TFWF#41: Part 3 – Money

I started Woody’s Free Range Farm with animal husbandry and welfare as my number one concern but after 18 months the reality of farming, just like any industry, is that money comes a very close second. Just like any startup business, we are very reliant on much bigger businesses who will only give us a fair go if we have a good cashflow position and pay our bills regularly, companies like abattoirs, butchers, feed mills and courrier companies.

For every person that dreams of giving up the corporate world and starting a small farm (or even worse a pig farm) there will be many more who tried it and failed when they realised it was eating away at savings and, rather than providing an outdoor lifestyle, it actually tied them to the farm every single day of the year.

Choosing farming as a new career is not an easy path to take and I believe that the key to making it work for me has been a mixture of stubbornness, competitiveness and being a control freak. However all of those ‘admirable’ qualities aside the main reason the farm is still going and the business improving is because of the savings that I had before we started the farm.

Farming is expensive. Aside from the cash flow issues of feeding animals for eight months before being able to take any produce to market there are also the capital costs of simply running a farm. We are lucky enough to have eighty acres of land but with it comes an obligation to look after the land, and with that comes costs. We have to pay the mortgage, rates, earthworks, farm structures, vehicles and water reticulation. All these expenses need to be paid and with only, at this stage, six pigs to sell a month we simply can’t rely on just that income alone.

Our largest ongoing cost is animal feed. In order to ensure the consistent quality of our meat we buy in a special feed formula for our grower pigs and another specific feed for the breeding herd. We do supplement this with used brewers grain which we collect for free from The Garage Project in Wellington but this is just a ‘filler feed’ and does not replace the professionally designed feed formula that the pigs get fed. Each and every day our pigs get fed at least 1kg of feed per animal per meal, and have two meals a day. On average a kilo of feed costs $0.83 per kg, this soon adds up depending on the number of pigs on the farm. At the moment we have 57 growers, 20 sows and 3 boars all eating 2kg of feed per day – thats a total of 160kg of feed or $132.80 per day.

On the other side of the coin our income has, up till now, almost exclusively come from the sale of meat at farmers markets and through restaurants and cafe’s. We are small and can’t meet demand but since the beginning of this year we have taken 32 pigs to the abattoir and sold 2403 packets of meat, this equates to 1239kg of pork including 5425 sausages and 233kg of bacon and ham. We have been lucky in that we have had no problems selling our products but our sales methods are also very time consuming and mean that I get to spend less time on the farm when I need to be at the markets or collecting the meat from the butchers.

Our prices are closely matched to retail prices. We are obviously more expensive that intensively reared meat but I have always tried to keep the prices at a level that most people can afford, if only for a special event. Our bacon is often cheaper that the Free Farmed versions for sale in the supermarket and always cheaper than the products available in high end stores such as Moore Wilson and Commonsence Organics, this is because we are the producer and there are no middle men or retail margins to be paid. Our goal is to be able to supply you with excellent meat products are reasonable prices, and by making a purchase you are 100% supporting us the growers.

Despite all this the reality is that we are currently not growing enough pigs to make enough money to run the business in the black. We simply need to breed more pigs and with this will bring the economies of scale that will make the farm a viable business. I write this blog not to complain or to plead poverty but rather to ensure that anyone with an interest in a similar lifestyle understands that it will take time and during that time you will need savings, a great deal of will power and probably most important…a very supportive partner.

TFWF#41: Part 2 – Sex

In the second part of this farm update I focus on sex. Not the type of sex that gets the heart beating and the mind racing but the type of sex that makes the running of a farm completely dependant upon spreadsheets and calendars.

I have mentioned the maths before but to reiterate a pig comes into heat every 21 days. Once pregnant the gestation is 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days. After the farrowing occurs the piglets spend 8 weeks with their mother, suckling from her milk and eventually some creep feeding of the grains that the sows eat. Finally, after the 8 weeks, they are collected up and transferred to the grower paddocks where they will live for another five to six months.

Well thats the theory, what about the practice, and more specifically how do we get them pregnant and how do we know they are pregnant. Here on the farm we use natural methods for getting the sows pregnant, better known as Hugh and Gordon. On larger farms they prefer to use artificial insemination as this ensure the sows don’t get hurt by the boar and they can be more certain of the date of impregnation, however we have the space and the time to focus on natural breeding. The sows are put to the boar for a period of 25 days, this ensures the sows will be on heat at least once and normally twice. After this we cycle the sows and move them out to be replaced by the next lot. Sometimes we don’t have another sow to put in with the boars so to ensure the boars don’t get lonely the sows are left in the paddocks for a longer time.

Gordon and his girls

Gordon (at the back getting a scratch) with his girls.

Despite giving the sows at least 25 days with the boars it is still important to be able to tell when the pig comes on heat. There are normally physical signs to help to identify this and most pig farmers will also tell you that if you push the sow from behind and she refuses to move then she is very likely to be on heat. The problem with both of these methods is that they are open to interpretation and can sometimes be unreliable. Unfortunately the cost of an ultrasound machine is simply too much for us to buy so we have to use the old methods of checking for signs of heat and being patient. In most cases I have been lucky and the pigs have all been pregnant first time but as we get busier its more difficult to leave the sows with the boars for longer and not all sows come on heat in the same way, making it difficult to know if they are pregnant or not.

Recently we have had a few failed attempts and this can have a real effect on business plans because we are suddenly ten pigs down on expectations. The first sow to let us down was Martha. Martha is a very Large Black who came as a package deal with two registered rare breed Berkshires, unfortunately, after living with a boar for months, she simply did not come on heat and could not get pregnant. I had two options but given the complications of slaughtering a 250kg sow, the abattoir will not take pigs over 80kg and I cannot sell the meat if we home kill her, she has escaped culling and has become our companion sow who will keep any lonely boar company whilst they are not in service.

Martha, the Large Black  companion pig.

Martha, the Large Black companion pig.

The second sow to fail to get pregnant was more of a surprise to me, she is a registered Berkshire and had originally arrived on the farm already in litter, she was a good mum with 11 piglets but second time around she failed to come on heat and I suspect it was because of a hip/leg injury making her unsuitable for mating. Jennifer is a typical example of an untypical pig. she is difficult to tell when on heat, there are very little outward signs and she is so stubborn she will refuse, when pushed, to move if on heat or not. I waited with in trepidation and baited breath as the 15th May approached and passed, it was obvious that she was not pregnant but being a big pig I still had some hope that she was simply not showing. However its now 20 days after her litter was due and whilst she has proven to be a great companion to Ruth, who had a litter at the beginning of May, she will soon be put back to the boar and I will be watching very closely this time. Its a sad fact of life on the farm that all the animals on the farm need to provide a return, we simply cannot afford to become a rescue home to old animals which continue to cost us $2 per day in feed. Let us all keep our fingers crossed that Jennifer delivers us a litter soon.

After 18 months on the farm I have learnt a lot about pigs but I still need to become better at recognising the pigs heat cycles, planning the mating and ensuring the pigs are pregnant after being moved out from the boars. Its all part of the learning experience and I have quickly learnt, to my detriment, that planning the breeding is the most important part of the business because when I get it wrong it results in a shortage of stock to sell eight months down the line. This is actually the biggest difference between my old career in Consumer Electronics and my new career as a farmer, whereas I used to be able to quickly increase supply by buying more products I now have to plan eights months in advance to meet my customers demands, and if I get it wrong we have nothing to sell.

TFWF#39: a look back at 2014

We dont always have the time to look back at our lives, and even if we do have the time we often don’t have the inclination. However as its the end of our first year farming I thought I should look back and see what, if anything, I have achieved.

Of course its easy to say that in a year when achievements have been coming from every direction, a new country, a career change, a marriage, a baby and so on (not all of that happened in 2014 but most of it did). The problem is that it has been a frantic whirlwind of events and activity and I am running the risk of not appreciating the memories and learnings.

Its been just over a year since we moved to the farm and after a short time as bare land owners we received our first livestock on the 11th December 2014. The nine piglets from Wanganui did us well and got us through the first few farmers markets and indeed one lucky Sow (now named Ruth, after Ruth Pretty the chef) became the first pig to be mated and have a litter on the farm.

Me inspecting the herd on day one.

Me inspecting the herd on day one.

When I look back at the pictures of me surrounded by those motley coloured pigs, pink buckets in hand and a small pile of feed bags I am amazed by the growth that has happened. If we just look at the numbers on the 11th December 2013 we had a total of nine piglets on the farm, as of today, 11th January 2015, we now have a herd consisting of:

  • 3 Boars
  • 8 Sows
  • 7 Gilts (young sows)
  • 40 Growers
  • 34 Piglets

The infrastructure in December 2014 was basically two large fields with perimeter fencing only and one small transit paddock. A year on and we have 18 four line electric fenced paddocks with detailed maps of the farm in order to ensure the pigs are tracked and accounted for, the water pipes are easy to find and the electric fence on/off switches are everywhere. Not only has it been a great deal of hard work and time it has also cost a great deal of money, the steel fence posts are $7 each and I would estimate we have used at least 200 posts alone, not to mention the gates, the gate posts, the wire (thousands of meters), the insulators and the tools required to do all this work.

The breeding herd paddock after 1 year of farming

A panoramic photo of the breeding herd paddock after 1 year of farming. At roughly 12 acres the herd have about 1 acre per paddock and normally house two Sows per paddock

After a few months of breeding herd preparations and feeding the ‘bought in’ growers we were greeted by a barrage of piglets in May, starting with Paula on the 1st May, then Marigold, then Jennifer and finally Clarissa squeezing into the month on the 31st May. The following month the month important of our litters was born, our first son, Fred. The numbers on the farm were building quickly.

That same month was our first time at the Farmers Markets. My fear of meeting customers and selling on the street was eclipsed by my fear of driving, parking and reversing with a chiller trailer attached. I had never towed a trailer before and had never been to either of the markets to scope out the trailer driving skills needed. It seems like such a funny thing to have been worried so about now that I look back, but at the time it kept me awake at night.

Our first market day. Both Claire and I manning the stand

Our first market day. Both Claire and I manning the stand

The markets went well. I enjoyed them on that first day and I still enjoy them just as much after neary a year. I like meeting the people that eat and enjoy our meat and I also like to be able to talk about our farm and why we do what we do. The markets were also our greatest marketing venues, we met restaurant owners, chefs, foodies, blog writers and eventually in the middle of the year a producer from the iconic TVNZ Country Calendar.

As the year went on I scoured the country looking for breeding stock. We had pigs arrive on the farm from Gore, Masterton, Featherston, Feilding, Levin and the Hawkes Bay. By the time the Country Calendar cameras arrived we had become a fully fledged (but still small scale) pig farm. The show explored our reasons for the farm, our plans for the future and ourselves. It was a most enjoyable experience.

Feeding pigs brewers grain whilst standing on the back of a ute with a camera crew.

Feeding pigs brewers grain whilst standing on the back of a ute with a camera crew, just another day…

As the year came to a close the focus switched entirely to the production and supply of the Christmas hams. With such a large amount of produce being sold in one month it very quickly became apparent that the Christmas hams are actually the make or break of a pig farmer and no mistakes could be made. Not wanting to let anyone down we launched the sale of hams on our website, pay a deposit and secure your ham. Within just two days 80% of our hams were sold. What followed was a frantic plethora of spreadsheets with names and collection points, final prices and preferences for sizes. It was our first year and we had a lot to organise and learn. We bought boxes, labels, sticker and bags and I spent a great deal of time trying to get it 100%. Of course I didn’t manage to achieve 100% satisfaction but we were pretty close and we learnt from our mistakes, bring on next year.

Twenty Fourteen was a year of arrivals, markets, deaths, piglets, births, trips to the abattoir, fencing, water reticulation, weddings, family, Woody catching his first rat, Fred eating his first meal, damaging cars, fixing cars, floods, cameras, building houses, meeting customers and much, much more.

I wonder what Twenty Fifteen will bring?

TFWF#38: shooting on the farm and Christmas (ham) is coming

Another month or so has passed and once again, it’s been a busy one. Ruth’s piglets, the newly titled Berkshire Blacks, have now been weaned and they are in their new home on the other side of the farm in the grower paddock. At just over eight weeks old they are already showing signs of great muscle (meat) structure and are proving to be very fast growing. They are also the first of the growers to be fed from birth on the high protein new grain diet (in addition to their mothers milk).

The weaning was pretty straight forward as I use a crate to feed them in for a few days before weaning and once they are all comfortable in there I close the door and lift them from the crate to my trailer for transportation across the river to the new paddock and home. Ruth seemed initially quite please to see them go and was happy to engorge herself on the piglet food left behind.

Meanwhile in the grower paddock the purebred Berkshires have, at last, reached weight and yesterday I took the last four to the works. These pigs took a month longer than we expected to get to weight, they should take six months but the winter extended this to seven. Apart from the added feed cost that this incurs it also means that the meat can be a little fattier as the animals build fat to stay warm. This is the primary reason why most pig farms are indoors in order to regulate the temperature and climate, of course the problem with this is that the animals do not get to forage (which makes the meat far higher in nutrients), build good muscle structure and most importantly they don’t get to live naturally, as a pig should.

Now that all the Berkshires have been taken to the abattoir our butcher has been busy making our usual bacon, sausages and cuts but he has also begun the process of curing, cooking and smoking the Xmas hams. This year we had a very limited stock of hams so it is most definitely a first come, first served process. To ensure that we didn’t double up and that everyone had a fair chance to place an order we set up our online shop so that customers could place a deposit on a ham and pick a time and place to collect. I sent my first email to those that had asked about the Xmas hams at the markets and followed it up with a more general newsletter. The response has been excellent and as I write this we only have a few left online, click on this LINK if you want to see if we have any available and if we are sold out please sign up to our newsletter in order to get a pre-notice next year, you can do that by clicking HERE

While 8 week olds were being weaned and 7 month olds were taking a trip to the works our cutest Berkshire, Delia, who came from Gore many months ago on the livestock road-train, was nearing her first litter. On the 25th November Delia went into labour and with a short dinner break in between farrowing she managed to give birth to a very healthy litter of six piglets. Whilst we always hope for ten piglets per litter it was her first farrowing and six healthy piglets is a great result. Pigs will often lose a piglet or two during the process (it is estimated to be about 10% of the litter will not make it) and Gilts (first time mothers) are more likely than Sows to have problems so for Delia to have managed so well without any help or intervention is a great sign that she will have a life on the farm as part of the breeding herd for many years to come.

Our big news over the last two months is even more exciting that our growing herd of cute little piglets. A number of months ago I was approached at the Hill St Farmers Market by a tall stranger who was purporting to be a producer from the TVNZ show Country Calendar and that he would like to do a show on our farm. Naturally I was suspicious and being so new to farming I was convinced that we didn’t have enough to talk about or that I would end up looking like the novice that I am.

A few months passed and whilst Claire and I hoped the show might happen we kept a healthy scepticism as to whether or not it would truly eventuate. Suddenly I received an email and before we knew it dates had been planned, forms had been signed and we received an outline of what the show would include.

On the 21st September a film crew of three turned up at the farm and a completely new experience was thrust upon us. What was very interesting to me was the way life on camera is no longer linear, things do not happen in true time order and answers are given before questions are asked. In order to make the most of each location on the farm (or off the farm, more of that to come) we would film sections which would later be placed in chronological order. We also had to film the answers from different points of view and camera angles so I found myself trying to repeat what I had just said having completely forgot what it was in the first place. All the time we continued with our lives as best we could. Claire has a business to run, I have pigs to feed and Fred simply wants to eat, sleep and make loud noises.

The filming was surprisingly tiring but a lot of fun, the crew were very professional, courteous and really helped to put us at ease. The programme is not just about pig farming the free range way, it is also about how we came from the city, started the farm, started a new life and the trials and tribulations along the way. I am hoping that it doesn’t make me look too inexperienced. After a few days on the farm we headed into Wellington to complete the story with some cameo’s from the people we work with and who have helped us along the way.  Our first stop was at The Garage Project, I have mentioned these guys before because they supply us with spent barley from the brewing process to give to the pigs. This was my first experience of being filmed in public and the embarrassment factor was high, we filmed the drive in, the drive out and the bit in between. Following this was a trip to Big Bad Wolf who are making some new products for us including pork scratchings and Pancetta. Gabriel proved to be a natural on the camera and we breezed through the same conversation about the process of making Pancetta from four different angles, Adam the chef also proving to be excellent at walking, four or five times, from the kitchen to the table with a plate of Pancetta.

After the excitement had died down and the crew had left the farm I had just enough time to relax and catch a terrible case of tonsillitis. Its only when you get ill that you realise how hands on my chosen career is. As a farmer I can’t just stay in bed because i’m sick, the animals still need food and water. After a few days of shivering with fever as I wandered around the farm with buckets of feed I sent a desperate message to Reuben…”can you please feed the pigs..,’ as always he was quick to help and I spent the next four days in bed whilst he kept the livestock happy.

The sickness came and went, much like the film crew. On the 13th November at 6:30am they were back and this time we were travelling together up to Wanganui and the abattoir. Taking pigs to the abattoir is never a nice experience, the stress of loading them, the journey and the arrival at the place with all the animal noises. I made it clear to the team that we would not be taking hours of footage of the pigs being loaded and offloaded, the trip was to be as stress free as possible for the pigs. Arriving at the abattoir we had to wait for two big trucks of steroid filled pigs and fear filled sheep to be offloaded and then we backed up the trailer and gently coaxed our five off the trailer and into the abattoir. Its was a simple process and painless to all involved. The crew fully understood the emotion of the moment and we respectfully said goodbye to those five Berkshires.

Having taken the crew to meet Shane our butcher at Otaki Meats and watch him skillfully tie sausages like a long forgotten skill, the only filming left to do was at the markets, and the date and venue were set for 22nd November at Hill Street Market in Wellington. Customers had been warned about the presence of the crew and a fair few turned up late in the day hoping not to be caught on camera. However a fair few also got their fifteen minutes of fame as the camera and sound boom floated above our heads on what was an extremely wet and windy day.

I will end this exciting chapter with a big thankyou to everyone that appeared, willingly or not, in the filming of our episode of Country Calendar. Afterall, it is because of all of you that I can do what I do. Thank you so much and I hope that you enjoy the programme when it airs in March/April next year (2015)