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.  🙂


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… 🙂


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.



Ration Change!

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

The drivers for this were twofold:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few things we learned along the way are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

So, the changes we ended up making were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Whiskey and Cider-Fed Pigs?!

Whiskey and Cider-Fed Pigs?!

A month ago I blogged about our approach to nutrition.  The reasons for this are many, but it’s mainly in an effort to practice, and promote, complete transparency.  Nowadays people are entirely removed from their food source. That distance leads to animals being exploited for profit, and the result is the abhorrent intensive farming practices we see today.

The theory is that connecting people back to their food will lead them to an understanding that their steak/lamb chop/pork roast came from a living, breathing, sentient animal, and that said animal deserves to be treated with as much respect and care as possible.  Now, linking that kind of education with an end to intensive farming practices is grossly simplifying what is a complex problem, but it’s a start.  It’s also a start that we’re able to make ourselves in our modest little venture, which makes me happy.

The aim with our feeding, as with everything we do, is to be sustainable.  At its core, growing animals for meat on the scale that the Western world now demands, simply isn’t sustainable.  Something has to change, hence our practice of feeding brewer mass, both in an effort to reduce the amount of grain grown for animal feed and to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill.  Since posting that blog article we’ve managed to increase our source of mash, and add cider apple pulp to our list of alcohol-making by products!

First of all, we were contacted by the good folk at Wickerman Cider, who have both a web page  and Facebook presence .  One of the owners is a market customer of ours, and had heard of our brewer mash practices.  They’re ramping up their own production, and found themselves with quite a bit of apple pulp. In fact, they had over 4 tonnes of it.

Now, this is 4 tonnes of what is effectively just crushed apples.  Why wouldn’t that be fed to stock animals?!

This is Jon. He's the legend from Wicker Man Cider who delivered over 4 tonnes of apple pulp to our place. He then shovelled half of it!

This is Jon. He’s the legend from Wicker Man Cider who delivered over 4 tonnes of apple pulp to our place. He then shovelled half of it!

We were concerned at first that the apples would upset the pig’s stomachs.  We took it easy, adding a relatively small amount to their ration, and we had no problems at all.  The pigs LOVE the apple in their feed too.  Seriously, they go nuts for it. It’s awesome. 🙂

Our next win was with a distillery called Tin Shed Distilling Company, who make a whiskey called Iniquity .  The first part of the distilling process is to make a wort, just like when brewing beer.  The tricky part comes when they distil that down to make whiskey, and the super cool part is when they then age that to make it delicious.  🙂

This is a still. It's where magic happens.

This is a still. It’s where magic happens.

The result at the start of whiskey making is the same as beer making though – brewers mash.  The guys from Tin Shed called to say they were also ramping up their production, and would be regularly producing a tonne or more of mash a week.  They’re located quite close to our mates at Pirate Life, so the logistics are pretty easy and we don’t need to make any special trips.

This is well over a tonne of brewers mash. Two years later will be whiskey. It's not a short process...

This is well over a tonne of brewers mash. Two years later will be whiskey. It’s not a short process…

I can’t express just how exciting this is for us.  Each one of these producers who sees what we’re doing and who hears our message gets us one step closer to a sustainable meat future.  Of course, it doesn’t all have to be linked to alcohol, but so far we’re not complaining. 🙂



Back in September we were happy with a number of new babies on the property – ducks, piglets, and our very first lamb.  Having babies, any babies, is always a cause for celebration.  I’m not sure what it is, but there’s a visceral reaction to having little ones here, and the place never feels quite right when it’s totally baby free.  That reaction is always stronger when the babies are born here, rather than brought in, and especially strong if it’s a first-timer.  We experienced that with our beautiful Rosie, the first lamb ever born on our property .

Rosie’s mum was a first timer and quite small, and had about as little idea as we did when it came to raising lambs.  Rosie was a good 12 to 18 hours without a feed before we started to bottle-raise her, and she spent much of her first week of life in with us.  The result is that she’s not really bonded to her mum, or even the flock.  We’ve since had twins born (spoiler alert!), and they’re the complete opposite.  Their mum fed them and nurtured them right from the start, and they’re a firm part of the flock.  Not our Rosie though. She’s always out on her own, and will come to us over her mum’s bleats every time.

What makes Rosie even more special though is that I’m fairly sure she has slight brain damage.  She had a seizure when she was little, which I think is due to overeating disorder .  That’s quite common in lambs, especially bottle fed lambs, and is when certain kinds of gut fauna bloom and create toxins.  That fauna is always there, but doesn’t normally cause a problem.  It’s when lambs overeat, or are bottle fed with formula that has the sugars and starches that this fauna likes, that it becomes a problem.  The result can be death, and often without any signs of symptoms.  In our Rosie’s case, we’ve seen her have maybe a dozen seizures, and one day where she had a few in quite a short space of time.

Rosie changed after that first seizure.  She seemed to not take as much notice of the world around her, and she certainly almost always ignores the other sheep, including her mum.  There are times where you have to be almost on top of her before she realises you’re there, so her hearing and/or eye sight may be impaired.  The biggest change though is in her behaviour.  She circles our back paddock for much of the day, just walking the boundary on her own.  When she’s not doing that, she sucks on the fencing wire, and can stand there for hours just nomming away.  We don’t see her eat much, and on warm days we kind of have to remind her to drink.  Seriously, she’s more work than most of our other animals combined. 🙂

The result is that we have one very special lamb. 🙂  I doubt she’ll ever be part of our breeding program, mainly because I doubt she’d know what to do with a ram or any resultant lamb.  I could be wrong, and instinct might take over, but I don’t think I want to risk her.  She’s still as sweet as ever, and comes up for loves whenever she notices us.  We recently started to introduce her to the dogs, as I’m keen to keep her in the back garden a bit.  I suspect she’ll end up being a woolly dog pet for the rest of her life. 🙂

Our special Rosie Lamb.

Our special Rosie Lamb.

We lost Rosie on January 2nd.  😦

As clueless as we were about lambs, we did everything we could.  Her mum was hopeless, so we bottle fed Rosie from the start.  The problem was that bottle feeding ended up with her having fits, but her mum barely let her feed.  Rosie wasn’t eating enough solids, and so if we didn’t feed her she’d lose condition and would eventually have starved. It was a god awful catch 22.

I thought we’d found a happy middle-ground where we fed her enough to keep condition on her, but not so much that she was having lots of fits.  She was eating some solids and was definitely drinking lots of water.  She wasn’t as big as she should’ve been, but she seemed to be perking up.  I just wanted to get her through to a weaning age where she could eat the same as the other sheep.  After that she would’ve been okay.

Rosie was really good on New Year’s Day.  She was bright and active.  She was drinking out of a container rather than a bottle, which is logistically much easier to manage.  She had a great day, and we got a huge amount of loves from her.  However, the morning of January 2nd wasn’t so good.  She had clearly had a seizure and was barely aware of us.  She hardly ate, though she did drink water.  We left to spend the day working on our other place, and when we got home Rosie was pretty much gone.  She couldn’t get up at all – couldn’t even hold her head up.  Her breathing was shallow, though she’d seize every now and then.  She was clearly very close to the end.

I’m not sure if Rosie knew we were there, but Peyton and I both spent time giving her loves.  I was hoping that she’d just pass peacefully as we hugged her, but as we’ve found lately, all of our animals are too tough for their own good.  She may not have been feeling anything, but there was a chance that those seizures were causing her discomfit or pain.  I dug her a grave next to Peyton’s cat, I carried her and gave her some final loves, gently laid her in the grave, and I shot her.

I love our lifestyle, but there are times where it really, really sucks.

RIP Rosie.  We loved you.

The day Rosie was born.

The day Rosie was born.


Farm life and battling adversity are almost synonymous, and a strong part of our nation’s history and psyche.  We’ve had our fair share of setbacks and a steep learning curve at our beloved Atherton Farm, but I’d never class us with the likes of the broad acre farmers who are at the mercy of the weather.  We’ve had the odd tragedy or three, but nothing that could break us.  However, at the end of November we faced true adversity and we almost lost everything for which we’ve worked so hard.   

The last couple of weeks of November had some hot and windy days.  There was one day in mid-November where local schools closed pre-emptively.  I didn’t understand it at the time, as it wasn’t a particularly hot day, though it was very windy.  I figured it’d have to be a hot day to be a real risk.  We learned just how wrong that is. 

Just as an aside, our bushfire preparedness plan was almost non-existent.  It’s not because we hadn’t thought about it, but rather because we were advised by locals that we just didn’t need one.  The land around us is flat and used exclusively for broad-acre farming.  In the event of a fire, and we have had them close by before, every cocky around us rocks up with their own fire-fighting units to battle the blaze.  The CFS is also very responsive, and between them they control most fires in fairly short order.  We did get our own little fire-fighting unit, and the advice we received was to use that on our place to fight any spot fires should anything get close. 

I was at work on Wednesday, November 25th.  I was coming back from lunch with some workmates when we saw a huge amount of smoke to the north.  We’d heard that there was a fire locally to work, and assumed that was the source of the smoke.  As it turns out, that smoke was from a fire that started at Pinery.  Pinery is just to the south and west of Owen, and about a half-hour drive from where we live, and a full hour from work.  It’s somewhere between 30 and 40 kilometres from home in a straight line, which is really a long way when you’re considering a bushfire.  Especially a bushfire that is burning mostly in open paddocks without a lot of actual bush. 

Linhda called me at work an hour or so after lunch, and said that the fire was closing on Templers where we live, and that the authorities had started to close roads.  She advised that I come home to avoid the road closures.  At the time there was no real sense that I’d have to go home to fight a fire, but more to avoid the inconvenience of closed roads. 

That fire that was local to work, the one we’d mistakenly though had produced that massive pall of smoke, ended up burning all of 5 acres, but was enough to close the freeway I take to get home.  It took some innovative navigation to make it the 10km from work required to get past the blockades, and as a result I ended up taking maybe an hour to get home rather than the normal 30 minutes.  I was about halfway through that when Peyton called to say that she and Linhda had evacuated with the cats and dogs.  I honestly thought they were over-reacting.  There was nothing around us to burn – all of the crops had been harvested, and the paddock next to us had grown lupins which meant that it looked like almost bare earth after the harvest.  However, I figured it made sense for them to evacuate if it made them feel better, and the cats and dogs wouldn’t be so stressed due to smoke or sirens. 

I remember two things just after Peyton called me.  Firstly, the wind was incredible.  I’ve never seen or felt anything like it.  Secondly, I watched the water bombers taking off from the glider club at Gawler, which is right next to the freeway.  They were taking off into the wind, and it looked like they were barely crawling.  That, against the backdrop of giant clouds of smoke, was surreally terrifying. 

I realised how serious it all was as I was getting close to Roseworthy, which is about 5 minutes to the South of home.  The smoke was incredible and Roseworthy was completely engulfed in it.  The wind was out of the North West and the fire was past Wasleys, which is about 5 minutes to the West of home.  It was dark as midnight in Roseworthy, and it was like a scene from hell.  I was lucky to get through there just before they closed the highway. 

Just north of Roseworthy I actually spotted flames for the first time.  To the West, which was to my left, I could see across paddocks for a kilometre or two, and it was a wall of flames.  There was nobody in front of it.  There was nobody fighting it.  It was in front of every effort to contain it. 

Dad took a heap of pictures just before that time from home that give some indication of what was happening.  At that time, you couldn’t see flames from our house. 

Dad was driving back from the abattoir to home - this is him heading West out of Freeling towards our place.

Dad was driving back from the abattoir to home – this is him heading West out of Freeling towards our place.

This is the pall of smoke from Wasleys. They lost buildings in the main street.

This is the pall of smoke from Wasleys. They lost buildings in the main street.

This is apparently as Linhda and Peyton were packing to leave. I was leaving work right about now.

This is apparently as Linhda and Peyton were packing to leave. I was leaving work right about now.

Looking South and West across our back paddock.

Looking South and West across our back paddock.

Looking South and West across our back paddock - there's another picture later that shows a similar vantage but you can see the flames.

Looking South and West across our back paddock – there’s another picture later that shows a similar vantage but you can see the flames.

Pigs happily ignorant of what was coming.

Pigs happily ignorant of what was coming.

 I got home around 2:30 I think, though it may have been closer to 3.  Dad had organised the tractor and our little firefighting unit, and positioned them down the back of our place – in the South-Western corner.  We have a line of tall pine trees and that was where any fire would hit us first.  We figured that would be the best place to stop anything coming our way.  As it turns out, that logic was spot-on, but the thought of us stopping that fire were completely naïve. 

Getting the tractor and firefighting unit situated. Ironically, we used the firefighting unit to put out the tractor, and then the firehose burned so I had to use a wet towel.

Getting the tractor and firefighting unit situated. Ironically, we used the firefighting unit to put out the tractor, and then the firehose burned so I had to use a wet towel.

 Even at that time, even with the smoke and the very clear dangers, we were fairly confident that we were fine.  The wind was strong but was blowing to the South and East.  We started to see flames on a ridge that is somewhere around one or two kilometres from us to the West, but they were pushing past us.  We could see giant gum trees silhouetted along that ridge line, and there were fire tornadoes that were at least twice the height of those trees.  That was all terrifying and mesmerising, and the result is that we took very few pictures.  We did get a couple of the fire as we first spotted it though.

There's a group of pictures earlier from nearly the same vantage that show the smoke. This one is shortly after I got home, and is when the flames first showed.

There’s a group of pictures earlier from nearly the same vantage that show the smoke. This one is shortly after I got home, and is when the flames first showed.


Dad and I stood there and watched them for maybe 10 or 15 minutes when we felt the wind change direction.  It started to blow directly into our faces out of the West.  The result is the fire we had been watching stream past us became the front and it changed direction to come directly towards us.  It took somewhere between one and two minutes to get to us. 

This is just before the wind changed direction....

This is just before the wind changed direction….

... at this point the wind was mostly out of the North West, and so blowing South and East. It was pushing the fire past us.

… at this point the wind was mostly out of the North West, and so blowing South and East. It was pushing the fire past us.

At this point the wind changed direction, and the Eastern edge became the front.

At this point the wind changed direction, and the Eastern edge became the front.

The smoke and dust quickly built up and was on us in a minute or two.

The smoke and dust quickly built up and was on us in a minute or two.

This is after the initial firestorm had been through, just before the bulk of the flames hit us. I just had time to get from the tree I'd hidden behind to dad who was in our cow shed.

This is after the initial firestorm had been through, just before the bulk of the flames hit us. I just had time to get from the tree I’d hidden behind to dad who was in our cow shed.

One thing we’d not noticed until afterwards is that the fire went around us.  I have a picture facing East that clearly shows fire burning towards Freeling before the fire actually hit us – we are between Wasleys, where the fire came from, and Freeling.  It was just before, a matter of a few minutes, but it was definitely over the highway East of us before it started to burn our place.

This is pointing East, just before the firestorm hit us from the West. The fire was around us at this point, and was already burning towards Freeling.

This is pointing East, just before the firestorm hit us from the West. The fire was around us at this point, and was already burning towards Freeling.


I’ve never been in a bushfire before, though I’ve been close to them.  I’ve never been on the ground experiencing them though, and you can’t understand what it’s like until you’ve felt it.  The wind was strong to start with, almost strong enough to make you stagger.  Ahead of the fire though, right before the firestorm hit us, the wind would’ve taken you off your feet.  Dad was in the cow shed, and I hid behind a big pine tree maybe 10 seconds before it got to me.  It blew around me like nothing I’ve ever felt – rushing wind and smoke and dust, all of it red and black and burning. 

A CFS firefighter explained to me what that firestorm was, either that night or the following day.  I’d said to him that it made no sense that a paddock with next-to-no stubble on it could sustain a fire that furious.  He said that the firestorm rolls across the country side, pushed by that giant wind, and it picks up every combustible thing in front it.  It basically brings its own fuel with it, until it hits a fuel load, which it then ignites.  That’s exactly what we saw as it hit our place.

These flames extend from the fence line out maybe 20 to 25 metres.

These flames extend from the fence line out maybe 20 to 25 metres.

This picture was taken a fraction of a second later, and you see how far the flame has already started to burn into our paddock.

This picture was taken a fraction of a second later, and you see how far the flame has already started to burn into our paddock.

The back paddock burning.

The back paddock burning, along with Sheldon.

This is after the pigs had been let out, and Ziggy and Stumpy were gone. I tried to put out those sheds for hours, but they ended up burning down to almost nothing.

This is after the pigs had been let out, and Ziggy and Stumpy were gone. I tried to put out those sheds for hours, but they ended up burning down to almost nothing.

I took this picture just as I heard little Rosie crying. The rest of the sheep were safely ensconced down the side away from the fire, but she'd wandered out. I ended up leaping over a couple of fences to rescue her and drag her back to the flock. That lamb will be the death of me...

I took this picture just as I heard little Rosie crying. The rest of the sheep were safely ensconced down the side away from the fire, but she’d wandered out. I ended up leaping over a couple of fences to rescue her and drag her back to the flock. That lamb will be the death of me…

 I never thought our place would burn.  Maybe the stubble in our paddock, but nothing else.  The fence posts would need a load of fuel near them to get started.  The pig sheds would need even more than that, as they were made out of large, smooth, planed sleepers.  Hell, I could’ve held a blow-torch against them and they’d not have started to burn.  As the actual flames hit us, I thought it would blow through, burn up the stubble, and continue on its way.  I was so very, very wrong.

Dad and I started to run around and do what we could.  We quickly found that smoke and blown dust made most things impossible.  I ended up putting on safety goggles and wrapped a wet rag around my face, which let me get around pretty well.  We then spent an hour or two running back and forth reacting to whatever problem we could see.

We moved our sheep into a side yard that was protected from the fire.  When our neighbour’s house started to burn, we were able to move the sheep back on to the burned ground.  I saw Farmer John’s house start to burn.  In fact, I heard it as the fire started in his pergola.  There was a CFS unit at the place behind us, and I got to them across our burned paddock in only a minute or two.  They maybe took that long to get to the house, but by then they assessed it as too far gone.  It took most of the night to burn down to almost nothing.  I remember sitting on my roof with a hose, trying to keep embers from John’s house from burning my house, and trying not to cry.

I was sure the pigs would be okay, as their shelters seemed relatively fire proof.  Yes, much of their structure was wood, but I couldn’t see embers, or even their bedding, setting that alight.  Again, I was wrong.  We’d just had an MFS unit leave our place when the pig runs started to burn in earnest.  I opened the gates and got most of them into the front paddock near the house.  We had two girls in with Boris though – Ziggy and Stumpy.  Ziggy was hands-down my favourite, as she had the best nature and was so much fun.  Stumpy had been positively pregnancy tested the day before.  It would have been her third litter, and she was a great mum.  I couldn’t let them out the front with the rest because of Boris.  He’s a good boy, but with the smoke, fire, and noise, I couldn’t let him out where all of the firefighters were.  He may be good, but in a panic he could do some real damage to somebody.  I was sure they’d be okay in their run though.

I had just gotten the rest of the pigs sorted out when I heard Ziggy and Stumpy screaming.  Their shed was fully ablaze.  I raced down there as fast as I could, but I couldn’t even get close to the gate because of the heat.  I saw one of them, Ziggy I think, rearing up in front of the shed, burning and screaming.  There was absolutely nothing I could do.

I remember the very short conversation I had with dad a minute later when I went back to the shed:

Me: “Ziggy, Stumpy, and Boris are gone.”

Dad: “Gone?  Where did they go?” 

Me: “They’re fucking burning.  They’re fucking dead.”

We’ve actually tried to joke about that confusion since, but it never really seems funny, even weeks later.

That was the shittiest day of my farming life, and would rank up there with probably the shittiest day of my entire life.  You want to know what makes the entire thing even shittier though?  The toughness of pigs.  I saw Ziggy and Stumpy burning.  I heard them screaming.  I was sure they were dead.  They survived the fire though, despite horrific burns.  They survived and I had to shoot them.  It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and it took a good couple of weeks for the nightmares involving blood and burned flesh to go away.  Thinking about it now still makes me tear up. 

Ziggy and Stumpy weren’t our only pig losses.  I had one little grower girl who I’d seen taking shelter in a bath tub earlier in the afternoon.  There was stubble burning a few metres from her, but she was safe in the tub without a heap of radiant heat.  I’d lost track of her and one of her sisters, but remember seeing her in that tub and cheering.  I called her a good girl and told her to stay put and that she’d be okay.  Pigs being pigs, meaning they don’t understand me when I speak to them, and even if they could they’d probably choose to do exactly the opposite, that little pig decided to get out of the bath and walk through three burning runs to get back to her original water drum.  I found her in there after the fire had gone through, and she was burned all over.  She was so badly hurt that she couldn’t move.  I had to drag her out, screaming the entire time, and shoot her.

That little grower’s slightly bigger sister, the other pig I’d lost track of, ran through the fire to the back of the property.  That meant she basically ran the entire breadth of the fire on our property.  She wasn’t as badly burned as her sister, but the back half of her body was still horribly burned and she was unable to walk.  I had to shot her too.

It felt like a lifetime, but I doubt the entire episode took more than a couple of hours.  I was up to nearly 2 the following morning putting out spot fires, but the worst of it couldn’t have been more than two hours.  It didn’t end with the fire passing through though.  Farmer John’s house burned for a long time, and was a real threat to our place.  The last CFS crew at our place had to leave, and explained to us how embers could sneak in under the tiles on our roof.  They suggested that I get up into the roof cavity every 10 or 15 minutes and make sure nothing was burning.  They left me a fire extinguisher to put out anything I found in there.  I alternated between sitting on the roof, watching the house of Farmer John, who is the best of men, burn, with a hose in my hand to put out the embers that were raining down on my place, and running down a ladder to stick my head into our roof cavity looking and sniffing for fire.  I’ve never felt so powerless in my life.

I have pictures of Farmer John’s house burning, but I’d never post them.  His and Cynthia’s life was in that house, and they lost the lot.  It would be inappropriate for me to expose that to anybody else, despite the tourists that have been coming past since the fire.  I’ve developed a pretty good glare for those dicks.

Putting out the spot fires took a surprising amount of time.  The fence posts were especially hard to put out, as they burn from the ground up and it’s difficult to put that out with buckets of water, which is all I could really use (I did pee on a couple – desperate times call for desperate measures after all…).  The other threat was Farmer John’s front garden, where plants were burning and streaming embers into my place on the wind that still hadn’t let up.  I finally got that out near midnight, just as a final CFS crew called past and offered to help.  They ran their hoses up and down the fence line and made sure I’d not missed anything.

We spent a couple of days without power, but used our generator to run the big freezers to save the large amount of meat we have stored.  Insurance would have covered that, but letting that much meat go to waste would fly in the face of everything we’re trying to do here.

We had to rush around and look after the stock we’d saved too.  We put up temporary electric fencing for the pigs, who were quite happy to sleep against the big shed in the shade and ignore most of our efforts.

The day before was horror and disaster, but today is being pampered and taking naps.

The day before was horror and disaster, but today is being pampered and taking naps.

As it turns out, Boris was almost untouched by the flames that maimed his two girlfriends.  He had a bit of a limp, but wasn’t burned at all.  He was super wary of the burned ground though, and it took me until late the following day before I could get him out of his burned run.  He’d spent that night nestled against poor dead Ziggy, which was heartbreaking.  I ended up having to lure him over his run with a bucket of grain, picking a relatively clear patch through the burned ground.  He’d not step on the black ground at all.  It wasn’t hot from the fire, but was warmer because of the sun.  He’d not go near it either way, and it probably took me 15 minutes to get him out of there so I could drag Ziggy and Stumpy’s bodies out.

It took me maybe 15 minutes to walk Boris 20 metres. I had to pick out an unburnt path for the big sook.

It took me maybe 15 minutes to walk Boris 20 metres. I had to pick out an unburnt path for the big sook.

As horrible as that all was, one of the surviving sows, Socks, showed some real interest in Boris after I moved him.  I figured he could do with some company, and so let her in with him.  Inside of maybe 60 seconds they were… healing their emotional wounds together.  If you know what I mean.

Boris and Socks finding comfort in each other's arms (aka boning).

Boris and Socks finding comfort in each other’s arms (aka boning).  That blood on his shoulder isn’t his – it came from Ziggy.

The aftermath of the fire was devastating, with the loss of almost all of the infrastructure we’ve spent years building.


This is a panoramic shot facing West - the fire here would've been coming straight at the camera.

This is a panoramic shot facing West – the fire here would’ve been coming straight at the camera.

It could’ve been much worse though.  The big pine trees along the fence where the fire first hit ended up not burning.  They were burning fiercely after the firestorm went through.  Both dad and I saw them burning and were sure they were gone.  For some reason the fire went out though, which I’m thankful for as they would’ve burned for a long, long time, and would’ve showered the place with embers.  I think it was the wind that actually helped in that instance.  They didn’t burn at all on the side hit by fire.  Rather, it was the leeward side away from the wind that had caught and was burning merrily at the start, which was when dad and I had to start running around looking after stuff.  Sometime shortly after that the dust, smoke, and wind must have snuffed the fire out.  I can see charred wood a good 10 or 12 feet up those trees, right close to heaps of dry pine cones, but the trees are mostly undamaged.

This is the tree I hid behind when the firestorm first came through. It's scorched a good 10 to 12 feet up, but the fire was snuffed out by wind, smoke, and dust. Thankfully.

This is the tree I hid behind when the firestorm first came through. It’s scorched a good 10 to 12 feet up, but the fire was snuffed out by wind, smoke, and dust. Thankfully.

Only a week later we had some folks from our local Transition Movement come and help us rebuild runs and fences.  The handyman from the brewery where we get our spent grain had an idea on how to build some pig housing out of pallets, and he and a friend of his, who is now firmly a friend of ours too, got stuck in and built a couple of shelters that’ll do quite well.  The entire thing was humbling but saved us so much work.  I’d never have asked for that help, and would’ve taken a week to accomplish what the group did in a day.

We had between 12 and 15 people helping out a week after the fires. This is dad high-fiving our good mate Peter.

We had between 12 and 15 people helping out a week after the fires. This is dad high-fiving our good mate Peter.

This is dad high-fiving our good mate Mark, who built our pig shelters.

This is dad high-fiving our good mate Mark, who built our pig shelters.

This is me high-fiving Miranda, who helped Mark build the pig shelters, and dad taking the opportunity for a sneaky hug.

This is me high-fiving Miranda, who helped Mark build the pig shelters, and dad taking the opportunity for a sneaky hug.

This is one of the pig shelters that Mark designed and Mark and Miranda put up. It'll need some insulation come the cooler weather, but it works a treat now.

This is one of the pig shelters that Mark designed and Mark and Miranda put up. It’ll need some insulation come the cooler weather, but it works a treat now.

 It’s now a little over six weeks since the fires, and the property is fully recovered.  In fact, in some respects we’re better than we were before, as we’ve made some modifications as we rebuilt. 

This is one of the improvements we've added since the fires. We've done the same over one of Mark's pig shelters, and probably will over the other one too.

This is one of the improvements we’ve added since the fires. We’ve done the same over one of Mark’s pig shelters, and probably will over the other one too.


I’ve thought long and hard about our decision to stay and fight.  We never made a single bit of difference to that fire.  I can say definitively that we never, not once, slowed the fire, changed its direction, or altered what it wanted to burn.  It took what it wanted, and we were nothing to it.  However, we saved our house, we saved most of the animals, and I was here to make sure that the burned pigs didn’t suffer. 

The CFS unit came back the following day to get their fire extinguisher.  The lead of the crew told me that he hadn’t been at all confident that our house would still be standing when they came back, so dire was the danger we were in when they left.  I am fully confident that we would have lost the lot had we not stayed, but next time we’ll be much better prepared.  I have plans for petrol pumps, extra tanks, sprinklers on the roof, extra fire hoses etc.  The next time this happens, and I expect with our changing climate that it will happen again, we’ll be ready and we won’t be powerless.  That will result in a much happier blog post.  I’m going to call that one “The Day Neil Beat a Bushfire and Then Had a Beer”.

For some reason, I find this the saddest picture I took after the fire. :(

For some reason, I find this the saddest picture I took after the fire. 😦

A different kind of fire - a sunset a couple of days after the bushfire came through. It may have burned us, but it didn't burn away the pretty. :)

A different kind of fire – a sunset a couple of days after the bushfire came through. It may have burned us, but it didn’t burn away the pretty. 🙂


At no stage do I want to sound flippant about any of this, despite my tendency to use humour to deflect pain.  Templers is small – we have maybe 15 houses.  Three of those houses were lost, and dad and I helplessly watched two of them burn.  Between Templers and Roseworthy on the highway there are about eight houses, and four of them were lost.  I read stats a few days later that spoke of 16,000 sheep, over 50,000 chickens, and 500 pigs lost.  Two people died, and over 100 houses were lost in total.  None of that is funny, and none of it should ever be forgotten.  However, I’d like to firmly raise my middle finger to bushfires and make it clear that next time we’ll be fighting it far more effectively. 



It occurred to us in the aftermath of the fires that we may have a problem with dust over summer.  The fires hit right at the start of the hot weather, and summer here is merciless at the best of times.  We expected it to be dry, and combined with the hot northerlies we get, it stood to reason that the dust may be problematic. We were right.

The back paddock, facing east, during one of the many, many dust storms.

The back paddock, facing east, during one of the many, many dust storms.

The sheep don't seem to care so much. Then again, these same sheep were busy eating a bail of hay at the height of the fire.

The sheep don’t seem to care so much. Then again, these same sheep were busy eating a bail of hay at the height of the fire.

Back up towards the pig yards. We've rebuilt, so this must've been two or three weeks post-fire.

Back up towards the pig yards. We’ve rebuilt, so this must’ve been two or three weeks post-fire.

We had dust storms most days, though not always to the degree shown in those pictures.  It got to the stage where we just quit trying to clean up outside. Our entertaining area was covered in drifts of red/brown for a good 10 weeks.

The local farmers ploughed to combat the dust, which of course is a loss of their nutrient-rich topsoil.  That sounds a little counter-intuitive, as you’d think that not disturbing the dirt would be the way to go. However, their aim was to turn over big clods of soil, giving the wind less loose stuff to blow around.  It worked, though it took time.

Luckily we had some early rain in the form of a couple of huge showers over a couple of weeks.  At first that kind of makes it worse – the rain/wind stirs up the dust and you end up with both a dust and a rain storm at the same time, the result of which is mud.  That’s about as much fun as it sounds. However, the rain brought that welcome tinge of green, which is both pretty and keeps the soil where it should be.

It’s now the start of April, and I’m pretty sure the dust is behind us.  At least we’re confident enough that we’ve cleaned up the entertainment area. 🙂  It’s still weird driving through the fire grounds and seeing the difference between what was burned and what was spared.  Seeing the burned out houses, or the cleared spots where you knew there used to be houses.  Seeing the carbon deposits on the roads where you know there used to be a tree, but where there’s literally not even a stump left now, so ferocious was the fire.  It’s getting better though, and that’s something.

This is looking west, and is the direction from which the fire hit us. We were facing this way, watching it stream to the south and east when it changed directions can came straight at us. Note those two trees...

This is looking west, and is the direction from which the fire hit us. We were facing this way, watching it stream to the south and east when it changed directions and came straight at us. Note those two trees…

...this picture is looking the same way - you can tell from those two trees. It's a much prettier view without the dust though, yes? :)

…this picture is looking the same way – you can tell from those two trees. It’s a much prettier view without the dust though, yes? 🙂

April in Review…

I’ve been terrible at keeping up with the blog and April was super full. I figure I’ll just do a month-in-review post to catch up on everything. We did a heap of smaller stuff with the pigs and fences etc., but I’ll stick to the big stuff. Here goes…

We got our new cool room trailer and it’s a beast! It should be big enough for any of our future meat delivery needs, and hopefully we have many of those needs.

Our beastly cool room trailer.

Our beastly cool room trailer.

Clarisse was still hugely pregnant.

A very pregnant Clarisse.

A very pregnant Clarisse.

Yes, that's two cows eating the lawn in my back garden. No, they're not supposed to be there.

Yes, that’s two cows eating the lawn in my back garden. No, they’re not supposed to be there.

Stumpy had a litter of piglets!

A very pregnant Stumpy.

A very pregnant Stumpy.

She had 7, and we were lucky enough to be there for most of them. She was really quite large, and I’d been guessing she’d have more. She also struggled a little. While she got through them all with no assistance, it did take a while. Still, all 7 survived and she’s a great mum.

Baby number 1!

Baby number 1!

Gemma loving up on the new babies.

Gemma loving up on the new babies.

Early morning piglet dining on day 1.

Early morning piglet dining on day 1.

The babies loving the heat lamp.

The babies loving the heat lamp.

We spoke to the vet about Stumpy and her struggles. Apparently it’s just the way it is with some sows, and we’ll just have to keep a closer eye on her during farrowing. We can do that.

We got a baconer done in the middle of the month.

Our baconer getting portioned up - legs for prosciutto, loin and belly for bacon, shoulder for sausages.

Our baconer getting portioned up – legs for prosciutto, loin and belly for bacon, shoulder for sausages.

Separating belly and loin.

Separating belly and loin.

We did brawn again, and it was freaking amazing! The trick is heavier seasoning. We also go to use some legit terrines that Farmer John gave us. Those things are awesome!

The fixings for brawn. I used a beef heart this time, and think it adds some nice depth to the flavour.

The fixings for brawn. I used a beef heart this time, and think it adds some nice depth to the flavour.

The terrine from Farmer John. It has a press with ratchet sides. Seriously, worked a treat!

The terrine from Farmer John. It has a press with ratchet sides. Seriously, worked a treat!

A brick 'o brawn! This was 6kg, which represents 10 to 12kg of the animal when you take bone into account. That's meat that is normally thrown away.

A brick ‘o brawn! This was 6kg, which represents 10 to 12kg of the animal when you take bone into account. That’s meat that is normally thrown away.

Look at that delicious cross-section!

Look at that delicious cross-section!

We also did about 30kg of bacon, 20kg of sausage, and 18kg total of prosciutto.

This is 30kg of bacon baconing.

This is 30kg of bacon baconing.

Legs ready to be made into prosciutto. I messed up a little with the one on the left and trimmed it down a little low.

Legs ready to be made into prosciutto. I messed up a little with the one on the left and trimmed it down a little low.

Look at the colour and marbling. You will *never* get meat like this from intensively-farmed pork.

Look at the colour and marbling. You will *never* get meat like this from intensively-farmed pork.

20kg of sausages.

20kg of sausages.

We got one of the black angus done before the wedding too. We supplied all of the meat for the big day, and that included big roast cuts of beef. That was 10kg of beef and the cow dressed out to 193kg. That did leave a lot for us… 🙂

193kg of black angus goodness.

193kg of black angus goodness.

Best. Rib Eyes. EVER!

Best. Rib Eyes. EVER!

The biggest thing we did, of course, was get married! We thought it’d go pretty well, but it ended up better than we ever expected. Seriously, it was the best wedding we’ve ever had.

Naaaawwww, aren't we cute?!

Naaaawwww, aren’t we cute?!

Ethics vs Morals

People question the ethics of eating meat all the time, and it invariably leads to some raucous debate. That often leads to some raucous name-calling, but we’ll be avoiding that here… 🙂

First of all, there’s a difference between ethics and morals, and so by extension, between ethical and moral behavior. I believe that most of the arguments are really about morals, which is why so many of those discussions end badly. Let me explain.

Ethics are rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human action or a specific group or culture. Morals, on the other hand, are principles or habits with respect to right or wrong conduct. Morality is, by definition, a personal compass for right and wrong.

To take that one step further, ethics have an external source, that being our social system. By extension, that means that ethics are dependent on others for their definition.

Morals have an internal source, that being us as individuals. That means they are not dependent on others, but are an intensely personal thing.

Now, think about the way intensively farmed animals are treated in this country, and in pretty much every other country you can think of. If ethics are defined externally and come from our social system, then intensive farming is actually ethical. We condone it as a society every time we order that pulpy, shitty pork from Coles or Woollies. We give our implicit permission for it every time we buy battery-farmed eggs, or those ridiculous 7 week old fatty chickens that are peddled as a healthy option. By society’s very actions, be they driven by ignorance or apathy, we are making intensive farming ethically acceptable.

However, I found intensive farming morally reprehensible. I really can’t express just how angry it gets me, and I’ll save that rant for another post. For now, suffice it to say that while intensive farming may be accepted by society, and so be ethically acceptable to a lot of people, it should be questioned morally.

I firmly believe that ethics and morals should be constantly challenged, as they’re worth nothing unless they can stand up to scrutiny. May aim is to show people an alternative way to source their meat. By connecting people to where their meat comes from, I hope to challenge their moral stand-point on intensive farming. If you can influence enough individuals, then you can start influencing the society of which they are part. If you can do that, you can swing the ethical compass. If you can do that, you can affect true and lasting change.



Processing Chooks.

Starting off the meat chook posts with how to process them probably makes no sense, as you need to grow the fat buggers first. However, we’ve had a shot at processing them twice now, the latest time in early July, 2014 (last weekend). Our technique has already changed a heap between those two times, and I think we’ve got it worked out. I want to capture all of that now while it’s still fresh.

Growing them is also an evolving process, though we’ve had 3 large lots professionally processed over the past couple of years. We’re breeding our own now, and have some cross-breeding programs we’re about to start. I’ll blog about that stuff separately though.

Processing your own animals, be they poultry or something bigger, is a super-emotive subject. Even for people who grown their own meat, actually killing the animals themselves is often a step too far. However, I’m a huge proponent of this for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I know definitively that the animal has been treated correctly. Secondly, I can keep all of the viscera, blood, and feathers and recycle them in my compost. In fact, after we’ve eaten the bird we also dry the bones and grind them for meal for the veggie patch. For the birds we breed, they are born, live, and die here, with not a single atom ever leaving the property.

Having said this, I’m not sure I’ll be killing my own pigs, cattle, sheep, or goats anytime soon. That takes a level of skill I don’t have yet, though I’d love to find a home butcher who would come and teach us. Until I have somebody to show me exactly how to do it properly, there would just be too much risk of maltreating the animal.

Doing your own chooks is super easy though. We purge ours first, putting them in a large aviary for 24 hours with free access to water but no food.

The first four boys we processed.

The first four boys we processed.

The second two roosters we processed. They were a little older, and certainly handsome boys!

The second two roosters we processed. They were a little older, and certainly handsome boys!

This ensures that their stomachs are empty and reduces the chance of faecal contamination. It also makes sure their crops are empty, the organ they have at the bottom of their neck where they store food. You can really see the crop after chooks have a big meal, as it looks almost like a smaller, wobbly, third breast. They can really fill those things up!

It’s important to reduce the stress on the animal as much as possible. A day or half-day without food isn’t going to hurt them, though you need to make sure they have as much water as they’d need. The real stress point here is handling them. You need to reduce the amount of time you have a hold of them, and make the kill as quick and efficient as possible. This part is still something we’re evolving, but I think we have it right.

Our first time we used a home-made kill cone. The kill cones are designed to hold the bird, upside down, and allow you to easily cut their throats and bleed them. It sounds gross, but is very effective and surprisingly stress-free for the birds. They calm down when put in the cone, with no struggle or stress at all.

Our home-made kill cone. We put in a baffle and bucket to collect the blood.

Our home-made kill cone. We put in a baffle and bucket to collect the blood.

The chooks are completely calm in the kill cone. It's fascinating, but they don't struggle at all.

The chooks are completely calm in the kill cone. It’s fascinating, but they don’t struggle at all.

I took their heads off the first time, but most people seem to just cut their throats.

I took their heads off the first time, but most people seem to just cut their throats.

Our home-made version worked okay, but didn’t hold them tightly enough after the kill, meaning we had to hold them. The next time we decided to not use them at all, but rather decided to wring their necks and just hang and bleed them. I’m unhappy with that solution too, as it’s not as quick as I want. It worked, but there’s too much risk of things going awry if you have big strong roosters and maybe not enough strength in your hands. Next time we’ll use a Humane Chicken Killer . We’ve seen these used on the Australian version of River Cottage, along with some videos on the interweb. They are an absolutely risk-free way of ensuring the animals die instantly, after which they can be hung and bled.

The first time we did it I took the heads off, figuring there was no reason not to. The second time I cut their throats, as we had an automatic plucker to try, and I figured that leaving the heads on would reduce the chance of spreading blood through the plucker. I think in reality either works, and either allows you to bleed the animals.

Heads on or off, you hang the animals long enough to bleed them completely. It doesn’t take long – 5 or 10 minutes. You can bleed them onto straw or paper, and then put it in the compost. The first time, where we used the kill cone, we bled them in the cone into a bucket. The second time I hung them over paper to bleed. Both versions ended up with the blood in my compost.

These boys were already bled and were just hanging to make sure.

These boys were already bled and were just hanging to make sure.

These boys I bled onto paper so I could collect the blood.

These boys I bled onto paper so I could collect the blood.

The next part, to my mind, is the really only painful part. Plucking chooks is horrible. Some people don’t mind it, but I find that hand-plucking is perhaps the most tedious thing I’ve ever had to do.

Hand plucking sucks balls.

Hand plucking sucks balls.

After the first time, we decided to find an automated solution. Linhda found an automatic plucker at an auction in the city, and it’s an amazing machine. It looks like a washing machine full of rubber fingers. It has an attachment for a hose, but it doesn’t output a heap of water. Rather than that, we just used a hose and poured water in.

Before either technique you need to scald the bird.

Scalding is important, and really seems more art than science.

Scalding is important, and really seems more art than science.

You use water around 65 or 70 degrees Celsius, and soak the bird for maybe 30 seconds. This loosens the feathers, and makes the plucking easier, though there are people who prefer dry-plucking.

This is around the 20 second mark.

This is around the 20 second mark.

This is around the 40 second mark.

This is around the 40 second mark.

This is around the 1 minute mark.

This is around the 1 minute mark.

This is the feathers from 2 birds.  All nicely bundled and ready for the compost heap.

This is the feathers from 2 birds. All nicely bundled and ready for the compost heap.

This is the result. So, so, so awesome!

This is the result. So, so, so awesome!

Hand plucking took us maybe 20 minutes, most of which was using pliers to pull out pin feathers on the wings and tail. The plucking machine, god bless it’s mechanical little soul, will take maybe 6 chooks at a time, and gave us a completely clean carcass in under a minute. Best. Machine. EVER!

The next step is the gutting, which is a lot of people will find gross. Personally, I found it fascinating, and after doing it a couple of times you’ll probably get them done in under 5 minutes.

You need a fine sharp knife, as it’s mostly delicate work.

A fine sharp knife is *everything* in this process.

A fine sharp knife is *everything* in this process.

First of all, you take off the feet. That’s fairly easy, as the joint is easy to see and feel. You run your knife around the joint and basically pop the feet off. There’s no need to force the knife through bone or anything hard.

Taking the feet off is surprisingly easy. Some people eat the feet. I've tried them a couple of times, and they're not for me.

Taking the feet off is surprisingly easy. Some people eat the feet. I’ve tried them a couple of times, and they’re not for me.

You then take off the head, assuming you didn’t do that in the slaughter stage.

Carcass, feet, head.

Carcass, feet, head.

It’s also at this stage that you remove the neck. You basically find where it attaches near the shoulders and cut it off. It’s incredibly tough, and I’ve given up trying to cut or break it out. Rather I use sharp secateurs, and snip the little bugger out.

Chooks, like most birds, have an oil gland at the base of their tail, which is called their uropygial gland. That needs to come off. Some people take the tail off completely, but for roasting birds I’d suggest you leave it on. That’s mainly because I love that part (the Parson’s Nose) and so I think you should too. 🙂 Either way, finding the oil gland is easy. It’s right at the base of the tail, is a clear lump, and has a little opening.

You can see the oil gland at the base of the tail, with the opening closer to the tip.

You can see the oil gland at the base of the tail, with the opening closer to the tip.

Taking it off is easy. With a sharp knife you almost just scrape it out, and it’ll come off whole.

It comes out pretty easily.

It comes out pretty easily.

To gut the bird you cut a small slit laterally low in the belly, just above the vent. You can pull this open, or cut it a bit more, to accommodate your hand. You basically just reach in and pull out everything in there.

Start your cut laterally above the vent.

Start your cut laterally above the vent.

It might seem gross, but if you've bled the bird properly at least it won't be bloody... :)

It might seem gross, but if you’ve bled the bird properly at least it won’t be bloody… 🙂

There are a couple of potentially tricky bits here, but they’ve actually worked out well for me. I’ve read where people take out the oesophagus and crop back when you’re taking the neck out. However, that doesn’t work so well for me. Rather, I detach them from the neck, and leave them until I’m gutting the bird. As I pull the guts out, the feeding and breathing tubes come out at the same time quite easily. The crop is attached, but empty because we’ve purged the birds, which might be why it’s easy.

The other tricky part is supposed to be the lungs, but I’ve not found them hard. I’ve read how people just can’t get them out, and they have special scraping tools that use water to help. However, for me they’ve always just come out with my fingers.

Carcass and offal arranged in order.

Carcass and offal arranged in order.

With the plucking machine, you can go from live bird to dressed carcass in maybe 15 minutes. We plan on doing it in a bit of a production line, where we can use the Humane Chicken Killer and hang/bleed maybe 6 at a time, get them in the plucker as we kill/bleed the next 6, and then have a couple of us gutting them. With that working the way I want it to work, we should be able to get a couple of dozen done in a couple of hours.

It’s important to get the birds on ice or in a fridge shortly after processing them too.

Like I said above, one of the main reasons we do this is because we get to keep all of the animal on the property.

The viscera, blood, and feathers. None of the bird is wasted. Not a single atom.

The viscera, blood, and feathers. None of the bird is wasted. Not a single atom.

All of the waste from the processing is normally thrown out by the abattoir. While you can get the offal and neck back, they legally can’t give you anything like the guts or feathers, let alone the blood. Doing this yourself at home means that all of that is kept and used on the garden. Every single part of the animal is used, and you are 100% sure that it has been slaughtered humanely. To my mind, there is absolutely no better way to show the respect that your animals deserve.


Bertha Brings Shame To The Family Name…

The same night I went to check on Ziggy, Bertha had her babies. I went out at 8, and she’d had 4. The creep was set up, but the light wasn’t on. The 4 babies were scattered around the shed and freezing. I got the lamp on and gathered the babies up, but one was knackered. We got some milk into him and warmed him up, but he was dead the next day.

The first 7 we saw, 5, 6, and 7 of which we watched born.  Number 8 came after this photo. The second-from-the-left was the sickly one that didn't make it. You can tell even here that he wasn't real well.

The first 7 we saw, 5, 6, and 7 of which we watched born. Number 8 came after this photo. The second-from-the-left was the sickly one that didn’t make it. You can tell even here that he wasn’t real well.

We’d picked her as being a week, or maybe 2, from dropping. We had the creep set up just-in-case, but the way her teats were developed made it look like there was time. We’re getting better at picking the litter times, and can obviously predict it accurately when we see the pigs mate. We just got it wrong this time. 😦

We saw her give birth to the last 4, making a total of 8. However, we found a dead one under her the next day. It looks like she’d been laying on him the entire time. That’s 9 born, at least 8 born alive, and 7 survivors. For a young gilt and an accidental pregnancy, I’m going to call that a win.

The babies are tiny, because she’s quite small to be giving birth. She seems to be doing a great job though, and has recovered quickly. I’m worried that she won’t have enough milk, but we’ll have to see. Seriously, the babies are super-tiny.

The creep, for the first time, is working perfectly, and I think it’s the heat lamp positioning. We put it down low in the middle of the creep. The babies are under it and Bertha is laying on the other side with her teats towards them. It’s working perfectly.

They instinctively good mums.

They are instinctively good mums.

Active piglets! They're all of a couple of hours old.

Active piglets! They’re all of a couple of hours old.

Hungry piglets are hungry.

Hungry piglets are hungry.

This shows the creep barrier working perfectly. Warm piglets on one side, giant mum on the other.

This shows the creep barrier working perfectly. Warm piglets on one side, giant mum on the other.

Counting back, this means she was pregnant in mid-February, which means she was 4 or 5 weeks pregnant when her brothers and sisters went to The Other Farm. This also means that some of her sisters were probably pregnant. There’s a big lesson in this…

Pig husbandry is the fun part of all of this, but it’s really the hard part. At times it seems more art than science, and much of it are things you need to learn the hard way. Still, if learning the hard way is having a littler of cute piglets to play with, then I can’t really complain. 🙂