Wrong Direction Farm

Lean and Mean

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The North American Meat Institute (NAMI) is a lobbyist organization representing most of the major meatpacking organizations in the United States.  Their website explains that their “history dates back to Chicago in 1906 when the Institute was created in response to the passage of the Federal Meat Inspection Act.”  These are the folks who protected the meatpacking industry from the public outcry following the publication of The Jungle.  And they are carrying on that legacy today, advancing their “mission is to shape a public policy environment in which the meat and poultry industry can produce wholesome products safely, efficiently and profitably.”

Their website has lots of interesting articles.  Like this one, explaining why you should trust the industry when it comes to antibiotics in livestock production.  Or this one that promotes cornfed over grassfed beef because “grass-fed cattle require more than five acres to produce a pound of beef”.  Huh?  That would mean 2,500 acres per grass finished steer!  Or their fact sheet disabusing the public of their preconceptions over pink slime (or as they prefer to call it Lean Finely Textured Beef).  Their defense for using ammonia hydroxide in the meat?  It is “used to produce a number of products such as puddings and baked goods”.  The line of reasoning seems to insist that since this stuff is also used in other industrial food products we have no reason to be afraid of it.  The old “everybody’s doing it” excuse…  My favorite discovery was when I clicked the link for “Worker Safety in the Meat and Poultry Industry” and got a “Document Not Found” message.  At least they got that one right (yeah, that’s a cheap shot).

But let’s get down to business.  Mocking lobbyists is like shooting fish in a barrel.  And besides, Stephen Colbert already did a brilliant job lampooning this organization a few years ago.  Here is what caught my eye.  The Farm Progress website (which gets a lot of its content from big ag interests, repackaging press releases for the various lobbyists) has article after article explaining how beef is getting leaner and healthier and how Americans should eat more processed meat as part of a balanced diet.  One recent lean meat article highlighting a survey sponsored by the North American Meat Institute notes “millennials are more likely to associate with functional benefits of meat and less likely to emphasize enjoyment” and “nutrition also has gained importance as shoppers are putting greater emphasis on leaner cuts and portion control.”  Of course it isn’t surprising that this “research” yielded these results.  Sponsorship bias is probable.  But these folks spend huge amounts of money shaping public opinion, so it isn’t implausible that public opinion matches their agenda.

Isn’t there something flawed about our collective psyche if we are predominantly focusing on the “functional benefits” of our food and not emphasizing enjoyment?  Are we really so clinical that we ignore our taste buds?  Or are we so hounded by food guilt or nutritional confusion that we compensate by choosing contrary to our biological impulses?  Are we now food technicians or tacticians?

I view the world as a complicated place so I normally prefer nuanced positions.  But in this case I’ll be unambiguous.  This topic is as close as you’ll get to having me interrupt the polite conversation, stand up on your coffee table in my chore boots, and start declaiming.  Here goes:  I reject functional, unpleasurable eating.  My mental and physical well being are closely tied to eating enjoyable food in good company.  Food should taste good.  It should provide satiety.  I could qualify this in all kinds of ways with advice for moderation, exercise, and avoiding scurvy, but who needs all that?  We have long-standing socially oriented, locally appropriate food traditions (although these may take some work to rediscover if your personal and family food traditions have been eroded during the last few generations).  We have brains; we have taste receptors; we have a fascinating digestive-neural feedback network.  These systems served humans well for a long time before we had lobbyists, Food Pyramids, or ChooseMyPlate.gov to tell us what to eat.

Enjoy your meal.

Filling the Grain Bin Better

Grain Delivery

We buy grain for the pigs in two ton batches, delivered to us by the good folks at Cold Springs Farm in Sharon Springs.  Our grain handling system is extremely inefficient, but it has the dubious virtue of being low cost.  About $250 in tin and plywood for a two-ton grain storage box.

A “real” grain handling system would have a hopper bin with a pneumatic fill-pipe so grain could be blown right into the bin.  And then the grain would flow down through the hopper’s funnel into an auger to drop the grain into grain wagons as needed.  Then we would use the tractor to drive the grain wagon out into the pasture and auger the grain right into the hogs’ feeders.  But we don’t have a hopper bin. Or an auger.  Or a grain wagon.  Or a tractor that can pull a wagon or power a wagon’s auger.  Or hog feeders (actually we do have one, but it needs to be replaced).  If we were in a different region of the country, we might be able to find some of this equipment in good used condition.  Unlike what is available in the midwest, the bins and wagons I’ve looked at over the last few years have been rusted out and really only fit for scrap.  And good, used outdoor hog feeders are nonexistent here.

So for now we use a cyclone fitting and hold onto the end of the pipe while the grain is blown into our plywood bunk.  It is dusty, itchy work.

Suiting up to blow in the feed.

Suiting up to blow in the feed.

Respirator and goggles are requirements.

Respirator and goggles are requirements.

After the grain is in the bin, we do a lot of shoveling and carrying, moving 5 gallon buckets into the winter pen to fill the hog feeder.  This works out tolerably for the winter since the pigs live close to the bin.  But in the spring, summer, and fall they can be three quarters of a mile away, so the handling conditions become more adverse.

[Note to self:  Fix that hole the rats chewed in the side of the plywood bin.  And setup the rat traps out there.]

Right now we are woefully inefficient.  We’d like to invest in efficiency improvements, but before we do that we need to look at our methods and figure out ways to do our work smarter.  There is always a way to fix problems by spending money, and sometimes that is the best way.  But there are often simple procedural improvements.  We like process improvements.  They don’t rust, get gnawed by rats, or depreciate.

Taking the high road with process improvements rather than spending sounds great, but who am I kidding?  Actually, I’ve been looking at ready-made purchased solutions for grain handling equipment and tractors.  The prospect of additional monthly debt payments is intimidating, but I think we’re inevitably going to be making some big purchases this year.  Is this responsible spending?  Maybe not.  We’re not called Wrong Direction for nothing.

A Good Idea at the Time

Steve McQueen

“Fella I once knew in El Paso, one day he took all his clothes off and jumped in a mess of cactus. I asked him the same question, why?  He said it seemed to be a good idea at the time.”

Steve McQueen, This Magnificent Seven

Driving around the other day I passed a corn field sign.  Folks from non-farming areas might not be familiar with field signs.  Seed companies get attention by having their sales representatives advertise the particular variety growing in a field.  (They usually wait to see if the crop is doing well before putting up the signs; you aren’t likely to see anyone bragging on a stunted field of 30 bushel corn.)  Most of the signs were removed at harvest, but a few stragglers invariably are missed, so there are always ads for all the big names in ag seeds on the field margins in any farming area.

The sign that got me thinking is for the Chemgro company.  I didn’t take a picture of the sign in the field, because I don’t want to make anyone feel like I’m singling them out for abuse.  This isn’t about abuse, I promise.  This is more about self reflection and only tenuously related to farming.  Actually, it is more a ruse to write about my musings, but since this is a farm blog it’s got to be farmish somehow.  I don’t have a reason to believe that Chemgro is any better or worse than any of dozens of other seed companies that service our area.

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The point I’m making after staggering through those qualifications and apologies is that at some point in time, naming a company “Chemgro” made a lot of sense.  Probably at the same time as “Chemlawn” and “Liqui Chem” made sense for lawn care company names.  It is interesting how times change, particularly how public perceptions change.  Chemlawn rebranded itself as TruGreen, but Chemgro still keeps on.  Similarly the seed company Mycogen carries its legacy of mycological genetic engineering in its name.  Would any company today (outside of perhaps the laboratory supplies industry) include chemicals or genetic engineering in its name?

My question to myself is:  what do I accept unconditionally now that a few decades hence will appear preposterous, gauche, quaint, suspect, or even abhorrent?  It is unlikely that I’ll be able to discern that at this time.  There are probably some prophetic voices pointing these things out today, but it is human nature to not listen to those voices until after the consequences catch up.  Since I probably can’t do a good job of predicting what contemporary phrases will sound as strange to another generation as “Chemgro” sounds to me, maybe the only good strategy is to approach all buzzwords, catchphrases, and the rest of the sustainable/grassfed/organic/pastured/holistic/agrarian/humanscale/freerange/biodynamic/ecological/humane/lowimpact/whatchamacallit zeitgeist with a little more humility.  “It seemed like a good idea at the time” might be the only justification I’ll be able to give when future generations scratch their heads at the effects of the legacy of what I valued and how that affected my farming.  And when they wonder why I worked on something as curious as a “Farm Blog”, I’ll give them the best Steve McQueen impression as I say it.

Bovine Phrenology

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We tend to view phrenology and the larger idea of physiognomy as quaint curiosities, worn out ancient concepts akin to geocentrism or flat-earth theories.  But evidence keeps cropping up that there might be something to it after all, at least for livestock.  The original reasoning behind physiognomy is totally insupportable, but there is a body of evidence that suggests that physical appearance can be correlated with behavior and temperament.

The ancients liked to use physiognomy to characterize humans, but contemporary science best supports the use of physiognomy to characterize animals.  That makes some sense, since wild animal breeding is based on natural selection criteria and domesticated livestock breeding – at least when the breeder is doing things correctly – is based on phenotypical selection.  Humans and, ahem, even livestock breeders, tend to use less sound criteria in selecting mates.

While it might seem easy to dismiss as folklore, there are some physical characteristics of cattle that give indications about their temperament.  One such trait is the facial hair whorl.  Most cattle have a whorl on their face; some have none, some have more than one.  Statistically, an animal with a whorl high on the face is more likely to be flighty whereas a midline or lower whorl indicates a calm disposition.  Animals accustomed to a person might not display the same degree of temperament problems, but the presence of a high facial whorl becomes a bigger factor when cattle encounter an unknown person.

Calves A and B exhibit the whorl pattern below the midline; Calf C has a whorl slightly above midline.  I don't have an example of a very high whorl.

Calves A and B exhibit the whorl pattern below the midline; Calf C has a whorl slightly above midline. I don’t have an example of a very high whorl.  There is another calf (D) in this group with a below-midline whorl, but he was too interested in eating hay to come over to have his picture taken.

We have been raising four calves this winter with plans to sell three of them at auction as feeders in the spring.  We’ll keep and raise the best one for ourselves.  When we evaluate which calves will be offered for sale we evaluate them on several criteria.  Of course we are concerned about growth, health, and conformation, but temperament is certainly an important consideration.  So here’s the weird thing:  calves A and C are in a close tie for best growth, health, and conformation in this group.  But calf C is by far the calmest and friendliest calf in the group, even though hair whorl patterns would indicate the opposite should be true.  They are all purebred Holsteins, from the same farm, from the same long-standing breeding program.  It would have been nice to have the theory match reality.

The point to be made is that although judging cattle by hair whorl is probably statistically valid (and it is certainly more valid than using whorl patterns in humans to predict handedness or homosexuality), there are always a number of individuals that deviate from the mean.  Judging by whorl pattern might be good as a general rule, but biological systems are complicated things that almost never can be entirely characterized by simple rules of thumb.  We’ll always need to make wide allowances for exceptions.

Note:  Besides facial hair whorls, some cattle experts evaluate cattle with a wide array of physical observations, including hair whorls along the flank, neck length, head/neck posture, hair coat length, and various proportional measurements.  None of these are as well supported as facial whorls, so I can’t say that they are equally valid.  A good place to start reading on this topic is Reproduction and Animal Health.  Like the majority of the for-farmers/by-farmers books out there it isn’t well-written, but it is full of provocative ideas.  I wish I could find a resource for comparable physiognomic markers for pigs, but I don’t think anything exists.  Even the Canadian Prairie Swine Centre’s website only references research on cattle traits for this topic.  So we’re on our own for the pigs.

Buried fence

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We had the misfortune of placing one temporary fence on the north side of the bale grazing pasture in the perfect area for both snow drifts and ice accumulation.  The fence in question is picketed on 36″ plastic stakes, with polywire strung at the top clip.  The field adjacent to the fence is usually wet due to a series of seeps.  So we’ve got a situation where each snowfall drifts along the fence line.  The seep water flows over and through the drift, freeing it into a hard ice block.  The ice is now high enough that the top strand of the fence is dragging in the snow.  The base is strong ice with a thing mush layer covered by a few inches of crusted snow.

One cow found a place where the fence was entirely buried, so she was able to walk right out of the pasture.  We found her standing at the next fence looking over at the boar and sows and wondering why any animal would choose to be a pig.  We don’t know if she came to any conclusions.  That’s one of the disappointments with cows:  even though their rumination gives the impression that they are pondering the deep verities, their subsequent behaviour indicates that they gain little insight from their contemplative lives.  For all we can surmise, their only thought as they they are burping and chewing cud is “Mmmm, this tastes good the second time too.”

All the other perimeter fences are still present enough of a barrier to curb any wanderlust.  This particular walkabout cow is an easy-going animal, so it didn’t take much work to walk her back to where she belonged.  We kicked the fence free from the encrustation, so now it lies a couple of inches above the snow.  So far the fence, so good.  The cattle don’t like crossing the fence, even if it is only at ground level.

Eating Ashes

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Our pigs love to eat the ashes from our wood burning (after they cool a bit of course).  We don’t have any pig husbandry books from the 18th century or earlier, but wood ash and charcoal are commonly recommended in many old farming references.  Wood ash seems to have been used as a cure for all kinds of swine illnesses.  Several old books indicate ash improved feed efficiency and increased bone strength.  Generally, hardwood ashes were preferred over softwood.  We haven’t been able to find any recent research that digs into the biology and chemistry of what the ashes do for the hogs.  One advantage might come from the alkalinity of the ash.  Another theory is that the ash provides minerals, since trees have deep roots that pump minerals from deeper, less leached soil strata and deposit them in their wood fibers.

Ash connoisseur review.  2014 ashes, a very good year.  Excellent grey color with delicate charcoal flecks.  Powdery mouthfeel with a gritty finish.  A fine bouquet of elm, red oak, and locust, with hints of poplar and sugar maple.  91 points.

Ash connoisseur review. 2015 ashes, a very good year. Excellent grey color with delicate charcoal flecks. Powdery mouthfeel with a gritty finish. A fine bouquet of elm, red oak, and locust, with hints of poplar and sugar maple. 91 points.

We don’t really have enough evidence to say that pigs fed ashes do better than pigs not receiving ashes.  We can only observe that the pigs are glad to eat it, so they seem to be convinced they are getting something out of it.  We make wood ash for free every day in the winter, so why not?

Fire and Ice

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On nights like this when it is going down to -20 degrees and the wind is gusting at 40mph, we welcome heat in any form we can get it.  Of course there is the wood stove, but it’s nice to have supplemental heat from a bottle, too.

Red peppers, garlic and salt make up this brew.  The red peppers have more sugar than the green, so fermentation works better.

Red peppers, garlic and salt make up this brew. The red peppers have more sugar than the green, so fermentation works better.

The red peppers also have a more traditional look.

The red peppers also have a more traditional look.

Fine Feathered

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The humidity and temperature overnight worked together to deposit a feathery coating of hoar frost over the windward sides of branches and fence wires.  Even exposed snow banks were covered in fingernail-sized flakes of frost.  The frost disappeared soon after the sunlight strengthened, but it was a great sight while it lasted.  I’m not a meteorologist, nor do I play one on TV, so I found this blog helpful in differentiating between hoar frost and rime ice.

Enjoy the view.

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Not much color these days, but we still enjoy the front vista.

Aristotle’s Milk

"Who says I'm not thriving?  Just keep scratching under my chin.  A little to the left.  That's it."

“Males have more teeth than females in the case of men, sheep, goats, and swine; in the case of other animals observations have not yet been made” – Aristotle, History of Animals, Book II, Part 3

“[A] calf cannot thrive on pasteurized cow’s milk” – www.realmilk.com

Q:  What do these quotes have in common?

A:  They are both easily testable claims which have been accepted as truth by many people.  And I’m convinced that neither claim is valid.

For all that Aristotle got right, the dental example above is probably the most oft-cited error in his work.  Maybe his wife was toothless and maybe he coasted into old age with a full set of chompers.  But did he ever think to verify the claim?  It wouldn’t have been hard to do.  He only needed to go down to the agora and hire volunteers for an obol or a drachma (or whatever was the going rate for research subjects in those days).  He could have grouped the subjects by age and gender, counted teeth, and determined average dentition.  The statistics were within his grasp – he wrote a book on the Pythagoreans, so he could definitely handle the math or find someone else who could work the averages for him.  So why did he just pass it on without checking?  There’s no way to tell what caused Aristotle to accept this error while he did so much thoughtful study on other ideas, but I think we’ve all felt the weight exerted by argumentum ad populum to understand how he might have made this mistake.  Sometimes it is hard to accurately judge what “facts” are actually factual, especially when we are surrounded by people repackaging conventional wisdom as fact.

The claim that a calf cannot thrive on pasteurized milk isn’t much different from the male superdentition claim.  This claim isn’t unique to realmilk.com, but as the most vocal organization promoting raw milk, it is well positioned for broad influence.  The spectre of weak, sickly, and even dead calves is often cited in pro-raw milk publications and internet discussions.  Perhaps it is because some people have been so terrorized (sometimes at gunpoint) in their attempt to make their own food choices, but we find the “pasteurized milk is horrible” rhetoric often gets as overblown as the “raw milk is horrible” rhetoric.  And then there is the rhetoric from the “cow milk is horrible for humans” crowd, who occasionally also make dire claims about pasteurized milk killing calves.  So where did this claim come from?  Why hasn’t it been checked against the experience of farms that have been raising calves on pasteurized milk for many generations of their dairy herds?

You're gonna need a bigger tape.

You’re gonna need a bigger tape.

Our experience is that calves can thrive on a diet of pasteurized milk.  We feed a group of four or five bull calves each year on near-expiration or recently-expired pasteurized milk.  We start them on one gallon of whole milk per day and within a month each calf is getting 2 to 3 gallons per day.  This is our fourth year raising calves on pasteurized milk.  We’ve raised Holstein, Brown Swiss, Ayrshire, Jersey, and Devon calves, but this year’s group is all Holstein.  The oldest two in this batch at 12 weeks old were too big for our weight tape (it stops at 277 pounds).  The youngest at 10 weeks old taped in at 260 pounds.  No pot bellies, no droopy heads or ears, just vigorous calves.  Would these calves do better on raw milk?  Maybe.  But our calves are outperforming the standard targets for large framed Holsteins of their weight class and age, so it would be a stretch to claim that they aren’t thriving.  Note that we aren’t claiming that this is the best or the only way to raise calves.  And we certainly wouldn’t claim that bottle raised calves are better than dam raised calves.  We only assert that we can raise calves on pasteurized milk.

"Who says I'm not thriving?  Just keep scratching under my chin.  A little to the left.  That's it."

“Who says I’m not thriving? Just keep scratching under my chin. A little to the left. That’s it.”

The urge to employ untested claims in campaigns for or against certain dietary options isn’t helpful to food consumers and it isn’t helpful to farmers.  The arguments over food and the concomitant arguments over the agriculture that produces that food often involve the sorts of overreaching statements highlighted above.  There are all sorts of tribal rivalries and resentments that accrete between different groups even though they are pursuing very similar ideals for ecologically and socially sound agriculture.  The “healthier than thou” mindset creates divisions between people who ought to be working together.  Perhaps this is a utopian ideal, but it would be nice if everyone on the food spectrum, from vegans to vikings, all gave each other the courtesy of respect.  And a good place to start would be to be very careful to only state as fact those things which can be verified.  Conjecture and inference are also fine, so long as they are properly identified.

Now if you care to know, we’ll gladly tell you that we would be considered dangerously irresponsible by the FDA and the CDC.  We drink raw whole milk.  We eat rare meat.  We make mayonnaise and ice cream with raw eggs.  We get a lot of our calories from saturated animal fats.  We eat plenty of salt.  We don’t get flu shots.  We’ll even admit to believing that alcohol, tobacco, and firearms are all fine things when used considerately.  In short, we ain’t afeared of the public health bugaboos.  Can we prove that these choices are better or best?  Do we campaign to make other people change their habits?  Nope and nope.

One last thing…  I technically have more teeth than Rachel (we counted).  I had one wisdom tooth removed and the other three remain unemerged but she had all four wisdom teeth removed.  So if you count emerged teeth we’re tied, but if you count total teeth I’m three ahead. Maybe Aristotle was on to something after all.

Move em out

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Today we watched the cattle plow across the fields as we moved them to a new set of hay bales.  (Sorry, once again cell phone pictures don’t do well with anything superimposed on a snowy background.)

The cattle move through deep snow with equanimity.  Being a quadruped has its perks.  It was pretty slow going for the humans.

Rachel just before sinking to her waist in the  deeper drifts ahead.

Rachel just before sinking to her waist in the deeper drifts ahead.

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