I’m far too busy to write a thoughtful or provocative blog post, so I’ll just show pictures of something everyone likes seeing: piglets.
I know I can’t satisfy implacable spelling watchdogs, but please accept my acknowledgement that the contrived blog post title makes use of the British spelling vice, whereas vise is the correct American spelling.
I am immoderately pleased with getting a stable vise in my shop for the first time since I’ve moved here. My dad gave me an old Prentiss 522 bench vise. It took some oiling to get the screw free, but with a little cleanup it served me well at our old house. I’ve had it temporarily mounted on a rickety wooden table for the last four years, but I never could bear down on it as much as I needed because of the flimsy substructure. This week I installed it on the (also new) welding table.
I started building the welding table and its appurtenances a few days before Christmas, with construction proceeding in small increments. Finding time for projects like this is challenging. Besides all the other competing urgent and beyond-urgent projects, the fact is that the workshop is an overcrowded, inhospitable place. Much of the problem is due to my chronic inability to organize it in a sustainable fashion. But it is a lot to ask of a small garage to function as place to house all the household and farm tools, supplies, repair parts, and spares for woodworking, metalworking, mechanical, fencing, masonry, plumbing, electrical projects. The roof leaks in a couple places and the front floods under the garage doors during heavy rains or snowmelts. Those problems could be fixed with roofing and drainage tile respectively, but on the list of priorities it never comes close to being addressed. And then there’s the cold. It is a hard place to spend an afternoon wrenching on rusty parts when the garage thermometer never gets near ten degrees. I might put an old wood stove out there to make winter projects more bearable, but that involves a motivational dilemma: it never seems important during the warm weather and it always seems too miserable of an undertaking when the weather is cold enough to warrant it.
With all that whining to explain the glacial pace of my progress out of the way, allow me to show off the rig. I used a standard trailer receiver hitch design to allow for a portable setup. The vise is mounted on a 3/8″ plate bolted to a 2″x3/16″ square tube. I might need to weld gussets from the plate to the tube, but presently it is just bolted in place. By design receivers are a little sloppy to allow the tube to telescope inside, but I found that snugging a 5/8″ bolt through the hitch pin hole eliminated all the side-to-side movement. To prevent top-to-bottom movement I tapped the receiver and threaded in a 3/8″-24 set screw.
My purposes in building the receiver hitch mount were threefold. One was so I could remove the vise from the welding table if it gets in the way. Another was that I wanted to be able to mount different fixtures to the table in the future; for instance, I’d like to build a similar hitch for a short section of railroad track I use an anvil. Lastly, I wanted a way to attach the vise to the trailer hitch on the trucks or tractor. There are plenty of situations where I’m fixing things a long way from home, so this should come in handy.
I’m not done with vises. I’d like to find an old blacksmithing leg vise to have something I can beat on with impunity. But having this tool back in service represents a welcome advance in my workshop productivity.
Our anti-rat division welcomed 4 new hunters this week. Meet first time mom, Poko and her 4 kittens: Crash, Bang, Lutra and Bat.
We’ve been experimenting with keeping our hens and grower pigs together on pasture. The pigs don’t benefit from the chickens much, but the chickens get a lot of help from the pigs. The details of managing it all aren’t worked out yet, so we’re watching carefully to know if we need to change things. We like what we’re seeing.
The chickens need predator protection (hawks, dogs, and coyotes are the main threats). An electrified net fence works for four legged predators, but hawks swoop in and fly out with a chicken dinner in their talons. We’ve noticed that the hawks never get near the pigs, so our hope is that the pigs will act as intimidators.
The chicken mobile home is parked just outside the pig fence. On three sides we’ve rigged up an electronet to ward off opportunistic canines, and the fourth side is the two-wire pig fence. The hens have no problems slipping under the wires to join the pigs. In the hen-only area, they have their feeder, grit, oyster shell (a calcium supplement for their egg shells), and water. The pig area has a feeder and a whey trough and about a half-acre of pasture with hedgerow along one side.
Our pigs eat a certified organic grain ration that is 50% corn and 50% mixed small grains (usually peas and oats, although this batch has some buckwheat in it). This would normally register as too low in protein, but the whey they drink compensates so they are all doing well. Hens need a bit higher protein level than pigs, but once we moved the chickens next to the pigs, they abandoned their expensive chicken feed showing a clear preference for pig feed. We’ve found that animals generally select appropriate foods, so if they weren’t getting enough protein from the pig feed, they’d go back to their feed. Apparently the plants and bugs they are foraging are supplying them with whatever they need. If we notice that the hens aren’t laying eggs regularly, we might need to restrict them from the pig feed, but we’ll wait and see.
The chickens are profiting from the pigs’ rooting. Hens do a great job of finding bugs and plants at ground level. They can scuffle up dirt with their feet but they can’t get very deep. The pigs are prodigious diggers. Since they aren’t methodical, they’ll tear up a strip of ground for a minute, then wander off. The hens are waiting in the wings. As soon as the pigs have left, they jump into the hole and find all the grubs and worms the pigs left behind.
Assuming the cross-feeding works out, the only other downside is lost eggs. Two of our older hens have been laying eggs in the brush instead of their nest boxes. The numbers might be higher if the pigs are eating the eggs before we can find them. We’ll see what happens. Better foraging opportunities and improved protection from predators might justify the loss of a few eggs.
More piglets arrived last night. When I went out for the evening check, I counted the sows and kept coming up one short. So after beating the bushes, I walked out to the far end of the field and found this gal nesting up.
She picked a pretty spot to farrow, right under a wild apple tree..
On my way through the rest of my rounds, I found a one-week old piglet from another group alone on the ground, barely moving. Normally a piglet would scream its head off when picked up, but this one only made tiny croaking noises. I brought her to the house and gave her some water and wrapped her in a rag. Piglets this weak rarely can be revived. My plan was to rehydrate her, feed her some milk and eggs, and then get her back out to her litter mates as quickly as possible. She only lasted for an hour before dying.
After I went back outside to check on the farrowing sow, she already had a few piglets out. The sun was setting, so I wasn’t able to photograph more.
There is nothing uniquely tragic in the birth and death of piglets. Some days we encounter more deaths than births and it seems that Bob Dylan was right to warn that “he not busy being born is busy dying”. But Bob Dylan tends to focus on the pessimistic side of things. For as much as I enjoy his music and the musicians he inspired, I’ll suggest that gloomy singer-songwriters spend time sitting down with a group of playful newborn piglets. I think anyone would have a hard time creating a sad song after fifteen minutes with piglets.
The month of May is bringing a surge to our farm. The change was late in coming, but everywhere life is exploding. Chicks and piglets are running all over. Gravid cows and cats are swelling into their fulness. All the indicator species that help us measure the health of a farm ecosystem are present in abundance, such as snakes in the brush, frogs in the streams, earthworms in the pastures, and dung beetles in (where else?) the dung. Even animals we don’t favor so much, like rats, are experiencing population booms (much to the pleasure of the aforementioned cats).
We try our best to accommodate all the little live things (again, not so much the rats though…), but sometimes their fecundity is feckless, as in the case of the bird who laid eggs precariously on the hinge at the top of the backhoe’s boom. Maybe she counted on the fact that I’m a sucker for preserving birds nests. Add to that my proclivity for procrastination — it just gives me an excuse to put off my backhoe projects for a few weeks while I wait for the nestlings to fledge.
This is somewhat controversial in the pork world, but we don’t castrate our boars. There are valid arguments pro and con, but thus far we’ve never had a need to do so.
One challenge this introduces is that our farm is full of earnest young suitors whenever any gilt or sow is in heat.
Despite our efforts to plan breedings, having so many intact males sometimes gives us surprise litters, like the piglets above. They were sired by a Yorkshire boar shortly before he was transferred to a new assignment in my parents’ freezer (where he has reportedly been serving admirably). He was a fine pig, just not the one we had planned to breed with this particular sow. But love has a way of conquering all and our plans need to adjust. To borrow from Marvin Gaye, “Ain’t no fencing high enough to keep me away from you babe.”
These days are just jammed packed. Tilling and planting the gardens, repairing equipment, building fences, getting stuck in the mud, checking on newborn piglets, and more… The long cold winter and long cold spring pushed back pasture growth considerably but this week we’ve finally been able to move the herds back onto pasture. The last two weeks have been warm, so the grass is catching up.
The cattle have been getting eating a mixture of hay and fresh grass this week, but in a day or two they’ll be done with hay. Ruminants do better with an adjustment period when switching feed, even if the transition is just from dried grass (hay) to fresh grass. Cattle metabolize what would otherwise be indigestible plant material by bacterial action in their rumens, but the rumen bacteria populations need some time to adapt to the available feed. Spring grass can be especially problematic as it is high in protein and moisture, leading to spectacular sprays of diarrhea if the cattle are suddenly switched from coarse dry hay.
The only livestock group remaining in a winter paddock is the grower pig herd. We just started training them to the electric fence, so they should be ready to move out to the back field by this weekend.
We have some new arrivals.
Our wild hen–the descendent of an Old English Game hen the kids’ grandparents gave them–hatched out nine chicks recently. It is her third successful batch, and they’ve all made it so far.
Cracklin’, the sow who farrowed this past winter and then adopted another sow’s litter (18 in all), is taking great care of the 10 piglets she farrowed this week.
And we are expecting more any day.
We assembled our new hog feeder, a Brower/Pride of the Farm outdoor wheel feeder. These types of feeders are called “wheel feeders” because of the mechanism that allows the pigs to agitate the feed bin and refill the troughs. The design takes the rooting instinct of pigs into account. As they spin the paddlewheel they also spin a connected agitator in the bottom of the bin to meter feed into the trough.
This feeder will replace a very old Pride of the Farm feeder. Judging by its condition and the story I got from the guy who gave me the old feeder, it is at least 50 years old, but it could easily be older. The old feeder only holds 400 pounds of grain and it doesn’t provide any protection from rain and snow. The new feeder doesn’t completely protect the trough, but it overhangs it enough that I don’t anticipate nearly as much trouble with the trough flooding or freezing. If we were to fill the new feeder completely we’d be able to place about 3,000 pounds of grain in it. I don’t intend to put more than a ton in at a time, but the extra capacity means a lot less daily labor refilling the feeders.
I am impressed by the quality of the components that Brower uses on their products. I usually upgrade hardware on kits I build, but I didn’t have to do any of that with this project. The fiberglass parts were well made. Stainless steel hardware was included for all ground-contact components. The only complaint was that the instructions only covered about half of the assembly, so I had to play with the top section, ladder, and lid to figure out how it was all supposed to work together.
The next step is to hand it over to our quality inspectors, the pigs, for their shakedown test.