Broilers Lesson Learned #3

Consider the local weather/climate conditions in relation to the stages of growth of the broiler chickens.

This is really a past lesson learned that I’m quite pleased to say I conquered this year, as I think it went better than it has done in some time.  Maybe I had a little luck, but let’s go with learned lessons.

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old picture, but it looks much the same every year. This is from 2012.

I have finally learned to work with the seasonal temperatures instead of against them.  Instead of trying to brood chicks in the early spring, when I have to keep the heat lamps going for a couple of weeks, and delay putting birds out on pasture because it’s just too darned wet, I now brood them when it’s super hot out – I can turn the heat lamps off for chunks of time in the middle of the day and help the birds acclimate comfortably to living without that red glow.  When I do that, the ground is automatically drier, the hay has been taken off weeks before so that there is new grass growth, and the birds can go out on pasture when we’re still not getting much rain.  They are going out on pasture younger, so are quite happy in the heat still, and by the time they’re a few weeks older and liable to suffer from heat stress, we’re getting cooler nights, and they day temperature comes down a notch or two.

Believe me, this took a lot of hard lessons before I got it figured out.  We lost more than 50 birds one May due to a surprise cold snap – we had a sub 0 C night, and I had eased up on the temperature in the brooder as I started acclimating the birds in readiness for going to pasture later the next week.  Half the batch got chilled, developed pneumonia and died – a needless waste of life, and a costly way to learn.  Another time, we had such a wet spring, the hay couldn’t be cut – I had birds in the brooder that didn’t make it onto pasture until 8 days before processing – and my brooder was most definitely not big enough to hold them properly when they were mature sizes.  I’ve had years where brooding went fine, getting out on pasture went fine, but then as the birds got close to butchering weight, they started to keel over from heart attacks due to heat stress.

Recognizing that only raising birds at the end of the summer season limits production, there is possibly more lesson learning to be done here though.  There is also the factor that twice now, I’ve had difficulties with processing so late in the season, because the processor is switching over to turkeys – Canadian Thanksgiving is the second weekend in October, and they do turkeys for about 10 days before that, plus time to recalibrate the equipment.  I’m debating doing a small batch in June/July, and then doing my main batch as usual.  Or maybe doing 2 batches Aug/Sep, but staggered so that they don’t overlap on the field (I only have two shelters and I don’t want to be moving 4 at once every morning anyway).  That would require a degree of planning that I’m clearly not currently practicing, so we’ll see how we go next year on that front.

Broilers-Lessons Learned #2

Follow The Recipe

Anyone who follows this blog probably has an inkling of my die-hard devotion to Joel Salatin’s farming methods, as demonstrated on Polyface Farms.  I have almost all of his books, well thumbed, and read repeatedly.  I’ve been to two workshops when he has been up in my corner of Canada.   I didn’t realize it in the beginning, but I’ve come to understand that farming is a lot like cooking.

When you are trying some new kind of technique or a food you’ve never cooked before, you probably should follow instructions or a recipe pretty closely.  Once you understand how the ingredients work together, or why the order of things is the way it is in the recipe, then you can start tweaking or adapting for your own tastes, ingredients, etc.  Farming can be like that.  I knew nothing about broilers when I began raising them.  We had been keeping a laying flock for a couple of years, but the guy who used to cut our hay way back then warned us that broilers were a different thing.  I did some reading, bought Salatin’s Pastured Poultry Profits, and we launched.  Fortunately, we took Salatin’s advice and kept to low numbers – 25 that first year, and 40 the next.  We had a ton of learning to get through in those early years.

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Joel Salatin & Michael Ableman Foxglove Farm 2012

We made the mistake back then of not following the recipe very closely.  We skipped over the parts in the book about building the pasture pens – like almost everyone out there raising broilers, I initially believed the pens would be too heavy and cumbersome, they looked like they wouldn’t hold a lot of birds, and we didn’t think we had the skills to build one anyway.  Instead, we put together a pasture pen out of pallets and a lot of chicken wire.  It was 8 x 10 ft, smaller than a Salatin pen, and 4 ft high, thanks to the pallet dimensions.  We had to keep a stool near the pen so we could climb in and out to do the feed and water.  It weighed a lot more than the roughly 200 lbs that a Salatin pen weighs.  It took four people to move it, so needless to say, it didn’t move daily like the method calls for.  Obviously, we didn’t think the method was too wonderful, given the poopiness of the bird’s living conditions.  We nearly packed it in, but there was no denying the difference in the grass where the pen had been – the fertility the birds were adding to the soil of that old hay field was almost magical.

With a lot of thumb bruising and sailor language, we eventually built a Salatin pen, following the very basic guidelines in Pastured Poultry Profits and the hand drawn schematic provided on a blog called A Daring Adventure.  We did pretty well, and it was amazing how spacious it looked compared to our 8 x 1o white elephant.  We realized almost immediately that we had improved on our previous pen, but still had a distance to go, as we had skipped a few important details in the design.

It took us another four years to finish getting the pens right. We got Hay Guy to build the dolly right after the first season when we tried to make do with an awful little moving dolly.  We put a loop handle on the closed end of the pen that winter too.  And built a new pen the next summer, so we had two.  The third summer, I finally got around to putting loop handles on the open ends of both pens, and the result was a pretty efficient pasturing system this past (fourth) summer.

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September 2013

There is a standing joke in my family about a dish called “Oregano Chicken”.  The joke is because the first time I made the recipe (and this is a true story), I didn’t have chicken on hand, so I used fish.  I also didn’t have the white wine it called for, so I used red.  Wine is wine, I figured.  The fish looked a little purple, but I figured the taste would still be good.  I also didn’t have oregano.  I substituted sage.  You won’t be surprised to learn that the meal was not a success, and it was years before I went back to that cookbook and gave it another go – with chicken.  I cannot blame the chef who created the recipe for the terrible meal – I was the one who made all the substitutions. To this day, if I have gone off the page with a recipe, I will warn the family  “this is Oregano Chicken” and they know what not to expect.  At the same time, I’m a far more experienced cook nowadays, and I have a much better idea  of how ingredients interact in different dishes, allowing me to occasionally create new, tasty versions of a basic recipe.   I see a lot of evidence in other blogs of people who have given broilers a try, and who then blame the farmer who developed the model they were “following”, when in fact, they followed the model about as well as I followed that recipe.  Frankly, it’s not the fault of the farmer who developed an efficient production model if the people who copy him don’t use the same ingredients.

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Now, don’t get me wrong – there are other cooks out there, with different recipes for the same cake.  There are easily a dozen versions of pasture pens for broilers out there on the web.  Some of them look better than others to me.   Fundamentally I’m saying : find a cook whose style appeals to you, and follow their recipe as close to the letter as you can.  Adaptations can come when you have more experience.  Trust me, I’ve been there.

Broilers-Lessons Learned #1

This is the first in a series of posts that reflect my post season thoughts on my tiny broiler operation.  I’ve been raising broilers every summer for about a decade, and while some things go quite smoothly for me now, I feel like I’m still on the learning curve.  For the last five years, I’ve been working intentionally towards setting myself up to run broilers more efficiently, and therefore more profitably, with a view to this becoming a larger enterprise for me.  I’ve included pictures of my 2015 broiler season, in which I raised 145 broilers, put them out on the field at 12 days old, and processed 139 when they were 6 1/2 weeks old.  We kept 25 for ourselves, and sold out of the rest, which is typical.  One issue I don’t have is selling these delicious, pasture raised birds.  The pictures start with the day the chicks arrived, and finish with a picture of the pens a month after the birds were in the freezer, if you look carefully, you can see the darker green patches of grass where the pens moved each day on the field.

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Currently I raise about 140 broilers at a time.  This is mainly due to the size of my brooder set up, which has been a work in progress for a couple of years, and which at the moment, I’m  fairly happy with.  I also have two Salatin style pasture pens, the dolly which makes them work so well, a trailer for the lawn tractor which allows me to haul several bags of feed down the field at a time, and hundreds of feet of hoses that allow me to run water down the field from the main tap in the back yard.   Over the years, we’ve acquired 20 industry standard poultry crates, which has made transporting birds to the processor MUCH easier, and better for the birds.  The plan has always been to raise multiple batches of birds as the way to grow this enterprise, but so far, I’ve only been doing one batch a year, due mainly to some of the lessons learned which I’m going to cover in the next couple of weeks.

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A lot of things have improved and are going quite well with the broilers.  But every year, something happens to make the season feel difficult.  Sometimes, it’s just a once off event, perhaps due to weather or predators or a family crisis.  Some years, like the season I just finished, the reasons the broiler enterprise ran less smoothly than it should were more about me than any external factors.  What follows is probably the number one issue I have with any and all of my farming endeavours.  If this one was conquered, things like planning and processing would happen a lot better.  As it is, they’re coming up in later posts.

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Lesson Learned Number ONE.  Pick up the phone and make the call.

True story.  I hate making phone calls, except maybe to my immediate family.  I do it as part of working at the library, but that feels different, like it’s not really me making the call, but the person I’m acting as.  I have no idea why I’m like this. It’s not about chattiness.  You can tell from the blog that I’m a talker.  Anyone at the library will tell you I talk plenty.  I just don’t do it on the phone.

How does this relate to the broiler chickens?  I have to order the chicks by phone.  I have to phone potential or past customers, I have to phone the processor to arrange a processing date. I would rather muck out a chicken house after a winter of deep bedding.  Or butcher roosters.  Or do laundry.  OK, maybe doing the taxes is worse, but not much else.   Does anyone else procrastinate on things they don’t like doing?  Here’s the lesson about phone calls – if you procrastinate too long, you can really mess up your schedule, your family’s schedule and perhaps end up not getting any broiler chickens.

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That almost happened to me last year, when I found out the hatchery has a last hatch date (which made sense when I thought about it), which I only just managed to get some birds from, and not as many as I wanted, so I was slightly better about phoning on time this year, but not by much.  And phoning the processor?  Wow.  It’s possible he doesn’t like phone calls either, because it took 4 messages from me and ultimately a Facebook message (which he didn’t reply to, but did trigger him calling me back finally).  (As an aside, it’s fascinating to me how much of the farm world is still very much phone and paper oriented, vs social media/electronic.  Of the 4 or 5 processors (for pigs and chickens) I’ve dealt with in the last few years, ALL have phone contact only – most have no website, and only one has a Facebook page.)  Back to this year – then I had the issue of a processing date a whole week earlier than I wanted – not a good thing when a week makes as much difference in growth as it does for broilers.  In the end, it pulled together, but it was unnecessarily stressful, and partly due to the fact that I put off ordering chicks till it was quite late in the season.

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I have options here.  I can continue squeaking by with this last minute scramble of phoning to get broiler chicks, to book the processor, and to line up customers, but it’s super inefficient, and keeps my stress level elevated longer than necessary.  I have enough other stuff to stress about, I don’t need more.  Increasing the number of broilers I raise and sell would be relatively easy in some respects – a lot of the infrastructure is in place, and requires no additional effort.  In fact, ordering birds for more batches can happen with just one phone call.  Ditto for the processor; I can book processing for multiple batches in advance, which means more birds does not mean more calls.

So, what’s stopping me?  I am done with phone call phobia, and I’m moving on to phone call efficiency.  Next year, dear readers, you have my full permission to be on my case by June if I’ve made no mention of ordering chicks before that.  You can call me on that.

What’s Happening?

A bedtime favourite in this family used to be a wonderful series of children’s picture books by Helen Lester, revolving around a character called Tacky the Penguin, usually dressed in an Hawaiian shirt, who always greets his prim friends (Goodly, Neatly, Perfect, et al) with a rollicking “What’s Happening?”

You might be wondering the same thing….it’s been at least two months since I posted anything here on the blog. Stuff has been happening, but somehow nothing that seemed picture worthy or at least worth going back to the house to fetch the camera for. So the pictures you’ll be seeing in this post are not necessarily exciting or even representative of the whole season, just the times that the camera was around.

We had a relentlessly hot summer up here in the usually mild Pacific Northwest. That sounds a bit whiny, and maybe it is, considering the kind of heat so many places experience as “normal”. For us, 36 C is not normal, at least not for more than a day, and certainly not for days in a row. We’re used to dry summers, just not all that heat.  I’m not a hot climate person, I’ve decided.  Too bad for me if this turns out to be the new normal, which I fear might be true, as they’re predicting another warm winter and hot summer.   I felt like I didn’t get a lot done in the summer, beyond working myself into a really negative thought spiral as my energy was zapped by working at my day job and trying to pack everything else into the 30-32 C average days around that.  All my efforts to get ahead during the spring foundered when I began full time hours and it was all I could do to keep up with just the day to day stuff.  There was even a point in June when I wondered if I should just chuck it all in and convince the family that town life was the way to go.

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But somehow, despite the heat and my negative headspace, and due in large part to the willing help of the rest of the family and especially our younger daughter, all the things that usually happen in the summer on this small farm – happened.  Chicks, piglets, broiler chickens, garden, family time – even a mini-vacation.

Most Saturday mornings from June through to mid-October (Thanksgiving), my husband and I were able to get up to the fairgrounds across the road for the farmers market – we’d buy greens and fruit for the week, sometimes some pasture raised beef or some honey or chutney.   We’d finish up with a coffee and a scone, listening to the folk music and chatting to neighbours.  It’s the first time since 2006 that I haven’t been working most Saturdays, so it was a real treat to go back to being a “regular”.  A civilized break from the chaotic scramble that was our lives this summer.

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The three Large Black pigs (and large is a more accurate description now), which arrived at the beginning of July as very small Large Black piglets,  are heading to the processor at the end of November.  The 145 broilers came at the beginning of August, 141 went out onto the field exactly 13 days later (the youngest I’ve ever put birds out) and at the end of September, 139 went to the processor and subsequently into people’s freezers.  One of the broody hens from the layer flock was allowed to set a dozen eggs, and she successfully raised 9 chicks – 5 of whom were roosters of course.  All 9 are currently in the layer flock – the roosters destined for the freezer any minute, I swear.  The pullets are laying regularly now, as I get 4 small eggs in with all the jumbo eggs from the old hens.  The veg garden started well, and I had big plans which most definitely “gang aft aglay”, but we did get a huge crop of tomatoes, which nearly all got dried or made into tomato sauce for the freezer. We grew basil successfully for the first time in years, and between what we grew and what I bought from the farmer I always buy basil from, we made enough pesto for the freezer for the whole year. The pears did well this year – I canned some and dried some, and we managed to pick 100 lbs of apples on the rainiest day in late September to send to the guy with a juicing operation, so now we have  24 litres of the most excellent unfiltered apple juice in our freezer, ready for hot apple cider in the winter, or as a yummy adjunct to breakfast on the run.

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Younger daughter created and maintained a small flower bed, which is still holding it’s own at the end of October.  She also handled the afternoon water check and supper chores throughout the entire summer, for broilers and pigs, including three days in August, when she had sole responsibility for pigs, hens and broilers – 200+lives – while my husband and I went up to the north end of the Island to cool off in the rain and spot grizzly bears and orca whales – a trip which was extremely hard to rationalize at the time, but in retrospect was vitally necessary to allow us to reconnect after a summer of seldom seeing each other thanks to impossible schedules, and which restored my equilibrium and allowed the family to have the less cranky version of myself back again.

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We had our usual Labour Day weekend barbeque, with 55 guests and tons of food – rain was forecast but held off till late that night.  It was our chance to socialize with people we’ve known for years, but seldom get to touch base with over the summer and wonderful to see that almost half our numbers were teenagers or young adults – every time I suggest that maybe this tradition has had it’s day (preparing for 55 guests is not difficult exactly, but it is work), there is an outcry, and this year I really did very little beyond getting the invites out – the rest of the family pulled all the details together.  One of the bitter-sweet aspects of the barbeque, and the Fair which happens the same weekend, is that school starts up again right afterwards.  The younger daughter has just begun her grad year – her final year of high school, while the older daughter has begun her second year of university – the first year of her three year degree programme in Elementary Education.

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The broilers went to the processor at the end of September, and suddenly the days started to seem possible again, as chore time suddenly got reduced to 15-20 minutes at each end of the day, as opposed to the extra thirty minutes every morning, moving cages, hauling feed down the field, etc. and an extra 15 every evening.   I suddenly went from just managing to get chores work and dinner fitted into the day, to a place where I could fit chores, work and dinner in and still have time and energy for other things – which was a good thing, because the timing with the tomato crop was impeccable.  Between tomatoes and pears, freezing, canning and drying became the order of the day.

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Thanksgiving a couple of weeks ago saw us eating the first of our broilers, roasting freshly dug potatoes, making our first pumpkin pie of the season and entertaining hubby’s sister and brother-in-law who have just retired here from Ontario, swelling the numbers of our local extended family dramatically, which for years has consisted only of myself and my brother and our families.  The girls are enjoying being doted on by their aunt and uncle, and have enjoyed several weekend outings to local parks for hiking, nearly always followed by sumptuous teas that obviate the need for supper.

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Halloween looms, and the weather has been cooler now for a month or so.  My list of things that need doing is still relentlessly long, but my optimism is back and I’m willing to give it another kick, like Charlie when Lucy holds the ball ready.  Maybe this time…  Unlike Charlie though, I’m aware that I need a better plan – flying by the seat of my pants wasn’t the best way to get through the summer for me, nor the rest of my family,  so as I spend time catching up on repairs and fence moves and the like, I’m starting to mull over my farming goals and how they relate to our family goals and ambitions.  Stay tuned.


Farmyard Bling

I joked to a friend the other day that I have joined the world of Big Ag, because I have had to join the Pig Trace programme, which includes getting government approved ear tags with unique numbers so that the pigs can be tracked every time I report that I’ve moved them.

It’s no joke of course.  Traceability is something the Canadian Pork Producers associations have been working on for some time.  Disease is part of the business of raising livestock, whether for meat or for products like eggs and milk.  It happens, even on state of the art, super hygienic, bio secure meg farms (maybe more so there, but that’s another topic).  Last year, the Pork Producers and the government finally made it mandatory for ALL pigs to be tagged when when going to slaughter.  The rules are more complicated than that, in that breeding stock movements have to be reported too, but the main concern seems to be that they want to be able to trace where pigs came from when they’ve been slaughtered.

My pigs last year were almost turned away at the slaughter house because they weren’t tagged – it was a month after the deadline for the tagging programme to begin, and I’d somehow got the impression that I’d be exempt because my pigs were born before the cutoff (wrong).  However, they did the job, and I found out later that the government was fairly lenient in the first year of the programme while producers were getting into gear with the new requirements.

However, this year, I knew I’d have to knuckle down and tag the pigs.  The Pig Trace website is a wonderfully succinct little resource, and after perusing it, I duly got myself an account with Pig Trace and ordered three tags (the tags were $1 each, the postage was $12 – hubby said I should have ordered 100 to make the postage worthwhile, but it would take me 30 years to use up that quantity).

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look carefully – small yellow tags, just visible

Tagging pigs is fun.  I mean fun like roller coaster fun.  There’s the lead up as you prepare your gear, make your plan and get your pigs in a happy place (this involved food of course).  That’s the first uphill slope of the coaster.  Then you make your move, go in, grab the ear, place the applicator and tag – the downhill of the coaster, and squeeze – HARD.  The pig’s head whips up, startled, and that’s the curve after the slope.  the applicator tool releases if the two parts of the tag connected properly through the ear, and the pigs ear just slips away from you.  If it went well, the ride feels pretty good.  If it doesn’t quite go according to plan, well then – the ride gets exciting.  One of the pigs jerked her head just as I squeezed, the applicator slipped out of my hand while still in the pigs ear, and – we’re off.  Pig with set of pliers (the applicator is like pliers) hanging from her ear, banging around, the other two pigs flying around sharing her panic.  Through the electric fence twice – through the wallow, round the shelter, back again.  We finally cornered her, and I was able to finish the squeeze so the ear tag was done, and get the applicator off.  Poor little piggy.  Then I had to do the third pig (the barrow) – whose trust level after all that was not great.  I considered leaving him till later when they were calm again, but fortunately, everyone settled back to their dinners almost immediately, so I went in and tagged him without drama.

But let me tell you – the Pig Trace website gives you no indication of all the fun that ear tagging involves – except for maybe a hint when they mention that tagging a mature pig isn’t a lot of fun.  You need to go to the link here so that you can see just how simple they say the procedure is.  And while you’re there, check out the graphic which portrays where to put the tag in the ear.  It’s a cartoon pig for Pete’s sake, with little x marks for the ear tags.  So cute!  I guess the reality is that the Big Ag farmers all know how to tag pigs already and don’t need a picture.  That’s fine, but if they’re requiring backyard producers (which is essentially what I am) to comply, then a little guidance in the form of a video, or even a photo of a pig with the tag in the correct place would be helpful.

Fortunately there’s YouTube and Google.  Now that I’ve done my pigs, I know why there are zero videos of pigs being done.  It would make the job look a little too exciting.  Actually there is one video – and it does look a little exciting – but I had discounted it because the guy freely admitted it was his first effort at tagging, and it was moreover a different tagging applicator than the one needed for my tags.  A couple of British sites mentioned that food was a good idea while tagging pigs, and a NZ site mentioned that a second person would be helpful, which I’d figured out from the various videos, since not one of them had someone tagging alone, except the cows in crushes.

In retrospect, restraining the pigs might have been a smarter idea, as it would have given me more control and less chance something like that chase with the pig with the applicator banging around her face while she ran. On the other hand, cornered pigs are not happy pigs – they know full well there’s nothing good in it for them, and trying to catch the ear and hold it still might have been the challenge. So, in the end, I’ll probably do it over the feed bowls again next year, but maybe feed in a smaller space, rather than the open paddock, so that I limit the escape routes.  On the upside, I feel better about the tagging process than before I started.  The pigs really only reacted to the tag application for a brief moment (except for pig #2), and were back in their feed bowls within a second or two after I’d tagged them.  They seem oblivious to the tags now. It really does seem much like when my daughters got their ears pierced.

I kept an eye on the pig that got tagged second for a day or two.  I think her ear was a little tender (what a surprise) because she wouldn’t let me touch it, but there’s no seeping or swelling, so I think she’s OK, and this morning I was able to lift her ear to check the underside before she pulled away from me.   I found out after the fact that infection is quite common with tagging, and that there’s yet another gadget you can buy that lets you remove the tag to treat infection if need be.  They certainly don’t mention that on the Pig Trace website either.

Further research also elicited the little gem that I should have figured out for myself – ti’s smart to write down the tag numbers somewhere before you tag the pigs, or right when you do it, because they get muddy pretty fast and therefore illegible.  Now that my pigs have been wearing their earrings for a couple of days, I can see why.  Or rather I can’t see – the numbers have been covered in mud.

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blue ring, right leg – these birds are 11 weeks old and need to join the main flock

The young chickens got some jewellery this weekend too – and seem to be keeping theirs much cleaner than the pigs.  A partial solution to my flawed plan to keep track of the different generations of chickens in my layer flock involves coloured leg rings.  I was a little daunted by ringing the main flock (50 birds) so we decided to ring the young birds – only 9.  Younger daughter and I whipped through that task just after dusk when the birds were sleepy and were done in 5 minutes.  No website, no video, no infection risks, no adrenaline surge (at least for us, maybe for the birds).

So, anklets and earrings – the youngsters are growing up.

Summer growth

Piglets, chicks, flowers – all growing like crazy.  I may not be saying much on the blog, but there is stuff happening here.

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An hour after they arrived, 6 July. Abut 6 weeks old.

The piglets arrived two weeks ago, they’re around 8 weeks now. Their mama is a Large Black, called Olivia and the boar is a Berkshire.  They are sturdy, energetic little things, growing fast.  They also move as a unit, like a well trained platoon. It’s easy to think of them as the Three Musketeers, except that being pigs, they’re all over the concept of “all for one” and not at all interested in the more altruistic ideal of “one for all”.

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3 Musketeers, aged 8 weeks.

While they respect electric fence to a point, it apparently has to be an electric fence worthy of their respect, and ours was not up to snuff when they came.  To be fair they came a week earlier than expected, and we had to really scramble to get the fence set up in time, but I was aware that there wasn’t much of a charge on the line, and vowed to troubleshoot it at the earliest opportunity.  I was not prepared for their robustness or their confidence.  The pigs we’ve had the previous two years were far more timid in their early days.  I think this trio has the advantage that they were born on a farm very near here, and they are siblings, so that they have always done everything together, and have moreover been doing that in a wooded acreage with a pond at one end, where, as I learned later, they also considered the electric fence to be more of a guideline than an actual rule.

So long story longer, they got out on Friday, five days after we got them.  I was at work when I got the call:  “The pigs got out”.  Fortunately this isn’t our first experience with pigs, and even more fortunately, pigs are highly food motivated.  Turns out their bid for freedom was more to do with the fact that one of the kids had opened the gate to come in with dinner, and the pigs simply pushed through in their eagerness to ambush her.  We have a wire across the gate entrance to discourage this kind of behaviour, so that we humans can deliver dinner without becoming part of it, and the piglets, being quite small, and the fence not giving much charge, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that this particular scenario would happen.  In normal circumstances, I’d have been home in an hour, and able to roll up my sleeves and start troubleshooting the fence but that night I was meant to be in town after work to meet hubby to sign some papers with him (new car).  I whipped home from work, sussed the situation with the pigs, and decided I’d go to town to sign the papers quickly then come home again (quick is relative – that would have been about 90 minutes minimum), rather than staying in town to have dinner with hubby as originally planned.  While we were in our meeting, the girls texted to say “pigs are safe in fort knocks, stay for dinner”. They’re French Immersion kids, hence the creative English spelling, but the gist of it was clear from the picture they attached.  The pigs were indeed contained in a version of Fort Knox – with boards at pig height all the way around their paddock, so that they couldn’t push through the hog wire fence that is behind the electric most of the way around. We had dinner.

That weekend, we did some troubleshooting and ended up sinking a second grounding rod (earthing rod for those in the Antipodes), bought a new extension cord, and ultimately have also recently purchased a new energizer – I gasped slightly at the price, but it’s a Sta-fix, which have to be special ordered here, as we don’t have a dealer.  The feed store had ordered it for someone who changed their mind, and it was just sitting there the day I went in to get a new one.  It seems like it was meant to be for me, and though it’s more powerful than I really need right now, there are plans to take electric fence out to the fields for chickens and sheep, and this charger is good enough for that.  Sta-fix is a brand out of NZ, who are the world leaders in electric fence.   According to the instructions that come with it, it will keep in pigs, sheep, cattle, goats, bulls and kangaroos. Can’t wait to get the kangaroos.

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Mama Hen and family, 3 days old

Mama Hen hatched nine chicks from a clutch of 12 eggs a month ago, and she’s still got all nine, so we’re very impressed.  We’re not quite sure if it’s 4 pullets and 5 roosters, or 3 and 6, but we’ll find out eventually.  The eggs were from different hens, hence the different colours of chicks.  At this point we’re working on integrating Mama and the brood with the rest of the flock – the roosters are proving pretty contemptuous of the chicks and pretty vicious towards Mama, so I’m trying to do it gradually.  Mama herself however is keen to get back into the hen house, so I hope things smooth out soon.

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Mama hen and family, 6 weeks old

On the topic of chicks, we have 140 broiler chicks coming in a few weeks, and hopefully one good thing about this sweltering heat wave we’re in will be that brooding them will be a snap, though I’ll need it to cool off a couple of weeks later when they go out on pasture.

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The flower bed is the work of our younger daughter, who has also been my right hand while I’ve been at work managing water for all the critters in the heat, and feeding pigs on the evenings that I work.  The trellis has been there for years, legacy from an old clematis that never did well on it, and has been gone for eons.  She built and filled the bed,raised all the flowers from seed and transplanted them – et, voila!  My grandmother and my father’s sister both had that sort of knack – making it look so easy, and having things come up so lushly.  That’s sweet peas in the far back, zinnias, cosmos and nasturtiums, with some calendula she rescued from the veg garden in the box to one side.  She’s got her sights set on developing a perennial bed next year.  My veg garden also looks quite lush right now, but not from my efforts – it’s mostly weeds.  There are veggies in there and we’ve done quite well with some things – quite a lot of basil for a couple of batches of pesto for example.

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Annual family pesto assembly line, we made 7 batches in the end.

Tomatoes and potatoes, cukes and pumpkins also look pretty good.  But my good intentions to do succession planting came to nothing and unless I get cracking right now to get some more seeds in, I won’t have much of a fall garden.  But it’s so darn hot out these days, that I just wilt out there, so about the only garden job I really get done on a regular basis involves standing in the garden at dusk with the hose, thinking about nothing in particular while I soak everything, including weeds, and if it’s been really hot, even myself.

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cooling off

You can’t take the country out of the kid…

Our eldest is close to the end of a month long trip in China, having the time of her life, exploring and experiencing a different culture.  Though she has enjoyed the classic Chinese icons like the Great Wall and the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace, her most effusive writing has been about more rural experiences.  Since this is in theory a farm blog, I thought I’d include excerpts from two emails.  The first one is about her stay in a ger in Mongolia, the second is about her stay in a small town called Hongkeng, where they were given a room in a toulu (one for tourists, with toilets – not always a given in China).  She sent pictures of the time in Mongolia ( didn’t include every picture), but I haven’t received any from Hongkeng; however Google images gives one an idea of what she’s seeing – I recommend dong a search for Hongkeng village and clicking “images”.  I’ve included her quotes verbatim, so please excuse spelling – she’s typing on her phone.


Some pics i took while waiting for the sun to rise so we could start herding the sheep etc. So they might be kinda blurry cause there was no light and i had numb fingers since it was super cold.  Some more pics of The home we stayed at, some of the herd we managed to round up by ourselves  (a bit pathetic as we found out later, compared to the roughly 300 sheep that the 1 local guy on his scooter rounded up in the same amount of time by himself that it took 7 of us to find the ones in the pic). Me all wrapped up in a scarf they gave me and ready to watch the sun rise. A pic of the sun rising  (can you see the wind turbines way waaaayyyy in the distance? It might be too blurry). And a pic of a hill marker- they use these as land marks so they can find their way through the vast almost never ending expanse that is the inner mongolian plains because they are nomadic and all of the inner mongolian countryside looks pretty much the same- like a huge sea of never ending grass and dusty dirt flowing on and on and on through rolling hills and rocky rolling sloppes and lumps and rises and massive flatish plains- so they put hill markers here and there both for navigation and for communication and so they can find each other when they move  (they can leave each other messages at these markers using the placement of piles of certain rocks, paintings, carvings, and flags or other scraps of cloth).

Hongkeng toulu village is amazing- so beautiful and so unique and peaceful. It looks like nowhere else on this earth! I’ll show you pictures when i get home- cause they’re all on my camera not on my phone.

And yes the room we are staying in in the toulu we are staying in does have some of its own unique quirks, but it is definitely not that bad. For one thing there is really good airconditioning and honestly that alone is enough to make me really love the room. Also it is super clean and actually looks fairly recently renovated. The beds are pretty comfy too! And yes there have also been a couple of bugs etc but only (so far and thank goodness) in the bathroom and the hallway outside our room- not in out actual sleeping area. And bugs are just part of being in the countryside.  And boy are we in the countryside! This whole village is an actual active farming village! Rice fields, bananas, taros, ducks, geese, chickens… and lots of other things! Sooooo cool! Mom you would love it here- the way the whole village farms the land as one and raises their own food and uses every square inch of good farm land… the young and the old, women and men, all work side by side… everyone works together but they just work slow and steadily- no hurry no stress- when they are tired they rest, when they are hot they move to the shade (and drink hot tea- yes you would totally fit right in)… they butcher their own meat too at each meal! If they are having chicken for dinner then when it is time to cook they just go outside (the chickens here just wonder freely around the village and surrounding farmland and jungle- they are seriously all over the place, especially around the toulus i think because they get food scraps there) and grab a chicken or two or 3 (however many they need) they bring it back into the courtyard and they can get it from clucking to cooking in about 3 mins flat! I got to watch one of our hosts do the whole process and i learned a trick or 2 that i will share with you when im home. I bet you never guessed i would learn this on my trip!!!