Breeder Profile – Honey Pig!

There is only one way to start off my series of breeder profiles, and that’s with Honey Pig.  She was one of the first three pigs we bought, has always been my favourite, and is much of the reason we do what we do today. I really can’t overstate just how much I love this pig, and I know she loves me right back.  That’s mainly because the rest of the family thinks she’s ugly, and she tries to bite them but not me. 😊

Pigs are the most maligned of intensively farmed animals, chickens being the only other stock that might be able to vie for that unenviable title.  This isn’t news either. Everybody knows it.  Everybody has seen the awful videos. It’s no secret that the life of most intensively farmed pigs sucks a whole lot.

When presented with the fact that most of the pork available to consumers comes from tortured pigs, we are faced with a choice.  We can either ignore the fact, because pork chops and bacon are delicious, or we can source our pork and pork products from a farm where we’re confident the animals are treated with the love and respect they deserve.  Me, being the cynical, untrusting, control freak that I am, went with option C, and chose to raise them myself. 😊

I’ve been trying to shop and eat ethically for many years.  Us moving to the country to grow our own food was the culmination of that.  As a result, it shouldn’t be too surprising that one of our goals was to own and raise pigs.  I ate next-to-no pork or pork products, because finding them from free-range, ethically-raised animals can be quite hard.  I wanted pork belly and salami back in my life though, so pig raising was definitely on the agenda.  It was on our mid-term plan though, and Linhda was very firm that we’d not have pigs for at least five years. They’re much harder to keep than something like sheep or goats, and Linhda was determined that we’d be fully set-up and ready before we got pigs.  Imagine her surprise when I bought home 3 little weaners inside of 8 months of moving in… 😃

In my defence, I had researched pig keeping to the nth degree.  I had devoured every bit of information I could get my hands on, and felt 100% prepared.  I will readily admit just how naïve that was of me, and the learning curve that we faced was WAY more than I could have imagined.  Several years on though, I’m confident that we have it right.  We are always learning of course, and I’d never be arrogant enough to claim that we are the masters of all we do.  We’re doing it at scale though, and we’re producing an excellent product from the happiest animals you’ll ever meet.

That all had to start somewhere, and it started with 3 little Large White x Landrace weaners we bought after answering an add on gumtree.

Honey, Smoked, and Ham. It’s actually Ham, Honey, and Smoked, but the name doesn’t work as well like that. 🙂

Hand feeding piglets is the easiest way to bond with them. They’re pretty much ruled by their belly. 🙂

Going to see the pigs and pick them up was a revelation.  Dad and I went to the property, which was somewhere north of Blyth from memory.  It was a smallish farm, probably around the size of our place now, and was nicely set up.  These people depended on the pigs for some of their income, but obviously cared for the animals on a personal level as well.  That day I started a routine that I’ve kept every time I meet somebody who keeps pigs – I picked their brains, probably until they just wanted me to shut the hell up and go away.

They had a handful of girls and a boar or two, and had a couple of litters for us to choose from.  At the time, I was thinking we’d grab one or two, entirely to feed-on and eat ourselves.  We got to the property, and got to meet the mum and dad.  Just as an aside, always meet the parents of any piglets you buy. You’d be surprised how much the piglets inherit from their parents – the obvious physiological stuff, but also personalities.  Anyway, within a minute of meeting the parents I knew that I wanted to breed from the pigs I bought.  The result was that we bought two girls and one boy.  I named them Honey, Smoked, and Ham. 😊

Honey’s mum. She was a sweety.

Honey’s dad showing off his best side.

Honey and Smoked were girls to keep as breeders, and Hammy was to feed-on for us.  At the risk of rambling (a mate told me recently that my blog posts were just one big tangent, but I’m not even sorry), Ham Pig was amazingly educational for us.  We got really close to him, and he was the first pig we ever took to the abattoir.  There was the education of keeping, feeding, loading, transporting pigs, which was invaluable in and of itself, but there was also the emotional test.  I freaking loved that pig, and came within a second of turning around at the abattoir and just bringing him home again.  I remember distinctly what it was like.  The ramp at the abattoir was too high for our trailer (it actually lowers, which was also part of the learning curve come to think of it 😊 ), so we weren’t sure how we’d unload him.  He was super tame though, so I figured I’d just lead him.  I literally, opened the trailer, gave him a scratch, and called him to me, at which he jumped down and calmly followed me into a holding yard.  I then gave him a big pat, told him I loved him, and left before I was tempted to see how quickly I could reload him to take him home. 😊

Bruce meeting Ham Pig 🙂

But back to Honey…  Honey and Smoked grew quickly, and both were lovely girls.  They would’ve been 8 or 9 months old when we had the opportunity to buy in four boys.  I trawled gumtree daily for things like this, and was amazed to see somebody advertise this group of boys, super cheaply, and they’d deliver them.  As it turns out, their regular buyer had fallen through at the last minute, the boys weren’t castrated, and they needed to divest themselves of the boars quickly to avoid the risk of boar taint (I cover boar taint in detail in my post on castration).  We grabbed all four pigs, I spent an hour picking the lady’s brain when she dropped them off (again, not sorry), and we then had four boys from which we could choose a breeding boar.

The result was Boris, who was slightly younger than our girls, and slightly smaller.  He was also Large White x Landrace, but leaned more towards the Landrace side.

Boris taking his afternoon bath.

Gilts (female pigs who haven’t had babies) come into season young, much younger than you’d think (5 to 6 months old).  If you’re not careful, that can lead to what we term “teenage pregnancies”, of which we’ve had a couple.  Most people start to breed their girls at around 8 to 9 months old.  Some do it based on age, and some on the number of heat cycles, but it’s really dependent on their size. If they’re large, healthy, and can take the boar’s weight, then they’re probably okay to breed from.

What we did with Honey and Smoked was leave them until they were a month or two older before breeding from them, as I didn’t like the idea of them being too young when they got pregnant.  Even then, they didn’t have their full growth on them, and both girls would end up being bigger than Boris.

Both girls were with Boris at the same time, and we saw matings with both over the same period.  We didn’t notice them come into season again, and so assumed they were both pregnant at the same time.  You’ll hear that pigs are pregnant for 3 months, 3 weeks, and 3 days, which, while accurate, is also a little ambiguous as not all months are created equal.  You might also read that they’re pregnant for 114 days exactly, but it can be a day or two either side of that.  When you consider that their cycle is a few days long, and they can mate over that entire period, then there may be a few days on either side of your calculations, meaning you end up with a window of a week or so.  Some are quite regular, and Honey is an example of that.  We’ve recorded her confirmed matings, and 114 days later, on the dot, she’s dropped.  That would’ve been true of the first time too, except we messed it up. 😊

The problem we faced was a size disparity in the two girls. Smoked was huge, and while Honey was, and is, a big pig, she just wasn’t as round as her sister.  We assumed that Honey hadn’t taken on the first round of matings, and so was a cycle (3 weeks) out.  We were very wrong. Both girls got pregnant at the same time, both girls dropped on the same night, the smaller Honey had 10 babies, and the larger Smoked had 6.  It was surprising to say the least.

Honey with one of her litters. She’s a super chill mum.

This taught us to watch the girls more closely when they’re due.  They have definite physiological signs of impending birth – full teats, the weight drops lower etc.  There’s also nesting behaviours and personality changes.  These are all things closely tied with husbandry, and areas where people like us have the advantage.  We see these girls every day and we know them.  As a result, we know when there’s a change.  We learned over time exactly what to look for, and are now pretty good at picking girls who are close.  A lot of intensive farms use hormones to regulate the girls’ cycles, they AI, and then they induce labour, so they have none of these problems. I like the closeness though, and the husbandry that we’re able to employ as a result. It’s actually husbandry that you have to employ if you’re going to get it right, but it’s still one of the fun parts. 😊

We’ve never since had a problem picking when Honey is close.  She’s one of the easiest sows to pick pregnancy and impending birth.  She also has zero problems with us being with her when she gives birth. We clearly missed the opportunity that first time, but in the litters since she’s had one of us, or a crowd of us, there with her the entire time.

Honey has had several litters, and never less than 10 in a litter.  Her mortality is a little over 10%, which is comparable to that found in intensive farms.  She loses a lot of condition while she’s nursing, and we have to keep the food up to her.  We’ve found that with some girls – some lose condition no matter how much you feed them, while others can keep it on quite well.  Honey just happens to be in that former category, so we’re extra careful with her.

Not long after her second litter Honey came down with pneumonia.  We didn’t know quite what was wrong with her.  She was laying alone in a back corner of our back paddock.  She would normally come over if she spotted me, I’d give her giant scratches, and she’d wiggle her giant back to-and-fro, making these disturbing noises that sound like a raptor from Jurassic Park (it’s still our routine).  If I was holding food, then she’d come running over as fast as her big body could move, which is both surprisingly fast and terrifying. This time, however, she spotted me, she spotted the food, but she stayed laying down.

This was another example of tame pigs being the best.  I remember going over to her, giving her a pat, calling her to me, and leading her across the paddock into a yard.  Herding a quarter-tonne sow over a paddock on your own would be the definition of frustration.  Having her tame enough to follow you like a pet dog is awesome.  I highly recommend it. 😊

Honey was clearly unhappy. She was snotty, and she was actually throwing up this gross phlegmy stuff after she ate.  She was also off her feed a bit, which is the surest sign of an unwell pig – they always want to eat.  We got the vet out and they diagnosed pneumonia.  Honey was put on a course of antibiotics, and it took us a full 12 months to nurse her back to full health.  She was really quite unwell for a while.

I speak about Honey quite a bit in my post on culling sows, including that first litter of hers and how we had to rush around getting a creep and heat etc. set up for her. I also speak about the fact that we’ll be keeping her forever.  I doubt that her breeding days are over, but when they are, we’ll retire her to one of our grower paddocks and let her live her life out.  That’s for a few reasons.  Firstly, it’s because I love her and want to make sure she’s looked after. I’ll never apologise for that. 😊 Secondly, she’s earned it through the babies she’s given us.  Lastly, and most importantly, she is genuinely much of the reason we do what we do now.  It was my relationship with her that showed me just how important it is to raise pigs the way we do it.  She showed that you can do it this way and still get great results, up to and including low piglet mortality.  I remember looking into her weirdly mismatched blue/brown eyes, seeing the personality and soul there, and wondering how anybody could abuse something so freaking amazing.  She made it through the Pinery fires, the only one of our pregnant girls to do so, and she had a litter a week later.  I remember the hope that gave us after the shittest farm day of our life.  Honey Pig, to me, is the symbol and embodiment of what we do.

 

That’s my girl! 😀

 

 

 

ODE TO THE RABID VEGAN…

Social media has been very, very good to us, as it has been for many other small businesses.  We’ve used it since the start of our little venture, and our use of it has evolved quite a bit over time.  That’s partly because we learned a lot, but also because my eldest daughter does social media marketing for a living and has been a wealth of knowledge.  It’s not what you know after all… 🙂

To me, the biggest lesson we learned, both through our own social media use, but also by observing others, was around customer engagement.  The trick here is to form ongoing rather than transactional relationships with people.  You only do that by being open to, and honestly answering, their questions.  I’m not saying we have it completely right yet either, but we are much closer.

When we first started at a market and our presence was advertised, there was a customer who asked a question about cleanliness. They wanted an assurance that a market stall selling meat was as clean as the butcher shop they normally frequented. I didn’t see the comment myself, because the person who ran that market said that he’d headed it off, and I wasn’t to worry because he’d deleted the comment and blocked the person who asked it. That is a terrible response.  Most people ask questions because they want an answer.  Not all of them have that aim of course, but I’ll get to those others in a little bit.  In this case, chances are that this person was genuinely concerned.

What I’d have done is start a conversation with that person.  I’d have explained the regulations we work under, and the checks/audits we are subject to. I would have invited them to check out our set up, our fridge, our accredited cool room etc., and I would have given them the assurances they were after.  They may have then chosen to not buy meat, but they also might have.  The way it was managed, on the other hand, ensured that the person in question would never come to us.  Anybody who saw that question, and noted it was deleted, would never come to us.  Why?  Because they would now think that we had something to hide.

We have a HUGE number of questions asked of us, both at the markets and on social media.  People are more and more becoming concerned about the provenance of the animals they eat, and it’s awesome.  We encourage their questions, and we get them on every aspect of the animal’s lives.  We give those people the answers, and then leave the choice to them.  I’ve said this before, and I’ll probably repeat it a million times, but eating meat is a choice.  If you eat meat, then you not only choose for an animal to die, you choose the quality of the life it lived prior to slaughter by choosing to support the farmer who raised it.  By choosing to support that particular farmer, you are choosing to support every practice they employ in the life of that animal and, as a result, YOU choose the quality of the life that animal led.  Almost every meat eater you ever meet will be squandering that choice, and it’s my aim to show them that fact.  Once I tell you about our practices you may still choose not to get meat from us, but at least that choice will be informed.

The thing that I’ve noted, and the reason for this blog post, is that there are people who interact with us on social media who in no way want an answer from us.  Before I get into that, I want to make it very clear that I have nothing but respect for the choices made by vegans and vegetarians, despite the title of this post. 🙂 Many of them won’t accept it, but our ethos mirrors theirs in many ways, obviously parting ways at the “meat is murder” part.  At this point it becomes a moral rather than an ethical argument, but that’s a whole other discussion. And I don’t want to sound flippant here (for a change). The choice I faced years ago when learning what really happened on intensive farms was to either stop eating meat or growing it myself.  That was all that would satisfy my own internal moral barometer.  Before we started growing our own, my meat consumption had dropped to almost nothing.  I had removed lamb entirely from my diet, mainly because my very forceful, animal activist grandmother hates sheep farmers and made me promise not to eat lamb.  Either way, I completely empathise with people who choose the vegan/vegetarian route, and almost joined them on their meat-free journey.

What we’ve found on social media is people who will attack what we do under the guise of questions on, or a discussion of, ethical points.  As should be obvious from the above, I’m determined to engage people in an open and frank discussion of what we do, and for the most part that’s exactly what happens.  There have been times, however, where that approach was never going to work.

This is one of those points-of-difference between Linhda and me as well.  As I spoke about in our post on market realities, Linhda takes a much more low-key approach.  Some of the interactions can be super adversarial, and some of them are downright mean, and Linhda has quite a low tolerance for that.  She’d much rather not engage anybody who is clearly trying to stir the pot, ignore them, and just move on.  I’d rather give them a chance to be an adult, but it’s not a choice that many take. 🙂

There’s a range of forms these interactions can take.  They can be the more passive aggressive single star review with no comments, or the frowny/angry/teary face emoji on a post or picture.  I’ve actively tried to engage those people, with limited success.  I’m always curious what they think that kind of thing is going to achieve.  It seems awfully passive, and I genuinely want to know where they think it’s going to end.

There are other interactions that are less passive and much more aggressive though, and these are the ones that hurt Linhda.  We’ve had people actively and quite vehemently attack us.  I will always try and open a dialogue and explain that I care about these animals as much, and I suspect a lot more, than they do.  I don’t really get upset by them, though it’s never pleasant having somebody casually dump on something you work so hard for and believe so strongly in.  Still, I give them the chance to talk it over.  To date, that’s not once ended positively, but I live in hope. 🙂  And by “end positively” I don’t mean that I convert them to my way of thinking.  I fully understand that is an impossible outcome, and it’s not actually one that I’d want.  I don’t want to convert a vegan back to being an omnivore because I actively respect the choice they’ve made.  All I want is one of them to concede that we have a difference of opinion that will never be reconciled, but respect our point-of-view.  Not agree with it.  Just respect it.

This has been to the point where I had a lady wish cancer on me and my family, as that’s what all meat eaters deserve apparently.  I was holding out until that point, after which I blocked her.  In fact, that same person tried to engage us through another account, with similar results.  I stay calm the entire time and try and give measured responses, but sometimes the ignorance does get frustrating.

The fact is there is a difference of opinion here that we’ll never bridge.  We both claim to love and respect these animals.  I put that into practice by working every day of every week to make sure our animals are treated well.  Most of the people who have attacked us have never met a pig. And they should. Everybody should.  Pigs are awesome!

Differences of opinion on the internet are nothing new.  The second post on the internet was probably a disagreement with the first post.  People suddenly have a medium through which they can exercise their voice, and they seem determined to use it.  There are a few things that I find frustrating about these interactions though.

Firstly, it’s the wilful ignorance.  These people clearly have no idea of our aims, nor of the work we put into doing what we do.  All they see is a picture of a pig/sheep/cow, and they start typing.  Take five minutes to read what we’ve written and then maybe you’ll want to point your angst elsewhere.

Secondly, it’s the fanaticism and zealotry.  Personally, I think that zealots do much more harm than good to whichever cause they espouse.  An absolute belief in anything to the exclusion of any other opinion contributes nothing to any discussion.  It also demonstrates a complete lack of critical thinking. Absolutely, be passionate about something, and be passionate about animal welfare, just don’t be a zealot. You’re not being strong.  You’re not showing how firm you are in your convictions.  You look stupid.

Thirdly, sending us memes, pictures, and videos of animal abuse in intensive farms is just wasting everybody’s time.  That’s not us.  It in no way relates to us. It’s comparing apples and oranges.  Along a similar vein, showing us a video of a pig being properly stunned and slaughtered is almost as meaningless.  To us, that’s a completely proper practice.  Confronting and gross, yes, but proper.  And I agree with you that everybody should see those videos – they should see what happens in intensive farms and they should understand exactly how their meat is slaughtered.  I’m right there with you, I just don’t understand what you think sending me those things is going to achieve.

Vegans 7

I really don’t need you to post pictures of pig’s heads on my page, because…

Pigs Head

… I post my own pictures of pig’s heads. 😀

Lastly, it’s the complete lack of logic in the argument.  Unless your end game is that everybody everywhere stops eating meat, then why attack the people focussed on the wellbeing of the animals?!  If you agree that people will always eat meat, even if you make the very valid choice to not partake yourself, doesn’t it make more sense to aim your ire at breeders/growers of the more intensive variety?  Sure, ferret out the people who claim ethical practices but who are only doing so for marketing reasons. Hell, I’ll give you a hand.  You gain nothing by blindly throwing shade at the people who have devoted themselves to doing this the right way though.

I’m a firm believer in putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, of trying to see things from their point-of-view, but I simply can’t work this out, and I’ve spent countless hours trying.  Let’s take this to its logical conclusion and assume a world where everybody everywhere has stopped eating meat.  What happens then?  Almost all of the non-game breeds that are consumed today, be they chooks, cows, pigs, goats, sheep, whatever, would cease to exist.  Take that to a vegan extreme, and that list would include egg birds and milk animals.  You might get somebody keeping the odd animal as a pet, but it wouldn’t be enough to continue the breeds.  That isn’t a far-fetched scenario either, because it’s happened in the past, and even happens now.  Decades ago when intensive farming developed and the focus was on white pigs, farmers switched breeds and processes, and the heritage breeds were neglected.  Some of those breeds have been lost to us as a result, and some of them are only now coming back into favour.  I’ve jokingly heard heritage breed breeders promoting the motto “eat our bacon to save our bacon”, the reasoning being that the pigs will disappear unless there’s demand for their meat.  And that makes sense – pigs as purely pets can be problematic.  Not many backyards are set up for that kind of punishment. 🙂

We actually have a number of practicing and ex-vegetarians/vegans as customers.  The practicing vegetarians buy for their families, and are determined to buy ethically raised meat.  The ex-vegetarians are now omnivorous almost entirely for health reasons.  Again, I’m sure there are vegetarians and vegans who will vehemently oppose the fact that you can’t live that lifestyle and be healthy, and that may be true for them, but all I know is that we have customers now whose doctors have told them that they need to eat meat.  Feel free to take it up with that particular health professional. 🙂

For the ex-vegetarians, we are always sensitive to the fact that they may not be comfortable with what is being forced on them.  We’ve managed to introduce a few of them quite gently back into the world of the flesh eater.  I tend to suggest fillet, as it’s lean, and therefore mildly flavoured, and it’s soft.  To date, that’s worked well.

We are also lucky enough to count a number of vegetarians and vegans as friends and even close family, and have been able to talk to them quite openly about what we do and our similar and yet opposing points-of-view.  We’ve hosted a number at our home and introduced them to the pigs.  That just highlights how much we could be working with and talking with the people who choose to attack us.

If I was able to give people advice on how this should work, I’d list the following:

  • Don’t attack our operation using the argument that no animal should be farmed for human benefit/consumption, but have pictures of your dogs and cats on your profile. Dogs and cats can’t be herbivorous (cats in particular).  The lady who wished cancer on me told me that her dogs and cats eating beef and chicken was okay because it’s preservative free.  My free-range pigs, sheep, and cows live lives of luxury, but you think it’s okay to attack that while buying factory-farmed chicken for your dogs and cats?!
  • Read what we’re about before clicking the emoji or firing up the keyboard. Our blog talks about everything we do, in enough detail to satisfy anybody.
  • If you don’t like what you read, then ask a question. I answer every question posed to us.  If you don’t like that answer, explain why and we’ll discuss it.  It’s what grownups do.
  • Don’t ask us if our stuff is Halal certified. Especially don’t then celebrate when I answer that it’s not. For one, much of our focus is pigs, so duh.  For another, a person’s religion is their business, and not mine.  In fact, their right to their religion is protected by law, as it should be.  My focus is our animal’s wellbeing. Our customers can worship any god they choose.

Maybe this is just another example of human nature shining through and proving that some people are simply jerks.  It doesn’t matter what the point-of-difference is. It doesn’t matter how open you are to a discussion with them.  It doesn’t matter how friendly you are to them.  It will always be their narrow view, nothing else matters, and they will always choose to be a dick.

UPDATE!!!!!!

I wrote this blog post five or six weeks ago, and shelved it for a while so I could post the less depressing story of our breeding redemption.  In that time, and in fact quite recently, we’ve been attacked twice by separate groups of vegans.  I engaged them both times, despite the vile abuse (seriously, I like a good swear, but OMG!) and wishing of violence upon me (eating meat is unacceptable violence, but wishing cancer and death on me in graphic detail is just fine apparently).  Neither time worked out well, despite me genuinely trying to engage, but that’s okay.  I actually learned the answers to some of my questions of logic above.  I’ve not gone back and edited the original post though, as I wanted to keep that as-is, write about what I learned below, and collectively that’ll give the full progression in understanding and the position of the people who attacked us.

  • Vegan world of the future. I said that I didn’t understand why vegans would attack us, because clearly people will always eat meat and we’re the people trying to raise the animals properly. However, as it turns out, at least according to the people who attacked us, vegans do envisage a future where nobody eats meat.

From my research, 2% to 3% of the world’s population is vegan (all vegetarians were collectively around 10%).  One of the more vitriolic women who attacked us inflated that number quite a bit, but that 3% number seems consistent outside of the vegan sites I saw.  Most of the western-based vegans seem to choose that lifestyle for moral reasons, while many of the eastern-based vegans choose it for religious or economic reasons.  I really can’t find statistics that split the two out, but the religious/economic vegans inflate the number a bit.  And it might not matter either way.  I suppose a religious vegan is that way for moral reasons, right?

So the vegan plan, as explained by the people who attacked us, is that the numbers will rapidly grow from 3% to 100%, and we’ll have no meat eaters in the not-too-distant future.  It seems that some of the impetus for that is because many current stock production practices aren’t sustainable (they’re really not), and so the theory is that we’ll have a change to a purely plant-based diet forced on us.

This theory/plan was news to me, and answers one of my points-of-logic above.

  • Stock animals in the future. Another point I couldn’t understand is what would happen to the stock animals in the vegan utopia of no flesh consumption. In my head, vegans should be baulking at the idea of losing all of those animals, and not just the animals, but the entire breeds and maybe species.

As it turns out, I was wrong again.  Again, according to the people who attacked us, they see those breeds as unnatural.  Those animals have been selectively bred to cater to human needs, giving us way more eggs, milk, meat etc. than nature originally intended.  As such, they’d be allowed to die out, restoring balance to nature.  I assume they mean that the remaining animals would be cared for and just not allowed to reproduce, rather than actively letting them die without care.  I didn’t ask that question specifically, but am confident that’s what they’d do.

I’m not sure what would happen to pest species like rabbits, foxes, and cane toads.  Or how they feel about culling things like kangaroos.  I’ll make sure I ask those questions during the next attack. 😊

  • Animals = Humans. This wasn’t something I’d been thinking about before our recent interactions, and it was something that caught me by surprise. We had several people who kept asking us variations of “if it’s okay to kill an animal ‘humanely’, then you should kill your family members the same way”. It made no sense to me, until I had an epiphany – they see humans and animals as complete equals. Both Linhda and I came to the same realisation at the same time, and both asked the same question at about the same time. Sure enough, the people we were talking to see absolutely no difference between humans and stock as animals. Some of them even refer to animals as “non-human animals”. It was fascinating!

 

Vegans 2

Apparently I should kill my family members the same way our pigs are slaughtered as pigs and humans are identical. Dad is probably thankful that I disagree with Mike on that point… 🙂

Vegans 5

Animals = Humans, and raising stock animals is analogous to slave ownership. I’ve not yet spoken to a vegan of Africa decent, but I suspect they wouldn’t be completely on board with this.

  • Chooks. This isn’t entirely relevant to this discussion, but I found it fascinating. I’ve always wondered why vegans won’t eat eggs from chickens they themselves keep. I understand why they won’t eat them from commercial set ups, even free-range set ups (e.g. birds are still culled after a couple of years, roosters are culled at hatching etc.), but keeping some birds yourself, letting them live out their lives in luxury, should mean you can eat their eggs, right?  Apparently not.

As it turns out, it’s morally wrong (to them) for a couple of reasons.  For one, chickens are supposed to only lay about a dozen eggs a year, and it’s selective breeding that has them laying so many now.  I’m not sure if that’s true and didn’t check, but it may be factual.  Secondly, the egg doesn’t belong to you, so you have no right to take it without permission, a permission a bird is obviously never going to be able to give.

It was obvious that some of these people owned egg birds, which as it turns out were rescues, so I asked what they do with the eggs.  One has her birds surgically implanted so they don’t lay anymore. I didn’t even know that was a thing, and didn’t do any further research, but she seemed quite knowledgeable on the subject.  Another boils the eggs and feeds them back to the birds.

To me, the relationship we have with our birds is symbiotic.  We give them a life of luxury, and they live out their lives in full even after they stop laying.  In the course of that life they have a biological imperative to lay eggs.  When they do that, I eat that egg. No harm comes to anyone, and the birds are happy. I explained that point of view and was called names, after which I was compared to Nazis and child rapists.  I’m not even joking.

Vegans 3

This lady knew a lot about poultry and explained the vegan point-of-view when I asked. She also liked to talk about Nazis, slavery, and child rape. A lot.

So as horrible as those attacks were, and they were truly vicious, I did learn a couple of things.  Now that I understand those things, does that help me put myself in the shoes of the people attacking us?  No, not really.  Here’s why:

  • Vegan world of the future. It’s never going to happen.  People have eaten meat for almost all of human existence.  That isn’t going to change any time soon.

Now, that doesn’t mean that our practices don’t need to change or that we shouldn’t rationalise the amount of meat we eat and almost certainly eat less.  I can’t see that vegan 3% grow to 100% as a result though.

I think a big part of that is also due to vegan in-fighting.  I did a heap of research outside of those attacks against us, and found that vegans fight with vegans almost as much as everybody else.  We had one “vegan activist” (her title, not mine) who seemed to hate other vegans as much as she hated us because the other vegans didn’t actively go out and disrupt restaurants who sold meat.  There’s apparently a lot of fighting around exactly what is vegan enough, and if you’re less vegan than another vegan then you’re just as likely to get abused as I am.

  • Stock animals in the future. This is actually the one that came closest to upsetting me. I understand that the stock animals we have today, be they for meat, eggs, milk, or fleece, are a long way from their ancestors.  We’ve inherited them, they’re now ours to look after, and I don’t want to aim for a world where we just let them die out!
  • Animals=Humans. I disagree with this on every level. I love every one of my animals, and to be quite frank, I prefer their company to most people I know. Give me a choice between going to work and having to be a grown up surrounded by people or spending the day with my pigs, and the pigs will win every single time.  I in no way see them as the equal of a human being though.  Yes, they’re sentient and their lives are important, but they aren’t people.

This is fundamental, and may actually be the root cause of the disagreements between vegans and omnivores.

  • Chooks. This makes no sense to me at all. To me, our chooks are the epitome of a symbiotic relationship. They face no harm in any way, and we eat the eggs they lay. If they don’t lay eggs, they still live lives of luxury. I just cannot see the problem in there.

One thing that bothered me about these interactions was the absolute black and white view of the world, with their white being the only white and all else black.  It was a binary choice, with no room for compromise or even discussion.

Yes, a lot of current stock practices aren’t sustainable.

Yes, intensively farmed animals are treated horribly.

Yes, eating meat at our current rates of consumption isn’t good for our health.

The vegan solution we had screamed at us? Stop raising stock entirely. But what if there’s a third option (spoiler alert: there is, and we practice it every day)?

Another thing was the absolute refusal to listen.  The logic there was “I don’t have to learn about slavery/child rape/Nazis to know that they’re bad, therefore, I don’t need to listen to you”.  Seriously, the nazi and rape things came up a lot.  I understand that we will never get past the slaughter of the animal.  That is a moral barrier to us ever seeing eye-to-eye, and that’s fine.  But the animals lives an entire life before that final 10 seconds.  Is that not worth a conversation?

Vegans 4

This was pretty much par for the course from Daryl. He was a winner.

Every one of those people, with the exception of the vegan activist who likes to go into restaurants and cause a fuss, was a keyboard warrior.  Not one of those I spoke to had ever met a pig.  Their care was entirely academic.  Now, academic care is still valid I guess, but it can only be sympathetic, and never truly empathetic.  Us, on the other hand, work with these animals every day and we freaking adore them. Yes, that adoration leads to their death, and yes, that’s a perspective that some people will never be able to understand. That sounds a lot like their problem though and not mine.

The final thing that bothered me was the absolute fruitlessness of it all.  What gain do they possibly get by attacking us?  How do they progress their cause in any way, shape, or form by calling us names or wishing ill against us?  What happened was a lot of our supporters saw the interaction in their news feeds and they piled on.  It ended up with a lot of angry vegans convincing a lot of angry omnivores to never consider a vegan lifestyle.  All they did was generate sympathy for us and make themselves look awful.  I can guarantee with absolute conviction that we’ve done infinitely more for animal welfare in our approach than any of those people ever has.

All of those videos/pictures they want people to see, I want that too.  The story of how animals are slaughtered, I want every meat eater to know that too.  The plight of intensively farmed animals is something I want spread far and freaking wide.  I want people to be fully informed before they choose to eat meat.  If that information then means they choose a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, then that’s awesome, and I’ll celebrate that as a win right next to the rabid lady wishing cancer on me.  I have ZERO agenda here, and in no way want to convince people of anything one way or another. I’m not going to call them names. I’m not going to start a fight.  I’ll certainly not seek them out on social media and attack them.

So I got called every swear word you can think of, and I mean every one.  We had people wish death and cancer on us.   We had a lot of memes and pictures and videos of fairly horrific things thrown at us. We even had one lady draw a little cartoon of somebody slaughtering a pig to make some weird point.  All of it for absolutely no gain whatsoever, though the cartoon did make me laugh.

Vegans 1

This is the cartoon the lady drew. I tried to explain that her point was actually spot-on. I don’t think she got it.

You want to know the irony here though? I wanted them to be right. Linhda wanted them to be right.  We wanted them to be armed with the knowledge of a better way, an actual, sensible, achievable plan for a more sustainable world.  A world where we get to hang out with our pigs, everybody is healthier, the environment heals, and we all live in peace.  I’d actively work towards that world.  They couldn’t offer that though.  They offered abuse and vitriol. It was sad.

Where does that leave us?  It takes us about 5 seconds to block somebody, so the admin burden is really no problem.  Apart from that, they really can’t hurt us in any way at all.  And let’s face it, I’m much more likely to tell a potential customer something that makes them uncomfortable than any angry vegan. 😊  Linhda has actually continued her research, and watched a couple of vegan documentaries last night.  I watched some of them with her.  They didn’t show us anything new though, and I think this is what the vegans who attacked us don’t understand. They think they need to educate us, after which we’ll make the “right” choice. They don’t understand that we know all of the things they’re trying to tell us, but we’re still choosing to be omnivores.  And the thing that is clear to us is that vegans just fundamentally can’t understand that choice. They think that people eating meat means one of two things, either:

  1. The person doesn’t understand that an animal is dying (or how it’s dying); or
  2. The person does understand it and is therefore a monster (nazi, child rapist, slave owner equivalent), and they are therefore justified in being pretty freaking mean to that person.
Vegans 6

There are no exceptions. It’s exactly what we believe is right regardless of what you believe. Then more stuff about child porn and slavery.

A third option, a thinking and caring person who understands exactly what happens to that animal when it is slaughtered, but still chooses to eat meat, just isn’t within their ability to understand.  And it’s that kind of third option person that we’re looking to help.  We want to arm people with the full and unadulterated truth, and then let them make the choice, minus the agenda and propaganda.

Basically, whereas before I was lamenting the fact that these people didn’t see the sense in working with us, I now actively want to never deal with them again in any way.  We have absolutely opposing viewpoints at the most fundamental of levels, and that goes well beyond the “meat is murder” point, despite both striving for some similar goals on the surface.  I still respect their choice, but I understand that our base perceptions are different, and we will never be friends.

DISCLAIMER: The above came from a couple of fairly angry groups of vegans, and may not be representative of all vegans.  In fact, from the in-fighting I saw during my research, I imagine there will be vegans who would be horrified to read that other vegans said those things, but probably just as many who will think that it didn’t go far enough. 😊

Another thing we found out is that some minority groups, particularly people of colour and Jewish people, feel quite marginalized by the rhetoric around slave owners and Nazis.  There are vegans within those minority groups who feel that they can never really be part of the larger vegan family because of the Nazi/slave metaphors that fly around. Again, there may be more inclusive vegan groups out there, but not the couple who attacked us. We actually asked them about those metaphors specifically, but they doubled-down and just told us how justified they were.

Also, for the record, I in no way baited or tried to debate veganism with these people. I didn’t attack their choices at all.  I don’t need to justify what I choose by dumping on what they choose.  I did ask questions, but they were entirely to satisfy my curiosity and to gain some education. Nothing was asked in a way that cast dispersions on vegans or their choices.

Breeding Redemption!

My last couple of blog posts have been a bit downbeat, maybe to the point of being a little depressing.  Reading about self-interested and dishonest producers and the horrible cull choices that we face as farmers may be informative, but it really doesn’t make you feel good about the world, does it?  I just realised that I have another post queued up and ready to go (the weather isn’t being kind to me and I need some kind of farming outlet 🙂 ), and it may be even more depressing.  I figure it’s time for a more uplifting post, so I’ll put my latest depressing post on hold and write a more cheerful one.  Full disclosure though – I expect this one to maybe start off a little depressing, but it’ll finish with lots of piglet pictures.  Yay for piglet pictures! 😀

Also, that was all less me noticing and deciding than it was Linhda pointing out the obvious to me and suggesting I do something more cheerful. 🙂  Either way, here goes…

When we first bought pigs the breeding part seemed pretty easy.  You get a couple of healthy young girls, you put them in with a healthy young boy, and about four months later you have more piglets than you know what to do with.  What could go wrong?  As it turns out, there are lots, and lots, and lots of things that can go wrong.  I know that because I’m pretty sure we discovered them all the hard way. 🙂

As with everything I do, I researched pig breeding thoroughly before we had a go.  I read everything I could get my hands on, and we were pretty much as prepared as any smallholder could be.  We were committed to providing the safest facilities while maintaining our free-range vision.  We set up a farrowing shed and free-range yard with piglet-proof fencing, or at least what we thought was piglet-proof fencing (spoiler alert: it was not in the least bit piglet-proof 🙂 ).  We set up a creep area in the shed with supplementary heat so the babies could scooch away from mum if they had to.  We made it super comfortable with bedding, and even put in lean boards around the inside of the shed – kind of like a sleeper retaining wall on the inside of the shed so mum could have a scratch and not bust through the wall.  We then got the vet out to give it all the once-over and suggest any changes. His single change was that we lower the heat lamp a little.  We ended up with a luxurious piggy condo that would make any expectant mum happy.  Well, happy if she were a pig. 🙂

Just to be clear, by “shed” we in no way mean a contained, concreted area.  It was a dirt floor with lots of bedding, and the mums had full access to the outside.  That’s still the way we build them too.

Original Farrowing Yard 2

Lean boards are important. We’ve had a girl simply walk through a shed wall once when she couldn’t be bothered taking the extra two steps to the door.

Original Farrowing Yard 1

The creep, before we put the heat lamp in. You can see how babies can easily get away from mum.

Original Farrowing Yard 3

The girls and Boris checking out the new farrowing yard digs, just before we put the bedding in there.

The first problem we faced was with assessing when the mums were due.  We had two girls pregnant at once – Honey and Smoked.  We knew the gestation, and using my mad spread sheet skills we were able to fairly accurately calculate the due date. The problem was that we didn’t think they were both the same amount of pregnant (yes, that’s a medical term).  Smoked was WAY bigger than Honey, though both were clearly pregnant, so we figured that Honey hadn’t taken on the matings we witnessed and must be a full cycle (3 weeks) out.  With that in mind, we popped Smoked into the farrowing yard so she had access to the shed, and put Honey in an adjacent yard.  Honey had full access to shelter and bedding, but it was nothing like the 5-star accommodation her sister was enjoying.

I remember going out on a chilly September morning to check on Smoked.  I knew she was due any day, and her giant belly and full teats were testament to just how imminent were our first babies.  What I didn’t expect to see was little pink wobbly things wandering around Honey as I walked past. Not only were both girls exactly the same amount of pregnant, Honey, the smaller mum, had 10 babies to Smoked’s 6. Both on the same night.

We scrambled to get Honey set up with some semblance of a creep and heat for the babies.  Now, not every free-range pig farmer uses farrowing yards, sheds, creeps, or supplementary heat. In fact, there are some who refuse, opting rather to have a completely natural farrowing experience for their pigs.  The standard we follow, Pasture Raised On Open Fields (PROOF) has a lot of proponents whose pigs farrow in the middle of a paddock.  That standard absolutely allows for farrowing the way we do it, and our girls have full access to the outside almost 100% of the time.  I say “almost 100% of the time” there as we occasionally contain a girl for a day.  This will be if the piglets have proven to be super active, and are deciding to wander outside on a cold day where mum clearly doesn’t have the energy to go watch them.  In these cases, we block off the entrance into the free-range yard and keep the mum and litter inside the (large) farrowing area.

Piglets - Supplementary Heat 2

The supplementary heat really is a big help. These babies are safely away from mum should she roll.

Piglets - Supplementary Heat 1

They do love to pile on top of each other under the heat lamp.

We’ve also farrowed girls in paddocks ourselves, but have still given them portable shelters with bedding. The biggest difference there is that they don’t have creeps or the supplementary heat that encourages the babies to snuggle up in the creep.  That’s worked quite well, and we’ve never really had a problem with it. Even the girls in our farrowing yards have the option to drop outside if they want.  They’ll build a nest wherever they want, and there’s not much you can do to change their minds. 🙂  To date, every girl has chosen to drop inside though.

Our main reasons for having covered areas with creeps and heat etc. are:

  • The creep helps reduce mortality in the babies. I know the same argument is used for farrowing crates, but you can’t compare the two. The babies are free to go back and forth, the mum is free to wander outside, but the creep gives piglets a protected area should mum be a bit careless.
  • The creep allows us to feed the babies away from mum if we have to. Most mums are really good and their babies always get a good meal. Sometimes though, you might get a mum who is a bit of a food hog (pun fully intended) or maybe a baby who is a bit small. Being able to feed them away from mum, while still being right next to mum, can be helpful.
  • The way we’ve designed the creeps means that we can get in there, or lean over the fence, and interact with the babies safely away from mum. The tamest sow in the world will have a go at you if you mess with one of her babies.  They’re fine if you pat the babies.  They’re fine if you pick the baby up.  The second the baby squeals though, she goes into full protection mode. Having babies away from mum can be helpful.
  • Having the mums effectively indoors in inclement weather has obvious advantages. Our shed isn’t climate controlled, but the shade and shelter really are helpful.
  • Having the mums all in the same area is surprisingly helpful when it comes to feeding or even moving them. The same goes with the babies.  Trying to herd a litter of piglets over a paddock is about as painful as it sounds.

Basically, farrowing the girls in purpose-built areas, with the creeps and heat, gives us all of the advantages of a free-range environment without many of the problems of an entirely pasture-raised environment. The pigs have full access to the outside and forage, but are still protected.

Piglets - farrowing yard 1

This is Frankie’s litter, and it demonstrates one of the features of our new farrowing yards. There’s a concrete footing around the outside of the shed, and it’s good for keeping the little ones in for a few days. From memory, Frankie’s babies were several days old before they ventured outside. Then again, we’ve had hour old saddlebacks recently who managed to climb the same ledge. 🙂

Anyway, back to Honey.  We could’ve just left her where she was, but it was cold and we wanted to make sure the babies had as much protection as we could muster.  We rigged a creep and heat in Honey’s shelter, and it worked quite well.

Honey's First Litter 1

This is the creep area we quickly rigged. There’s a green pole keeping Honey from stealing the heat, and put the box in there to better focus the lamp. The nights were frigid, and this was the best way to keep the babies toasty.

Honey's First Litter 2

Connie and Gemma hanging out with Honey and her babies. The babies are a day or two old, but since then we’ve hung out like this with Honey as she’s delivered each litter.

We lost one baby out of that first 16, leaving us with 15 weaned babies.  Even with the running around to get Honey unexpectedly set up, everybody was happy, we had babies everywhere, and we figured that this pig breeding thing was pretty easy.

We quickly learned that it’s not all sunny days and piglets.  We ran into a number of problems after that initial honeymoon period, both in terms of sow pregnancies and piglet mortality.  These included:

  • Smoked came up lame, and after we nursed her back to health she still couldn’t get pregnant. I explain this in detail in my post on culling sows, and after many, many, many chances, we decided to cull Smoked. 😦
  • Honey came down with pneumonia. We nursed her back to health too, which took a full 12 months, after which she was healthy enough to breed again.  I talk about that in the culling sows post as well.
  • We lost pregnant girls to the Pinery fires. In fact, two out of our three pregnant girls, Honey being the lucky third, had to be shot after the fires.  Literally, two-thirds of our production was wiped out. That’s clearly not a husbandry practice we could change, but it did show us the value of redundancy.
  • Believe it or not, we had a boar with short legs. 🙂 We picked our boar from a group of boys we had – he was the biggest and just generally the best looking boy.  When he and Smoked and Honey were younger, he had no problem doing the deed.  However, both of those girls outgrew him, and both were quite tall.  In the end, Boris simply couldn’t get the angle of the dangle right (if you know what I mean 🙂 ).

I make light of this, mainly because it’s funny looking back, but this was a surprisingly tough problem for us to identify.  We have a fit, virile boar who is clearly mounting the girls.  We have girls who are clearly in season and encouraging the boar to do his thing.  And we were getting sporadic pregnancies, but not the frequency we expected from the matings we witnessed.

We ended up diagnosing it after watching one of the sows (Ziggy I think) stand in a hole to let Boris climb on board. It made me laugh at the time, but then I watched more closely and it was clearly a thorough coupling.  We then watched him with another girl, not conveniently standing in one of the giant paddock divots they like to create, and he was missing the mark.  It then dawned on us what was happening.  Boris was going through the motions, and obviously enjoying his time, but that wasn’t going to make babies.

We learned to look for what we call “P in V”. 🙂  We have a farm FB chat group through which the family communicates, and where we swap pictures and basically keep everybody in the loop on a daily basis.  A common interaction is to send a picture of one of the boars mounting a sow, like you do, and the instant question is always “Did you see P in V?!”, or sometimes just “P in V?!”.  We now get up close and personal to check for the thoroughness of the coupling.  If you don’t see P in V, then it’s not a confirmed mating.

In short, Boris was stubby in the legs, and our sporadic pregnancies were because sometimes he was lucky enough to get a girl standing in way that allowed him to get up high enough. For anybody who thinks that P in V talk would make you uncomfortable, never come to dinner at our house…

  • Age can play a big role too, in both genders. Older girls have smaller litters and struggle more with it.  In an intensive context, they never get old enough to really show that, but in an extensive farm like ours, you’ll get girls who start to show a natural decline in their fertility.

The same can be said for boys.  Older boys both lose some fertility and some energy.

  • Too much weight can be problematic, again in both genders. “Eating like a pig” is an insult for a reason. Given the chance, most pigs will gorge themselves, and really aren’t concerned about their figures.  This can be a problem with growers, as the resultant meat is fatty.  You can get around that though, by trimming chops etc.  It’s wasteful, but not insurmountable.  With the breeders, however, it can have a huge impact to their fertility.

We’ve personally found weight to be a problem in both sows and a boar.  Reggie, our big saddleback boy, hadn’t worked in several months before we got him, and wasn’t exactly fighting fit.  We watched him with the girls.  Now, boars will ask the girls a question if he’d like to mate.  Those girls will tell him unambiguously if the answer is no.  Seriously, there is no messing around if the boar is interested and she is not.  No really means no when you’re a sow who isn’t in season.  On the other hand, if the girl is in season, she can be almost equally insistent that the boar hook her up. She’ll nudge him, grunt at him, and even try to mount him and each other (leading by example maybe?)  The other thing of note is that a fit boar will mate a number of times in a relatively short period.  It might start with the girl asking the boar for some attention, but sometimes after the fourth or fifth time, she’ll be asking him to quit it.

With Reggie, he’d never ask the girls the question but the girls would ask him, he’d sometimes grudgingly get up, struggle to mount, and then he’d go lay back down again, clearly out of energy.  The girls would be nudging him, wanting more, but he’d invariably lay there, soaking up the sun, and generally looking like the giant stud that he wasn’t.

The other point of concern with an overweight boar is the sow/gilt being able to take his weight. That hasn’t been a huge problem with us, as our girls are generally chosen to be quite large and sturdy.  It can be a risk though and needs to be considered.

With the girls, the problems are around fertility and being able to carry healthy babies.  It’s tough to tie down the exact fertility problems, but the fatter girls have a harder time getting pregnant.  That’s not a very empirical analysis of the situation, but it’s true. 🙂  The problem with carrying is weird, and also super freaking gross.  We had a couple of girls give birth to these half-formed, alien-looking babies. My first theory was that they’d had congress with a demon, but the vet quickly disproved that theory (spoil sport).  Apparently, sometimes when there’s not a lot of room for the babies to grow, you’ll just get some that don’t really develop.  We’ve only seen it a couple of times, and we’ve seen it in girls who were too fat and in a girl who had a huge litter (and was also a little fat).  I’d post a picture of one of those babies, but it would give you nightmares.

  • The flipside of being too fat is being too skinny. We’ve not really had that problem with the breeders, but we definitely had a short stint where our nutrition wasn’t right.  I bang on about nutrition in other blog posts, and it’s something we feel very strongly about. We’re not going to go the easy commercial food route for a whole range of reasons, the topmost being that it’s not a sustainable way to grow anything.  The downside to that was that it took us a few months to get it right, and in the meantime we had some pigs lose condition. They were happy and healthy and eating their fill, but they weren’t growing the way they should.  This includes the breeders, and we noted a downturn in fertility.
  • Piglet mortality is a bit of a hot button topic in our world, and is one of the biggest points-of-difference between intensive and extensive farming practices. Intensive farms use farrowing grates or sow stalls because they reduce piglet mortality.  Extensive farms like us range from not employing any interventionist practices at all to doing what we do, with creeps and heat etc.  In our experience, following our practices can give some excellent results.  The industry average is, I believe, 10% to 15% mortality, and we have girls who over their lives are well in that range.  However, we’ve also had a couple of examples where it’s much higher.

The first of those was with Ziggy and Stumpy, the two girls we ended up losing as a result of the fire.  We’d visited an interstate pig farm who farrowed their girls in pairs.  That sounded like a great idea. Pigs are gregarious by nature, and love company.  We went home and built a farrowing shed designed for girls to share it.  It was a feat of engineering, and had a double creep, angled so the girls could both use it at the same time.  The problem was that our girls wanted to spoon the entire time, and we ended up losing around 40% of those two litters.

For the record, I suspect what that other farm did was farrow the girls separately, but then after a shortish time let the girls in together.  We’ve done that ourselves since with no problems.

We also had a problem with an aggressive mother, our only aggressive sow ever, who trampled her babies trying to get at us through fences.  She ended up with 2 weaned young from a litter of 13.

We get stillbirths and squashings, but not a huge amount of either.  If we have a litter in the double-digits, then you’d expect maybe one or two losses.  For the most part, our mortality problems have been due to practices that we’ve had to modify.

  • Small litters are also painful. We’ve had litters of 13 multiple times, and often get double-digits.  However, we also have had girls have only a couple.  This has been either an old girl, a young girl, or a fat girl.  The first one and last one we can fix – we retire the old girls (that was an accidental pregnancy) and we keep our breeders trim.  The young girl is part of what we do though.  You’d expect a first litter to be a bit smaller, especially from a heritage breed, and you’ll give that girl a second chance.  By the same token, Frankie, one our favourites, had 13 in her first litter.  It can be hard to pick. 🙂

So that is a laundry list of about everything that can go wrong with breeding pigs, from fertility to litter size to piglet mortality.  We’d read about some of the problems, but we encountered them all.  Much of that followed the Pinery fires too, which is when we lost most of our pregnant girls, meaning we had a real slump in production. That’s the depressing bit of this post that I warned you about at the start. 🙂

We’ve adapted our practices a fair bit, while remaining true to our vision of ethical farming, and the results have been great.  At the same time, we had to hustle to fill our gap in production.  The things we did were:

  • Early on we bought in weaners to fill the gap in production. We found a couple of smallholders who bred pigs and sold the babies rather than feeding them on as growers.  We were careful to find people who did this in a way that matched our ethos.  This worked quite well, and not just because we were able to address our production slump.  Both of the people we bought from, and still do buy from, had heritage breeds that we wanted to try.  One breeds Berkshires and one breeds Tamworths, and we’ve used piglets from both as our own breeders.

Right now we don’t really need to buy in any more piglets, but I still get them from these same people.  I like having a trusted source, and I don’t yet have enough Berkshire or Tamworth breeders.  I’m keen to keep an entire boy from both too.

We also bought in an entire breeding herd of Wessex Saddlebacks – six girls and one giant boy.  They’ve done well by us, and Reggie is still one of my favourites.  🙂

Reggie

This is the big man Reggie! His pedigree name is Dominator. It looks like it suits, but he’s really a giant puppy dog.

  • We joined the Herd Health Management Program at Roseworthy Vets. This covers all of our animals too, not just the pigs.  We get quarterly visits, and then visits whenever we need them.  We tend to time the visits for when we want pregnancy tests. I still keep a mean spread sheet that will predict farrowing times, but we don’t get to see a lot of the matings. We’re also pretty good at picking pregnancies, but for some girls it’s really hard.  For example, Betty, who is actually due to drop in a week or two, was pregnant about 10 months ago.  We thought she was pregnant, but with the Saddlebacks it’s just really hard to tell (they’re kind of thick and round to start with).  Then, one day, we saw her standing still so Reggie could mount her.  That was it – she was clearly not pregnant.  Three weeks later she had babies squirting out of her in the middle of one of the paddocks.  She hadn’t noticeably bagged up with milk, which is the surest sign of imminent birthing.  She’d stood still for the boar, which is something I’ve never seen a pregnant girl do.  She’d clearly wanted to mess with us.  Having semi-regular pregnancy tests has proven really helpful at times. Also, not cool Betty…
  • We expanded our farrowing infrastructure. We have a huge implement shed on our new place, and we stole the length of one wall to build farrowing yards.  Each has a free-range paddock attached to it, and we’ve run electricity and water to each.  These are super sturdy and pretty luxurious.  We’ve seen a lot of small holder set ups for pig breeding, and we’re yet to see one that is as nice as this. That sounds immodest, but you’d be amazed at some of the things we’ve seen.  Our farrowing area is like the Piggy Ritz. 🙂

We plan on expanding these farrowing yards even more.  We thought that having 4 would be enough, but we’ve already had an instance of 5 mums in 4 yards.  That worked quite well at the time as two of the girls lived their whole lives together (and still do), and so were able to share once their babies were a couple of weeks old.  We also have the option of having them farrow in a paddock, as we have what we call “maternity wards” set up – portable shelters and the ability to fence off smaller areas with portable electric wire.  Having more farrowing yards makes sense though, and helps to future proof us.

  • We fixed our nutrition. I’ve banged on about this a lot, including the blog posts that I mentioned earlier, but we have really put a lot of work into getting this right.  It’s ongoing work too, as we have to manually make their food weekly or fortnightly, and we’re always tweaking what we make and how much we feed.

Getting the nutrition right fixed almost all of our problems, both with growers and breeders.  So many problems can be linked back to the animal’s feed.  This would never have been a problem if we just bought the commercial feed, but I was determined to do this right. That determination almost sent me completely grey, but it paid off in the end. 🙂

It’s not just the feed mix we had to get right either, but also the amount.  This is complicated by the fact that we feed out brewers mash as well.  The mash can make up half of their ration, but we make the halves unequal (any mathematician reading this just flinched a little).  For example, if a dry sow’s maintenance diet is around 2.5kg/day, we’ll feed them half of that in milled feed but will then give them as much mash as they like.  The mash is relatively denuded of nutrients, but has lots of roughage.  They get to fill up, but not get fat. We’re able to tweak this according to the pig’s condition and breed, with heritage breeds requiring a much smaller nutritional profile than white pigs.  So it’s kind of half milled food, and HALF mash. 🙂

This also helps us grow the pigs slowly.  If we fed the growers ad lib on the milled feed, they’d get to size much more quickly.  The heritage breeds would quickly get fat, but they’d all get to a consumable size quickly.  We don’t want that though.  We don’t want piglets that are ready to go after 4 or 5 months, regardless of their breed.  We want even the white pigs to grow more slowly.  The end result is more cost to us, but it’s a much, much better product.  We have better marbling and a superior taste.

I’ve spoken before about our conversations with nutritionists, and just how badly they have sometimes gone.  We did find some super helpful ones though, who were able to give us great advice while still respecting our goals.  One of the awesome things they told me was about feeding the pregnant girls.  Our dry sows and the boars get that maintenance feed of 2 to 3kg per day.  It doesn’t sound like much, and would actually leave them hungry.  Being able to throw mash at them to fill them up makes that all workable though – our aim isn’t to have hungry, unhappy pigs after all.  Our growers and lactating girls get pretty much whatever they can eat (ad lib feeding).  The difference was our pregnant girls. We were treating them like lactating girls, and giving them way more feed.  The nutritionist told us that the pregnant girl should be treated like a dry sow up to the day she drops.  Basically, we were overfeeding the pregnant girls by a fair margin.  Now, to be 100% honest, our pregnant girls still do get a bigger ration, but it’s nothing like we used to give them.  We’re all suckers for those big soulful eyes… 🙂

Feeding

Small growers chowing down. That giant paddock behind them is all theirs and has lots of feed. However, they really don’t get much of their ration from forage. They need a fair bit of supplementary feed, and we’ve now gotten that right.

  • We’ve changed our strategy around the breeders. This is in a couple of ways:
    • Our original aim was a production level of 12 sows and 2 boars. It’s a good and manageable boy/girl ratio, and the output would be about what we needed to meet the demand we were aiming for.  We were going to take time to get there of course, as the production had to grow with the demand, but that was our aim.

What much of the above taught us was that we need redundancy.  At first I worked up a spread sheet that showed the mating rotation, followed by the farrowing rotation, in a herd of our ideal size. It showed how long we’d have the girls in the farrowing yards, and then how we’d rotate the weaners out. It was like a mathematical ballet in excel and it was beautiful. Of course, it was never going to work.  It never took into account what would happen if only one girl in a pair was pregnant, or if three were pregnant at the same time for that matter. It never showed what would happen if one boy was a dud, or if we lost a girl for any reason. It didn’t show what would happen if you had a fire destroy most of your property.  It was basically a best-case scenario, and belongs in a world of pixies and elves.

The thing missing was redundancy and adaptability.  You might need 16 girls and 3 boys to get you the 12/2 production level.  You’ll have times where you need to shuffle things around because you have too many pregnant girls and times where you have none.  You’ll have girls who look pregnant, but who are messing with you.  Or you’ll have a Betty who is the opposite.  You’ll have huge girls give you a handful of babies, or much smaller girls give you a dozen.  You have to be able to adapt to any of those situations, and be ready to adapt to anything else that a crafty pig decides to throw at you.

We currently have two working boars, Reggie and his son Lazarus.  However, I also have two on the way up.  One is a Large Black boy, Piggy Smalls, whose mum, Lulu, was pregnant when we got her, so he is virtually fresh genetics for us.  The other is a half white, half heritage (blue merle) boy named Notorious P.I.G.  Both of those boys are a few months from being able to produce young, but they’re our redundancy.  For one, I’m not sure how much longer Reggie will be productive for.  The old boy is definitely slowing down.  For another, they give us the chance to try a heap of different breed crosses.

Along a similar vein (I love on-purpose mixed metaphors), we’ll be getting in a handful of new Tamworth piglets shortly.  We currently have two litters on the ground from two Tamworth girls, with Lazarus as the dad, and I’m keen to keep an entire boy from this new lot.  We castrate young, and so have to pick any potential boar early, which can be difficult.  These Tamworths will be a couple of months old, and we’ll be able to better pick the best boy.

We’re also picking multiple girls as potential replacement breeders.  This is much easier, and in reality, almost any girl of breeding age is a potential replacement. 🙂  We do like to pick them young though, so we can make sure that they’re super tame.

Basically, we always have a pipeline of upcoming potential breeders of both genders.

Breeders 1

Half of the saddleback girls we bought in. They gorgeous!

Breeders 2

This is Ginger. She’s given us two great litters and is more than likely pregnant with her third. She’s a good girl.

  • Linked to our decisions around culling breeding stock is our decision to cycle through breeders as necessary. I’m hopeless for giving the breeders second, third, and fifteenth chances.  And while we have that ability, it hurts our production.  A better way forward is to give the breeders those chances, but swap another in to fill the gap.  That’s a bit harder with the boys, as a dud boy with 3 or 4 girls means a dud 3 or 4 girls too.  Still, our plan is to change our breeding paddocks to contain groups of 3 or 4 sows/gilts, move boys in as required, and use the up-and-coming breeders whenever we can.

Another thing I tend to do is give the girls longer breaks between litters.  Part of that is because we ween later than most (8 to 10 weeks), but also because I’m happy to give them a rest if we have our quota of breeders in a breeder paddock.  A combination of longer breaks, longer weening, and multiple chances means that we effectively need more breeders.  From a purely commercial point-of-view, it means we end up with non-productive time in our breeders, which is equivalent to non-productive breeders.  From our own ethical point-of-view, I don’t care. 🙂  I’m going to give my girls breaks, give my piglets more time, and give all of the breeders as many chances as I can.  I’ll just keep more breeders to make up for it.

Breeders 3

This is Lulu’s first litter. She had 1 boy, who we decided to keep as a boar. He’s Large Black and mostly unrelated to all of our other breeding stock. We’re also keeping at least 2 of the girls, Evie, the largest black girl, and Liv, the liver coloured girl on the end.

Breeders 4

Tammi, one of our new Tamworth breeders. She had 9 in her first litter, with all surviving.

Most of the activities described in the above wall of words we’ve done or are doing, and some of it we’re in the process of implementing.  It’s a constantly moving feast though, and we’ve learned to change as required.  Right now it’s working well too!  For the first time ever we have a small glut of pigs, and we’ve been able to reach out to our restaurant network and offer them pork again.  More than that, the quality is consistently excellent.  In the past, we’ve taken pigs that I wasn’t 100% happy with, as it was that or take nothing.  Variations in production and even quality are to be expected with people doing what we do the way we do it, but it hurts having no pigs to take.  In hindsight, there were a couple of times I should’ve taken nothing rather than something inferior, but that’s one of the lessons we’ve learned.  Maybe there’s a blog post in it. 🙂

And now for the promised piglet pictures…

Piglets 1

Tame pigs means tame-ish piglets which means lots of piglet close-ups.

Piglets 2

Part of Ginger’s first litter. These were born outside in one of our maternity wards.

Piglets 3

Honey’s first litter taking breakfast outside. 🙂

Piglets 4

Piglets 5

A free-range pig is rarely a clean pig. 🙂

Piglets 6

They are SO small when they’re born. It doesn’t last though.

Piglets 7

Want to tame a pig? Hand feed it food. You’ll be friends for life.

Piglets 8

And they all love having their butts scratched.

 

 

CULL SOWS?

CULL SOWS?

For the most part, our farming life is awesome! It’s a tonne of hard work, but most of the outcomes are things we enjoy. We get to hang out with all manner of animals, we get to work outside and have redeveloped our attachment to the seasons, and we get to spread a message that we feel strongly about.  However, we sometimes face tough decisions.  While they’re part-and-parcel of farm life, they can be confronting. 

Not all awful decisions are created equal either.  We’ve been faced with the decision to euthanize pigs after the Pinery fires, and while easily my worst farm day ever, it was an obvious decision and not something we could have handled differently.  That’s an urgent, in-your-face decision too, and not something you have time to dwell on.  Differently, we agonized over the decision to castrate, and spent a long time weighing pros and cons. And then even longer banging on about it on the blog . 🙂 Even our feed decision was painful, and we ended up going with a solution that was better for the animals but made our lives much harder.

Ziggy and Stumpy

This is Ziggy and Stumpy spooning. They were inseparable, and both were confirmed pregnant the day before the fires hit us. I had to shoot them both.

Ziggy

Ziggy Pig! I loved her SO, SO, SO much. She was the coolest.

I think that more than these though, the toughest decision I’ve faced is the culling of breeding stock.  Commercially, every pig farmer, be they intensive or extensive, ends up with breed stock who can’t breed.  This can be due to age or a physical problem, but it happens to all of them.  The question is, what do you do with your non-breeding breeders?

Before I get into this, let me outline a few definitions just to head off any potential confusion:

·        Boar – a male pig with testicles intact.

·        Barrow – a male pig with testicles removed.

·        Gilt – a female pig who hasn’t yet had a litter.

·        Sow – a female pig who has had at least one litter.

I’ve spoken to a local intensive farmer, who at the time ran around 600 sows, and he told me that he had a 40% turnover of sows every year.  He called them “the sick, the lazy, and the lame”.  I saw his breeding records, which were impeccably kept, and he had very few sows who had broken the 3 litter mark, and none who had reached 4.  In those systems they have around 5 litters every 2 years, so he had few, if any, sows who saw 3 years old, and most didn’t get much past their second birthday. 

Interestingly, he ran a closed herd for biosecurity reasons, meaning that he bred all of his replacement breeders.  They used artificial insemination (AI), but he kept boars around to keep the girls interested while they AI’d.  Basically, you bring the sows into an area with boars in cages along one edge.  The girls, who had their seasons regulated through the use of a hormone (I believe that this particular breeder doesn’t follow that practice any more), would go nose-to-nose with the boys.  They were in the throes of a biological imperative to make babies, and those stinky boys were, to the sow’s hormone-drenched minds, the way to make said babies.  While they’re distracted by the boys, the staff do the AI deed.  All of those pigs – boars and replacement gilts – were bred on the property.  The semen came from different boars who were kept on a purpose-built third-party facility. None of that is really relevant to this post, but I found it fascinating and figured I’d share. 🙂

So, with 600 sows a year and a 40% turnover, he had 240-ish sows every year that he was swapping out.  I’ve done some research, as I was curious to see if the 40% was standard.  I found an Australian Pork Annual Report dating back to 2008-2009 that stated a 65.5% turnover in sows, an animal activist group story with a great reference dated 2010 that stated 61%, and a 2016/2017 Australian Pork magazine that stated 40%.  This is by no means a thorough academic review, nor is this a peer-reviewed article or something I’m getting marked on (thankfully!).  I don’t mean to draw any inference from any of those figures apart from these:

·        We know that sows are culled.

·        We know there’s a lot of them – 40 to 60%.

The other things my research showed up was that the average number of litters was 3 to 4, the average age was a little over 2 years old, and most of those sows were culled due to reproductive difficulties.  That matched almost exactly what I’d learned by asking locals.  The farmer I’d spoken to said that he’d AI a girl and pregnancy test her a few weeks later (they have a 3 week cycle).  If she wasn’t pregnant, he’d AI her again and test her again a few weeks later.  If she wasn’t pregnant that second time then she was culled.

I’ve personally seen a number of cull sows, both in intensive farms and waiting at the abattoir.  Leg problems seem fairly common, with some having awful contact sores caused from being contained and rubbing against unyielding surfaces.  We’ve also seen girls who can barely walk or stand, girls with prolapses, and all manner of animals in miserable physical condition.  It breaks my heart every time.

The piggery I visited with the turnover of around 240 sows a year, was small by commercial standards.  We have others around us that have thousands of sows.  Extrapolate that 40 to 60% out to the big farms, across the state, across the country, and how many sows do you think that is?  It’d be tens of thousands.  Now the question is, what happens to them?

As it turns out, there’s quite the market for the meat from cull sows.  It goes mostly into smallgoods and sausages.  In fact, if you like mettwurst or salami, you can almost guarantee that it’s made with the meat from cull sows.

As to the boars, I’m not exactly sure what happens. I know small holders who have used the meat from their cull boars.  You can guarantee that the boar will have taint, which I fully explain in our castration post, so you have to go to a huge amount of effort to make it work.  In intensive farms, they don’t really have that option, so I expect that the boars are euthanized.  Don’t quote me on that though – I’ve not asked that question of any of the intensive farmers I know.  Relative to the sow numbers, the boar numbers would be tiny.  I’m keen to find out what happens and will report back on what I find.

So that’s a typically long-winded explanation, along with the normal “Interestingly…” side-tracks, about what happens in the intensive commercial world.  But how do we, The Atherton Farms, tackle this?  That, my friends, is one of the very few aspects of farm life that I hate.

We made the decision early on that we’d cull breeders when we had to.  We knew they’d lived good lives.  We knew that they’d had the best care, not to mention genuine love and affection.  We knew that their lives were hugely extended because they were breeders.  Commercial realities meant that we couldn’t just keep every breeder for the term of their natural lives though, and unfortunately there’s not a giant farm that’ll take all of the non-productive breeders (wouldn’t that be a great place to live?!).  Culling was, and is, the choice we made.  I, in no way, like it, but it’s one of those farm realities that you live with.

So if we made the decision from the start that we’d have to cull non-productive breeders, why bother with this blog post?  I’m glad you asked. 🙂  It’s because there’s a full story around the when decision and what we do with the meat.

Our small scale works both for and against us here.  On the one hand, we’re small enough that we know every one of our breeders by name and personality.  We interact with them daily, and give them attention and affection daily.  That makes the decision just so much more sucky.  However, on the other hand, we’re not the high volume/low margin business that an intensive farm is, and so can afford to give girls an extra chance.  In my case, that often extends to a dozen extra chances, but that’s okay too. 🙂

I can give examples.  In fact, because of the close relationship I have with each breeder, I can literally list every pig we’ve culled, name them, and describe their personality.  I’ll save you that wall of words though, and will try and summarize.

Firstly, what do we do with the meat?  Our butcher early on offered to buy any cull sows we had.  The price is a pittance and to our minds a complete waste.  We were determined, right from the start, to use any of the cull sows ourselves.  We’ve either used it for ourselves personally or for our customers, and refuse to just dump it as cheap sausage meat.  For one, this is ethically grown, free-range meat. It’s not the cheap, pale, crap they sell in a supermarket. Why would I practically just give that to somebody?!  For another, and more importantly, it would feel incredibly disrespectful to the girl involved.  We want to make sure that each is fully appreciated, and that wouldn’t happen in some mass-produced fritz stick.

Secondly, and much more difficultly, is the decision as to when we cull a breeder.  Like I said earlier, we’re lucky in that we have some leeway and can give the breeders way more chances that they get in an intensive context.  I’ll start with a couple of examples, and they encompass two of the first pigs we bought – Honey and Smoked.  They were litter mates, and both individually illustrate this point quite well.

Honey and Smoked

This is Honey, Smoked, and Ham, the first three pigs we bought. Needless to say, they grew up. 🙂

  Both girls got pregnant at the same time, and both actually dropped the very same night. Smoked had 8, but lost 2, and Honey had 10, but lost 1.  Both were great mums, and both gave us great piglets.  We didn’t put them back in with a boar for a little while, keen to let them fully recover.  When they did go back in with him, Honey got pregnant again right away, but Smoked came up lame.  She was a big girl, bigger than the boar in fact, and his weight shouldn’t have caused her any problems. However, for some reason, one of her rear feet started to cause her pain.  You could see the toes separate a bit when she stepped down, and it hurt her so that she ended up not being able to take the boar’s weight.

In an intensive farming situation, she would’ve been culled immediately. However, we had the opportunity to keep her and try and get her better. There wasn’t much we could do apart from not put a boar over her and keep an eye on her.  It took a few months, but it seemed to work.  She healed up and could again take the boar’s weight.  We put them in together, she took his weight, we had a confirmed mating, and all seemed right with the world.  However, it wasn’t right.  She didn’t get pregnant.  We let it run that way for a long time – she’d cycle, she’d be in with the boar, we’d confirm matings, but she just never took.  We faced the dreaded cull decision for the first time.

We decided to cull Smoked pig a good 15 months after her first litter.  In fact, in that time, her sister Honey had another two litters!  I kept holding out, seeing the matings, hoping that one would take, but it wasn’t going to happen.  It was awful, and the hardest abattoir run I’ve ever done, but it’s the reality we face.  We shared Smoked with 3 other couples, and spent a whole weekend making sausages, bacon, stock, and brawn with them.  None of her was wasted and it actually felt like a celebration of her life.

Now that seems like an argument to cull early, doesn’t it?  We gave her multiple chances, and from a purely mercenary point-of-view, she cost me a year-and-a-half of feed and effort for no return.  Her sister Honey, on the other hand, gives us a good counter-argument.

Smoked 1

Smoked Pig in the trailer for the ride to the abattoir.

Honey came down sick soon after her third litter was weaned.  She was in the back corner of our paddock, on her own. She’d normally come up as soon as she saw me, and would definitely come running (lumbering) if she saw feed. Not this time though.  She stayed down there, hunkered down, clearly not enjoying life.  I wandered over to gave her a love, and saw that she was snotty and unhappy.  I patted her butt, called her to me, and she followed me across the entire paddock and into a yard – thank god for tame pigs! 🙂  From there we made sure she was sheltered, kept warm, and basically coddled.

This was the first time we had a sick pig. They’re so tough that not much slows them down.  This was new though, and we called out the vet.  They diagnosed her with pneumonia and she needed antibiotics.  She lost a fair bit of condition and it took a full year to nurse her back to health.  She got better though, and she gave us more babies.  In fact, right now she’s in with Reggie our big Saddleback boar, and we’re confident of little blue merle babies (half white, half heritage) in the not-too-distant future.  She’s 5 or 6 years old, looks amazing, and probably won’t even start to slow down for another couple of years.

Honey 1

Honey Pig! The entire family says she’s ugly, but I don’t see it myself.

Again, in an intensive context, she probably wouldn’t have gotten a second chance.  She’d have come down ill and been culled.  The argument you’ll hear there from an intensive farmer is that she probably wouldn’t have gotten sick in the first place, and they may be right.  On our place she was free to go lay herself out in the open, despite having good shelter, and that may have contributed to her getting sick.  On an intensive farm she’d have been in a warm shed.  She may also have been given preventative antibiotics which might have helped stave off any sickness. But you know what?  I’ll risk the odd snotty pig to keep them the way we do. 🙂  Also, for the record, she’s our single case of pneumonia ever.

So we have two girls, both nursed back to health, one culled and one not.  The difference there was clearly Smoked’s reproductive failure.  We’ll give them the time and care they need to get better, and we’ll give them as many chances as we can on the pregnancy front, but we need to draw the line somewhere.

It’s not all about commercial realities though.  The second pig we culled was for being aggressive, believe it or not.  An interesting point here was that there was more than two years between the two culled sows, which shows just how hard we try and avoid that decision.  🙂

We bought a breeding herd of Wessex Saddlebacks when we first got our bigger place.  The only one that was really ever problematic was Molly.  She was my favourite – I always like the ones that show the most character. The problem is that character normally equates to pain when it comes to interacting with them.  Molly is possibly the best example of the character =  pain rule-of-thumb that we’ve ever seen.

Molly was a big girl, and we had high hopes for her babies.  She was always friendly, though could be food aggressive with the other pigs.  We noted that though, and we accommodated for it.  However, the day before she dropped, it was like a switch was thrown in her head and she became hyper-aggressive.  We had her in a farrowing yard, which is a free-range paddock with a 4 x 4 contained yard with bedding.  The girls are free to farrow outside if they like, but they always choose to drop inside.  On this day I was walking through Molly’s paddock holding a pallet (thankfully).  She saw me, and I could tell from her stance and vocalizations that she was unhappy with me.  After a while you learn their personalities and even, to a certain degree, their voices.  You can tell a contented grunt from an angry grunt for example, and I knew that Molly was angry with me.  She charged, but I was able to drop the pallet between us.

That interaction ended without any real pain, but we knew from then on to give Molly space.  It didn’t matter what we did though, as soon as she saw us she’d attack.  Sows are super protective mums, which is something I’ve always loved about them.  Any sow will protect a piglet if it squeals, even if it’s not hers.  Molly’s aggression may have sprung from a place of protection.  That was kind of irrelevant though, as we just can’t have a pig that dangerous in our operation.  It all came to a head when we had the vet there for the quarterly visit. He was in an adjoining yard to Molly’s, and she put her head through the fence and got his entire arm in her mouth. I saw it coming and managed to warn him, so no harm was done.  The potential was there for that to have ended quite differently though.

To make matters much, much worse, Molly’s aggression ended up killing most of her babies.  She had 13 viable young, which is awesome.  She ended up weaning 2, and we’ve never had mortality even close to that before.  We ended up doing everything we could to give her room, practically tip-toeing around her.  However, every time she saw one of us she’d jump up, charge a fence, and not care if she stepped on one of her babies.  The results were awful.

I did everything I could to try and calm her down.  When her babies were bigger and in less danger, I’d try and feed her treats.  I’d talk to her calmly and try and pat her.  I’d just hang around for ages so she’d get used to a human presence.  None of it worked.

In the end we decided to cull Molly. Despite the near misses and the danger, it was still a hard decision and one I hated.  We actually had 3 or 4 girls at that time who were months overdue from facing the cull decision, and taking Molly gave the rest of them a bit of a reprieve.  It’s not much of a silver lining, but it made it a bit easier for me at the time.  The other upside here is that we branched out into smallgoods made by an award-winning butcher, and were able to offer new lines to our customers.  That helped show us the potential of those new lines, and we plan to pursue them.

Molly 1

Molly just chilling in the shade.

As I’ve stated many times before, this blog is designed to describe everything we’ve done, both successes and failures.  It’s also here to expose any practices we have that people may not like.  Eating meat is a choice, and it should be an informed choice.  You don’t need to eat meat to survive, and for you to eat meat an animal gives its life.  More than that though, it lives an entire life leading up to its slaughter, and it’s important that you understand exactly what that life entails.  In short, you eating meat is you choosing to support practices that directly impact the life and death of an animal.  You literally choose the life that animal leads.  That choice is normally squandered by people, but I’m determined to give our customers the information they need to make the right choice.  And that choice may be to not eat meat from us, or to not eat meat at all.  Culling breeding stock is one of those practices, like castration, that are a commercial reality rather than a choice based on the well-being of the animals. You need to understand what we do and why we do it, after which you can make your meat choice.

The reason behind this post is to educate people as per that last paragraph, and I’ve been thinking about it for a while. The actual trigger is that we culled two girls this week, and it’s been weighing on me heavily.  Again, they are good examples to give here, but both break my heart a little.

The first one was Melba.  She came to us in the same breeding herd as Molly, who I described above.  Melba was gorgeous and huge, easily the biggest of all of the sows, and I was SO looking forward to her babies.  However, we kept her a full 18 months with no pregnancies before we culled her.  She wasn’t with the boar for the last couple of months, but if you count all of the time she was with Reggie she probably cycled a couple of dozen times.  Commercially, they’re out on the second strike.  We gave her well over 20 strikes.

The Melba decision was awful, but we’ve reorganised our breeding paddocks and process, and I needed to get a few viable girls in so that I could put one of the boars with them.  Melba just wasn’t viable, despite what I kept telling myself.  What made this worse though, was the day we loaded her.

We use races to move the pigs around – fenced off lanes that allow us to push pigs from one place to another. Normally, it’s much less push and more just us following, but every now and then you’ll get one that doesn’t want to go in the right direction, and you need to stand there and be a barrier.  The race from the breeder paddocks down to the grower paddocks isn’t completed yet, so I basically had to lead Melba across an open paddock.  Now this is a sow who weighed 250 to 300kg – if she decided she wanted to go in a different direction then there was very little I could do about it.  The best way forward there is to lure them with bread.  All of our pigs love their bread treats (we get it weekly from a bakery, saving it from landfill), and we’ve conditioned them all to move for bread.  I walked down the existing bit of race with Melba following me, and then cut across the paddock.  I was dropping bits of bread behind me, but noticed that she wasn’t eating them.  She wasn’t paying them any attention at all, which is weird.  Rather, she had fixed her eyes on me and was just determinedly following me.  She was literally trusting me to guide her wherever I wanted her to go.  It destroyed me, because I was leading her to our loading yards to put her into a trailer and then take her to the abattoir.

We took a girl called Siuan (pronounced “Swan”) down at the same time.  The decision around Siuan was much, much, much harder.  We got her and her litter mate, Socks, at the same time.  They’re Large Black cross Berkshire, though Siuan looked like a Large Black and Socks looks like a giant Berkshire (with the ears of a Large Black).  Both gave us litters a couple of years ago, and Siuan’s were the best we’d bred.  They were our first foray into blue merles, and they even made their way into a magazine article promoting our farm.

Siuan's Piglets

Siuan’s piglets, our first blue-merles.

Aspire Pic

Photogenic piglet is photogenic! This is a picture from the Aspire magazine article. Photo credit John Kruger.

Siuan was one of my favourite pigs ever.  She was super friendly, though more pig-headed (pun fully intended) than most.  I loved her dearly, but the fact was that she’d given us 5 babies and had not fallen pregnant in more than two years.  We were months (years?) past the point where we should’ve made the cull decision, but I’d refused and had given her more and more chances.  We’d even gone to the extent of learning how to AI at a local intensive farm, buying in semen, and trying to AI her.  Seriously, short of IVF, we’d done everything we could.

Siuan

Siuan did love the brewers mash. 😀

One significant point-of-difference here is that we sold Siuan’s meat.  As I said above, we were determined to use all of the meat from the cull sows ourselves, as we wanted to ensure they were respected and not wasted.  In this case, we were able to satisfy those edicts when we sold her.  We have a customer with a strong interest in smoking meats (yes, he’s American 🙂 ).  He grew up on a farm, and shared our ethos.  I spoke to his butcher, and the plan was to get a handful of people in after hours and for the butcher to teach them all how to break the beast down and make the most out of it.  This was actually as good as if we were doing it ourselves and it was being shared with a group. How good is that?!

In the interests of complete honesty, there’s no way I was ever going to consume any of Siuan.  We made the decision to cull early in our business career, we put parameters around that, and we’ve been true to that vision. However, that doesn’t preclude me from not being able to partake myself.  I adored that pig and would never have been able to eat her.

So, both Melba and Siuan went to the abattoir together.  We again learned that the only downside to having tame pigs is when you try and unload the really big ones.  Tame growers are fairly straight forward – I can coax them out, or even lift them up if I have to.  Fully grown pigs are another matter.  If they’re laying down, especially if the sun has gone down, and they don’t want to get up, then there’s not much I can do.  Bread helps.  Coaxing them is hit-and-miss.  Sometimes you just have to get behind them and push a little. 🙂

Pigs in the trailer

Siuan and Melba loaded, branded, marked, and ready to go.

Siuan has been delivered to our customer’s butcher, and I’m keen to see (not taste) how they go.  Melba has been delivered to a butcher we’ve been wanting to work with for a while, and we’re getting some new lines, including nitrate free ham and bacon.  We are pretty excited by that.  The important thing to note is that neither girl will be wasted in any way, both of them lived, literally, years past what they would have as growers or as breeders elsewhere, and they both had great lives full of love and joy.

So what’s the summary from all of this?  We had the Molly aggression issue, which has been an anomaly amongst our herd, and from our point-of-view, the main reason for culling breeders is reproductive problems.  However, we have the luxury of pushing that decision out.  In fact, we’re able to push it out a long, long way, as evidenced by every single girl we’ve ever culled. 🙂 For most of those girls it just delayed the inevitable, but it gave them another year or two of life, and us another year or two of enjoying their company.  But you want to know the big good news story out of this?  That’d be Honey.  She’s always been my favourite, and I expect always will be.  She’s given us a heap of babies, and will give us more, despite taking a year off for pneumonia.  That’s not the best part of the story though.  We plan on keeping Honey for her entire life.  She’s part of the reason we do what we do – having her made me want more pigs, and made me want to fight for her cause.  Right now she’s super fit and healthy, but as soon as she looks like she’s aged or that she’s slowing down, we’ll pop her in a paddock with growers or with dry sows and let her live in peace.  She’s only one pig, but to me, the ability to make this kind of choice is one of the huge benefits of doing what we do the way we do it.  I get to keep my favourite pig and make sure she lives in luxury for the term of her natural life.  I’ve given pigs away as pets.  I’ve sold them super cheap because I knew that they were going to be breeders.  Hell, I’ve refused to sell pigs to people because I didn’t trust them, including a guy who told me that he slaughtered them himself and used a hammer to do it (really?!).  We are still influenced by commercial realities, but we’re not ruled by them, and my Honey Pig is living proof of that.  That’s pretty much a metaphor for extensive vs. intensive farming really, isn’t it? 😀

Honey 2

She may not get the luxury of baths whenever she wants them, but Honey will live out her life with us.

Market Realities

I started this blog years ago now, partly because it was a hot summer and I was annoying Linhda by whining about not being able to get outside, but mostly as a record of what we were trying to achieve.  We were committed to growing meat ethically – treating our animals with the love and respect they deserved, and ensuring they had the best possible lives.  That grew to a desire to promote that message of ethical eating, the aim being to connect people back to the source of their meat.  For the record, we’re even more committed to that course now, years on, despite the pitfalls we’ve managed to uncover on the way. Oh so many pitfalls…

This blog was my way of documenting that journey. We had a huge learning curve, and I wanted to record that so that others might benefit.  To my mind, that makes recording the failures more important than recording the successes.  Sure, reading about how something worked for somebody can be helpful, but only if you plan on doing the same thing exactly the same way.  There might be a hundred ways to achieve a goal, and you’re much more likely to find the way that works best for you if you know the problems to avoid. As a result, we’ve been committed to recording everything that happens, warts and all.

Piglets! These little buggers are the reason we do all of this.

There’s a commercial reality to what we do that I often find bothersome. Our motivation is the animals whose wellbeing we promote, and it seems tacky at times to have that mixed with a money-making operation. The commercial side of what we do is necessary however, and that’s for a few reasons.

  • Firstly, part of the message is that meat shouldn’t be cheap, not when it’s raised properly. I often think that were I a multi-bajillionaire, I’d still do what we do but I’d give the meat to people for free.  However, that would actually dilute the message.  Raising animals the way we do is more labour intensive and has higher costs, and as a result the meat should be more expensive.  The supermarket’s message is that pork and chicken should be dirt cheap, but the reality is that this only happens at the expense of the poor intensively farmed animals.  Part of our message is that people should eat the right kind of meat, but maybe eat meat less often if the cost is a problem.
  • Secondly, the commercial part of what we do is the vehicle we use to deliver our message. We are able to talk to hundreds of people, show them a superior product, and speak to them about just how happy the animals are.  We are able to, face-to-face, connect people back to the source of their meat.
  • Lastly, I currently have a fulltime job, and want to be able to devote all of my time to the farm. That’ll only happen when we can support ourselves from it.

The result of all of this is that our commercial venture is a necessary evil, and one that I struggle with a bit. I think our customer interactions are excellent, including our social media activities.  We genuinely engage with people (e.g. we don’t buy likes on FB, but garner then organically; we are transparent and answer questions openly; we only use our own pictures rather than steal them from the internet etc.), and we build lasting relationships.  However, the part where it comes to collecting money is still a struggle for me.  I’m really just not that good at it, but I’m working on it. 🙂

This has led us to adapt and evolve our business model a bit, and it’s one that is unique amongst the people we’ve met.  Stepwise, the evolution looked a bit like this:

1        We started with internet bulk sales.  We’d spoken, and visited with, farmers who were of a similar size to what we’d been thinking.  The business model they used was bulk internet sales, and while that works well in the eastern states with a much higher and denser population, it was never going to be enough to support us in the Adelaide market.  We pushed this for a while, trying to expand into a restaurant and family co-ops market.  That actually worked to a limited degree, and we maintain those relationships still, but it still wasn’t enough.

One of our restaurant customers.

2        We branched out into farmers markets.  This proved to be a huge step forwards for us, though it came with its own learning curve.  Commercially, farmers markets are probably enough to support us and they allow us to connect with a lot of people. However, there are a lot of people trying to do what we do, which is part of the reason for this post (I’m still getting to the reason 🙂 ), and we want people to be more invested in our farm and the way we do what we do.

Our first market customers ever!

3        We implemented a Community Supported Agriculture scheme .  This is the one I’m most excited about, as it connects people to our farm.  All of a sudden it’s not just me talking to people about what we do; it’s people directly invested and interested. I can’t overstate just how exciting this is to us, and is something we plan to grow.

Underlying all of these commercial decisions was our level of production. We had some problems, mostly linked to our nutrition and the fact that I was adamant that we’d not just follow the commercial feed route.  I have blog posts that explain all of that fully.  We’ve overcome those problems now though, and our production is increasing to the point where we now, for the first time, have a bit of a glut of pigs.  That is an amazing problem to have and allows us to promote our CSA shares a bit more, and to reach out to our restaurant network and offer them pork again.

The end result of all of that is a business model we’ve not seen elsewhere.  It’s completely underpinned by our ethos and our ethical aims, most of which make our job harder to be honest. 🙂  We originally adopted an approach that had worked elsewhere, and tried to adapt it to S.A. with limited success.  Evolving that to suit the market here is what’s worked for us, and has left us with a unique model.

Just as an aside, we’ve adopted some farming practices that we’d seen had worked elsewhere too.  Sometimes that works well, and other times it doesn’t.  The trick is to learn from others but then to be adaptable.  Feed the results back into your decision making and your farming/business model, and don’t be scared to change them.  If I was asked to give one piece of advice to a new and budding farmer, it would that message of adaptability.

I’m not arrogant enough to believe that somebody who does something similar/adjacent to us is copying us. My ego isn’t quite that well developed. 🙂 By the same token, I’m keen for people to learn from both our successes and mistakes.  It probably wouldn’t make sense for somebody to try and pick up what we do and adopt it in its entirety, but there are things we do that might slot nicely into somebody else’s model.

So 1200 words in and I’ve not explained why the blog post.  I’ll do that by posing a question: What do communism, churches, and farmer’s markets all have in common?  They all sound good in theory, but become problematic when you add self-interested people.  Feel free to quote me on that. 🙂 I mentioned earlier that we blog about our practices, warts and all.  This is one of the warty bits that people need to be prepared for.

Me and my three girls at the Salisbury market, where we started.

 

The Evanston market. This isn’t around any more, and we didn’t many opportunities to go due to other commitments.

 

Riverton is a monthly market we recently started. It’s a nice demographic and Riverton is just beautiful.

Back in our internet sales days we dealt with few other producers. We reached out to those around us and built relationships, and we even traded with them a little (e.g. bought breeding stock).  Those interactions were entirely friendly and amicable.  Starting at markets, on the other hand, was eye opening in just how different these fellow-producer relationships were, and in fact, just how unpleasant some of the interactions and practices were/are.

We’ve been to several markets, and I am not in any way singling any market or producer out.  In fact, some of the unpleasantness has come from markets where we don’t even have a presence!  I’ll include some examples here though, all of which are generic.

  • I’ll preface this example by saying that we’ve at times been our own worst enemy. We welcome questions from the public, and encourage them to ask us anything at all about our practices.  We don’t try and hide any of it, and actually go out of our way to expose practices where we think there may be a point-of-difference. An example of that is my post on castration, where we explained, in detail, how and why we castrate, with the full understanding that there are people who disagree with that practice.  With that attitude in mind, we’ve approached other producers with questions about what they do.  We’ve only ever asked questions we’d expect customers to ask, but weirdly enough, we’ve almost every time been met with hostility.  As a result, we don’t ask those questions any more. 🙂

A subset of this is seeing customers interact with producers, which has mostly been on social media.  I keep track of a number of other producers, both competitors and just people I’m interested in.  I’ve seen a number of times where customers ask questions like I’ve described above, and where they’ve been met with blankness, hostility, or even with having conversations deleted and being blocked.  We also hear those stories from those same people who then come to us to ask the same questions.

  • The over-use of terms like “ethical” and even “free range”. I’ve met a number of producers who use these as marketing terms, but that’s about as far as it goes.  They interchange terms like “free range” with “free to roam” (what does that even mean?!), but clearly keep contained animals. They in no way own what they do, but rather portray something different for the purposes of marketing.

In fact, this links in with the first point.  You can’t promote yourself as “ethical” and then not be able to answer people’s questions as to how you meet that definition.  You need to be able to assure them that the animals are truly free-ranged (e.g. free-range standards, pictures, farm visits), explain exactly what you feed your animals and why you made that choice, and you need to be knowledgeable about what you do.  I’ve seen producers give horribly inaccurate advice, and even be schooled by the people who were originally asking them the questions. How can you expect to build a trusted relationship with people if you clearly lack fundamental knowledge?!

We have a number of customers now who started our relationship by having chats, sometimes weekly, and sometimes having a few chats before buying a single thing.  They then maybe bought a couple of small things as a test, and now come back every week, often buying all of their meat with us.  These people have all engaged us on social media, a lot of them read this blog (hey guys!), and several have even been out to our place to meet the animals.  Now a number of those people started talking to us because they were unsatisfied with the answers they got from other producers, and they stayed because we answered them.

  • An extension of the above is people who keep a small number of animals for the sake of social media photos, but then just buy in the production beasts. We know our own level of production intimately.  We know exactly the demand we can support.  Right now I have just over 100 pigs, and I can just support our 1.5 markets and CSA scheme, with a couple of bulk sales thrown in to soak up a small glut.  We’ve met people who seemingly have 20 or 30 pigs, and yet support several times the demand we do.  How does that work?  I have no problem with people buying stock in if they need to.  I have no problem with people working their way around production slumps.  What I have a problem with is people who bang on about the ethicality of what they do, clearly using the term in a marketing sense, but then aren’t at all open about where the animals are actually coming from.
  • Linked to all of the above is people with more intensive practices sneaking into farmers markets. This is the one that bothers me the most. These are people who, like the above mentioned “ethical” folk, see a marketing potential and try and leverage that with intensively farmed meat.  I clearly can’t start pointing fingers at specific producers or markets. It would be unprofessional, despite how much it bothers me. However, there is a local market who promotes an openly intensive farm as ethical production. They’ve been challenged on that fact, and just doubled-down in their defence of the practice.  In fact, to make matters much, much worse, the market in question held up the producer in question as a shining example of their stall holder’s ethical practices.  They did this after that producer plagiarised the blurb from our market flyer and posted it as their own vision. Pretty much word-for-word.  Seriously.

This bothers me on so many levels.  97% of the pork in this country is intensively farmed. We’re the 3%, and we work so bloody hard to spread a message.  The best way to do that is via these markets and by showing a superior product.  Like I said above, that product is more expensive, and it should be!  What an intensive producer at a farmers market is doing is mass producing miserable animals and selling them at a farmer’s market premium.  From a marketing/business point-of-view, it’s genius.  From an ethical point-of-view, it’s freaking criminal.  The 97% have their market. It’s the supermarkets and the big processors.  Hell, their market is most of the freaking country.  People like us are trying to drive a wedge in there and show the public that they have options outside of this, and a market allowing an intensive farm in actively undoes some of what we’ve achieved.

  • We’ve had other producers slyly attack us, normally in a fairly passive aggressive manner, taking shots at us on social media or doing some weird things at the market (I can’t be more specific without looking like I’m doing the same back 🙂 ). We’ve always found these puzzling, as they normally make the attacker look petty and in no way hurt us. It’s telling though, and shows the hostility that you can face if you’re seen as a threat.  Of course, the irony is that we don’t want to be a threat.  We want everybody to do well, as a strong market is only good for everybody. That’s a surprisingly difficult message to get across though, and I have face-to-face tried to explain it.
  • A minor one, and something that is probably more a personal annoyance to me, is the multi-generational farmers who throw shade at us. I have nothing but the utmost respect for farming families who have been in that game for many generations. They and their knowledge are treasures and something that we, as a country, need to actively preserve.  However, that in no way means you should discourage fresh blood.  We’ve not seen a heap of this, and not outside of market interactions, but it does happen, and it’s so very short-sighted.

These kinds of farmers have been blessed to be born into that life, and they’re stewards of invaluable information, but those families, more and more, are moving off the land.  Yes, you may be able to claim a great-great-grand daddy who was a farmer, but what happens when your kids want something different?  We know and deal with a number of multi-generational farming families, and we know some whose kids are keen to continue the family business.  However, we know as many whose kids aren’t.  What happens then?  From our experience, those kids either sell or lease the farm.  Farm land around us is $4k to $5k per acre, which means that any even half-decent sized track of land is worth, literally, millions.  Even leasing it is expensive, and then you have the expense of farm equipment on top of that.  That means that the big farming families get bigger, or we lose that land to overseas investors – they’re the only two with the required money.

So let’s look at a purely hypothetical situation where new farmers can’t afford to get into the business and where the people with the knowledge, the big farming families, don’t think that anybody else is able to be a farmer.  What would happen in that situation?  We would lose the land.  We would lose the knowledge. We would be less for it.

We need to encourage first generation farmers.  We need to make it affordable to them and we need to train them.  More than that though, we need to lose the attitude that only multi-generational farmers are really farmers.  What industry doesn’t benefit from injections of fresh blood and new ideas?

There’s another similar thing we’ve seen that I find more funny than annoying, and that’s linked to people who use popular words as marketing terms.  We’ve seen people who have very tenuous links to previous generations of farming who then claim to be part of a long line of farmers.  Working a fulltime non-farming career for your entire life doesn’t mean you get to claim to be the nth farmer in your line.  Using that logic, Peyton is a third generation farmer. J  I hope that one day she can claim to be second generation, and I hope that any kids she have choose to be the third.  I’m not going to force that though, and I’m not going to look down on anybody who actively chooses a farming career or is trying to learn.  Australia needs farmers and we need to build and retain that knowledge.  The more the merrier I say! 😀

  • We’ve seen some more macro-scale, or market-to-market, examples too:
  • One market actively spreading disinformation about another. This was pointed out to us by a number of our customers, all of whom were blocked on social media when they tried to correct what was being said. It’s just poor form.
  • Markets who think that putting “Farm” in their title, and pretending to espouse the cause of farmers, makes them anything other than a platform for resellers. Having traders go to a wholesale market on a Thursday night and resell their bananas on a cold Adelaide weekend morning in no way makes you a farmer’s market.  The produce will probably be cheap, but you’re not interacting with a farmer and you have no idea where your money is going.  Word to the wise: always look for a stallholder guarantee when shopping at a market.  The market should be the one giving the customers assurance that the stallholders are actually the producers.

There are a lot of examples there, and I have many, many more.  I think it all boils down to one overriding cause – people’s self-interest ruling them.  It makes sense to a certain degree.  I mean, people need to make a living, right?  There’s a ground swell of support for ethical eating, so why not take advantage of that?  I understand the cause, but I wholly reject the result.  If you can’t actively demonstrate ethical practices, then don’t claim them.  If you need to include intensively farmed pork in your offerings, then don’t call yourself a farmer’s market.  If you need to attack another producer or market, then rethink your career choice.

To me, this is exactly the same root as intensive farming practices.  It’s people putting their interests ahead of the animals they’re supposed to care for.  It’s a small step from this to putting pigs in sheds and chickens in cages.  You’re exploiting those animals either way.

Our stall at Wayville. It’s improved a heap since we started, and now looks like a market stall. It used to look a bit like a concrete dungeon. 🙂

 

A recipe card from the Wayville market.

Now, as I said above, the drive for this blog post was to expose an unsavoury part of our business model for educational purposes.  However, it’s really not all doom-and-gloom.  We’ve met a huge number of amazing producers, many of whom I have the greatest respect and admiration for.  Those that impress me the most are people that we might seem to be in competition with, but who are still open to a chat and an exchange of ideas.  We’ve been able to share what we do and learn from what they do, and both sides are better for those exchanges.

A majority of the people we’ve dealt with at the markets, in terms of staff and stall holders, have been great.  With any group of people you’re going to get your bad apples and personality clashes, which is just part-and-parcel of people being people.  We have found people like those described in the examples above though, who do things I completely disagree with and for obvious reasons of self-interest, and they have clouded the experience.  I’m pretty thick-skinned, and for the most part I just laugh it off (not the intensive farm at a farmer’s market though – that REALLY pisses me off).  Linhda, on the other hand, got to the stage where she stopped going to market.  She has a much lower threshold for people being mean, and where this just kicked me into pig-headed mode and made me more determined, it genuinely hurt her.  By the same token, Linhda doesn’t think I should be posting this blog post.  She’d much rather that we let sleeping dogs lie, where I’d much rather poke some bears. It’s a yin and yang thing. 🙂

In all seriousness, and Linhda’s glares aside, our evolving business model has exposed us to some eye-opening people and behaviours.  Where I had quite naively assumed that people who do what we do would share a similar ethos, we found that perverted by self-interest.  It’s probably more a metaphor for humankind than anything else, but is something that would’ve been easier to handle had we known it going in. Hence my wall of words in this blog post. 😀

The Gawler location is gorgeous. Fun fact, Pioneer Park, seen behind the stall, was Gawler’s cemetery back in the day. Interesting and super creepy.

 

The Gawler Market has a huge family atmosphere. It is SO much fun!

 

This gorgeous girl came and visited during our last Gawler Market before the winter recess. 🙂

 

CASTRATION?

The castration of piglets can be a contentious issue in the world of free-range and ethical pig farming, as it should be. It’s a decision less concerned with the animal’s well-being, and more with commercial and husbandry realities.  It’s one that we struggled with for some years, eventually choosing to castrate.  Our caveats to that decision were:

  • We’d only do it if we were able to administer pain relief to the animal.
  • We’d only do it if we were properly trained by our vet. I’m happy to learn a lot of things from the Internet, but surgical procedures are not one of them.

It’s still a decision that some may disagree with, and one that I think we should explain fully to our customers.  Hence this blog post… 🙂

Firstly, we need to answer the question: “Why castrate at all?”  There are a few reasons, and I’ll cover each below.

I never, ever, ever get sick of piglets. 😀

Boar Taint

This is the main reason that most pig farmers castrate, and while some people may be familiar with the concept, most would never have heard the term “boar taint”.  Boar taint is a nasty “porky” taste that develops in pubescent male pigs.  In effect, they begin to taste the way they smell, and if anybody has ever been around a boar when he’s been within sniffing distance of a girl, they will completely understand what I mean.

This taint comes from the accumulation of two naturally occurring substances in the fat of the pig, namely androstenone and skatole.

Androstenone is a male sex hormone (actually a pheromone) that develops as the boy reaches puberty. Skatole is a digestive by-product formed in the pig’s intestines, and is unaffected by castration.  In fact, skatole can develop in female pigs, though it’s rarer.  The interesting thing here is that free range pigs almost never have a skatole problem, though it’s common in intensively farmed animals.

One way to avoid taint is to slaughter the animals earlier.  This may be the reason that some intensive farms don’t castrate – they grow their animals super quickly, they’re going to slaughter them young anyway, so why go to the hassle and expense of castration?  For the record, that’s my conjecture only, though I do know of a couple of intensive farms who don’t routinely castrate.

There are a couple of weird things about taint.  Not all boars develop it, though my vet tells me that any boar over a certain weight will have a certain amount of taint, and that only grows as the animal grows.  The other thing is that not everybody is sensitive to it.  Some people can’t taste it at all, while others are sensitive to even the smell.  I’ve read varying statistics around this, some saying it’s 50/50, while others say that around 75% of people are sensitive.

Taint is a big problem, and I believe part of the reason we meet people who can’t touch pork.  Most of them describe the porky taste of a roast or chop they had as a kid, and now they can’t face it.  Our working theory is that these people are sensitive to taint and once they tasted it they were turned off pork entirely.  We’ve managed to bring several of these people back into the fold, and it’s an ongoing mission of ours.

Taint is also a threat to people like us who build a brand around a superior product.  It wouldn’t take much by way of tainted pork for our brand to suffer, and that is clearly something we need to avoid.  Yes, most of the reason we do what we do, and work the hours that we work, is to promote an ethos of the ethical treatment of stock animals, and in particular pigs. However, the vehicle that allows us to do that is our commercial operation, and we need to protect that.

There are ways to avoid taint without surgical intervention.  Firstly, you can slaughter the boys younger, as mentioned above.  That’s what many intensive farms do, and it’s an option we went with for years. The problem is that heritage breeds, which are now our focus, grow much more slowly. While they might take longer to get to slaughter weight, they don’t take any longer to get to sexual maturity, meaning we have a taint risk often well before they’re ready for processing.

Another way to manage this, and one that we’ve spoken to our vet about at length, is chemical castration.  This requires two injections – one soon after weaning and a second at some stage later in life.  The drug is called “Improvac” if you want to look it up, and it’s promoted as a vaccine.  Personally, I don’t trust it, though I really can’t coherently explain why.  From my research, it’s not a hormone, but it’s always made me wary when I’ve spoken to the vet.  It may be an option further down the track, but I’d need to see a lot more evidence before I used it.

Reproductive Herd Management

Now that we castrate, we’re free to run mixed herds of males and females.  In the past, we had a couple of instances of what we call “teenage pregnancies”, where we had a young girl unexpectedly impregnated by a herd mate, normally a brother.  We tried to be careful about this, splitting boys from girls as soon as we thought there was a risk, but we were still bitten a couple of times.

While this might not seem a huge problem (who doesn’t want more piglets, amiright?!), inbreeding isn’t the way you want to go.  We also keep the gilts ear marked for breeding from the boars until they’re of the right size, and invariably the teenage pregnancies were in girls we would deem as being too small.

The ability to run mixed herds makes our life much, much easier.  By definition, smaller breeders like us just don’t have that much room.  Our modest farm can run a couple of hundred pigs nicely, with everybody having way more room than any free range pig standard we’ve ever seen. However, having to double the number of paddocks to accommodate gender-segregated herds would really put a lot of pressure on that.

General Herd Management

Most women reading this will find my next statement self-evident: males are problematic.  It doesn’t matter the species – pig, sheep, cows, goats, human – the males are invariably the hard ones to keep.  This may be exacerbated with pigs as they are so very smart and stubborn, and adding hormones and giant tusks to that only makes matters worse.

You see it with any domestic pet, the vet recommends castration as it reduces the incidence of a lot of health problems, it increases the life of the animal, and it generally makes them more docile and happy.  Now that doesn’t all translate well to stock management, but the castration of stock does make them much, much easier to manage.  With pigs there’s much less fighting, less destruction of fences and gates, and a reduced risk to the people who interact with them.

Summary

In summary, castration helps by:

  • Removing the risk of boar taint.
  • Allowing us to run mixed herds without the risk of inbred teenage pregnancies.
  • Makes the animals easier to manage.

Now the astute reader will look those points over and notice that none of them increase the wellbeing of the animal.  We don’t castrate our male piglets because it makes their life easier or better, which is exactly why some people might, based on animal welfare grounds, argue against our decision.  I completely understand those arguments, and support the foundation from which they come.  However, we are at times faced with conundrums like this where there’s a decision between the happiness and wellbeing of our animals and the reality that is our day-to-day farm and commercial life.  If you think about it, this is where intensive farming came from – people always choosing the best commercial path without thinking of the happiness or wellbeing of their animals.  That’s not us though.  We agonise over these decisions, and we often end up in the position that makes our life much harder.  Read my blog posts on our feeding regime for the perfect example.

There are arguments that castrating the pigs removes their abilities to fully exhibit their natural behaviours.  That doesn’t bother me so much though.  It’s not like we’d put a litter of pigs in a paddock and let the boys fight it out Hunger Games style anyway, which is pretty much what they’d face in a fully natural setting.  With testicles, the boys would live on their own, amped up and wanting to fight whenever a girl was within sniffing distance, and would live a much shorter life.  I’m comfortable with changing that.  No, when debating this within our family, the one barrier to us was the pain and stress on the animals.

Often castration of piglets is done without anaesthetic.  This is normally the case when the piglets are castrated at only a day or two old.  The arguments are:

  • Being that small, the skin etc. is thin and the procedure is really quick.
  • Waiting for anaesthetic to kick in adds extra stress to the animal.
  • The drugs are really expensive.

I’ve met vets and intensive farmers, and even a couple of free-range farmers, who suggest castrating young without the pain relief.  Again, we agonised over that for some time, doing a heap of research and speaking to a heap of experts.  In the end, we decided to use anaesthetic.  We believe that it gives a better outcome for the piglet, and to me, it removes the one remaining argument against castration.

Again, we spoke to our vet, at length, about how this all works.  We’re part of the Herd Health Management program at Roseworthy Vet, meaning we come under their duty of care – they can train us and sell us the drugs with no problems.  We had the vet come out, with a group of vet students in tow, to show us how to do it.  There was the added bonus here of the vet students being able to have a go too. We love being able to teach the students by having them do some of our work. 😀

At this stage we’d watched it done at an intensive piggery without anaesthetic, and we’ve since done it ourselves many times with anaesthetic.  I’m consequently super comfortable with our choice to pay the extra for the drugs.  I’ve literally had piglets fall asleep in my arms during the procedure, so little pain did they feel.  Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a pleasant procedure, and not every piglet dozes through it. However, compared to the alternative of cutting them open without pain relief, I’m really very happy with our choice.

The Procedure

I don’t have a heap of pictures of the actual procedure, and I’m not sure I’d post them if I did.  While this is fascinating to people like me, and while the outcomes are of interest to people who are invested in what we do, I doubt that many people want to actually see step-by-step pictures of how it all works.  I will describe it though, just to give assurances as to the thoroughness of the process.

Pre-castration selfie! This is Eyebrow (one guess how he got that name). This little guy fell asleep against my chest during the procedure.

Stepwise, this is how it works, from the very beginning:

  • Mum and babies are in their farrowing yard – this is a 4 x 4 area in our implement shed with access to their own individual free range outdoor yard.
  • Normally the babies are asleep under the heat lamp, or playing in their bedding. In this case, we’ll lure mum outside with some feed and lock her out.  We then grab up the boys.
  • If the babies are outside or nursing from mum, or in some other configuration that will make this more stressful, then we wait. We castrate up to 3 weeks old, though prefer it to be around a week.  This means that if we have to, we can put off the procedure until everybody is in a better position.
  • We take the boys over to the house. This is for a couple of reasons:
    • We want them as far from mum as we can get them. Any pig, not just the mum, will react to a squealing piglet. It’s actually a fascinating phenomenon – you’ll get every pig within ear shot wanting to come over and help the baby.  With that in mind, we take them over to the house, which is a couple of hundred meters away, as quickly as we can.
    • We have an external laundry that is perfectly set up for this. We have an old laundry cupboard with a swing-down bench that serves as an operating table.  We have full access to water and sinks.  It’s double-brick and so never too hot or cold.  It’s easy to clean up.

All set up and ready to get to work!

  • One person holds the piglet. The position we favour is holding the back legs, with the piglet’s back resting back against your chest, and their rear end tilted slightly up.  This allows you to pull their back legs up against their body a bit, thereby making the scrotum area more taught. It effectively pops the testicles out and up a bit.
  • The entire area gets a good wash with warm water and antiseptic.
  • The piglet gets two lots of pain relieve:
    • An oral paste that gives them longer-lasting relief.
    • Two injections for each testicle – one in the scrotum where the cut will happen, and one up and behind the testicle where the vas deferens is pulled out.
  • There’s a small wait for the injection to take hold on the first testicle. It’s fully kicked in by the time you get to the second one.
  • A small cut is made in the scrotum vertically in the middle of where the testicle sits.
    • You have to be a bit careful here. If you cut too deeply and cut the testicle, then it kind of oozes out and breaks apart. In that case, you need to try and get hold of whatever you can and pull it out. It’s messy though, and we’re lucky that the vet fully warned us and we’ve been really careful. Even with that, we had it happen once.
  • Once the cut is made and is long enough, you can push back on either side and the testicle will pop out.
  • You grip the testicle between your pointer and index fingers. You don’t grip it like you were picking something up, using your thumb. Rather, you have the backs of your knuckles touching the piglet, and the testicle is held on the inside of your fingers.  In this configuration you are much less likely to lose your grip.
  • You pull out and down sharply. What happens is the vas deferens breaks and retracts back into the piglet’s body.  There’s no risk of cutting the wrong cord/tube, and there’s nothing left hanging outside the body.
  • Repeat for the second testicle.
  • Spray with antiseptic.
  • Repeat with remaining boys, and get back to mum as soon as you can.

We don’t preventatively apply antibiotics, though we know people who do.  We’ve never lost a single piglet to infection.  In fact, we’ve never even had one get sick.  Hell, we’ve never even had one that looked like it was slowed down in the smallest part.  They go back to mum, run around, have a drink, have a tussle with a sibling, and rub their wound in the dirt.  They actually do that last one a lot – the wounds are really small, but they invariably rub them in the dirt and mud.  By the second day you can sort of see a small cut.  After that you’d have to pick them up to see anything.

Mum doing a quick head count after we put the castrated boys back in. She knows each one, and will know if one’s missing. 🙂

A bit of a post-castration bounce on mum. If you look closely on the little one to the left, you can just see the cuts in his scrotum.

Like I said before, we spent a long time agonizing over the castration decision.  There are a load of pros but also some valid cons.  We did everything we could to reduce the cons to next-to-nothing, and I’m fully confident that we’ve managed that.  I can say definitively, hand on heart, that our pigs feel very little stress during this process, and what they feel is short-lived.

The question here is this: Are the benefits derived from castration worth the price the piglet pays, namely the stress and pain?  We reduce the pain and stress as much as humanly possible, but it’s not completely pain and stress free.  I know that there is zero lasting negative impacts to the animal, and so I have personally answered this question.  However, it’s a question that needs to be posed to any consumers or potential consumers of our pork.  I’ve given you all of our rationale and described the process.  In the end though, it’s a question that only you, the consumer, can answer.

Post castration nap. You can see a bit of the pink antiseptic on the little fella in the middle.

ASIDE: You’ll often see people advertising “sow only” or “female only” pork.  These are people who are effectively marketing their pork as free of boar taint. After reading my description of boar taint above, I’m sure you can understand why they’d want to assure people that their pork is taint-free.  However, I always have to question those claiming to sell pork only from female pigs, and it often doesn’t stand up to logic.

If you’re buying small goods from somebody who claims to only use female pork, then it actually might be the case.  There is, on average, a 40% annual turnover of sows in intensive piggeries.  That’s a staggering number of sows every year who are culled because they didn’t get pregnant quickly enough, or because they came up lame after developing contact sores in their shed/crate.  Much of that meat goes to small goods, so there’s a half-decent chance that your salami does only contain meat from female pigs.  My point there would be that you have bigger things to worry about than boar taint.  The meat you’re consuming comes from miserable animals and you’re supporting an industry that promotes this misery.

If you’re buying fresh pork, then I would strongly question how the meat can come from only females.  Statistically, half the piglets born are male.  If every business who advertised female only pork was using only females, then there would be a heap of spare boars running around.  Not only that, the meat from a castrated male and a female is indistinguishable, so how would you know?

If you’re buying pork from a producer and they claim that it’s female only… well, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on that one.

Much like the terms “free range” or “ethical” have been subverted by people just trying to sell more of a product, “female only pork” is now an over-used and pretty much meaningless term.  If you see anybody using any of these terms, then ask them the meaning. Ask them how those terms apply to their practices. Ask for specific details. If they can’t supply those details, then go somewhere else.

Ration Change!

I banged on a while ago about the pig ration we’ve developed over the last several years.  We changed that up recently, and the results have been excellent!

The drivers for this were twofold:

1.       We had a few pigs look a bit patchy and get itchy. My first thought was that they’d picked up mites. We were on the new place, and it’s possible that it came with its own mite load (that’s not uncommon).  As it turns out, it was related to diet.  We had the vet out as part of our Herd Health Management Program, and they did some blood tests for us. What they found was a lack of a couple of things, but mostly zinc.

We’ve had advice before about giving the piglets iron etc.  This was always based on experience from intensive farms where the pigs never get to be outside and forage and eat the copious amounts of dirt that must make its way into them.  We’ve found that letting the pigs live naturally removed the need for many of the supplements they’d receive otherwise.  This zinc thing is our first exception to that.

On a related note, it never occurred to me that what we were seeing in just a few of them could be related to their diet. For one, it was only a small percentage and they all get the same feed. For another, I’d never have thought that itchy patches were diet related. Live and learn…

2.       We had a few pigs that weren’t growing the way we’d like. They were healthy and happy, but weren’t in the condition we wanted. We do grow our pigs relatively slowly, but these were beyond slow grown and on their way to glacial. 🙂

In the past, we could just wait until the pigs were the size/condition we wanted.  Some do take longer than others, the same way that people grow at different rates.  We were used to just leaving them a bit longer. However, that becomes problematic when you have a market demand to meet. We ended up taking a couple of pigs that I wasn’t entirely happy with, and the resulting product wasn’t to our normal standard.  We have a lot of customer who like lean pork, so that wasn’t a huge issue. The bacon wasn’t the greatest though, and it was probably that more than anything that really made me tackle the problem.

We had long talks to the vet about this, who in turn spoke to a nutritionist he knows. We’d had our own problems with nutritionists (I’ve also banged on about that 😀 ) who simply could not fathom the fact that we didn’t want to grow our pigs as fast as possible, or that we didn’t want to feed them GMO/imported products/fish meal etc.  The vet that the nutritionist spoke to was pretty much of the same ilk, and apparently became quite indignant when the vet explained how we do things. Seriously, they act like we’re neglectful parents forcing our children to eat nothing but dust bunnies!

At the same time, we were lucky enough to speak to yet another nutritionist who actually proved helpful.  She had no experience with free-ranged pigs, heritage breed pigs, or the feeding of brewers mash to pigs.  What she did have was a willingness to hear us out and do some research.  It took a little while and lots of conversations and emails, but she was so, so, so helpful.

That nutritionist gave us a heap of feed options based on what we have available and what we could get locally.  While I didn’t actually follow any of those rations exactly ( 😀 ), it gave me a basis to work up rations that worked well for us.  We’ve since been able to experiment with those rations and are super happy with where we ended up.

A few things we learned along the way are:

·         Canola meal is currently used in most commercial pig feeds as a protein supplement.  Canola sourced outside of South Australia almost certainly contains GMO. The S.A. stuff comes with a GMO-free certificate, but not the stuff from the other states.

·         We could actually get meat/bone meal locally.  My concerns with this were the fact that it’s highly processed, potentially taints the taste of the meat, and has to be imported. The local source removed one of those three concerns at least.

I actually really like the idea of using waste meat/bone/offal as a source of protein for pigs and the like. It just seems an effective use of a by-product that would be wasted otherwise.  My concerns over the carbon footprint and potential taste change still stand though.

·         Fish meal is almost entirely imported, potentially from overseas.  The nutritionist found an Aussie source, but couldn’t guarantee how long it would last.  I’d not even experiment with fish meal though, as my research and advice from UK customers is that it almost certainly taints the taste of the meat.

The one big bit of advice we kept getting was to mill the feed.  Our research, including speaking to multiple other breeders, was that soaking the grain was as good as milling. We were also told that you don’t need to soak or mill the peas, as it’s the one grain that pigs can process without intervention.

We had bought an ancient mill a year or so earlier, but it needed work and we had a thousand other jobs that needed doing.  We didn’t think we needed the mill, so we prioritised it down our long to-do list.  However, based on the advice (nagging) of our vet, we got the old beast of a mill working.

The mill is probably 60 or 70 years old. It’s a relatively simple machine that runs off of our tractor’s power take off (PTO). It has a friction clutch behind a universal joint, uses four belts on a big drive for power, just uses a heap of scary-looking metal teeth for the actual crushing, and then an attached cyclone to blow out the dusty stuff.  That might sound like a lot of words, but the mechanics of the mill are really not at all complex.  The fact that it’s mechanically simple makes maintenance a heap easier, and means we could get it up and running without a huge amount of fuss or expense.

mill-1

This is the view I have as I’m feeding grain into the beast. That’s the hopper at the top, with the chute at the back for feeding in straw to make chafe.

mill-2

Sheldon runs the beast from the PTO, and does a great job. 🙂

mill-3

The tall galvanised part is the cyclone. It throws the light dusty flour out the top and lets the heavier milled grain drop down into a drum. I used to stand on the back of the Ranger to feed the grain in, but now stand on the back of an old paddock-basher, mostly to save my lovely farm truck from being covered in flour. 🙂

So, the changes we ended up making were:

·         Mill the feed. This is a hammer mill rather than a true mixer mill, but I’m able to feed in both the peas and cereal grain, and they’re nicely combined when they come out.

·         Tried meat meal. We bought some as an experiment. We didn’t see a lot of difference in pigs who had it and those that didn’t though, so we’ve discontinued its use. I really am worried about the carbon footprint of the meat/fish meals, and it changes the pig poop so they start to smell like their poor intensively farmed brethren.

·         Experiment with the ration. We landed on 70 to 75% cereal and 25 to 30% peas/lupins/beans.  This is a bit of a moving target, as our milling method is still me manually adding these things into the hopper.  However, over an entire batch that lasts a couple of weeks, those ratios would be about right.

·         Tried a mill pack. Mill packs are basically a multi-vitamin for pigs. They’re designed to be added to a tonne of feed at the rate of 1.7%, and therefore come in 17kg bags.  This was to combat the zinc deficiency, and it worked well.  The problem is the lack of mixer mill I mentioned earlier.  Without the ability to mix it into their feed at the correct rate, we have to do it on a feed-by-feed basis. That’s not huge problem, but it means we use a bit more than absolutely required.

A rule-of-thumb is that a pig should eat about 3% of its live weight a day.  We split our pigs based on age/size, having breeder paddocks with the adults pigs, farrowing paddocks with the mums and little tackers, weaner paddocks for the weaners, and grower paddocks for the porkers and baconers.  That means that, using my well-honed excel skills, I’m able to maintain a spreadsheet of what pigs are where, an estimate of what they weigh, and the resultant feed they should be getting. We use that as a guide and the minimum we should be feeding out, and then adjust based on the condition of the pigs. 

The brewers mash is still a big part of what we feed.  It would be MUCH easier for us to not use it.  Getting it is slightly painful, and involves a lot of more-than-slightly painful shovelling of heavy, wet material. However, it is the ONLY way to sustainably grow pigs.  Feeding them grain grown for human consumption is absolutely NOT sustainable.

The mash has the other advantage of letting us fine-tune the condition of the heritage breeds.  We have a few saddleback sows that struggled with their litters due to being too fat.  We’re able to feed them mostly mash, with just enough milled grain to make it really palatable. At the same time, the few white sows we still have need a much more nutritious feed, and so get at least 50% milled feed, and more if we think they’re losing condition.

The grain we mill is mostly screenings (seconds), including some amazing lupin screenings that we were able to get from our friendly share farmer.  The rest is what we’ve grown on our property, and we’re in the process of trying to trade as much as that as possible for screenings from elsewhere.

The results have been outstanding.  We can feed the pigs the same volume/weight we’ve always fed them, but they process this new ration so much more effectively. They’re not any more full than they were before, and they’re still grown slowly, but they put on condition beautifully.

I also think that the pigs prefer the milled feed to the soaked grain.  We used to move them around by waving a bit of bread in front of their face. Seriously, they’d normally follow me anywhere for a few slices of bread. Now, if they get a bit stubborn and baulk at the bread, I’ll get a half-bucket of milled feed out.  You sometimes have to run to keep ahead of them if you’re moving them with the milled feed. J

Don’t take my word for it though. This video shows you just how enthusiastic they are about their new ration. 😀

That was another wall of words about how we feed our pigs.  I’d like to apologise to anybody who got this far and is now cursing me and my verbosity.  🙂  However, I think it’s important that we properly and accurately document things like this. Everybody should know what is eaten by the animals they in-turn eat. Even if a consumer doesn’t care at all how stock animals are treated, they should care about what those stock animals eat as that then indirectly becomes part of their diet.  I’m also keen to record this stuff so it might benefit other people like us.  We’re working most of this stuff out through trial-and-error, often heavy on the error.  I’d like to help avoid that for those coming after us.