We’re Official Now!

While it feels like decades, we only made our tree change a little over 3 years ago. I think it’s aged me at least 20 years but it really hasn’t been *that* long. Our initial aim was self-sufficiency for our family, with the broader goal of passing on a legacy to my kids, that legacy being an attitude or ethos of critical thinking and independence. That’s a lot from a humble few acres, but you have to aim big, right? 🙂

Things have grown quite a bit in a relatively short time. At first we wanted to grow our own meat so we knew it was done ethically. However, if you have pigs you find that even a single litter will give you lots and lots of excess piglets, so we figured we’d sell that excess and pay for our feed. That would make us both self-sufficient and cost neutral. Score! Then, almost by accident, it all snowballed and we noticed the number of people who wanted access to the kind of animals we raised. Now we want to escalate to a commercial venture. I genuinely love doing this and want to do it on a larger scale. While it might not be feasible to do this as a career change for a while, we have the opportunity to ramp it up and see where it goes. Call it my retirement plan. 🙂

We took the first step in February to make it all official and created a company. We went so far as to make a logo and business cards, so it’s all official now!

A logo AND a business card?!

A logo AND a business card?!

We need to expand our operation, which means more land. We weren’t far from closing on 40 acres just down the road a few months ago, but the council got in the way. Now we’re looking at 100 to 150 acres a further 5 minutes out. That’ll have to wait until after we get married in April, after which I’ll be pursuing this quite hard. When that happens I’ll increase to at least a dozen sows and two boars, along with some free-ranged cows and maybe a small flock of sheep.

In the meantime we’ll build a customer base and refine our breeding. We’ll always have a couple of sows at our place, mainly to breed our replacement gilts, while the larger property will be where we breed the growers. It’s all planned out, mainly because I like plans and we have time before we get the bigger block.

Visit our website for contact details and price lists etc. Also feel free to drop me a line or email or text or some other form of 21st century communication. I’m always happy to talk about pigs. You may have noticed that though.

Pig Breeding Experimentation Part 2.

Our first white x heritage breed litter was born in January. This entire experience, covering both litters, has been fascinating and a HUGE learning experience.

First of all, the two Large Black x Berkshire girls, from the same litter, look like they’re different breeds, the Large Black-looking girl (Miss Swan) being much larger than the Berkshire-looking girl (Socks).

Secondly, we had them in with the boar at the same time, and then long enough to cover a few consecutive seasons. We saw them couple on the first day, but not again after that, and had assumed they’d be due around the same day. However, by the time that Miss Swan dropped, Socks was clearly a ways off.

Thirdly, we were expecting them to have relatively small litters, and that happened when Miss Swan had a total of 5 in her first litter. With Socks being much smaller and barely looking pregnant, I was guessing she’d have 4.

Lastly, this was an interesting contrast between the white and black girls in general. We can tell when the white girls are getting close as their bellies drop and their teats fill up like water balloons. However, the black girls, who don’t produce as much milk, have much more subtle changes.

So where we thought that Socks would drop at the end of January and have 4 or so babies, she dropped 11 in the middle of February! The much, much smaller sow had more than twice the number of babies. There was one still-born, which was a boy who was almost twice the size of his litter mates. I suspect she struggled and he didn’t make it. She also squashed one during the first 24 hours, which is to be expected when you have that many. Still, it looks like she’ll wean 9, which is amazing for her breed and the first litter.

Only a few hours old.

Only a few hours old.

Inside a few hours they're up and about. The trick is containing the little buggers.

Inside a few hours they’re up and about. The trick is containing the little buggers.

I’d noted with Miss Swan’s babies that they were white with black marks/patches/spots, but all of Sock’s babies were born almost entirely white. However, we’ve seen that Miss Swan’s little boy, who was born mostly white, has been colouring up in the last couple of weeks. It’ll be interesting to see if this new litter will change colour at all. It probably doesn’t matter, but it’ll be easier to tell between the breeds if they at least look different. 🙂

The big test will be in the quality of the pork. Both mums look like they’re different breeds, and both had completely different kinds of litters. Logic says that the pork may vary quite a bit, but we’ll have to wait and see.

The first family meal.

The first family meal.

First baby loves!

First baby loves!

Beer Fed Pork! WHAT?!

Pigs are amazing. Clearly I’m about as biased as a person can be, but that statement can stand on its own: Pigs are amazing. They are friendly, gregarious, great parents, and they convert feed to meat more efficiently than any other animal. Those last two points are the reasons they are so mistreated in intensive farming situations, and the first two points are why it hurts them so much. All of those reasons together are why I want to do this for a living.

As efficiently as pigs convert feed to meat, they still eat a heap. They’ll eat quite literally anything, and they like to eat lots, and lots of it. That makes them expensive to keep, and that’s not even counting the extra strong fencing and housing they need.

I went and checked out a local intensive pig farm that’s on the market, and had a long, long conversation with the owner about husbandry and feed etc. Half of his total outlay for the year is feed. Granted they use highly processed and expensive feed, but it’s still a huge cost if you’re keeping pigs. With that in mind, we’re always looking for ways to find good cheap food for our herd. There’s no way we’ll skimp on quality or nutrition, but cheaper is clearly always an aim.

We buy a majority of our food from the farmers around us, with Farmer John making the introductions and often cluing us into what’s available. We get screenings or mixed feed that’s been left out in bags, and we get it relatively cheap. Where other pig farmers are spending $500 or more a tonne for food, we get ours much cheaper. Not only that, it’s all grown in the paddocks around us, some of it within sight of our home, meaning the carbon footprint is much smaller. We’re still working on the best food combinations for the different kinds of pigs (e.g. piglets, weaners, lactating sows, growers etc.), and will end up with probably 4 or 5 different regimes.

We’re lucky enough to collect the left over bread from a local-ish bakery every Sunday. A local church collects it the other 6 days of the week, but ironically on Sunday they can’t take it so we do. Bread is by no means a good balanced diet for any animals, but as something extra and a supplement it’s awesome. More than that, it’s literally just thrown into a skip if we don’t get it, and I’d go pick it up to save that waste if for no other reason.

We also get a fair bit of waste from the green grocer where my daughter’s boyfriend works. That probably isn’t enough to make a difference to the feed bill, but it’s great for the pigs and is thrown in a skip otherwise.

Our biggest win in this context, however, is spent brewer’s grain. We visited an Ethicurean pig farm in Victoria a while back where half of their feed comes from a local brewery, and we’ve been on the lookout for something similar ever since. The spent mash is basically just boiled barley, and our pigs are used to eating soaked grains. Not only that, this is another waste product that would otherwise go to landfill.

We were lucky enough to find Pirate Life Brewing via the daughter of a friend of dads. These guys recently started brewing in Adelaide, having moved from Perth. We actually found them just before their first brew, so we’ve been able to get every bit of their spent mash. The first week was lots more than we’d normally expect, as they were ramping up. We were expecting maybe a tonne, but ended up with around 5 tonnes. Still, we are keen for this not to go to waste and we’re equally keen to get good quality free food, so we took every bit. We fed it out to our pigs in large quantities, we found that our cows also love it, and the spare grain went to Farmer John’s cows.

Ziggy Pig loves the brewer's grain.

Ziggy Pig loves the brewer’s grain.

Never too busy to pose...

Never too busy to pose…

We’re looking at getting their spent hops too. This is probably too bitter for the stock, but can be composted. There’s not a heap of it, and I’m keen for it not to go to landfill. I can see this bulking out my compost heap nicely. 🙂

All of the research I read said that spent brewer’s grain is great as stock feed, but you shouldn’t feed it to them as more than 50% of their diet. It’s high in protein and fiber, but relatively low in carbohydrates, which is not surprising as that’s the bit they use for the beer. It’s also not supposed to keep very well. From what I’ve read it only keeps 2 to 5 days in warm weather, and February in South Australia is much warmer than “warm weather”, and 5 to 7 days in cooler weather.

Some of our pigs have definitely had more than 50% of their diet as spent grain for the last couple of weeks, as we’ve had so much of it. They also get the bread, greens, and soaked wheat, but the bulk of their food has certainly been the spent grain. The lactating females get a lot of other stuff, but the growers, not pregnant (unpregnant?) sows, and the boar have been eating lots of the waste grain, as have the cows. In future we’ll feed it out around 50/50, but right now we’re just throwing it at them, they love it, and they’ve certainly dropped no condition.

It’s also keeping better than we expected. We’re keeping it in 44 gallon drums that are just in the sun, but we’ve had little mold. Anything that looks like it might be getting moldy gets thrown on the ground, but up to now I’d be surprised if we’ve had more than a couple of bucket loads like that. A huge majority of the grain has gone to the animals. Oh, and the poultry is always around to clean up any grain on the ground left behind by my clumsy shoveling.

The pigs LOVE the brewer's grain.

The pigs LOVE the brewer’s grain.

Photogenic pig is photogenic!

Photogenic pig is photogenic!

It’s tough to forecast how much spent brewer’s grain we’ll be getting in the future, but we suspect at least a tonne a week. It could make up our entire feed ration if it was a bit better food nutritionally; however, we’ll be supplementing it with the grain we buy from the farmers around us.

I suspect that this salvaged food will end up making up at least half of our feed ration, and potentially a bit more. It’ll save us quite a bit of money, make us more viable as a commercial entity, and it also saves a huge amount of material going to landfill. Environmentally, it’s about the biggest win-win you could ever imagine. 🙂


Let The Pig Breeding Experimentation Begin!

Back in April last year we acquired our first heritage breed pigs. They were 3 piglets around 4 months old, and we bought 2 girls and 1 boy. Initially we wanted to use the boy as a spit-pig but feed his sisters on as baconers. However, we decided to keep the girls as breeders to see how they went.

The father of these piglets was pure Large Black and the mum was pure Berkshire. They were both huge, and both just lovely, friendly pigs. The weird thing is that the two girls, despite being litter-mates, look like different breeds. Miss Swan looks like a Large Black, not surprisingly being giant and entirely black, while Socks looks like a Berkshire, being smaller and having a white star/blaze and 4 white feet. It’s fascinating thinking about how they came from the same litter, and yet identify genetically with different parents.

Anyway, we wanted to put our boar, Boris, over them. Boris a Large White/Landrace cross, though I think he tends to favour the Landrace side. At around 9 months old both of these girls was large enough to take Boris so we put all three of them in together. They lived together for between 2 and 3 months, and I’m confident for at least a full three seasons.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is Boris doing his job and doing it well!

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is Boris doing his job and doing it well!

We thought the girls were in season when we decided to put them all in together. We’re getting pretty good at picking that, though to be honest the sows are none-too-subtle about it. We saw them couple pretty much right away, as evidenced by the picture above. We saw Boris couple with both girls and so figured they’d both be pregnant at the same time and drop around the same time. We want to farrow the girls in pairs. We’ve tried farrowing them truly together with some fairly disastrous results. Our plan now is to have them drop in pairs, keep the mums separate for a week or two, and then have them all in together. This will help us foster babies if we need to, and the mums just like to have company.

We monitored the girls for the next couple of months, and didn’t see them come into season again or couple with Boris. This is the tricky part though, as we’re not out there all day and so can’t watch them 24/7. However, like I said, an in-heat sow isn’t subtle and we were sure we’d see it if it were to happen. As it turns out, we were wrong.

While this cross-breeding is experimental to us, it’s obviously been done before. The offspring of the white/black crosses are called Blue Merles, and I don’t think that term is limited to pigs but counts for a number of species. Commercially, the Large White/Landrace sows are favoured because they have lots of babies and produce lots of milk. They then finish that line off (Terminal Sire Line) with Durocs to give the boofy offspring that grow quickly and give good hams etc. The heritage breeds, on the other hand, have smaller litters, but the meat is better quality, having better marbling and depth-of-flavour. I wanted to see if Blue Merle pigs would give us the best of both worlds.

As a side note, I’m not hung up on the heritage breeds. People will bang on about them, and there’s no doubt they’re lovely pigs and well worth saving as breeds. However, there are many people growing them now, so the breeds aren’t in danger. To me, the ethical part of raising any animal for food, be it pigs or something else, is in how they’re raised. I’m happy to raise white, black, or spotted pigs. Having said that, the brother of Miss Swan and Socks (George) was noticeably tastier, so we were keen to experiment with the black breeds. I’d never dump my white girls and replace them with heritage breed sows, but I would phase them out depending on how our cross-breeding experiments go.

You’ll also hear that the black breeds are better for free-ranging as they handle the heat better. That’s only half true. They certainly don’t get sunburned, which is a bonus, but they get heat stressed much faster. That actually stands to reason if you think about it. White reflects heat and black absorbs it, so our black girls will be panting and in need of a soaking much quicker than our white girls. We’re also working on a home-made sunburn remedy for our girls involving the copious amounts of aloe vera we grow. I’ll post about that should we work it out.

We’re getting quite good at picking when the white girls are going to drop just by looking at them – their stomachs drop and their teats fill out. I keep a spreadsheet recording all of the matings and births, so we have a good idea when they’re due, but we can pretty much pick it visually now. That’s a little harder with the black girls, as they don’t have as much milk. With all of that in mind, we were struggling getting closer to the due date of our black girls. About a week out I was sure that Miss Swan was due shortly, but I wasn’t even sure that Socks was pregnant. She’s much smaller than Swan, and just didn’t show the signs that the white girls do.

Based on when we saw them mate their earliest due date was January 24th. They’re pregnant for 112 to 114 days. They’re also in a heat for a few days, and can mate across that entire period. That means we can only estimate their earliest due date, but it can actually be several days later. In this case, Miss Swan dropped on January 27th, giving us 5 gorgeous babies.

This is Dumbo. No prizes for guessing where his name comes from.

This is Dumbo. No prizes for guessing where his name comes from.

This might look like cute piglets kissing but it's actually cute piglets beating the hell out of each other.

This might look like cute piglets kissing but it’s actually cute piglets beating the hell out of each other.

Blue Merle goodness!

Blue Merle goodness!

This entire experience was fascinating to me. First of all, Swan is a very large pig, and not yet fully grown, and she gave us only 5 babies. First litters are often smaller, though we had a white girl drop 13 her first time, and the heritage breeds normally have smaller litter sizes. I was happy with that, and would have no problem with smaller litters if the result is a better grade of meat. In this case there was also 4 girls and 1 boy, which is a great ratio. We much prefer girls, so 80% was perfect. The other thing that struck me was their colour. The 4 girls were spotty, and a few had patches over their faces which were adorable, but the boy came out almost entirely white. I thought that was cool, and we gave the girls pirate-themed names (Captain, Jack, Sparrow, and Chang). However, at four weeks old the boy (Dumbo) has half his back covered in black spots. They clearly develop their colours as they grow, and I had never read about that anywhere.

Piglet breakfast alfresco.

Piglet breakfast alfresco.

This is Captain at nearly 4 weeks old. She's a sweety!

This is Captain at nearly 4 weeks old. She’s a sweety!

The last thing of note with these piglets is their size. At 4 weeks old they are super boofy in the shoulders and really quite large. They are easily the best piglets we’ve ever had, and I have high hopes for the quality of the pork.

This is at just shy of 4 weeks. There's no real frame of reference, but they're the largest piglets we've ever had.

This is at just shy of 4 weeks. There’s no real frame of reference, but they’re the largest piglets we’ve ever had.

Dumbo is slated to be the spit-pig at our wedding, assuming he grows big enough in the next couple of months. I’m really keen to see how it goes. It’ll be a bit bitter sweet, which is apt for a wedding, as these are also the most affectionate piglets we’ve ever had. They always end up friendly in the end, but this litter has been super-affectionate right from the start. Dumbo races over to me and flops on my shoes for a belly rub every time I go in there. 😦

Though we’ve not tried the meat yet, I’m confident that this experiment has worked well. While I’m not going to race out and swap our white girls for heritage breeds, I may swap our boar out for a Large Black.

Miss Swan doing it for the lolz.

Miss Swan doing it for the lolz.

Oh, and Socks obviously didn’t drop at the same time as her sister. It was only when her sister dropped that I was confident that Socks was even pregnant. At the time we figured she was probably a fully cycle out from her sister, meaning she’d be due 3 weeks later. I’m going to save that for another blog entry though, as Socks’ litter was even more surprising!