A Tale of Two Testes: The Boar Taint that Ain’t

pastured pigs‘Tis the season – for pork, that is. Still following a tradition of starting piglets in the spring and early summer (raising them through the warm months, and finishing or fattening them on the abundance of fall), many local Adirondack farmers are now harvesting and selling their hogs for pork, ourselves included. Now is one of the best times for consumers to fill their freezer with a whole of half hog, raised and butchered as they like. Probably no surprise here, but half of those hogs are female, half male. And of those males, probably most are castrated. But our male pigs are not.

If you find yourself asking “so?” then you probably aren’t familiar with “boar taint.” When we first started raising pigs, anyone with even third-hand hog-raising experience would tell us “you can’t eat a boar!”, adding that “it’ll taste like [I kid you not] piss” or other choice words. Why? The male hormones produced by a boar can make the meat taste so foul and rank as to make it virtually inedible. Hence the long-standing practice of castrating male piglets – making a cut into either side of the scrotum, pulling out the testicles and cutting them off and out. This transforms the “boar” into a “barrow” (the bull/steer distinction of the porcine world). Plus, many say, barrows grow faster than boars.

As it turns out, taint ain’t so simple. (Taint/t’ain’t – nice wordplay, right?)

Yes, boar taint is real, and when present, it makes the meat smell and taste awful: about 75% of consumers can detect and taste boar taint (meaning 25% of you all are off the hook though!), but 75% is a pretty good reason to eliminate taint one’s pork. Hence castration (usually physical, but sometimes chemical/hormonal).

fall animals-118However, hold the scalpel: taint is present in only about 20% of boars and male pigs. This means 80% of male pigs are being castrated unnecessarily. Taint is also differentially present according to breeds: Durocs seem to have the highest levels if incidence, while lighter colored breeds like Landrace and Yorkshire have it less. This is the genetic basis to boar taint. There are also management factors, which have to do with what causes taint. Why should we care? (This is the $64,000 question after all.) I’ll get to that.

So what are the causes of boar taint? Two compounds which can be deposited in the fat of growing pigs can cause the off-smells and flavors in the meat (really just the fat) down the the road. One is androstenone, a pheromone produced in the testes, but also the adrenal glands; the other is skatole, produced by bacteria in the intestines. These can be chemically (objectively) measured, in addition to being tasted by many (a subjective measure).

fall animals-120Regarding skatole, and noticing the root of the word, “skat-”, clues you in that this has to do with feces. Skatole can be produced from pigs inhaling or ingesting their own feces, which is prone to happen with pigs raised in cramped conditions. Turns out, raising hogs on pasture virtually eliminates the risk from skatole taint, a combination of having more space as well as access to high-fiber vegetation. Even after just two weeks on pasture, a hog previously with skatole will no longer have it afterward. While skatole can be present in barrows and gilts (female pigs) as well as boars, steroids produced by the boar inhibit the breakdown of skatole, so they accumulate more of it. Hence castration reducing this taint factor.

Androstenone is produced by the boar’s testes, a pheromone with a urine-like odor, which can be deposited in the fat as the boar matures. This factor in boar taint seems to be less effected or controlled by management and diet, and simply more linked to genetics and sexual development. So, again, typically castration to the rescue.

We’ve steadily been harvesting boars here on our farm, and thus far have had no complaints. Did we luck out? Some advice for minimizing the risk of boar taint is to harvest at 6-7 months of age, or under 200 to 225 pounds live. Our first set of hogs that we brought to the USDA processor were more like 8-9 months old, and their hanging weights were 220, 200, 190, and 175 pounds (the formers two being the uncut males from the bunch, the latter two the females). Add 40-50% to those numbers for the live weights. This means that those 220 and 200 pounds hanging-weight males were around 300 pounds live – a pretty far cry from the recommendation of 220-pound slaughtering. They also lived with the females, and being raised over the winter, (unfortunately) did not receive as much pasture forage as we would have liked – only in the first few months and then again the last month-and-a-half or so of their lives. But they did get some whey over the winter, which reputedly helps as well.

There were originally 5 pigs in the bunch, and one of them, also a male, who refused to get on board the trailer come slaughtering day appointed himself the hog for our June pig roast. This means this boar grew another month and a half, getting bigger and older to around 10 months of age, and quite heavy indeed! But that was also more time on pasture, pretty much alone (there were some weaners next to him), and he ended up getting a lot of whey and milk to eat/drink.

Presumably their genetics played a role too. These pigs were roughly half Large Black, half Tamworth, with a smidgeon of Hampshire in there I think. We’ve also butchered a Yorkshire boar and a Tamworth-something boar in the past which have turned out find as well. The stars of genetics, management, and feed all aligning? Most recently, a 3/4 Large Black 1/4 Tamworth boar went to the freezer, taintless again. This one was also big, hanging at 200lbs and around 8.5 months old. Most surprising, though, was that we later learned this fellow was in fact sexually active (a bit of brotherly love with his sisters…), as one of his sisters which went to the butcher a month later turned out to be well along in pregnancy, meaning at around 6 months old there was breeding going on.

But if we are playing Russian Roulette each time we raise a boar, why do it? Why not just castrate? Most obvious is the humaneness issue – not castrating avoids a stressful and painful procedure for male piglets, usually done by the farmer rather than a vet with the use of anesthetic. Of course, ethical issues like humane treatment can be a good if not central selling/buying point for many consumers.

Which leads to economic reasons as well. Castration takes time for the farmer. And if the cut gets infected, this could require medical treatment, setback in weight gains, or even death for the pig. Plus, it turns out (studies attest, in one form or another), barrows actually grow slower than boars, and/or require more feed to reach the same weight (i.e. barrows are are less efficient growers). Plus, compared to boars, pound for pound barrows are fattier, while boars are leaner and thus have more muscle, more meat. (They also tend to be longer, and – pop quiz – longer hogs mean what (proportionally)? That’s right, more bacon!) Finally, for anyone raising their own breeding pigs, not castrating males gives you a pool to pick potential breeders from; castration closes that door early on.

Presumably we are doing something right with out management (e.g. housing and diet) – something which others interested in raising boars can do as well – we can continue these practices, but genetics are less easily controlled. It highlights the need to continue to source feeder piglets from sources that have proven not to present boar taint in the past (i.e. in slaughtered boars), and/or to continue raising our own from established taint-free lines. It is also possible, when or if bringing in new blood, to have that boar tested while live, through a blood test (which can chemically measure the levels of androstenone and skatole present, and correlate to the levels detected by smell and taste) or even, as Walter Jeffries has done (http://sugarmtnfarm.com/2012/03/20/have-your-pig-and-eat-it-too/) take a tiny biopsy and test it. Somewhat anecdotal, and a bit research-based as well, it seems aggressive, dominant boars tend towards higher levels of boar taint. So by selecting for docility and friendliness, one may indirectly select for less boar taint potential as well – both good!

fall animals-114In researching and writing this, I did get to thinking – if we can get by without castrating boars, can we do the same for bulls (and rams or bucks, if we raised those)? The answer here seems: maybe. The good news is that rams and bulls are even less likely to have off-tasting meat than are boars. There’s also a different procedure available to castrate a ruminant – they can be non-surgically banded. Or if using surgery (for a bull), it can be easier to justify, economically, having a vet perform it, with anesthesia, since the cost of that procedure applied to a bull calf will be spread out over many more pounds of meat in the end (anywhere from 5 to 10 times that of a pig; this is what we’ve done with our bull calves to date).

The exception to the male-taste issue may be a ram during rut, the breeding season when hormones run high (or a goat buck, which can stink to high heaven). But there are management issues too. Consider lamb: typically born in the spring, they could grow and finish on grass through the summer and be butchered in the fall, on the smallish size. However, if you want lamb on the larger end, you need to keep them through winter. But then you only have a couple months in the spring before the rut starts later in summer, so its not really worth holding over the winter if you only get a bit of grazing in before the rut. So making a ram lamb into a wether provides more flexibility for slaughtering times (if rut-flavoring holds true). But for fall-finishing spring-born lambs, castration is not necessary.

Bulls also present a management issue, but not so much regards breeding directly – rather, bulls can be dangerous, and they can start being so well before fully grown where you’d want to harvest them. There’s a truthful adage to “never turn your back on a bull” – never mind a whole herd of them. A 200-300 pound possibly aggressive young boar is one thing; a 1500-2500+ pound bull is quite another (I imagine Kristen Kimball at Essex Farm would agree, from reading her The Dirty Life…). But there are benefits as well, like leaner meat in bulls compared to steers and faster or more efficient rate of growth. I would suspect that temperament is heritable, so perhaps one could select more for docile bulls (but friendly, docile bulls are also known to be closet aggressives, surprising you when you don’t expect it!). So will we ever raise bulls for beef? I can’t yet say.

Floppy-5In the meantime, we’ll continue to raise – and promote – boars destined for pork, and if you join us in that, more (bacon) power to ya’!

Small-farm “egg-onomics”

Free range organic eggsWe sometimes receive wide-eyes or raised eyebrows when we answer the question “how much are your eggs?” Our pasture-raised, free-range, organic-fed hen eggs, we reply, are five dollars per dozen. Since supermarket eggs can sometimes dip below $2 per dozen, it may indeed be hard to comprehend how there could be such a price difference – they’re more than twice the price! Nor is it uncommon to know of a neighbor or road-side sign advertizing a dozen eggs from a backyard flock for two to three dollars per dozen, further supporting the idea that eggs are and should be cheap.

We are not trying to produce some elitist egg which only the wealthy can afford, nor intending to price-gouge anyone. Rather, we are trying to produce the healthiest eggs in the most ethical, sustainable fashion, at a fair price.

There’s a lot that goes into the cost of producing an egg, and since we’re at the point of business planning, to develop and grow our farm, I took the time to perform an “enterprise analysis” on each of the components of our farm, including our egg production from our flock of pastured, free-range, and organic-fed hens. Putting together an extensive tally of all the costs that go into producing our eggs yielded some surprising insights, and proves invaluable for understanding our profitability (or not…). For readers who are fellow farmers (even at the “backyard” scale), this might help inform your own pricing, while readers who are purchasers of eggs (of whatever type) might more fully understand all that goes into producing those eggs in that carton.

So here goes, full disclosure ahead!

barred-rock-hen-in-grassThe way I performed our analysis was first to add up all the costs that go into a single laying hen over its lifetime, which I set at 2.5 years. It takes about 5 to 6 months for a newly hatched chick to reach laying age, when it will then lay for about a year, take a break while molting, and then produce again for about a year (at a lessened rate) until molting again (at which point we would butcher the birds for stewing hens, because production levels subsequently drop further and the bird would no longer pay its keep).

chick-in-grassFirst, the costs of the chicks. I figured about $3 per day-old, sexed chick, delivered to our farm. Of course, not all chicks make it through the brooding phase, so factor in a loss (say, 10%), and the per-chick cost is $3.33. That chick is also going to need some bedding, a heat source, a waterer, feeder, and of course a place to live. Once it reaches about 4 weeks, it can go outside to begin its pastured, “free-range” life – I say “free-range,” because our chickens are not completely free-range, and the reason for this is that we have foxes and coyotes and the like who happen to love chicken. So we raise them outside in portable electronet fencing. We set up a temporary paddock (if using one roll of fencing, we can get a 40′ x 40′ space, but we sometimes combine multiple rolls), and move the birds to new paddocks when they have done a good deal of pecking, scratching, and grazing, which is about once per week with our current numbers. They also have portable shelters. We raise the laying hens in the same manner, just in a different shelter (we’re currently using a gutted camper!) and separate paddocks. In the harsh winters, the birds have to come indoors, where they’re supplied with deep bedding).

chicks-with-feederNow, the costs of all that equipment gets both spread out across how many birds it can service (e.g. a waterer can serve 50 hens, while the brooder heater, since it is used for broilers, ducks, and turkeys throughout the summer, might serve 500 birds), as well as how many years it can be used. Added up, I estimated $3.60 going into the equipment and bedding costs of raising a laying hen from chick to “retirement.” There was also the $3.33 cost per chick, so we’re up to $6.93 – but haven’t yet touched the costs of feed.

Going by both what I’ve read on the matter, and what our own record-keeping affirms, it takes about 16 pounds of prepared feed (starter and grower) to raise a chicken to laying age. Afterward, a hen consumes 0.2 to 0.25 pounds of feed a day. Now, we do raise our birds outside on pasture, and we do see them scratching and pecking and grazing, so doesn’t that cut down on feed costs? I can’t say it does by much. For one, it takes energy for the birds to do that work; for another, grass is not easily digestible by poultry. They can acquire a wealth of vitamins and minerals and other healthy compounds from foraging, but not a whole lot of extra calories it seems. (I have read that pastures really high in legume content, such as clover and alfalfa, will provide much of the protein a chicken needs, allowing the grower to feed lower-protein, and thus cheaper, feeds, but our pastures are not at that point right now. Alternatively, really low densities – like 10 birds per acre, would be enough, but then you’d need a pretty extensive perimeter fence or good livestock guard dogs, and enough acreage for a profitable number of birds.)

So, for the two years where a chicken is laying, it will need about 180 pounds of feed, plus the 16 pounds bringing it into hen-hood. We feed certified-organic feed, and when we buy it by the pallet, this year were able to get it for about $23 a bag. The price for smaller quantities at the feed stores seemed to be about $24 to $26 per bag, so we were able to save a couple bucks there. Non-organic, conventional feed seemed to be in the $12 to $14 range, if I recall, so a bit more than half the price.

Now brace yourself. Remember our non-feed costs were $6.93 per bird? Well, the feed costs come out to $90 per bird! So feed costs around 1200% more than everything else combined. Put differently, even when you manage to save money on your equipment and chick costs (say, you throw together a $200 shelter instead of a $400 one), relative to feed those savings really aren’t much. Feed is the predominate expense, and would be the biggest place to save, if you can. We already buy it in bulk by the pallet load (1 ton), albeit still in bags. The next step would be having bins to purchase feed in bulk delivered by the grain truck, but of course those bins costs something too. But you also need to feed that feed quick enough, else you lost a lot of quality. Which means you need more birds, a larger scale, more land, more labor, all while maintaining the integrity of your sustainable practices…plus a large enough market to buy those eggs.

Other potential cost savings include purchasing whole grains and feed components (e.g. shell corn, whole barley, soybean meal, mineral mixes, etc) and grinding/cracking/soaking/sprouting your grains and making your own mix. Again, more storage needed, and probably a grinder of some sort, but you probably would have the freshest, highest-quality feed, and so may save some on the amounts needed. (Buying whole grains by the bag seems to be worse than buying milled feed by the bag – the few times we’ve purchased whole corn or “scratch,” it was pretty much the same cost as the milled feed!)

So the lifetime costs for one laying hen is about $97. Since we can consume the “retired” birds as stewing hens, some value is reclaimed there (a three-pound bird selling for however much per pound), but there is also a butchering cost, so the recovered value might only be $6 to $10.

eggs-in-strawHaving considered the expenses, the next question concerns income, and that revolves around how many eggs are to be produced, and in turn the price at which they’ll be sold. While commercial layers may top 300 eggs per year, I don’t think our birds reach that, since we have standard breeds as well as hybrids, who aren’t cooped up in a cage with no room to move… I figure about 250 eggs in the first year, and 150 in the second, for a total of 400 eggs, or 33 and 1/3 dozen.

Now we can spread the lifetime costs of the hen over the number of eggs she’ll produce. Per dozen, the non-feed costs come out to just $0.21 per dozen. The feed costs, on the other hand, are $2.70 per dozen! Add in the costs of packaging (we do have to buy many cartons new) at about $0.35 per carton (and that was buying a year’s supply…), while subtracting the stewing hen credit, and we wind up with a per-dozen cost of $3.08 to produce for sale a healthy egg from our free-range, pastured hen.

Selling that dozen at $5 then, our profit margin on a retail dozen is a bit under $2 (and for our CSA-egg subscriptions, the margin is even less). Remember, no labor has yet been factored into our costs. For how many chickens? We currently keep about 50 layers at a time (half first-year and half second-year layers), along with the replacement set raised over the summer. So if we spread out the 400 eggs a chicken will lay over its total life (not just its productive life, but over the time it is growing and molting as well), which at 2.5 years is 900 days, for a little less than half of its days actually producing an egg, multiplied by 50 hens, we get on average a little under 2 dozen eggs a day. So our average profit per day is just $4. I’d like to say we average half an hour of work per day for all the laying chicken and egg related tasks, for a wage of $8 per hour, but that might be overly generous and optimistic… The pastured/free-range aspect of our production takes the most labor (moving birds, shelters, and fencing is time consuming), but that is the key to the nutrition and quality of pastured eggs.

pastured laying chickensIf, for arguments sake, we increased our flock to 100 birds, doubling production, to bring in $8 per day, we probably would not spend twice the labor, so we’d have a better rate of return…but we’d also need more customers or outlets for those eggs, which might include wholesale, which might require grading (candling) each egg, which would be sold at a reduced cost, which would cut into the margins…you get the idea!

Supposing we fed conventional, non-organic feed, the feed costs per dozen, again, over the life of a chicken, would be around $1.45. With the same capital costs, that would be $1.66 per dozen. So this is probably the ballpark costs of the backyard flockster selling eggs (they probably get by with all reused cartons), though the smaller scale may allow more use of kitchen scraps, and more space for the hens to forage for bugs, worms, clover, and the like, so costs are reduced some. But selling, or buying, those eggs at just $2 or $2.50 per dozen is not providing much profit to the backyard chicken keeper, more of a supplement to their costs, for the fun of keeping chickens and supplying their family with healthy eggs.

Thus the price discrepancy with mass-produced supermarket eggs. When someone’s raising thousands of laying hens, their capital costs might not be any less than ours (indeed, it might be more), but the sheer volume of feed purchased is going to reduce their feed costs substantially, and probably their labor per bird or egg will be less as well, through more automation. If an egg is an egg is an egg, there’s really no reason NOT to purchase those $2 per dozen eggs. pastured hensWe’re pretty sure, though, that our pastured eggs are healthier and produced in a more ethical fashion. By the way, certified-organic eggs in the grocery stores seem to be about $5 per dozen as well, but that doesn’t mean they were pastured or free-range…

So there you have it – our small farm “egg-onomics.”

Jersey Calving :: stillbirth

**graphic pictures of a cow calving that ends in a still birth**

*graphic meaning there is blood and a cows birthing parts shown in pictures*

First note: Shadow, the cow, likes to roll in poop. That’s our guess. Hope, our other cow, is clean. Her coat is thick with its winter growth and soft to the touch. Shadow has dried scales of poop all over. We assume that she poops, realizes it’s warm, and lays right down in the warm wet slime. So not only is she ejecting a bloody mass before the calf … she’s also covered in poop.

You can’t say you weren’t warned!

We weren’t sure how to share this story. Sometimes we will start telling someone about chicken processing … and the person will interrupt to say they need no more details. That’s a whole other blog post – but in light of that we wanted to respect our community and the details people may or may not want. This would have been a struggle with or without the end result because birth is bloody and messy (and so is farming) and some people cringe at bloody and messy. These people tend not to be farmers. And then farmers get stuck in their own farming world and forget that the rest of the world isn’t used to side stepping fresh poop in the pasture, swiping mucous from newly birthed piglets, or work with hands detailed with fine lines detailed perfectly with tiny dirt granules.

But after posting on facebook, it seemed clear that even if people aren’t milking cows regularly, or finding a perfect nesting spot for a broody hen, or bidding on the perfect cow … people are interested in what authentic sustainable farming is like in the day-to-day.

So here it goes:

Shadow was bred on a Wednesday. On a Saturday, we bid on her, and brought her home. She never showed signs of heat (mooing, jumping on the other cow, or us!, etc) so we assumed she was bred, she was pregnant, she “had settled.”

Cows gestation is 279-290 days with 280 being the average. At 287 days, Shadow still hadn’t calved, and Jerseys tend to be a few days earlier than other breeds. A very kind farmer who is relatively nearby was posting on our fb wall asking for updates. She offered suggestions and knowledge around calving, particularly with Jerseys. Hope’s calving had come suddenly, before we expected and with beautiful drama – but with no intervention from us.

With Shadow it was a checking-every-day-keep-waiting situation. We were all anxious to meet our newest addition to the farm and anticipation was high.

The morning of, Josh and Del checked before going off to preschool and I checked again while doing chores (approximately 1.5minutes after Del and Josh checked).

During afternoon chores, I noticed something different. There was definitely contractions and opening of Shadow’s vulva.
My mom missed a calving in June and didn’t want to miss this one. Josh shook his head in disbelief as I went to tell my mom that Shadow would be calving soon.
“It’s probably still hours away,” Josh informed me.
“I know,” I replied.
“Are you just going to wait here the whole time?” he asked.
“Yep,” I said.

So my mom came out and the kids came out intermittently.
There were frequent reminders that they needed to move slowly and quietly to respect the birth process. I even insisted Noah remove his red coat fearing it would stress the cow. Don’t they see red or something? Upon finding out about this, Josh laughed and the next time Noah came into the barn, I told him he could leave his coat on.

It was cold, but warmer than the 20 below temps of the previous few days. Shadow moved to the farthest point she could from Hope … who was happy to be left with all the hay to herself. Shadow is the alpha cow out of the pair and has a habit at the edge of the manger, pushing Hope further and further to the side … Hope not realizing she can walk around Shadow and have 3/4 of the manger that is not being blocked – or maybe she just doesn’t want to bother moving. A few times Hope wandered over to Shadow (leaving behind that coveted hay) to take a sniff at Shadow.

We waited and waited. There would be some progress and then in between contractions that progress would slowly be pulled back up inside of Shadow. There were frequent dashes to the house to call for Josh to come look. We were always told it was this or that, nothing to worry about.

Did I say it was cold? I was thankful to be out of the take-your-breath-away wind. Del’s hands were cold. Josh turned on a heat lamp we had ready for the calf for Del to put her hands under. The grownups were thankful for the dull heat the lamp gave off too.

A small splash and more of the water has come through as well as blood. This baby is coming!

At this point I was running into the house to ask what that black bulge is! It looks like NOT hooves – front hooves are what should appear first.

Josh said it was the bulge of the bag of waters. Forgetting that there had already been a terrific splash, I was comforted by this “knowledge” and returned to the barn to watch the two-steps-forward-one-step-back birth progress.

At this point I wasn’t sure what we were seeing. With the gift of hindsight – it’s the bottom of the calf’s chin with one leg bent back at the ankle – all still in the membrane.
“I think it’s going to be big,” Josh said, “that’s why it’s taking a while.”
“You can tell that by the nose?” I asked incredulous.
“Yeah,” he replied nonchalantly. “Bigger usually means bulls. I bet it’s a bull.”

When any creature is birthing I think we sometimes lose sight of the fact that there is actually a living breathing being at the other end – we (or maybe just I) get so caught up in the business end of things. So here is Shadow up and in labor. There were some shots of her “crazy eyes” but this was more a funny look when she was trying to see what was going on back there, not a funny look because she was contracting.

Back to the business end of things … see the eyelashes along the eye lid? This was the point when I asked if we should help. Maybe we should be clearing the nose and mouth so the calf can breathe? Josh, now resigned to staying in the barn until the end, explained that the calf was still attached to the placenta and didn’t need to breath yet (indeed, probably couldn’t breathe, given all the pressure on its chest).
It looked like Shadow wanted to stand again. This was what was causing the retreat of the calf between contractions. Josh reasoned that if she stood at this point, the calf would fall out.

Remember the two steps forward and one back? At this point Shadow STOOD UP! And the calf did not fall out, much to our amazement. Evidently Shadow decided it would be more comfortable to be on the other side of the stall.

And then she laid back down. Do you see the calves nose?

My mom was holding her breath with every contraction. We knew the calf would be named Snowflake so we were encouraging Shadow and encouraging Snowflake verbally.

And then she stood back up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I know you probably don’t want to interfere, but you could go and pull now” Josh suggested.
I was in that stall before you could say: “pull.” I was anxious to DO something.
With the next contraction, I pulled hard. It seemed I didn’t help move the calf any further along.
With the next contraction, same thing.

I noticed the calf’s tongue hanging out of it’s mouth, blue-ish in color.
“Josh,” I said, “I think the calf is already dead. It’s tongue is sticking out.”
“Probably about half the births I’ve seen the calves tongues are sticking out like that,” he replied reassuringly.
Before the next contraction Josh slipped through the gate and came by my side. He held firmly to the calves legs and at the next contraction pulled it free of it’s mother.
He moved away as I ticked the calf’s nostrils and tried to feel for a heartbeat.
The calf lay still.
I started to feel myself shake all over.
Suddenly the barn felt MUCH colder – or maybe the cold just suddenly started effecting me.

Josh and I pulled it under the one light bulb that was on in the stall to get a better look. Shadow mooed and followed quickly. Josh rubbed it’s chest brusquely. When there was no response, he lifted the calf by its hind legs in an attempt to drain any fluid that might be causing the non-responsive calf. Josh laid the calf down gently as Shadow slid her large rough tongue across the trunk of the calf, cleaning off the birth remains. Josh picked up a piece of hay and tickled the calf’s nostril. He touched the calf’s eyeball. Nothing. He felt for a heartbeat and felt nothing, as Shadow continued to clean her offspring.
“Is it a boy?” I asked.
Josh checked.
“Yep,” he said. “Let’s go get the kids to bed and then we can come out and milk Shadow.”

We left cow and calf – one caring for the other even after death – while we went to care for our own children who were cold and tired.

Chickens roosting

I briefly explained that we have “kennel chickens” in the barn, right across from the cows. This time of year everyone is snug inside somewhere to some extent.

For the most part, they wisely roost on the relatively warm wooden log that is in their “coop” for that very purpose.

But a few of them think the stone foundation is more cozy. What’s funny is that you don’t notice them at first (it’s much more dim in the barn at night than it appears in the picture below). But then you notice one, then another, and another, and another.

So fun to see their preferences emerge.

Where do your chickens like to roost?

Pork: Farrowing

Our two gilts, Toppy and Floppy are sisters and both spent time with a Large Black Boar named Templeton of Caton Acres fame.

Templeton didn’t quite have the how-to of his role over the summer, apparently, because one afternoon recently Josh noticed that Floppy was definitely not “settled”. She was loud and jumpy and screaming “MATE ME!” We made a quick (and slightly desperate) call to our friends at Caton Acres and through a quick cooperation among farming neighbors borrowed a truck and trailer and got Floppy over to Templeton speedy quick.

Templeton has had some practice since we last had him here at Woven Meadows and if Floppy isn’t pregnant now …. well, I’d be impressed.

But Toppy is another story. She’s smaller than Floppy and just as lovable – or perhaps more so because she is definitely settled. We noticed that her previously flat belly is now lined on both sides with sacks to hold milk for upcoming babies. We’ve read that this is an indicator of piglets arriving within a week or two. We’re not certain when she bred (unlike Floppy!) so she has a due date range. When we saw her body preparing for her piglet’s arrivals we frantically pulled books off the shelf for a quick review on farrowing (pig birthing). We’ve read it all before but never farrowed piglets on our farm before.

As with everything – some of the information is helpful, some is sad (docking tails?!? ugh.), and all of it adds to our arsenal of information should we need to assist Toppy. I am hopeful that she will be a competent mother to her brood.

In preparation we moved her to the chicken barn. It’s warm(ish – it’s still January in the North Country, after all) and there’s wonderful soft bedding to root around in. We laughed as she dove into the dry bedding sprinkled with chicken litter before providing her with a thick bale of stiff hay for her to make a nest with (which the chickens promptly fell in love with also). Before leaving, we made sure to give her lots of scratches behind the ears – which lead to her falling to her side in relaxed bliss on the soft bedding.

Love this girl!

And tomorrow Floppy is returning to our farm for us to fall in love all over again with her!

Dairy: Creamery List of Needs

Way way back in the beginning of the beginning with Woven Meadows our goal has been cheese (with some bacon and eggs thrown in for good measure!).
This is the most complicated part of our farming goals as it involves a purpose-built structure that complies with Ag and Markets extensive guidelines.

One of the requirements is a double stainless steel sink for the creamery (where the cheese is made) and one in the milk House (where we clean the milking equipment). We were able to get a double sink for a steal last summer … and we just found a second sink on craigslist – perfect for the creamery!

Here is a list of all the additional supplies and materials we need for the farm creamery. We’re hoping to begin construction as soon as the ground thaws!

Whenever possible we’re seeking out used equipment for a more economical project. In some cases, used is not practical as this equipment is much to large for our purposes as it is designed for much larger farms.

Construction:

  • Hot Water Heater
  • Ventilation
  • Washable Walls (such as fiberglass reinforced panels)
  • Drain
  • Wiring
  • Light Fixtures
  • Concrete
  • ICF

 

Parlor and Milk House:

  • Milking System
  • Cleaning System
  • Bulk Tank (where the milk is cooled and stored before it’s moved to the cheese-making vat … this is the one we’re looking at right now)
  • Hand-wash sink
  • More cows :) – given what our pasture can sustain at the moment we are planning to start with 4 additional cows for 6 total. After a few years of improvement (chickens going through the pasture, for example) we anticipate maxing out at 10-12 cows that we’re milking.

Creamery:

  • Vat pasteurizer (essential for fresh cheeses; cheese under 60 days old must be made with pasteurized milk required by Ag and Markets) (We plan to get the vat pasteurizer from Micro-Dairy Designs.)
  • Curd Cutting Knives
  • Cheese hoops
  • Transfer Pump (this moves the milk from the milk house to the creamery)
  • Draining Table (table on an incline where cheese can be pressed or hung above and the whey flows away from the cheese)
  • Press (to press the whey out of the cheese and consolidates the curd)
  • Hand-wash sink
  • Work Tables
  • Two-bay stainless steel wash sink
  • Shelving (for storage of cheese making supplies)
  • Supply fridge and freezer (to store rennet and cultures for cheese making)
  • Cart

Aging room (this may be an attached room to the creamery or it may be a walk-in cooler and is where the cheese ages):

  • Shelves
  • Cooling Unit (the cool-bot is an option we’re keeping in mind)

If you have any of this lying around (a sink, perhaps?) or no of someone who has any of these supplies or materials they may be interested in parting with – let us know! So excited to bring yummy cow milk cheese to the North Country!

A quiet Sunday

It looks like this out of the dining room window:

And this is what it looks like at our dining room table:

Seeds are ordered and we can’t wait to start tiny seeds that grow into beautiful plants that offer us delicious, local, nutrient-rich food!

How did you spend your wintry Sunday?

Dairy: Yesterday was a roller coaster of emotions

If you follow us on facebook – and were watching for the updates yesterday – you’ll know yesterday was a roller coaster of emotions that ended in the sad discovery that Shadow’s calf was stillborn.

It was six hours in the barn, with much anticipation, and excitement … to a quick sad discovery at the very end.

How much in details do we share with you? We always want to be transparent …. but we’ve learned there’s a line between being transparent and being respectful of what our customers want to know. We want to be factual about farm life and life AND death is involved. But some customers have shied away from less than a stillbirth.

We have detailed graphic pictures of the birth – which may have offended even without the sad ending – do we still share those?

So many questions.

We suspect that Shadow’s calf died in utero perhaps weeks ago. She was overdue – is that why? The calf never sent the hormonal signals to initiate birth and Shadow’s body was finally DONE?

So let us know how much you’d like to see of the exciting and then sad events of yesterday – how much do you want to be privy to the daily goings on at the farm? And then those who choose to know less can skip that blog entry … Thoughts?

Brrr! Winter on a family farm in the Adirondacks

Yesterday was -15degrees when we went out to do chores.
This morning the bed was really toasty and it was so tempting to just sink deeper into the warmth of the bed.
But there might be a calf.
Shadow was 280 days pregnant on December 28th – the average gestation for a cow.
But no calf yet … so maybe this morning?!?!

I enticed the kids out of our bed by telling them we needed to check on Shadow. None of the usual demands for extra snuggles and requests for Daddy to do chores and not Mommy.
Noah decided to retreat to the warmth of his own bed – not ready for the day to begin while Del pranced downstairs full of excitement for her upcoming day at preschool.
I pulled on long johns and pants, a t-shirt, long sleeve shirt, and sweater before re-tying my hair up in a knot.

I may have checked facebook, first thing when I came downstairs. There I saw that my dad had already updated his status to: “What a difference 24 hours makes. From -16 to +22. May not need the coat this morning.” Sweet relief! But then I worried if I was already too bundled up …

I grabbed my warm snow pants from their drying place near the woodstove and was so thankful for their warmth. The addition of a wool hat and fleece lined mittens added to the warmth. The bonus was that the barn boots I’ve been using were also inside. Bliss! Out the back door, in the unheated workroom I noticed there were already two rectangles of thick ice – worked free from water devices for the animals. I encouraged thin fragile icy layers from the milker’s pieces and fit it all together: rubber ring inside milking can lid, lid on can, filter fitted over spring which is put into the plastic casing which is connected to the lid, claw held right-side-up with two pieces layered inside, a spring on top of that, and a lid on top of that holding it all together. When that was already I donned my winter jacket (with a small regret that it wasn’t also inside warming up and a thankful heart for the layers of shirts protecting me from the direct contact with the frigid arm holes).

Grabbing the egg basket and heaving the heavy milking can I wrestled the sliding door open with my arms (as my hands were busy carrying the necessary items for chores) and made my way out into the wintery wind. Josh was lifting Del into the van, her scrunched up face against the wind. I wondered if it was better to be -15degrees or 20degrees with a gusty cold wind.

“NO CALF!” Del shouted.
“We checked,” Josh explained. He had wanted to check before he left for town for the morning. “I did notice she’s a little drippy though.” Maybe that’s a sign. Maybe not. She’s been drippy for the last few days.

Half the motivation for going out into the cold gone, I trudged up the path to the barn – footprints barely visible as the wind whipped the snow over the paths. I brought the milker to the milk pump in the barn and decided to take care of the coop chickens first. I like to gather their eggs and the eggs from the “kennel” chickens before going into the “chicken” barn for the majority of the egg collection. Plus, now that we are turning on a our small jet-engine of a heater (propane heater) to keep the milker from icing up, we don’t feel comfortable leaving that unattended. Somewhere at the back of the barn, I heard one of the calves call my name … if my name sounded like a low “mooooo”. This happens every morning. I don’t know if they are saying: “hi,” or “NO HAY … MORE HAY!” or “Our water is frozen!”. I found the blue five gallon bucket near the barn spigot (thankful to have running water IN the barn!) and filled it about a 1/4 full, knowing the chicken waterer would not even hold that much. The cow water tub, right next to the spigot, I noted was low on water, as is usual in the morning, but it hadn’t iced over as it had yesterday. The chickens in the kennel, right inside the barn door, were quite noisy. As I passed by with my bucket of water I noted that they were out of food. I would feed them while milking Hope.

The wind had swept the path clean of foot prints since yesterday and I saw no fresh tracks. My dad, who was outside doing chores somewhere, hadn’t been to the chicken coop yet.

“Hi girls!” I said as I entered the coop. They were making all their chicken-y noises. I spotted two eggs under the nest box – the preferred “box” the chickens, tell me.
“Are you guys hungry? How about some of this?” I pulled off my gloves and dropped them right by the coop door before unscrewing the lid to the container that has chicken scratch. I gently threw a couple of handfuls, noting that we should add bedding to the coop soon, particularly under the roosts. While the chickens were busy with their scratch I gave filled their feed trough with grain before checking on their water dish. There was a thin layer of ice on top. I grabbed a piece of wood and jammed it into the ice to break it up, before realizing that I might be incurring several splinters (I wasn’t), and then added more water to their dish. The chickens ran to the dish with enthusiasm. I hate when animals run out of water (or it gets icy) – that’s the worse! I sneaked around the back of the thirsty girls and retrieved the two still-warm eggs I’d spotted when I first came in.
One blue.
One green.

I met my dad in the barn – he’d already done the animals in the “horse” barn – the one gilt that we have here right now, the sheep, and the goat.
“I’ll go do the pigs,” he offered, picking up two five gallon buckets filled with water and making his way to the “piglets” that are growing fast and loving their new digs that provide a larger shelter out of the wind.

Ever thankful for his help, I ignored the chickens cackling in the kennel – still letting me know they had needs too! – and turned on the jet-engine heater, pointing it towards the milker and crossing my fingers that it would melt any residual ice that I’d missed earlier. I put grain in a bucket for Hope and opened the gate to the cows pen and she easily maneuvered her way into position – the perfect position for breathing in the grain she loves. I tied her quickly before returning to the grain sack for Shadow’s portion.

“Have you done anything with the calves?” my dad asked, coming into the barn.
“Nope, I’ve only done the chicken coop chickens”, I responded.
“I’ll do the calves,” he said.

Next step: clean Hope’s teats before milking.
I realized the teat dip, that I’d brought inside yesterday to thaw it out … was still inside. I knew I would forget it!

“Will you be in here for a minute?” I asked my dad, cognizant of the jet-engine. “I forgot the dip inside.”
“Yeah, yeah!” he said quickly.

I made my way back out into the cold and realized tiny snow flakes were now flying about. I made my quickly back to the house and found the dip – where I’d left it.

Back in the barn, I grabbed each of Hope’s teats and rubbed off anything that was there and hand expressed a couple of streams of milk before dipping each teat. I hung the dip up and grabbed a roll of paper towels. My dad had moved into the cow pen and was putting down fresh bedding for them. He noticed through barn door I’d left open.
“It’s snowing!” he said.
“Yep”, I replied noticing that it was coming down even thicker.

I rubbed Hope’s teats dry and started up pump. The trick is to wait for the spring in the claw to start moving – you can hear it: “click, click, click” more than you can see it.
I waited.
And waited.
I pulled apart the pieces on top of the claw I’d so carefully put together and noticed ice on one of the components. I held this up to the heater, the heat quickly becoming unbearable. I put it all back together and waited for the tell-tale noise.
Quiet.
Still quiet.
I tilted the claw so the top was closer to the heat source.
And waited.
And waited.
Nothing.
I felt my dad before I saw him.
“Do you want me to hold something?” he asked as I pulled apart the parts above the claw again.
“There’s ice inside that piece” I said, showing him the tiny hole filled with ice. He took the piece and held it to the fire longer than I could have.
“Is it melted?” I asked. He looked.
“I can’t tell, what do you think?” he asked.
I looked and quickly decided: “let’s put it back together, I can’t tell if that’s ice or the plastic piece on the other side.”
I put it all back together and immediately the sound came steady.
Click.
Click.
Click.
“Yay!” I said, “I don’t think there’s a more beautiful sound!”

I fell to my knees and attached the furthest two claws to Hope with little difficulty, and then the closer claws. A flush of milk and continued click.
Satisfied, I moved my attention to the chickens in the kennel. I grabbed the blue bucket of water, still with enough water to satisfy this bunch after watering the coop chickens. I filled their feeder and broke the ice on their water before topping it off with more water. I spotted one egg in their nest boxes and grabbed that before making my exit from the kennel.
I checked Hope. Left front quarter empty. It always empties first. I pulled off that claw and plugged it with a stopper before going to fill the cows water tub. I noticed the tub was full.
“Did you do the cow’s water?” I asked my dad.
“Yeah,” he responded.
I emptied the rest of the water in the blue bucket into the cow’s water tub.
“Did you already water the calves?” I asked.
“I watered the calves,” he said over the din of the milk pump.
I went back to check on Hope.
Two quarters definitely done, but the front right still had some milk left. I removed the claws from the empty quarters and plugged them with stoppers. I noticed no additional milk was coming. Often once the quarters are removed from the empty quarters, the quarters with remaining milk get the additional suction they need and there is an increase in the milk flow. I checked the front right quarter again. Empty.
I pulled the whole contraption away from Hope and turned the pump off. I dipped her again.
“Should I give Shadow some hay?” my dad called down the barn to me.
“Yes!” I called back. It’s a good trick to hold off on giving Shadow hay until we’re ready to get Hope back in the pen. That way Shadow is distracted (because she sometimes gets ideas about touring the barn more extensively than her pen which takes up almost half of that barn) and Hope is motivated to make her way back into the pen.
Hope immediately turned her impressive body around and slipped through the gate towards the new mounds of hay my dad threw into their manger.

Milking done, I turned to the chore of the chickens in the “chicken” barn. I filled the blue bucket about half way and grabbed my egg basket, now boasting three eggs, and moved past the calves, to the chicken barn door. Inside I was greeted enthusiastically. I saw that their water dishes (all three of them!) were frozen but after hanging the egg basket out of their reach and putting the blue water bucket on the floor inside the door, I returned to the outside of the cow manger to grab some loose hay on the floor. We have rabbits (two) in the chicken barn and one of them LOVES hay, something I’d forgotten to give her for about a week. I brought this into the chicken barn and straight to the rabbit with the flock of chickens eagerly vying for my attention behind me. I felt them pecking at the residual snow on my boots as I opened the rabbit cage and stuffed in a huge wad of hay. The rabbit immediately went to forming a nest in between nibbles of the hay.

That chore done, I turned my attention to the thirsty chickens. Two were clearly not so thirsty, as the fluffed their feathers and took dust baths in their bedding, right near the watering station. I traded an empty waterer with an ice-filled one and filled that one immediately with water. One of the other dishes only had a small layer of ice at the bottom so I topped that off with water. The third waterer had a healthy layer of ice. That one I moved away from the thirsty chickens and banged against a manger, originally designed for sheep, to coax the ice to pop out. After several attempts, the final piece sprang free and I returned the dish to its place, filling that too with water and noting one of the dust bathers was still reveling in her dust bath bliss as chickens scrambled around her to get to the water dishes.
I hastily gathered eggs in from their usual places and hung the egg basket from a nail, for the person collecting eggs this afternoon to top off with additional eggs and bring inside.

Feeling satisfied I moved toward the door. Hearing some extra chicken-talk I paused. One small detail had been forgotten … The food! I moved my way back into the depths of the chicken barn and gladly dished out several bowlfuls of feed into the feeder. Everyone happy, I left the chicken barn with the frozen water dish and my blue bucket of water, still quite full.

I emptied the extra water into the calf’s water bucket and put the empty bucket next to the barn spigot.
I eyed the full milk can warily.
Even empty the milk can feels too heavy.
Then I remembered my dad!
“Hey! You’re here!” I said enthusiastically.
“Yeeeeeesss,” he said suspiciously.
“YOU can carry the milk can!” I said triumphantly. “And I’ll carry this frozen water dish.”
“Ohhhh kaaaay,” he said, lacking some of my enthusiasm.

He hauled up the heavy can and turned out the light to the barn. He walked out of the barn into the snow still picking up speed and I followed, closing the door behind me and feeling satisfied at another morning of chores complete. All the animals fed and watered and snug against the bracing wind.

Milk to be poured into jars, milker system to be cleaned, ice to be melted out of containers.

And by 11am the snow was falling in a thick wall of white.

Merry Christmas from Woven Meadows

Hope you’re relaxing and enjoying those you love and cherish on this day where we’re thankful for our family, farm community (that’s you!), and our animals.

We loved seeing our children’s lit up faces at stocking surprises on their beds and presents tucked under the tree and then slipping out to the barn where cows warm breath made puffs of white appear and the chickens eagerly greeted us hopeful for scratch and the gilt snorted in greeting and the calves moo’ed heartily for a hay refill and the piglets who are growing quickly nibbled at our calves through our pants and anxiously sucked down whatever treats we had to offer. Then with our arms weighted with a little more than two gallons of fresh milk and at least a dozen eggs, we quickly washed the milk can before entering the warm and welcoming house. Then the debate of a yummy breakfast of eggnog french toast first or present opening first …