CASTRATION?

The castration of piglets can be a contentious issue in the world of free-range and ethical pig farming, as it should be. It’s a decision less concerned with the animal’s well-being, and more with commercial and husbandry realities.  It’s one that we struggled with for some years, eventually choosing to castrate.  Our caveats to that decision were:

  • We’d only do it if we were able to administer pain relief to the animal.
  • We’d only do it if we were properly trained by our vet. I’m happy to learn a lot of things from the Internet, but surgical procedures are not one of them.

It’s still a decision that some may disagree with, and one that I think we should explain fully to our customers.  Hence this blog post… 🙂

Firstly, we need to answer the question: “Why castrate at all?”  There are a few reasons, and I’ll cover each below.

I never, ever, ever get sick of piglets. 😀

Boar Taint

This is the main reason that most pig farmers castrate, and while some people may be familiar with the concept, most would never have heard the term “boar taint”.  Boar taint is a nasty “porky” taste that develops in pubescent male pigs.  In effect, they begin to taste the way they smell, and if anybody has ever been around a boar when he’s been within sniffing distance of a girl, they will completely understand what I mean.

This taint comes from the accumulation of two naturally occurring substances in the fat of the pig, namely androstenone and skatole.

Androstenone is a male sex hormone (actually a pheromone) that develops as the boy reaches puberty. Skatole is a digestive by-product formed in the pig’s intestines, and is unaffected by castration.  In fact, skatole can develop in female pigs, though it’s rarer.  The interesting thing here is that free range pigs almost never have a skatole problem, though it’s common in intensively farmed animals.

One way to avoid taint is to slaughter the animals earlier.  This may be the reason that some intensive farms don’t castrate – they grow their animals super quickly, they’re going to slaughter them young anyway, so why go to the hassle and expense of castration?  For the record, that’s my conjecture only, though I do know of a couple of intensive farms who don’t routinely castrate.

There are a couple of weird things about taint.  Not all boars develop it, though my vet tells me that any boar over a certain weight will have a certain amount of taint, and that only grows as the animal grows.  The other thing is that not everybody is sensitive to it.  Some people can’t taste it at all, while others are sensitive to even the smell.  I’ve read varying statistics around this, some saying it’s 50/50, while others say that around 75% of people are sensitive.

Taint is a big problem, and I believe part of the reason we meet people who can’t touch pork.  Most of them describe the porky taste of a roast or chop they had as a kid, and now they can’t face it.  Our working theory is that these people are sensitive to taint and once they tasted it they were turned off pork entirely.  We’ve managed to bring several of these people back into the fold, and it’s an ongoing mission of ours.

Taint is also a threat to people like us who build a brand around a superior product.  It wouldn’t take much by way of tainted pork for our brand to suffer, and that is clearly something we need to avoid.  Yes, most of the reason we do what we do, and work the hours that we work, is to promote an ethos of the ethical treatment of stock animals, and in particular pigs. However, the vehicle that allows us to do that is our commercial operation, and we need to protect that.

There are ways to avoid taint without surgical intervention.  Firstly, you can slaughter the boys younger, as mentioned above.  That’s what many intensive farms do, and it’s an option we went with for years. The problem is that heritage breeds, which are now our focus, grow much more slowly. While they might take longer to get to slaughter weight, they don’t take any longer to get to sexual maturity, meaning we have a taint risk often well before they’re ready for processing.

Another way to manage this, and one that we’ve spoken to our vet about at length, is chemical castration.  This requires two injections – one soon after weaning and a second at some stage later in life.  The drug is called “Improvac” if you want to look it up, and it’s promoted as a vaccine.  Personally, I don’t trust it, though I really can’t coherently explain why.  From my research, it’s not a hormone, but it’s always made me wary when I’ve spoken to the vet.  It may be an option further down the track, but I’d need to see a lot more evidence before I used it.

Reproductive Herd Management

Now that we castrate, we’re free to run mixed herds of males and females.  In the past, we had a couple of instances of what we call “teenage pregnancies”, where we had a young girl unexpectedly impregnated by a herd mate, normally a brother.  We tried to be careful about this, splitting boys from girls as soon as we thought there was a risk, but we were still bitten a couple of times.

While this might not seem a huge problem (who doesn’t want more piglets, amiright?!), inbreeding isn’t the way you want to go.  We also keep the gilts ear marked for breeding from the boars until they’re of the right size, and invariably the teenage pregnancies were in girls we would deem as being too small.

The ability to run mixed herds makes our life much, much easier.  By definition, smaller breeders like us just don’t have that much room.  Our modest farm can run a couple of hundred pigs nicely, with everybody having way more room than any free range pig standard we’ve ever seen. However, having to double the number of paddocks to accommodate gender-segregated herds would really put a lot of pressure on that.

General Herd Management

Most women reading this will find my next statement self-evident: males are problematic.  It doesn’t matter the species – pig, sheep, cows, goats, human – the males are invariably the hard ones to keep.  This may be exacerbated with pigs as they are so very smart and stubborn, and adding hormones and giant tusks to that only makes matters worse.

You see it with any domestic pet, the vet recommends castration as it reduces the incidence of a lot of health problems, it increases the life of the animal, and it generally makes them more docile and happy.  Now that doesn’t all translate well to stock management, but the castration of stock does make them much, much easier to manage.  With pigs there’s much less fighting, less destruction of fences and gates, and a reduced risk to the people who interact with them.

Summary

In summary, castration helps by:

  • Removing the risk of boar taint.
  • Allowing us to run mixed herds without the risk of inbred teenage pregnancies.
  • Makes the animals easier to manage.

Now the astute reader will look those points over and notice that none of them increase the wellbeing of the animal.  We don’t castrate our male piglets because it makes their life easier or better, which is exactly why some people might, based on animal welfare grounds, argue against our decision.  I completely understand those arguments, and support the foundation from which they come.  However, we are at times faced with conundrums like this where there’s a decision between the happiness and wellbeing of our animals and the reality that is our day-to-day farm and commercial life.  If you think about it, this is where intensive farming came from – people always choosing the best commercial path without thinking of the happiness or wellbeing of their animals.  That’s not us though.  We agonise over these decisions, and we often end up in the position that makes our life much harder.  Read my blog posts on our feeding regime for the perfect example.

There are arguments that castrating the pigs removes their abilities to fully exhibit their natural behaviours.  That doesn’t bother me so much though.  It’s not like we’d put a litter of pigs in a paddock and let the boys fight it out Hunger Games style anyway, which is pretty much what they’d face in a fully natural setting.  With testicles, the boys would live on their own, amped up and wanting to fight whenever a girl was within sniffing distance, and would live a much shorter life.  I’m comfortable with changing that.  No, when debating this within our family, the one barrier to us was the pain and stress on the animals.

Often castration of piglets is done without anaesthetic.  This is normally the case when the piglets are castrated at only a day or two old.  The arguments are:

  • Being that small, the skin etc. is thin and the procedure is really quick.
  • Waiting for anaesthetic to kick in adds extra stress to the animal.
  • The drugs are really expensive.

I’ve met vets and intensive farmers, and even a couple of free-range farmers, who suggest castrating young without the pain relief.  Again, we agonised over that for some time, doing a heap of research and speaking to a heap of experts.  In the end, we decided to use anaesthetic.  We believe that it gives a better outcome for the piglet, and to me, it removes the one remaining argument against castration.

Again, we spoke to our vet, at length, about how this all works.  We’re part of the Herd Health Management program at Roseworthy Vet, meaning we come under their duty of care – they can train us and sell us the drugs with no problems.  We had the vet come out, with a group of vet students in tow, to show us how to do it.  There was the added bonus here of the vet students being able to have a go too. We love being able to teach the students by having them do some of our work. 😀

At this stage we’d watched it done at an intensive piggery without anaesthetic, and we’ve since done it ourselves many times with anaesthetic.  I’m consequently super comfortable with our choice to pay the extra for the drugs.  I’ve literally had piglets fall asleep in my arms during the procedure, so little pain did they feel.  Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a pleasant procedure, and not every piglet dozes through it. However, compared to the alternative of cutting them open without pain relief, I’m really very happy with our choice.

The Procedure

I don’t have a heap of pictures of the actual procedure, and I’m not sure I’d post them if I did.  While this is fascinating to people like me, and while the outcomes are of interest to people who are invested in what we do, I doubt that many people want to actually see step-by-step pictures of how it all works.  I will describe it though, just to give assurances as to the thoroughness of the process.

Pre-castration selfie! This is Eyebrow (one guess how he got that name). This little guy fell asleep against my chest during the procedure.

Stepwise, this is how it works, from the very beginning:

  • Mum and babies are in their farrowing yard – this is a 4 x 4 area in our implement shed with access to their own individual free range outdoor yard.
  • Normally the babies are asleep under the heat lamp, or playing in their bedding. In this case, we’ll lure mum outside with some feed and lock her out.  We then grab up the boys.
  • If the babies are outside or nursing from mum, or in some other configuration that will make this more stressful, then we wait. We castrate up to 3 weeks old, though prefer it to be around a week.  This means that if we have to, we can put off the procedure until everybody is in a better position.
  • We take the boys over to the house. This is for a couple of reasons:
    • We want them as far from mum as we can get them. Any pig, not just the mum, will react to a squealing piglet. It’s actually a fascinating phenomenon – you’ll get every pig within ear shot wanting to come over and help the baby.  With that in mind, we take them over to the house, which is a couple of hundred meters away, as quickly as we can.
    • We have an external laundry that is perfectly set up for this. We have an old laundry cupboard with a swing-down bench that serves as an operating table.  We have full access to water and sinks.  It’s double-brick and so never too hot or cold.  It’s easy to clean up.

All set up and ready to get to work!

  • One person holds the piglet. The position we favour is holding the back legs, with the piglet’s back resting back against your chest, and their rear end tilted slightly up.  This allows you to pull their back legs up against their body a bit, thereby making the scrotum area more taught. It effectively pops the testicles out and up a bit.
  • The entire area gets a good wash with warm water and antiseptic.
  • The piglet gets two lots of pain relieve:
    • An oral paste that gives them longer-lasting relief.
    • Two injections for each testicle – one in the scrotum where the cut will happen, and one up and behind the testicle where the vas deferens is pulled out.
  • There’s a small wait for the injection to take hold on the first testicle. It’s fully kicked in by the time you get to the second one.
  • A small cut is made in the scrotum vertically in the middle of where the testicle sits.
    • You have to be a bit careful here. If you cut too deeply and cut the testicle, then it kind of oozes out and breaks apart. In that case, you need to try and get hold of whatever you can and pull it out. It’s messy though, and we’re lucky that the vet fully warned us and we’ve been really careful. Even with that, we had it happen once.
  • Once the cut is made and is long enough, you can push back on either side and the testicle will pop out.
  • You grip the testicle between your pointer and index fingers. You don’t grip it like you were picking something up, using your thumb. Rather, you have the backs of your knuckles touching the piglet, and the testicle is held on the inside of your fingers.  In this configuration you are much less likely to lose your grip.
  • You pull out and down sharply. What happens is the vas deferens breaks and retracts back into the piglet’s body.  There’s no risk of cutting the wrong cord/tube, and there’s nothing left hanging outside the body.
  • Repeat for the second testicle.
  • Spray with antiseptic.
  • Repeat with remaining boys, and get back to mum as soon as you can.

We don’t preventatively apply antibiotics, though we know people who do.  We’ve never lost a single piglet to infection.  In fact, we’ve never even had one get sick.  Hell, we’ve never even had one that looked like it was slowed down in the smallest part.  They go back to mum, run around, have a drink, have a tussle with a sibling, and rub their wound in the dirt.  They actually do that last one a lot – the wounds are really small, but they invariably rub them in the dirt and mud.  By the second day you can sort of see a small cut.  After that you’d have to pick them up to see anything.

Mum doing a quick head count after we put the castrated boys back in. She knows each one, and will know if one’s missing. 🙂

A bit of a post-castration bounce on mum. If you look closely on the little one to the left, you can just see the cuts in his scrotum.

Like I said before, we spent a long time agonizing over the castration decision.  There are a load of pros but also some valid cons.  We did everything we could to reduce the cons to next-to-nothing, and I’m fully confident that we’ve managed that.  I can say definitively, hand on heart, that our pigs feel very little stress during this process, and what they feel is short-lived.

The question here is this: Are the benefits derived from castration worth the price the piglet pays, namely the stress and pain?  We reduce the pain and stress as much as humanly possible, but it’s not completely pain and stress free.  I know that there is zero lasting negative impacts to the animal, and so I have personally answered this question.  However, it’s a question that needs to be posed to any consumers or potential consumers of our pork.  I’ve given you all of our rationale and described the process.  In the end though, it’s a question that only you, the consumer, can answer.

Post castration nap. You can see a bit of the pink antiseptic on the little fella in the middle.

ASIDE: You’ll often see people advertising “sow only” or “female only” pork.  These are people who are effectively marketing their pork as free of boar taint. After reading my description of boar taint above, I’m sure you can understand why they’d want to assure people that their pork is taint-free.  However, I always have to question those claiming to sell pork only from female pigs, and it often doesn’t stand up to logic.

If you’re buying small goods from somebody who claims to only use female pork, then it actually might be the case.  There is, on average, a 40% annual turnover of sows in intensive piggeries.  That’s a staggering number of sows every year who are culled because they didn’t get pregnant quickly enough, or because they came up lame after developing contact sores in their shed/crate.  Much of that meat goes to small goods, so there’s a half-decent chance that your salami does only contain meat from female pigs.  My point there would be that you have bigger things to worry about than boar taint.  The meat you’re consuming comes from miserable animals and you’re supporting an industry that promotes this misery.

If you’re buying fresh pork, then I would strongly question how the meat can come from only females.  Statistically, half the piglets born are male.  If every business who advertised female only pork was using only females, then there would be a heap of spare boars running around.  Not only that, the meat from a castrated male and a female is indistinguishable, so how would you know?

If you’re buying pork from a producer and they claim that it’s female only… well, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on that one.

Much like the terms “free range” or “ethical” have been subverted by people just trying to sell more of a product, “female only pork” is now an over-used and pretty much meaningless term.  If you see anybody using any of these terms, then ask them the meaning. Ask them how those terms apply to their practices. Ask for specific details. If they can’t supply those details, then go somewhere else.

Ration Change!

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

The drivers for this were twofold:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few things we learned along the way are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mill-1

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

mill-2

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

mill-3

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

So, the changes we ended up making were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Fire Readiness!

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

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

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

We’ve combatted all of this in several ways:

Stored Water:

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

Area 1:

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

Area 2:

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

Area 3:

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

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

fire-sign-1

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

fire-sign-2

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

 Roof Sprinklers:

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

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

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

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

pump-1

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

sprinklers-1

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

 

Fire-Fighting Pump:

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

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

 

fire-hose-1

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

 

Miscellanea:

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

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

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

Strategy:

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

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

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

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

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

·         In case of a fire alert:

o   Turn on the roof sprinklers.

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

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

o   Fight any flames that make it onto the property.

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

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

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

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

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Year On…

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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. 🙂

 

Husbandry – Nutrition

Pigs are true omnivores, meaning they eat, quite literally, anything. You’d think that would make them pretty easy to feed, and to some degree that is true. However, proper nutrition for pigs, especially in a commercial context, is really quite complex.  The factors that we’ve found that complicate things are:

  • The efficiency and sustainability of meat production. This is a huge one, and is a problem for all kinds of meat production, not just pigs.  This could go into the “Things that bother Neil” category below, but it really is bigger than that.
  • The legalities of what you can’t feed to pigs.
  • Specific dietary needs, especially around amino acids.
  • Things that bother Neil:
    • The presence of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO).
    • The carbon footprint of the food.
    • Sourcing only Australian grown or manufactured feed.
    • A desire to give the pigs a diet that is clean, and as close to their natural diet as possible.

I’ll expand on each of these points below.

 

EFFICIENCY AND SUSTAINABILITY OF MEAT PRODUCTION

Several years ago the UN released a report called “Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production” which led them to urge people to adopt a more meat-free and dairy-free diet to help prevent world hunger, fuel-poverty, and climate change.  One of that report’s two major findings was that agriculture and food consumption are “one of the most important drivers of environmental pressures, especially habitat change, climate change, fish depletion, water use and toxic emissions”.  The remit of that report is clearly much broader than what I want to talk about here, but it does call out clearly my concerns when it comes to what I feed my own pigs.  This includes the fact that over 50% of the world’s crops are used to feed animals rather than people, and that much of what we grow to feed those animals, in particular corn and soy, is biologically inappropriate as the livestock’s digestive/nutritional systems aren’t designed to eat those plants.

A more recent synopsis of this problem can be found in the article, “Is Meat Sustainable?”, which states that 70% of the grain grown in the US is fed to cattle.  It does the sums when it comes to food productivity: it takes 20,000 kcal (kilocalories) for a cow to produce 2,000 kcal of useable energy.  Basically, the logical argument is that the grain being fed to the cows would be used much more efficiently if fed directly to people.  Exactly the same premise applies to feeding pigs and every other sort of livestock.  Growing the increasing amounts of grain for our increasing meat demand is inefficient, and ultimately not sustainable.

All of this was a big problem for me.  I wanted to grow pigs on a much larger scale, but at the same time I didn’t want to contribute to what I knew is a very serious problem.  I didn’t want to be buying tonnes and tonnes of grain that I knew would be better feeding people directly.

We got around this problem in a couple of ways.  Firstly, almost all of the grains we buy to feed the pigs are seconds, or what they call “screenings”.  They are the smaller, lower quality grains that have been judged not suitable for people.  They are perfectly fine, and are actually often higher in protein and so great as pig feed.

The second way we addressed this problem is by using spent brewers mash.  We were lucky enough to be able to build a relationship with Pirate Life Brewing, and have taken every single kilogram of their mash since they started brewing.  This mash is crushed and soaked malted barley, and perfect as a stock food. It’s high in fibre and protein, though low in carbohydrates (that’s left behind in the beer).  The low carbohydrate content means you have to limit the amount you include in the pig’s ration, normally to 50%, but we’ve actually found that it has some added benefits.

The Atherton Farms are on a few menus now. It's always exciting. :)

The Atherton Farms are on a few menus now. It’s always exciting. 🙂

One of the problems we had with our heritage breed pigs, particularly the Large Blacks, is the fat content.  This is a problem we’ve heard of from other pig growers, both intensive and extensive.  A local small intensive piggery experimented with Large Blacks, and told me that they were the fattiest pigs they’d ever seen. They were feeding the Large Blacks the same ration and amounts as their white pigs, and their solution to the fat problem was to restrict the quantity fed to those pigs.  They fed them the same kind of food, but in much, much smaller quantities.  The result was less fatty pigs, but they were always hungry.

Putting the pigs on a starvation diet does not fit with our ethos at all.  Our solution is to use the brewers mash to modify the nutritional profile as required.  If we have pigs that need to be slimmed down, we increase the amount of mash in their ration, letting them eat their fill but not get fat. Conversely, if we need to fatten some pigs up, we’ll reduce the brewers mash in their ration and increase the whole grain/legume portion accordingly.  The mash allows us to really fine-tune the energy content of the pig’s diets but not compromise on their comfort at all.

Pigs love the mash, especially when they've been introduced to it at a young age.

Pigs love the mash, especially when they’ve been introduced to it at a young age.

Photogenic pig is photogenic!

Photogenic pig is photogenic!

Another benefit of us taking the brewers mash is that it’s a waste product that would go to landfill otherwise.  We can’t currently use all of the mash that the brewery produces, but we take it all and share it with another couple of local farmers.  Some weeks we might get 10 or more tonnes of brewers mash, and that’s 10 or more tonnes that is saved from landfill.

Basically, every tonne of mash we feed our pigs is a tonne of grain that is not being grown for livestock consumption, and is a tonne less that goes to landfill.  It’s an environmental twofer, and it makes me very, very happy. Combine that with the fact that we only feed the pigs screenings, and I believe that our pork production is entirely sustainable.

We like the mash for the heritage breeds as it allows us to fine-tune their caloric intake...

We like the mash for the heritage breeds as it allows us to fine-tune their caloric intake…

... but sometimes they like it more because it's warm and comfy.

… but sometimes they like it more because it’s warm and comfy.

 

THE LEGALITIES OF WHAT YOU CAN’T FEED TO PIGS

We’re part of a Herd Health Management Program with our local veterinary college.  Their head pig vet has told me stories about how back in the day, and not actually that long ago, piggeries would have contracts with abattoirs for all of the meat waste.  The piggeries were viable because they were able to feed their pigs a super high protein diet of offal.

I’ve had the same stories from my retired farmer neighbour, John.  He has an ancient wheelbarrow that has “meat works” stencilled on it.  He’s told me about that wheelbarrow being full of blood and guts, and wheeling it down to the pigs.

This is called “swill feeding”, and gross as it is, on the surface it actually sounds like a fairly efficient use of waste. The problem is the risk of disease, particularly things like BSE (mad cow disease), and Foot-and-Mouth Disease.  Probably the best known example of this is the BSE epidemic in the UK over the late 1980s and through most of the 1990s.  180,000 cattle were infected, and nearly four and a half million killed during the eradication program.  The cause was that the cattle were fed infected bovine remains in the form of meat and bone meal.  By mid-2014 the human variant of the disease had killed 177 people in the UK, and 52 people outside of the UK.

In Australia, the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, predicts that even a small Foot-and-Mouth Disease outbreak in Australia, controlled in 3 months, could cost around $7.1 billion, and a large 12 month outbreak could cost $16 billion.

With the impacts to the UK beef industry and with the loss of human life, and with similar potential losses in Australia, there’s no surprise that swill feeding is strictly illegal in Australia, as described by Australian Pork and the Australian Veterinary Association.  That ban is something that all pig growers, both big and small, need to be aware of.  Even families raising a couple of pigs for themselves have to be careful that their kitchen scraps haven’t come into contact with meat or meat products.  That’s actually harder than you’d think.

 

SPECIFIC DIETARY NEEDS

The big gotcha’ with pigs seems to be with amino acids. At least that’s the one that bit us early on.  We had one litter of pigs years ago that just seemed scrawny. They got plenty of feed, and they had good appetites, but they just never bulked out.  On the flip-side of that, we had other litters that went from strength-to-strength on exactly the same diet.  I think the secret there, weirdly enough, was in their bedding.

We’d change the pig’s bedding every couple of months. Actually, “change” is the wrong word, as it implies we took out spent bedding and gave them new bedding.  With pigs it’s more a case of replacing the last lot of bedding because they ate it all. 🙂

The bedding we always used was pea straw. We’d get the big round bales, and fill up the areas in and around their shelters.  Pea straw is full of peas still.  You don’t realise just how many peas are left behind until you handle the straw. The pigs loved that, and for days and days after you’d hear them crunching their way through every pea they could find.

I didn’t make the link back then, but I’d guarantee that there was a correlation between the scrawny litter and the end of their bedding cycle.  As it turns out, peas, and all of the other legumes, are high in the amino acid lysine.  Lysine is called a “limiting amino acid”, and is necessary for the production of muscle protein.  Basically, pigs can eat protein all day long but will only synthesise protein to the level of the lysine in their diet, hence the “limiting” part of the title.

Lysine is the most likely amino acid to be lacking in a pig’s diet, but there are others too.  These are commonly added to pig rations in a commercial context, often in synthetic forms.  My very strong preference is to find natural sources of the required amino acids, and we’ve done that with legumes.  For the most part, that’s in the form of field or stock peas.  They can be expensive, and not always easy to find depending on the time of year, but they are a permanent fixture in the diet of our pigs.

Piglets LOVE their peas!

Piglets LOVE their peas!

 

THINGS THAT BOTHER NEIL

There are a number of things that I want to avoid in my pig’s diets because of the way my ideologies lay.  To me, these are essential parts of the ethicality of what we do.

The Presence of GMO

There are a huge number of studies that point to problems with pigs who are fed diets containing GMO.  These can be things like general listlessness and lack of contentment, through to spontaneous abortions, deformities in new-borns, and an increase in aggressiveness.

The use of GMO in general is a hot debate topic, and can be really quite emotive.  There are pros and cons, and I can see both sides. However, I won’t feed anything to my pigs containing GMO.  There are too many unknowns, and too much evidence to show that it can adversely impact the animals.

The Carbon Footprint of the Food

This is fairly self-evident when you consider our standpoint on most things environmental, but it’s worth mentioning.  I find it mind-boggling that people will ship parts of their pig’s rations from overseas or interstate when there are locally grown or produced options.  Not only that, a lot of pig feed is highly processed, and that also takes a significant amount of energy, thereby increasing the carbon footprint of the ration.

We combat this by always sourcing locally grown feed.  The furthest we travel for our feed is 25km to the place I get our peas.  We’ve actually been able to buy wheat and barley grown in the paddock next door to our pigs, and most of it comes from within a few kilometres of our home.  With the exception of our weaner feed, we also avoid processed feed.

Sourcing Australian Grown/Manufactured Feed

This is partly linked to reducing the carbon footprint of the pig feed, but is mostly because I want to support Australian farmers.  It’s exactly the same choice people often make when buying their groceries; I just make it on a larger scale with purchases measuring tonnes. 🙂

Giving the Pigs a Clean/Natural Diet

It goes without saying, but intensive pig farms stink.  They seriously, seriously stink.  We’ve bought a few pigs from local intensive farms as breeders, and they stink for days.  Their poop is black and sticky and putrid, and a direct consequence of the food they eat.  That food is completely nutritionally balanced, but is highly processed, containing meat and fish meals for protein, and synthetics for things like amino acids.

I also want to avoid the various protein meals as they can have a huge impact on the flavour of the pork.  Fishy tasting pork and pork products from pigs that eat a lot of fish meal is a huge problem, and who the hell wants to eat fishy-tasting pork?!

A large part of our pig raising ethos involves allowing them to exhibit their natural behaviours – digging, wallowing, natural matings etc.  That should logically extend to their diet.  Of course, there’s really no such thing as a natural pig diet in Australia, as we don’t have native pigs.  We have introduced/wild pigs that do quite well, but I suspect they eat a lot of things that we can’t feed our animals (e.g. carrion).  We also don’t have the kinds of environments in which pigs thrive overseas, environments that give the animals access to foods like nuts.  What we do have, however, is the ability to feed our animals natural and clean foods.

Little growers eating their fill.

Little growers eating their fill.

 

We’ve spoken to a professional nutritionist about our pig rations.  We ran into a few barriers though.  Firstly, we had a lot of trouble convincing them that our aim wasn’t to grow the pigs as quickly as we could.  We’ve had trouble convincing a lot of the professionals we’ve spoken to about that, so we’re kind of used to it.

Secondly, it was initially difficult to factor in the brewers mash, as it’s not exactly your normal piggy fare.  However, with some research, the nutritionist was able to work it out. At least we got that tick of approval, which was nice.

Thirdly, it was difficult to find rations specific to the heritage breeds.  The focus was always maximum energy for fastest growth in the commercial white breeds.  The heritage breeds, who grow more slowly anyway and who can run to fat quite easily, have completely different nutritional needs.  For some reason, it was hard to separate those facts when it came to the different rations.

We did end up with a couple of recommended rations.  There were still problems though:

  • They contained soy meal, with no guarantee that there was no GMO content.  Soy meal is apparently almost ubiquitous in commercial pig feeds, as it’s a cheap source of protein.
  • They contained meat and fish meal, and I don’t want to use either. There’s just too large a risk of it hurting the taste of the pork.
  • The amino acids came almost entirely from synthetics.
  • Some of the ingredients, and some that would be required in significant amounts, were sourced from overseas. After explaining what I wanted around that, we were able to source some of it from within Australia, but not from within the state, and there was no guarantee that the source would last.
  • It would have ended up being the kind of highly processed food that makes intensive farmed pigs stink so much.
  • The carbon footprint would’ve been much, much higher than our current approach.

The result of all of that is we have a couple of different rations, both of which are the result of lots and lots and lots of research and practice.  It’s really a number of rations, but it’s made up of two rations, one of which we vary as required.  That’s confusing, isn’t it? 🙂  Here’s what we do:

  • Ration 1 – Weaners (birth to several weeks old).  For this we buy a commercial feed.  We make sure it’s all Aussie made and doesn’t contain the nasties described above.

Piglets don’t need much, if any, supplementary feeding for the first week or so of their lives.  I put out some feed after several days, just so they can have a nibble and get a taste.  They don’t really start hoeing in until the second week though.

We only use this feed on its own for a week or so, and then start to phase in a version of our other ration.  I’ll crack the peas and grains, and start mixing that with the commercial feed.  Over a week or two we then phase to just the non-commercial ration.

We don’t introduce brewers mash until after they’re weaned.

  • Ration 2.  This is made up of:
    • Brewers mash.
    • Soaked cereal grains.  Grains have to be soaked or cracked for the pigs to absorb the maximum nutrition.  About 50% of whole grains are passed through undigested, where the pigs are able to absorb around 90% of cracked or soaked grains.
    • Peas/lupins/beans.

We use variations of this ration for growers, lactating sows, dry sows, and the boars.  We change the quantities as required – growers and lactating sows get as much as they can eat, while others have a more limited, maintenance diet.

We also change the mix according to the pig – those with higher energy needs (e.g. growers, nursing or pregnant mums) get a higher percentage of peas or grain, while those with lower energy needs (e.g. heritage pigs, dry sows) will get more mash and less peas/grain.


That’s a lot of words, much of which is me putting constraints on what we could do, and effectively making our lives much harder. 🙂 It would be much easier for us if we just bought in the commercial feed and didn’t worry about that wall of words above.  However, I firmly believe that all aspects of our pig husbandry are tied to the ethicality of what we’re doing, and the nutrition is an integral part of that.  People don’t just buy a great quality product from us when they buy our meat – they’re also paying for the provenance of the animals.  They’re paying for the peace-of-mind of knowing that I’ve fed the pigs the best quality diet, that it’s as clean and natural as possible, and that we’ve put in this level of thought and research.