Like clockwork, we have our first egg of the season. The chickens slow down egg laying in October and completely stop by early November. Each year, the first egg comes the last week of January or the first week of February. After a few spotty weeks, the whole flock will be laying eggs regularly by the end of February.
Elliot Coleman has popularized among gardeners and growers the designation of the season from November to the end of January “the Persephone Period”. By the way, who’s the real victim in the Persephone myth? Not Persephone. Her husband is a selfish lout, but she gets a cushy job as Queen of the Underworld; plus she only has to work a few months each year. The real victim is Eubuleus, the farmer who’s pigs are all sucked down to Hades when Persephone gets pulled under. Who stands up for the pig farmer? Pig farmers have always been the Rodney Dangerfield of the social order.
The Greeks weren’t all agreed upon the calendar dates for these events. We find an unrelated but seasonally similar calendar among the pagans of Britain, Ireland, and Gaul. The 1st of November is Samhain, the beginning of the long darkness, the end of the harvest, and the day for the big sugar crash and/or hangover after Halloween. The 1st of February is Imbolc, corresponding with the beginning of lambing and calving season and the first signs of tree bud swelling. But these since these solar holidays also correspond so precisely with our egg laying season, we’d like to advance the theory that chickens are Druids.
Winter still has a strong grip here with overnight temperatures below zero and snow in the forecast. So having the chickens notice the imperceptibly incrementing daylight and start laying eggs again, that’s a big deal. Imbolc is like Chicken Soup for the Farmer’s Soul. It might also be Chicken Soup for the Chicken’s Soul (yes, they would eat chicken soup; they are remorseless).
“…another instance of the untoward fate which so often attends dogs and other philosophers who follow out a train of reasoning to its logical conclusion, and attempt perfectly consistent conduct in a world made up so largely of compromise.”
Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd
In a passage full of poignance to anyone with experience raising livestock, Shepherd Gabriel Oak finds that his young herding dog has been overenthusiastic in his duties and caused an entire herd to panic over a cliff into a chalk mine pit. The pup had an “insuperable difficulty in distinguishing between doing a thing well enough and doing it too well”. Thomas Hardy brilliantly observed that dogs (and humans) so often fail similarly when perfectly consistent conduct is attempted without understanding circumstance.
Yesterday Lando broke his collar, and pleased with his newfound freedom proceeded to celebrate. His first stop was to find the chickens and ducks and attempt to kill and maim as many of them as possible. Judging by the damage, he only managed to tear out the tail feathers from one hen before getting distracted by the kids sledding on the hill, running off to chase them. He’s in the dangerously cowardly/brave adolescent period of puppyhood. Border collies are great herding dogs, but that also means they are only thinly concealed wolves. Even the most experienced dog is using his herding instinct because something in the back of his mind tells him that the other animals are prey. Experienced dogs are able to hold that idea in check, balancing the desire to kill with long-learned restraint. Younger dogs are short on training but full of murderous intent.
Lando has the makings of a capable herding dog. But he’s nine months old, smack in the middle of canine adolescence, the crazy period in between adorable puppyhood and reliable adulthood. For now, Lando is right where Hardy’s dogs and philosophers were stuck, judging everything using a rigid formula without room for understanding balancing principles. We hope he’ll take this blog post to heart. Perhaps we should remind him of the fate of the dog in the story. “He was considered too good a workman to live, and was, in fact, taken and tragically shot at twelve o’clock that same day.”
There is a wonderful elegance in the simplicity, durability, and repairability of traditional hand tools. Take this cant hook for example. We found it in the back of a shed we were cleaning out. Since most production hardware for the last 50 years has used hex head bolts, the square heads indicate that it is probably more than fifty years old. It wouldn’t be a stretch for this to be quite a bit older, since the design of the cant hook and it’s close relative the peavey hasn’t changed much in 150 years. A little oil freed up the hinge and now the tool works as well as it ever has. The handle is broken, but there’s enough left to keep it functional. One of these days when we get a good hickory log we’ll need to cut a blank, dry it for a year, and then turn a new handle on a lathe. But there’s no rush to fix it.
Cant hooks are used to give leverage when rolling logs and timbers. The big hinged hook is called a dog. The terms “dog” and “dogging” have an ancient history in wood crafts, being used to describe a wide variety of hooks, clamps, and temporary fastenings. Our cant hook has a crows foot at the bottom – two sharpened spikes to dig into the log. Other hooks have a flat bottom with a slight flange, appropriately called a hog nose.
The ease with which we were able to bring this antique tool back to usefulness brings to mind an article in Popular Science when Mythbusters was a relatively new show. Jaime Hyneman said: “I want to weigh in on the concept of tolerance in design. There are times when precision is needed, like in a highly tuned racing engine. But there are also cases where the best engineering is loose. The world is sloppy, and if you need something to interact closely in a variety of situations, precision can be your enemy.”
Well said Jaime. Gracefully dealing with the sloppy world is a lesson we are forever learning and relearning. All our farming plans are surrounded by contingencies. The more our plans can flex to conform to the contours of unpredictable circumstance, the less likely we are to be standing around scratching our heads and wondering, “Now what?”.
As much as we hate to do this to you, we think it is time to raise the prices on pork. We’ve held the price steady for three years, but our costs have been increasing unrelentingly. Despite whatever economists say about downward price pressures from lower oil costs, our feed costs haven’t budged. Two years ago, grain prices shot up for both conventional and organic feed. Since then, conventional feed costs have gone back down but organic prices stayed high. So instead of a 2:1 price premium for organic grain, we are now paying nearly a 3:1 premium.
Also driving us to raise prices are the facts that we aren’t able to get as much whey as in previous years and the amount of produce available for feeding pigs has declined. So the free supplemental feed has been disappearing at the same time as purchased feed has become more expensive.
Our updated prices will be:
- Whole Pig $3.75 per pound hanging weight plus butchering fees
- Half Pig $4.00 per pound hanging weight plus butchering fees
Based on our average hanging weights, this will add about $40 extra to your bill compared to 2014 pricing. Any orders reserved at 2014 pricing will still be honored.
Certified organic feed is expensive. Pigs are rough on equipment and fencing. Moving pigs to fresh pasture on a regular basis is hard work. Marketing, coordinating, and delivering orders is time consuming. We won’t go so far as to pretend we’re giving you a bargain. But you want us to still be in business next year, right? Thanks for sticking with us. We’ll do our best to keep giving you the best tasting food you can get.
This is our third winter bale grazing the cattle on pasture. The idea is simple — fence off hay bales with portable electric fences and as the cattle eat through bales, roll fences back every few days to expose new feed. There are different ways of looking at the economics of bale grazing versus winter yarding or barn feeding. There are situations in which either one might make more sense than the other. In our situation, bale grazing makes the most sense since it requires almost no infrastructure (buildings, concrete pads, permanent fencing), no winter tractor work, and no manure spreading. It allows us to place cattle in different fields in different winters, thus concentrating the manure in places that need the fertility the most.
We have found that dairy cattle don’t gain much weight bale grazing in cold weather, so this year we only kept the stockiest dairy steers with our herd. The beef cattle do just fine. Their shaggy winter coats and thicker hides keep them well insulated. There is a higher waste factor in bale grazing versus using hay feeders, since a lot of the hay gets trampled. In our case, we’re dealing with pretty stemmy hay, so the waste is higher than what it would be if we had better hay. But the wasted hay isn’t an absolute loss, since it provides an insulating bed for the cattle to rest on rather than standing in snow (or mud). And so long as the hay is coming from a different farm, it represents a source of imported fertility once it breaks down.
The calves are still small enough that they slip under the electric fences. We don’t mind this. It actually serves as a kind of “creep feeding”, where the calves can cherry pick the best hay ahead of the rest of the herd.
Keeping whey liquid during winter is a constant challenge. The greenhouse we use for the storage tanks has been a huge improvement in keeping the tanks and valves working, but on the coldest days there’s still a lot of work defrosting valves. Even trying to position the 2″ hoses and making up the connectors is a task, made harder by the loss of dexterity when wearing gloves.
Given the salt and lactose content, whey actually doesn’t freeze as readily as water, so we have a little leeway. But when the temperatures get to zero and below, it is a job to keep the whey troughs open.
During these periods of colder weather we need to chop ice two or three times daily. In the picture above, the ice is a few inches thick. Evidence of their strength is the fact that the boar and bigger sows have been able to punch a small hole through the ice in the bathtub trough pictured above.
Young animals have a joie de vivre that can’t be matched. As they age, they settle into their routines, eat their meals with purposeful solemnity, and nod disapprovingly at the antics of the younguns. Occasionally you’ll find an old cow kick up her heels and then look around to make sure nobody noticed, but calves will turn any event into a celebration.
The calf area in the hoophouse was starting to get messy (notice the dirty flanks), so we led the calves out, cleaned the manure and general mess, put down fresh bedding, reloaded their hay feeder, and turned them back in. Every time we return them to their home, they spend five minutes pretending they are rodeo bulls. The routine involves eating a mouthful of hay, running a lap, kicking your heels up, and trying your best not to crash into your roommates who are doing the same thing. We don’t know what they get out of it, but they seem to have a blast.
This morning we were treated to a prominent and long lasting sun pillar. It became visible about ten minutes before sunrise and remained in place a few minutes after the sun had fully cleared the horizon. Driving along Route 162, there were a number of other people pulled over to get a picture. Too bad none of us had anything other than mobile phone cameras, since the crammed-in optics do a poor job with sky shots. The actual pillar had a lot more contrast than shown in the photo, far exceeding the camera’s dynamic range.
When the weather dips below zero, even the protection of the greenhouse is insufficient to prevent the valves on the whey tanks from freezing up. We’ve tried different techniques to fix this, including propane heaters (least efficient method), heat lamps (OK, but still expensive to run), low temperature defroster heat patches (fast and effective, but even very low wattage heaters caused problems by melting pipe threads and valve bodies), and pouring hot water on the valve and down a hose connected to the valve (makes a wet mess that later makes an ice patch, also it requires lugging out several buckets of water).
The ice does not expand enough to crack the polypropylene, but the real risk is breaking the valve while trying to open it. The plastic linking the handle to the sealing ball usually is the first component to give, so most times the valves fail shut or nearly shut. It is a wet and sloppy experience trying to replace a valve holding back 3000 gallons of whey. When that happens, we drill a few 1/2″ holes through the valve body (as quickly as we can), and then attach a hose to drain the tank. It’s not really possible to perform the operation without getting soaked. Thankfully, with the greenhouse and an improved defrosting technique, we haven’t had to replace a valve in two years. Before that? Let’s just say our spare plumbing parts bin contains a big collection of broken valves…
The technique we’ve finally settled on is to bring out a few gallons of hot water and a towel. We soak the towel and then wrap it around the valve. After a minute of so, remove the towel, soak it again, and reapply. The towel does a much better job of holding the heat close to the valve. After a few minutes the ice starts to soften up, whey starts to trickle through, and by gently working the handle back and forth we are able to clear the ice plug. Douglas Adams would be pleased that we remembered our towels.