I’ve not blogged in a while. One of the ironies of our farm life is that it keeps me too busy to talk about farm life on the internet. 🙂
One thing I noticed when looking back at the blog is that the past few posts have been seriously depressing! Fires and lost lambs do not good internet reading make, as my old grand pappy used to often say. With that in mind, and in homage to my wise old grand pappy, I figured I’d post something a bit more upbeat.
As awful as November was with the Pinery fires, as horrible as it was having to start over with most of the infrastructure, and as soul-numbingly crushing as it was to have to shoot pigs I genuinely love and a lamb I helped hand rear, 2015 actually didn’t end badly at all.
That last paragraph started depressing, and at the end only picked up a little. I’m building suspense. It’s a writing technique. Pretty pro, right?!
It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: farm life has an enormous number of ups and downs. Thankfully, there really are a lot more of the ups than there are of the downs. As shit as the fire was, and as much as still thinking about little Rosie makes me tear up, and it really does, the subsequent ups really do make it all worthwhile. The most immediate of those after the fire were the babies.
Now, we ended up with ducklings, lambs, AND piglets inside of a fortnight of the fire. I’m going to call it now though – there will be more pictures of, and words about, the piglets than the lambs or ducklings in this blog post. Don’t get me wrong, ducklings and lambs are awesome, but I think we can all agree, they’re no piglets.
We had a good six to eight clucky ducks, and they were spread quite literally across the entire property. We’d have them nesting under farm equipment, behind water tanks, under bits of tin – pretty much everywhere except their purpose-built laying boxes. We even had the scenario where we had about two dozen ducklings born when one of the mums came waddling in with another six following her. We didn’t even know she was missing, which is one of the downsides of having so much poultry – they can be tough to keep track of. Either way, this girl had been sneaking off to nest outside of our fence every night for a month and then brought her babies back.
We’ve raised ducklings using all of the permutations of incubator/natural and mum-raised/brooder. Hands down the most effective method we’ve found is when we take them from mum and raise them in a brooder. Letting the mums hatch them is no problem, though we need to watch for mums that’ll have half the eggs hatch and then leave the rest to go cold. However, letting mum raise them is just too risky. It sucks taking them from the mums, but the mortality is too high otherwise.
By way of example of that last point, we ended up with 31 ducklings when one of the mums hatched a clutch of five. We’d had two lots already – one of 26 and then one of five. We’d raised them in a big brooder, and then put them into what we call our “nursery”, which is a “fox-proof” (that’s in inverted commas because nothing is ever really fox-proof) free-ranged run where we grow the babies on in relative safety. They were all about ready to come out into general population when one of the mums hatched her five. We knew she was sitting on eggs, but hadn’t held out a lot of hope. She proved us wrong though, and waddled out with her handful of babies.
Now, I should’ve grabbed those babies and put them in the brooder. However, I really do hate taking the babies from the mums as it seems quite cruel. At the same time, we had a metric butt-load of ducklings (that’s the official unit for lots of ducks), and I figured we could afford the risk to see how that mum went. She lost three of the five on the first night, and the other two didn’t make it through the second day.
In addition to losing all of the live ones, she left a nest with one mostly hatched baby and a few eggs that were viable but died. One of those eggs was pipping when I found them, so I put the whole lot in the incubator. Had I caught them maybe 12 hours earlier I probably could’ve saved them all, but none of them made it. Effectively, we had maybe 10 babies that were lost, both in-ova (I made that word up just now) and post-hatching, where our active intervention earlier would probably have saved them all.
There’s a philosophical debate there around natural hatchings and raisings versus human intervention. I’m onto my second pint of beer though, so that debate is currently beyond me and getting further and further out of reach with every mouthful.
Basically, this year had we actively searched out the duck eggs, incubated them, and then raised them in the brooder, we probably could’ve cracked 50 ducklings. As it was, I think we found a nice middle-ground between nature and our involvement, the result being more than 30 ducklings. And seriously, who the hell needs more than 30 extra ducks?!
Our next baby win was lambs! And they were twins!!!!!
I have a few pictures of flames tearing through our place with some sheep in the foreground blissfully ignorant as they eat hay. I actually hate looking at those pictures, and suspect I always will, but they illustrate something interesting here. Here’s one of them:
That sheep there eating as 25 metre long flames stream behind her dropped twins about a week later. Sheep are either incredibly resilient or a little stupid. I like to think it’s a bit of both.
The little brown one is a ewe and the black and white one is a ram. We had a competition on our FB page to name them, the kind that has no prizes, which means it’s either not a competition or is at best a really crappy competition. They are now Toast (ram) and Fawkes (ewe). The first name is self-explanatory when you consider the fire. The second name makes sense if you’re a Harry Potter fan.
The little ewe we’ll keep as a breeder. Her mum, Mary, was pregnant when we bought her, so Fawkes isn’t related to our rams. The little ram, Toast, has been promised to friends of ours who want to start their own little breeding flock. While I was more than ready to whether the little man and fatten him for market, I’ll gladly admit that I’m happy he’ll be living his life out as a breeder. 🙂
These lambs are in direct contradiction to little Rosie. Their mum knew exactly what she was doing, and they ate well right from the start. They overtook Rosie in size quite quickly, and really are what lambs should be.
The final baby addition to our farm family was Honey’s fourth litter of piglets. Before I start to gush about them, and I fully plan on gushing to the point of annoyance, I’d like to spend a paragraph or three paying tribute to Honey, possibly also to the point of annoyance.
Honey was one of the first pigs we ever bought. She’s currently closing on 4 years old, and this was her fourth litter. In that time, she’s given us 44 babies with 39 being weaned. She’s lost three that were stillborn and two that were squashed. The two squashings were from her second litter, and the stillbirths were across her first and third litters. She didn’t lose a single one of the ten born to her fourth litter, and she’s never given us less than double digits (10, 11, 13, and 10).
Now, that seems like a lot of numbers for no reason, but the result is that she has a piglet mortality rate of 11%, which is around the industry aim for intensively farmed pigs. She gives birth in a purpose-built farrowing shed where she has full access to the outside. We have a creep (a barrier to let the babies get away from her) with supplementary heat, but the rest is completely natural. She’s given us nearly 40 weaned piglets without the use of farrowing crates and with a piglet mortality rate that is around the industry average. It’s hard to overstate just how valuable that is to small holders like us.
The other point to make about Honey is that she was sick or recovering for a good six to eight months. I’ve been to an intensive piggery where out of several hundred sows they had only a few who had given birth to three litters. They start breeding at under a year, and by not much more than two years old are done. They either don’t get pregnant, come up lame, or get sick. There aren’t second chances in that environment, and so they are “chopped” (sold as salami or maybe pet food). On average, there’s a 40% turnover of sows in intensive piggeries, so you can imagine just how many are chopped each year.
Honey came down with pneumonia when she was near 2.5 years old. She’d given us three litters with no problems, but came down sick not long after weaning the last litter. Now, in an intensive farming situation she’d have been chopped. You don’t nurse that kind of sow back to health. That’s not because those farmers don’t care either – I don’t want to give that impression. Rather, that industry works on such a low margin that it’s all about volume, and you simply can’t carry non-performing stock. That’s a direct result of the public’s current expectations of cheap and abundant pork, which is entirely due to the marketing of our ridiculous supermarket duopoly. I’d bang on about that for a while, but my third pint of beer precludes it. Suffice it to say, had Honey been on an intensive farm, the first sign of green snot, and there was lots of that, would’ve seen her either shot and buried out the back, or sold as salami.
I’d like to make it clear just how much I love Honey. That’s not a feeling shared by everybody in the family, as Honey can be a straight-up bitch. When in season, Honey has been known to bite Peyton… okay… every time Honey is in season she ends up biting Peyton. She’s also stubborn (Honey, not Peyton), will tear her water container off of wherever it’s connected to if you don’t give her a wallow in time, and will let you know in no uncertain terms if you’re not feeding her fast enough. She’s also broken her fair share of fences and gates. However, she’s an amazing mum, will let any of us hover over her as she gives birth with complete trust, and will follow me anywhere if I just give her a pat and a scratch. The day she came down ill she was down in the back corner of our back paddock. I went up to her, gave her a big love, called her to me, and walked all the way across the property and into one of the yards with her following me. She’s like a dog, if that dog were a quarter tonne, stubborn, and would eat you if lay down long enough.
I put Honey on her own the day she got sick, and I called the vet out. I’ve had farmers tell me that getting the vet out for stock is a waste of money, and that the best course of action is to let them either get better on their own or to euthanize them. Now that seems heartless, but there is some wisdom in it. There are economic considerations here, and vets aren’t cheap. However, I would respond to this point-of-view in two ways. Firstly, a healthy sow has the potential to give you dozens and dozens of piglets. Looking after a proven breeder can make very good economic sense. Secondly, after a sow has given me 30 weaned piglets, then I think she’s earned a vet visit. She’s future proofed her entire life with those 30 piglets, and I’m going to drop the few hundred dollars to make sure she’s okay.
As it turned out, Honey had pneumonia. The vet gave her some antibiotics, and it took us at least half a year to nurse her back to health. It took a while for the infection to pass, and in that time she lost a heap of condition. The rest of the time was us feeding her up to get her back into shape.
The culmination of all of that effort was Honey being hugely pregnant when the Pinery fires went through. We weren’t exactly sure how pregnant she was, as the dates in my spread sheet and the dates that the rest of the family recalled were conflicting. As it turns out, the spread sheet was right and I should’ve trusted it over my family’s faulty memories. Don’t tell them I said that.
It was around two weeks after the fires that Honey dropped. She had 10 babies, five of each gender, with no stillborns or squashings – she weaned all 10. I remember Peyton messaging me when I was at work, telling me that Honey was a few piglets into her delivery, and then updating me during the morning. I didn’t realise until that day just how much tension I was still carrying from the fires. Honey having those babies was this amazing catharsis – it was like somebody released the valve on a pressure cooker. In that analogy, the pressure cooker is my repressed emotions, and the valve is the relief of having stock, especially pigs, and especially pigs after I had to shoot pregnant sows, give birth. It was almost symbolic of the rebirth of our entire venture. That’s super cheesy, but I stand by the analogy, even if it is a bit beer sodden right now.
I got home that night and didn’t even change clothes – I went straight from the car to Honey’s farrowing shed. I have never been more glad to see piglets on the property. I’ve never appreciated Honey and her amazing capacity to be a mum more. I’ve never loved what we do more. That day, that litter, was the antitheses of what we’d gone through with those god awful fires. I love Honey for that healing more than anything else.
For the record, Honey has earned her place on our farm for life. One of the harsh realities that we’ve had to face is that breeding stock sometimes has to be moved one. While we certainly have more leeway than an intensive farm that can’t afford to carry any non-performing animal, there are still economic realities. We may be able to take the time and expense to nurse a sick sow back to health, but there is a line that has to be drawn sometimes. We’ve only ever once had to draw that line, and that was coincidentally with Honey’s sister, but I have no doubt it’ll be another awful choice we’ll have to face many times over the upcoming years. However, not with Honey. Honey will live her life out in peace on our farm. I have no doubt that she’ll happily give us more litters, but as soon as it becomes hard for her, then she’ll be retired to a life of leisure in one of our back paddocks, where she’ll be free to root in the earth and bite Peyton whenever she feels like it. Peyton will just have to live with that.