell eggs, along with bacon, at the farmer market in March. I estimate that each house could handle between 8 and 10 chickens but in the spirit of the farm philosophy I have decided to only house 6 chickens per Gul’egg’.

Having completed the house I manhandled it onto the back of the Landy and moved it into River Paddock 1 (which is about 1.5acres) , added some straw, a perch and set up the nesting boxes with some cosy sawdust. The next day Claire and I headed out on the search for chickens and having received a tip off we headed for the Big Egg Company on Roslyn Road in Levin, armed with Woody’s travelling crate that I doubt he will ever use again. At $15 each we very quickly became the proud owners of 6 ex “free farmed” chickens and set off back home to get them laying.

Arriving at their new home Claire and I lifted the chickens out of the crate and into the house, added their sparkling new water container and feeder and closed the lid for the night. I am told that you should lock the chickens in on their first night so they get used to what is now home, we did this and went to bed. The next morning Claire was up early and excited to get to the chickens and see if they had laid. We headed down to Gul’egg’ alley and slowly raised the lid…no eggs. Not an issue we were just as excited to open the door and let the hens have their first taste of REAL FREE RANGE.

Opening the door to the chicken house provided the chickens with their first opportunity to run free, escape their shackles and make a break for it. However the chicken were institutionalised and simply stared at the open door with a great deal of suspicion. Claire and I retreated a safe distance and watched….a minute later the first plucky sole decided to take a look outside, closely followed by another, they were happy at last.

A few hours went past and the chickens came and went at their leisure, I decided to have another look in the hen house and look what I found:

They are not golden, but they might as well be.

They are not golden, but they might as well be.

So Woody’s Farm has its first produce for sale, true free range eggs soon to be for sale. Or, why not just come and meet the chickens.

Come and meet the chickens.

Come and meet the chickens.

Woody’s Farm names 2013 ‘heroes’ of the year.

Work on the farm has been slow over the Xmas break. Other than feeding the pigs, a little bit of fencing and building a chicken coop out of pallets I have been mostly enjoying the seasonal delights (in both solid and liquid form). So with time to reflect on the last few months I thought it would be a good opportunity to start thanking those who have helped me so far in my journey.

The person I need to thank the most is Claire, who has believed in me and my mad project from the day we met, she listens to my boring stories about fencing and supports me when I panic about the money I’m spending. I also want to thank the friends and family who don’t constantly remind me how crazy I am and repeatedly LIKE the photos and stories I post on here and Facebook. And finally Woody’s Farm will never achieve my goals without the strangers that have shown support by a verbal pat on the back, a gift, a loan or by simply reading this blog.

With this in mind I have started a new page on my blog called Woody’s Heroes. As time goes on I will be thanking all the people, or businesses, that have been helpful to me in one way or another. Without the help of these people the whole Woody’s Farm project would not happen, not just because of the physical help they have given me but also because when I started Woody’s Farm I wanted to reconnect with a community and to meet new people. Woody’s Heroes is about letting those people know that their actions are the reason why I changed my life and started Woody’s Farm.

You will find the page here