Breeding Redemption!

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

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

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

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

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

Original Farrowing Yard 2

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

Original Farrowing Yard 1

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

Original Farrowing Yard 3

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

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

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

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

Piglets - Supplementary Heat 2

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

Piglets - Supplementary Heat 1

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

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

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

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

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

Piglets - farrowing yard 1

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

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

Honey's First Litter 1

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

Honey's First Litter 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reggie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feeding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breeders 1

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

Breeders 2

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

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

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

Breeders 3

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

Breeders 4

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

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

And now for the promised piglet pictures…

Piglets 1

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

Piglets 2

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

Piglets 3

Honey’s first litter taking breakfast outside. 🙂

Piglets 4

Piglets 5

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

Piglets 6

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

Piglets 7

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

Piglets 8

And they all love having their butts scratched.

 

 

CULL SOWS?

CULL SOWS?

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

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

Ziggy and Stumpy

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

Ziggy

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

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

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

·        Boar – a male pig with testicles intact.

·        Barrow – a male pig with testicles removed.

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

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

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

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

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

·        We know that sows are culled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honey and Smoked

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

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

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

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

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

Smoked 1

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

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

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

Honey 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Molly 1

Molly just chilling in the shade.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Siuan's Piglets

Siuan’s piglets, our first blue-merles.

Aspire Pic

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

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

Siuan

Siuan did love the brewers mash. 😀

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

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

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

Pigs in the trailer

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

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

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

Honey 2

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

Market Realities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of our restaurant customers.

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

Our first market customers ever!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A recipe card from the Wayville market.

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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.