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.

 

 

Fire Readiness!

I wrote about our fire preparedness, or slightly frustrating lack of it, back in November when I marked the first anniversary of the Pinery fires .  We were partly prepared, but nothing close to what I’d planned.  That changed soon after that blog post, with the purchase of a fire pump and the installation of roof sprinklers.  Today, in the first week of January, it finally feels like summer is here, and we tested everything to make sure it all worked and that the family knew how it worked.  I’m now feeling pretty confident in our ability to not just survive the next fire, but to actively fight it.

Two things struck us on November 25th, 2015 when the Pinery fires ripped through here.  Firstly, the power goes out hours before the fire is even close to us.  Secondly, the water pressure drops to next-to-nothing shortly afterwards.  If you’re dependent on mains water or electric pumps for stored water, then you’re pretty much screwed.

The other thing we learned is that most houses are lost due to ember attacks, rather than radiant heat.  This is especially true of houses like ours that have a tiled roof – the embers can sneak in under the tiles or they hit the gutters and burn litter and/or burn through the fascia.  

We’ve combatted all of this in several ways:

Stored Water:

Every downpipe on our house and sheds goes into a tank.  We currently have something over 80,000 litres of water storage, with the ability to collect around 200,000 litres per year from our roof areas.  That’s broken down into a few different areas.

Area 1:

We have two galvanised tanks that collectively hold around 26,000 litres, and these are to the west of the house behind one of our sheds.  They are right where we’d expect a fire to come through, and so our first line of defence.

Area 2:

We have two tanks next to the house on the western side.  One is a 5,000 litre poly-tank and one is a 2,000 litre fibreglass tank.  The 5,000 litre tank is dedicated to our roof sprinklers, and the 2,000 litre tank is there for the CFS to use.

Area 3:

We have two poly-tanks that collectively hold near 50,000 litres on the western side of our big shed.

Our plan is to keep the tanks in Areas 1 and 2 full all Summer, even if we need to fill them from the mains.  Area 3 has more water, but is a long way from where we’d expect a fire front, though we’ll make sure there’s still water in them and the ability to use them should it be required.  We’ll not bother filling them to the top though.

fire-sign-1

This sign tells the CFS that we have water specifically for their use.

fire-sign-2

This 2,000 litre tank is the capacity of a lot of CFS trucks and has the kind of fitting they need.

 Roof Sprinklers:

We installed two runs of purpose-built sprinklers on our roof and they are amazing!  The brand is Ember Defender, and they’re an Australian invention.  They’re super easy to set up, and just them on their own would give me a lot of peace of mind in the event of another fire.

The guide with the sprinklers suggests a run of 3 for a house our size (250 square metres).  They also suggest a closed loop – hoses from each end of the run that run to the tap.  This increases the pressure, and it really made a difference when we tested it.

We ended up installing 5 sprinklers, so way more than suggested, and did it on two separate runs.  We did a run of three from a fire-fighting pump we already had, and a run of two from a slightly weaker electric pump.  We can run these off of mains at first, should the pressure be good enough, and then switch to the pump later, or just run it from the pump.  Either way, it takes no time at all for the roof to wet down and for the gutters to fill. 

In theory, you block the downpipes and fill the gutters.  The fact that all of our water runs back into the tanks means that I just leave them unblocked.  We have a dedicated 5,000 litres for the sprinklers, and that will run them for hours and hours.  I’d expect a decent warning before a fire got to us, we had a few hours warning before Pinery, and the first thing we’d do is start the sprinklers.

pump-1

This is from our old mobile fire-fighting unit, which ironically almost burned in the Pinery fires.

sprinklers-1

This panoramic shot shows all of the sprinklers on the roof.

 

Fire-Fighting Pump:

We bought a nice fire-fighting pump and use the 26,000 litres described above in Area 1.  Most of our weather comes from the north and west, with Pinery coming directly out of the West.  We expect something similar with any subsequent fires, and this pump and the water are situated accordingly.

The pump will run two hoses, and we have a 20m and 50m hose connected currently.  We tested them, both separately and together, and the range of the water stream is impressive.  The 50m hose reaches north to the front of the property, and will reach most of the way down our western boundary towards the south.  It’ll also reach every corner of our house.

 

fire-hose-1

This towards the back of the place, and where the Pinery fire first hit us. The tree closest to Peyton is the one I hid behind when the fire storm came through.

 

Miscellanea:

We’ve done other bits-and-pieces as well.  We’ve run the overflow hose from the Envirocyle (recycled septic system) down the western boundary with its low-pressure sprinklers.  They’ll keep some of that area constantly damp. 

We’ve also trimmed back the trees along our northern and western boundaries, of which we have around 20.  The gum trees are actually excellent at absorbing blow embers, as we found out when John’s house burned last year.  We want them there doing that job, but these trees tend to grow long limbs that break under their own weight.  We’ve removed those limbs, as they’re just fuel for a fire, and pre-emptively pruned some limbs back to keep it all under control.

At the same time, we have a handful of giant pine trees along the western boundary, right where the Pinery fire hit us.  Those trees are awful in a fire, and I considered taking them down. However, I actually like them, and we should be able to control any fire near them with the fire hose.  In fact, two of them did start to burn last time, and there are still scorch marks a good 10 or 12 feet up their trunks.  It was the wind and dust that snuffed those fires out, but next time we’ll be able to do that ourselves.  We still cleaned them up a bit, and removed any dead wood from the area.

Strategy:

Most importantly is how we bring all of these things together.  Our strategy is something like this:

·         Keep the tanks in Area 1 and Area 2 full ahead of summer.

·         Have generators available for the electric pumps in Area 1 (used for the second run of roof sprinklers) and Area 3.  We have two generators, both of which are situated where we need them.

o   Have petrol available for the generators and the petrol pumps.  This is in the form of larger jerry cans tucked into a shed, with smaller cans next to the devices.

·         Test the entire system at least monthly, including generators and petrol plans etc.  We did that today.

·         In case of a fire alert:

o   Turn on the roof sprinklers.

o   Use the fire pump to wet down the boundary where the fire is expected to hit.  The boundary and a few metres inside our property will be wetted.  There are some trees there that almost burned last time, and we’ll wet them too.

o   Given time, we’ll also wet internal fence lines, especially anything that houses an animal.

o   Fight any flames that make it onto the property.

The pump and stored water in Area 3 will only be used if needed.  This will be if something gets passed us, or we need some extra water.  If nothing else, I can run the pump and transfer water from those bigger tanks to the smaller fire-fighting tanks.

The priority in these fire events is to protect yourself, your house, your sheds, everything else, in that order.  I’m pretty confident that we can protect everything with our current set-up; however, should something more ferocious than Pinery hit us then I am super confident that we can protect at least the house and ourselves.    

Last time we were helpless. Nothing we did altered the course of that fire, though we were able to save most of our animals and our house (the CFS were confident that our house would’ve gone without our intervention. They were actually surprised that it didn’t go up even with our intervention).  Even with saving the animals and the house, we felt completely helpless, just reacting to whatever disaster the fire decided to throw at us.  Next time, however, we’ll be able to proactively protect ourselves and what’s ours.  Hell, we’d be able to reach next door and help at John’s house if needed.  That makes me feel much less helpless, and much, much happier. 🙂

My one biggest wish is that we never have to use any of it.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).

Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA as it’s commonly called, is an agricultural production system that sees the consumer share risk with the farmer by agreeing to buy food in advance of the production.  We learned of the CSA system a few years ago, and have always wanted to include it in our business model.  We have our market, restaurant, and bulk sales, but expanding that to include CSA is attractive for a number of reasons.

Firstly, there’s significant risk in what we do.  CSA started with vegetable and fruit producers, who are at the complete mercy of the weather.  Theirs is often a famine or glut situation, and being able to spread that production risk is of enormous benefit to them.

The weather is less of a factor for meat producers like us, but we can never guarantee our production.  We’ve had pig litters from 3 to 13, and while every breeder aims to maximise both the numbers born and the numbers weaned, we really are often at the mercy of nature here.  Don’t get me wrong – stewardship and management are vital factors in any breeding enterprise. However, there are times where it doesn’t matter what you do, and you end up with a boy shooting blanks, variable fecundity with your girls, or predation on your flock/herd.

The way a CSA system helps us mitigate that risk is by sharing it, to a certain extent, with the consumer.  You, the consumer, buy futures in our production, and you basically receive what we’re able to produce in a monthly delivery. We can guarantee a minimum weight, which we term “CSA shares”, but it’ll be a mix of meats up to that weight.  For example, if our sheep production has been booming but our pig production is in a slump, then your CSA box may be heavier on lamb than pork.  There are nuances here, as factors like the various CSA box options or your family’s dietary requirements come into play, but generally speaking, the variety in the boxes changes to match my production.

The second reason why I love the idea of the CSA system, and I think the one that appeals to me the most, is that it connects consumers to me, my farm, and what we do in a very real, very tangible way. You’re not just buying meat.  You’re not even just buying meat from somebody who you know grows the animals in a way that parallels your own ethical/moral compass.  You’re explicitly buying a part of my production, and through that we have a special kind of relationship. All of a sudden, you’re intimately connected with our breeding, both the practices and the outcomes.  You’ve got a stake in how I raise my animals, and their wellbeing.  You’ll be feeling both our successes and our failures more intimately, and in the process you’ll have a closer connection with where your meat comes from.  That makes me very, very happy. 🙂

There are also benefits to the consumer here that make the CSA option attractive to me.  You’ll get a much better sense of the amount of meat you eat, and I can express that to you in terms of kg/month or kg/year, and also how that equates to the actual animals (e.g. each subscription will have estimates of the number of pigs/cows/lambs/chickens that will be consumed annually). Everybody should rationalise the amount of meat they eat, for both health and ethical reasons, and buying CSA shares is the perfect way to do that.

The other benefit to the consumer is value-for-money.  The price-point for CSA shares is between bulk prices and market prices.  CSA purchases are cost-effective, customers get to buy in bulk without actually having to outlay that much money upfront or needing to store entire beasts in the freezer. 

I’m not sure we’ll ever move to a 100% CSA model. Right now I’m able to forecast our production for the next 12 months, and I’ve split that about evenly between CSA and the market.  While selling all of our produce via the CSA system would make better sense from a production/risk point-of-view, I like the market because it gets us in front of a lot of new people every week.  Building relationships with a smaller set of regulars is awesome, and the idea of having those long-term relationships as part of our CSA system and having that as the entirety of our business is tempting.  A large part of why I do what I do, however, is to spread a message.  The markets give us that opportunity on a large scale where the CSA system does not.

The way I want to implement a CSA system is by offering three different kinds of boxes, namely, pork-only, a mix of pork, lamb, and beef (mixed mammal), and a mix of pork, lamb, beef, and chicken (mixed mostly mammal? 😀  ).  We don’t grow the chickens, but I have a source who grows them properly, completely free-ranged, and I have full confidence that they are happy, healthy birds.

A CSA share is 5kg/month, and the boxes will range from small (1 share), medium (2 shares), to large (3 shares).  This effectively equates to a monthly delivery of 5, 10, or 15kg.  These weights are the minimum weight that each box will contain, but the variety in the box will vary from month-to-month.  We’ll also have additional offerings like bacon and mettwurst (spoiler alert – we’ll be producing smallgoods in the 2017 New Year!!!!!!!), and will cater for people’s dietary requirements (e.g. gluten-free).

We’ll also offer CSA members discounts at the market, and will host members to tour the farm either themselves or as part of a broader CSA open day. We’re still working out some details, after which I’ll put them up on our web page.  This is a blog after all – I’m not posting here to sell people stuff. 🙂

The result should be that people can order their CSA box to suit their family situation, and we’ll cater to what they want to the best of our abilities.  In the process, the customer is getting value-for-money, and a much closer connection to my farm and their meat production and consumption.  They benefit and we benefit, but my real hope is that this kind of practice starts to grow and takes on more of a life of its own.  These systems are big in the US and UK, and while we’ve seen it a bit in Australia, mostly in the eastern states, and we have come across some local family co-operatives that have similar aims, it’s still only just taking off here. This kind of system, supporting small family farms and connecting people to their food, can be a real alternative to the mass-production, intensively-farmed misery that is the majority of our food industry.  Fingers crossed…

 

A Year On…

I’ve not been keeping up with the blog. To be honest, we’re struggling to keep up with pretty much everything since we got our new place .  I’m not complaining of course, as this is exactly what we wanted.  I am unapologetically making excuses though. 🙂

The weather is warming up, if maybe slower than it normally does, and my blogging time should be increasing.  That’ll mean I will hopefully catch up over the next few months.  Even though it’s still cool enough to be productive in a farm sense, I wanted to kick off my new found blogging fervour today.  You see, today is auspicious, if in a slightly macabre way, as it’s a year today that we almost lost everything in the Pinery Fire .  That was the most terrifying and shitty day of my life, though it could easily have been much shittier, and I want to mark the anniversary here.

I didn’t originally blog about the fire until January this year, a good six weeks after the event. It was all too fresh and raw, and I was a bit cowardly in avoiding the subject.  Writing about it was awful, and until today I’ve not gone back to read that entry.  Again that might be cowardice, but I had zero desire to relive the experience.  However, today I made myself sit through reading what I’d written, which was about as much fun as I was expecting. 

November 25th, 2015. This was when the fire first hit our place. The fire storm had been through, but these were the first big flames.

November 25th, 2015. This was when the fire first hit our place. The fire storm had been through, but these were the first big flames.

 

November 25th, 2016. This is the same view back to where the fire came through. Looks a little different, yes?

November 25th, 2016. This is the same view back to where the fire came through. Looks a little different, yes?

Reading that original blog entry really highlighted to me the difference in the weather and conditions from last year to this.  This year has been insanely wet, and it hasn’t been hot at all.  Hell, this morning I was actively cold and realised that there have been maybe two days this season that I’ve not had to wear a jacket. 

The rain has been crazy.  I checked the Bureau of Meteorology, and it tells me that the average rainfall in Roseworthy to November is 446mm, and to this day last year we’d had 355mm.  This year we’ve had 601mm!

This is the flow of water from the road into our property. It's a freaking creek!

This is the flow of water from the road into our property. It’s a freaking creek!

 

This is what we affectionately call "The Duck Pond". It appeared this year in early June, and right now in late November it's almost gone. That's six full months of a body of water where we've never had one before.

This is what we affectionately call “The Duck Pond”. It appeared this year in early June, and right now in late November it’s almost gone. That’s six full months of a body of water where we’ve never had one before.

That rainfall has felt awesome, as has the lack of scorching days. Our share farmer at our other place said that this is the first year he remembers where all of the crops have completely ripened in their own time.  Normally there’s been a hot spell that brings them on, but this year they’ve been free to ripen without pressure.  Apparently that leads to amazing yields, and I think they’re forecasting some record breakers this year.  The problem is, however, that many of those crops are still in the ground.

This time last year the harvesting was mostly done, especially around us.  All that was left on the ground was stubble.  This year, the harvest around us started about a week ago, though hay-cutting started about a month ago.  The hay is bailed, but much of it is still sitting in paddocks.  Many more paddocks are waiting for harvesting with potentially record-breaking crops on them. The one thought that keeps cycling through my mind is just how much fuel is in a crop with record-breaking yields. 

The farmers know their jobs, and they’re all out working like only farmers can.  I’ll just be much more comfortable when the crops are off.

The other problem with the unseasonably cool and wet weather is that it took away some of the urgency.  It’s tough to think about planning for fires when it’s been raining for six months.  We’re not unprepared, but we’re not as prepared as I wanted.  That should change over the next few weeks.

We have extra tanks, and we currently have around 30,000 litres of water stored and dedicated to fire fighting.  That’s 10 to 15 CFS trucks worth of water, and it should help a lot.  We’ll shortly have sprinklers on the roof, with a dedicated pump and 5,000 litre tank of water.  This will do nothing but sprinkle the roof of the house during a fire, and that 5,000 litres should last for a long time.

At the same time, we’ll shortly have a second fire-fighting pump attached to two tanks with a combined storage of a little over 25,000 litres.  That will be positioned to the west of the house, which is the direction from which most fires will come.  From there we should be able to protect the house quite well, and maybe even that entire boundary.

We’re also doing little things like putting a spare 2,000 litre tank, with a CFS-approved fitting, somewhere that’s accessible to the fire trucks.  We’re even running the grey water overflow hose from the septic down along the fence line to the west, just to keep that area moist. Every bit helps, even if it’s gross grey water. 🙂

You can still see the scars from the fires.  John’s new house had the kitchen delivered yesterday and he might be in before Christmas.  Of the other houses that were lost near us, one is demolished and a new foundation is down, but another is still just a shell.  The gum trees are all bouncing back like they do, but our giant mulberry tree is still unhappy. 

Even with these daily visible reminders, it wouldn’t be hard to put the fire to the very back of your mind. Most of the countryside is back to normal, most of the fences are back up, and the crops are looking amazing.  You might not be able to forget it completely, but you could lock it away somewhere and ignore it.  As tempting as that it is, it’d be a mistake.  This is exactly why I made myself read my blog entry about the fire today.  This is exactly why I’m writing about it again now.  This is exactly why we’ll pull our fingers out and increase our fire preparedness over the next few weeks.

Our weather is changing, with more and more extreme weather events (we’ve had both fire and floods in the last 12 months, with an actual tornado touching down 15 minutes from our other place a couple of months ago).  The seasons are changing, and while that has benefited the local broad-acre farmers over the past year, there’s no telling what’ll happen next year.  We will definitively get more fires, especially if we end up with later harvests and more fuel on the ground going into summer.  This is one of those adapt-or-die situations I think, and I, for one, plan to adapt.

November 25th, 2015. This is just as the wind changed and the fire storm started to roll towards us.

November 25th, 2015. This is just as the wind changed and the fire storm started to roll towards us.

November 25th, 2016. You can see the two trees to the right of the picture, and then match them with the same two trees in the previous picture. It's gives an idea of what rolled over us.

November 25th, 2016. You can see the two trees to the right of the picture, and then match them with the same two trees in the previous picture. It’s gives an idea of what rolled over us.