TFWF#41: Part 1 – Death

As the farm, and the business, gets busier I have realised that my farm updates are getting further and further apart. This means I have a lot more to say in each update and therefore I have cut out the basic humdrum of everyday life on the farm to focus on the really important matters. This post is in three parts and each details the three most important issues on the farm, the issues of death, sex and money.

As I have mentioned in previous posts death is a big part of farming. A part that I thought I had prepared myself for but it never ceases to amaze me how it still affects me. Luckily our breeding stock and grower pigs have been healthy and we have never lost a single pig after weaning. Its a different story at birth and a pig will almost always have at least one death per litter, the stats are on average 10%. Depending on the pig, some have no deaths and some tend to have more than their fare share, this could be due to still births, too many in a litter or the mother accidentally sitting on the piglets in the farrowing hut.

At times we have periods of frequent farrowing and at the start of this year we had four litters in a row, when this happens you also have the chance of more piglet deaths. Two of the pigs had no deaths, resulting in litters of 13 and 9 respectively. The other two were less lucky and they have a history of losing a few piglets per litter. One pig decided to farrow outside by the fence line rather than in a hut, this resulted in her nest being less suitable for the piglets and she squashed two of them, she actually had less space for the piglets to get away than if she had farrowed in the hut. As soon as I found the piglets at the far end of the field I began the process of moving them (two at a time) into the farrowing hut, the mother followed later and luckily we lost no more from that litter. Collecting the dead piglets it is not a nice job and made worse by the work required to dig holes in which to lay them to rest. I have always insisted on treating them respectfully and when the weather allows I normally dig a hole on a hill overlooking the breeding paddock, from there they are able to look down on the rest of the herd, forever a part of the farm.

Of course the most regular cause of death that I have to deal with is when I take the grower pigs to the abattoir for slaughter. Its a part of the job that I don’t often talk openly about because many people don’t like to think about this part of the lifecycle, or find it too upsetting. However I feel that if you eat meat you should know the process involved and therefore I insist on taking the pigs to the abattoir myself.

Its not a pleasant journey, knowing the final destination, but it is made as stressless as possible for the pigs by starting early in the day and getting them on the trailer straight after a good nights sleep. For a few days before the journey the pigs have been relocated into the transit paddock and are trained to eat on the trailer, come the day of the journey they greet me from the trailer, waiting to get fed, snorting with happiness. Without any hassles or stress I slide the door closed, hitch up the trailer to the car and head out on the road.

IMG_3372

Three Large Black pigs getting ready for their journey to the abattoir. Two of them still unaware they are even on a trailer.

 

They have plenty of straw for the journey and after a few mins they settle down for the journey. We never travel if the weather is too bad and I don’t stop on the way, preferring to get to the abattoir as quick as possible. It takes about one and a half hours to get the the abattoir, its a journey that would not be necessary if we were allowed to kill on the farm but under MPI rules the pigs must be slaughtered at a registered works and in the lower north island our closest is in Wanganui.

On arrival at the abattoir the pigs happily alight the trailer, happy to be back on solid ground. I walk them down into a metal holding pen where they are able to drink and are kept cool by a fine water mist (when its hot). On the days that we drop off there are normally a few pens of intensively grown white pigs close by, these pigs are happy to see the light of day and are making happy snorting noises. Within a few hours they have all been stunned and killed. The death is efficient, quick and as humane as possible.

Despite the fact that I know the process is designed to limit any stress and fear I never forget to spend a few minutes on the drive home to think about the pigs, its my way of saying goodbye and to remind myself that they had a good life.

Week 27: the markets, an interview, Fred and Landy

Its been another long break in between blogs and the only excuse I have is that by the time I get into the house, fed and watered and ready to relax I find myself too tired to turn on the computer and start to recount all the things that I have or, worse still, have not done.

So, in an effort to keep this up to date I thought I would change the format from category based to a weekly diary of events, thoughts and bruises (I seem to hurt myself in some form or another every week.) The problem with making this a weekly diary is that, invariably, I will never do it weekly and when I do it is likely to be either really short or full of stuff that is not worth reading.

With that in mind the last week was a bit of a ‘scorcher’ with lots happening on and around the farm. I would like to start with a little bit of personal news off the farm which simply cannot be left out of this blog. On the 18th June (at 3 in the morning) my wonderful wife Claire gave birth to our first son, Frederick (Fred). Fred joined the farm a few days later, after being released from the hospital, and ever since has ensured that every morning I am more and more tired. What Fred doesn’t realise at this stage is that Daddy has a very long memory and the more he keeps me awake the more he will have to get up at 6am and feed the pigs when he grows up, true child labour. So with the arrival of Fred and with Claire being in hospital for a few days I also became a house husband, desperately trying to keep the house looking smart whilst feeding, watering and fencing the pigs.

An angel in sheeps blankets

An angel in sheeps blankets

In order for me to tell you about this week I have to start the week before! With Claire still in the hospital I was desperate to stay with her but pigs wait for no man and even more so neither does meat. I had delivered two pigs to the abattoir on Sunday the 15th and with Fred arriving early Wednesday morning I was in a rush to collect the cuts from the butcher on Thursday in order to get it labeled and ready for Feilding Farmers Market on the Friday. Now, I know what you are thinking, surely I should have been with my wife (by now recuperating at home) but meat doesn’t know that and if I didn’t make it too the market I would have to freeze it all before anyone got the chance to buy it fresh. With labels stuck to every part of me and meat neatly stacked I got ready for the market and at 5:30 Friday morning I fed the pigs and set off to Feilding.

Feilding

A beautiful day at the market

It was a good day at the market, a little breezy but all the regulars turned up along with some new customers. I like talking to my customers and I like the feel of the farmers market, the friendship and camaraderie so it was a pleasant change from the sterile environment of the hospital. As the market finally came to a close I received a call from Claire saying that the midwife wanted her to go back to hospital for a few more days. With a chiller trailer of meat (some frozen) I had no option but to drive straight past Claire, in Palmerston North hospital, and head back to the farm and the fridges and freezers.

After a few trips to and from Palmy hospital Claire and Fred came out again on Monday and so the week began on a high. Amidst the sleepless nights the farm still needed looking after, it is amazing what stops working or becomes an issue if you are off site for just one day, especially when you have 39 piglets intent on piling mud onto the bottom wire of an electric fence. I called up Reuben, who had just got back from collecting a large bin of brewers grain from the Garage Project in Wellington for the pigs, and we set to work on the fencing for the next grower paddock, in order to start weaning the piglets, and another breeding/boar paddock for the return of Jimmy (currently on holiday with a bunch of lady friends). Fencing is physically tough but rewarding and after a day of ramming waratahs by hand we were starting to see the paddocks taking shape.

The big breeding paddock, separated into smaller paddocks with electric fence lines.

The big breeding paddock, separated into smaller paddocks with electric fence lines.

 

The next day it was time to collect a new lot of meat from the butcher and for the first time we had Berkshire meat on the menu. I have always wanted to be able to give customers the choice of breed for their meat and this was my first chance, the problem was it also meant I had to program the labeller with a whole set of new labels (stating the Berkshire heritage breed on the label). Now, I wont be mentioning names but the labeller I have is the same brand as they have in most supermarkets, the only difference is that they have millions of dollars and teams of people to program the machines, I only have me and a frustrated old PC (the software is not available on MAC). Two long hours later I had 8 new labels programmed and started sticking them on the meat.

All our meat states the breed of pig the meat came from. A consumer choice not offered elsewhere.

All our meat states the breed of pig the meat came from. A consumer choice not offered elsewhere.

It was now Thursday again and the labelling was done as the sun started to fall. It was time to complete my inventory of all the meat, bacon, sausages and ham in the fridges and freezers. This has to be done at least once a week and is listed by type, location and date. It is a laborious job but one I quite enjoy as I have always been a bit of a fan of an excel spreadsheet. After this comes the preparation for the next farmers market, the following day, coount the float, prepare the stock, wash the table cloth and pack the car.

Claire and I agreed that the best course of action was for me to sleep in the spare room (actually Fred’s room but he seems to have taken my spot in the bedroom) so that I could get a good nights sleep before the 5:30 start the next day. I was a great idea, in theory. At midnight the door opened, the light streamed in, and a war weary Claire asked me to help stop Fred from crying. Cradling Fred in my arms we went for a walk, around the coffee table, and then again and again and again…he fell asleep and I went back to bed, the silence was golden. At 2:30 another noise woke me, this time it was Woody reminding me that I had forgotten to let him out and if I didn’t open the door right now he would be leaving presents for me on the lounge rug. So much for a quiet night. At 5:30 the feeding, loading, driving and selling cycle started again.

The following day (Saturday 5th) started with my first taste of fame.  A few days before I had received an email from Helen Jackson at Radio Live asking if I would like to do an interview on the radio to discuss our pig farm, especially in light of the horrible scenes on the TVNZ Sunday show of intensive pig farms in New Zealand. I welcomed the chance to talk about the merits of free range farming and at 6:20am I was sitting in my office/shop surrounded by the buzzing of fridges and freezers waiting for the call. The interview was enjoyable and as Helen and I talked about the benefits of free range farming practices I watched as 7am got closer and my deadline for leaving to get to Hill Street Market seemed dangerously at risk. The interview finished and at 7:05 I hit the road.

So I has been quite a busy week but as I sit here at the dining table at 11pm on Sunday night I feel a rewarding one. Fred and Claire finally came home, the markets were enjoyable, some fencing was completed and people started to talk about free range pig farming, you can’t really ask for more in a week. Oh, and by the way the Landrover got fixed in the week and will at last be carting me around the farm, just too late for winter…

 

PHEW!!!

 

Pork and piglets

The last two weeks have been the most exciting, stressful and rewarding weeks of my short farming career. After almost seven months of happy, healthy living in the paddocks it was time to start taking the ‘Wanganui 9’ pigs to the abattoir.
For the week prior to the trip I had started to coax the pigs from their own paddocks up the race and into the transit paddock. My paddocks are arranged so that by leaving the gates open and carefully placing piles of food they will basically do all the hard work for me. After just two days I woke up to find five pigs in the transit area. One of these was a pig that I had earmarked for breeding so she was to be transported separately to the breeding paddocks leaving four pigs to take to the abattoir.
The trip was planned for early Monday morning and to reduce stress on the pigs before the trip we planned to feed the pigs on the trailer Sunday night and let them spend the night there. Reuben came round on the Sunday night and we laid a trail of irresistible Korker Porker, succulent pig feed, up the ramp and into the trailer. The pigs smelt a rat and had no intention of climbing that ramp. A four hour battle ensued and having now enlisted Darren, Reuben’s father from Kapiti Free Range, we used pig boards, pallets, electric fences and physical strength to slowly direct the pigs up the ramp and into the trailer. After four hours we had managed to get just three pigs onto the trailer one by one. The first was easy, the second took about and hour, the third took the full four hours and the fourth beat us completely. We locked up the trailer, covered it for the night and my first trip to the abattoir was set to be just three pigs.
The next morning I was up at 6am to feed the rest of the herd and hook up the trailer, at 7am Reuben and I left the farm for the hour and a half trip to the Abattoir in Wanganui. Most abattoirs don’t take pigs for slaughter, preferring to focus on the greater numbers of cattle and sheep that most farmers bring. Because of this we are not able to use the abattoir ten minutes up the road in Levin but instead we had to search for a suitable abattoir and for us it is either Wanganui or Masterton, given that Wanganui is the shorter journey that was our destination.
Arriving at the abattoir I surprised myself by backing the trailer up to the arrivals lounge in less than twenty attempts and we opened up the back doors, the pigs looked around, looked at me and casually stepped off the trailer and trotted happily down the ramp into the abattoir. I mumbled a little ‘thank you’ to them as they left on the next part of their journey to help make Woody’s Farm commercially viable. It’s never nice to see your animals for the last time but they had an excellent life on the farm and through their food they will be remembered, a far better eulogy than the majority of intensively bred pigs would get. It was back to the farm for Reuben and I.

Two days later the circle of life was completed when Paula Deen went into labour and produced ten healthy and happy little piglets. This was my first experience of pig farrowing and I really didn’t know what to expect. I watched as she got close to farrowing time, her teats filled up with milk in the space of a day and almost hit the ground, she started to arrange the straw in her hut into a nest and her flat mate, Marigold, was clearly told to move into the other hut from now on. A few hours later I headed back to the hut for a checkup and Paula was already surrounded by nine little piglets, shortly after a tenth appeared and the night set in. Being focused on the health and wellbeing of my pigs I don’t use farrowing crates or sow stalls, the pigs give birth in their own huts and make their own nests, the downside of this is that a mother might, by accident, squash one of her babies in the night.

The next morning I gingerly walked up to the pig hut to see Paula and the piglets, there she was resting with ten little piglets gently and enthusiastically sucking on their mothers milk. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Claire and I barely had time to gaze on the piglets and take photo’s before Marigold herself retired to her own pig hut to nest and prepare for her farrowing. It was late in the evening as I watched her lay in her hut, gently grunting. The piglets began to come. After five piglets it was now dark and the rain was not letting up, fearing that I wouldn’t be able to cross the river to get home I left her for the time being with the intention to come back a few hours later. Unfortunately the rain got heavier and the Waikawa stream rose fast and furious, at 8pm I realised that I was not going to be able to cross the river till the morning. Cursing my iniabilty to buy the $150,000 bridge that bridgeitnz.co.nz had quoted me, I went to bed. The next day at 6am I was up like a shot, it was still dark and the river still high but I crossed in the tractor and walked the rest of the way to check on Marigold.

Waiting for me in the pig pen was eight little healthy piglets and one VERY tired mother. I laid some food in front of her and she slowly chewed it down, the piglets squeaking as she moved. As I looked around the hut I noticed a small black shadow and realised that my fears had been met, one little boy had not made it. I reached across and scooped him up in my hands, cold but still perfectly formed. As I mentioned before this is one of the drawbacks of free range farming, but it is also one of the realities of nature, we had lost one but we had gained eight.

In just two weeks we had taken three pigs to market, watched two mothers make nests, greeted 18 happy and healthy piglets and buried one. And to add to all that I ferried Ruth (the one pig I saved from the Wanganui 9) over the river to her new home with Hugh, a little bit of pig matchmaking.

Tomorrow we go to the Farmers Markets, its been a lot of preparation, getting the pork, the labelling machine, the marketing material, the website, the packaging, the aprons, tables, fridges and even an office. Maybe one day I will tell you all about it, but for now lets just all go gooey for this little piglet…….

piglet, pig, farmer

This is a Large Black (Devon) piglet, one of Paula’s little babies.

The Three Amigoats!

3amigoats

Today the farm gained another goat, partially to replace the goat we tragically lost a few weeks ago but also to help out some friends who, like us, had recently lost a goat leaving their remaining goat all alone and lonely.

Emily, a Boer Goat, came from down the road in Peka Peka so her journey was short and sweet. Upon arrival she was keen to get out the pig crate that had been the source of her confinement for 30 mins and meet the others. I had earlier rebuilt their pallet house and the two boys were hanging out at their new pad. The sound of Emily bleating happily after getting out the car had the boys running and within seconds a happy, goat like, nuzzle and head butting session had begun.

The boys first meeting with Emily.

The boys first meeting with Emily.

For the initial meeting I kept Emily on a lead just in case the boys were not yet ready to share their home with a girl and a fight broke out. All went well and it wasn’t long before Emily was carefully placing pink cushions on the floor of the pallet house and complaining about the toilet seat.

The boys watch as Emily rearranges the furniture and lights a scented candle.

The boys watch as Emily rearranges the furniture and lights a scented candle.

Its now been a few days since Emily moved in and the three are getting on like a house on fire. The boys have shown Emily around the 10+ acres that they have access to and every morning we see them wandering up the farm track from the river, meanwhile Emily has been a calming influence on the boys and they now seem more eager for scratches and petting.

I am sure I know what you are thinking whilst reading this and the reality is that we are not sure of the ages of any of our goats so the possibility of baby goats in the not to0 distant future is a complete unknown. I for one have always wanted to farm goats so maybe, one day, the offspring of Emily and Charlie (or Michael) will be gracing the pages of this blog.

Hugh’s your daddy! – a new arrival.

Last Thursday we had a new arrival on the farm. Having been very disappointed and saddened by my trip to the Hawkes Bay the previous week I managed to source a registered Berkshire Boar just down the road in Levin. This boar is registered in the New Zealand Pig Breeders Association herd book and his official name is Ohau Count the 2nd (Ohau is the stud he came from and Count is the bloodline). Born on the 13th March 2013 he is not yet one year old but easily takes the crown of the oldest pig on the farm and given that he is part of my breeding herd he will be staying for a long time, probably up to 9 years. So, without further ado, I would like to introduce you to Hugh…

Ohau Count 2nd, 'Hugh' the Berkshire Boar

Ohau Count 2nd, ‘Hugh’ the Berkshire Boar

I am sure your first question is where did the name come from and the answer is the kitchen, Claire and I have decided to call all our breeding stock after famous chefs and of course the first one had to be Hugh, just you wait till Nigella arrives. With the arrival of Hugh came the first of my second breed of choice, the Berkshire (pronounced bark-cher). The Berkshire pig is smaller than the Large Black but still has a friendly personality and is known, especially in Japan, for its excellent meat quality which is likened to Beef Wagyu where the fat marbles through the meat.

Hugh has been on the farm just a few days and is already showing a great personality. From the day he arrived and wouldn’t get off the back of the ute to the complete mess he has made of his new 1 acre paddock. Hugh likes a good scratch behind the ears and a mud bath with me directing the water onto his belly.

Unfortunately for Hugh he won’t have any female company for a while as his mate to be, who arrives on Tuesday, is only 3 months old and it will be a good few months before she is ready for breeding, in the meantime he will just have to make do with a cold mud bath. Hopefully, if all goes well with the arranged marriage, we will have our first homegrown  litter of Berkshire piglets in six months time.

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:

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.