Broiler Lessons Learned – Last lesson !

I cannot do this alone.

This probably should have been listed as lesson#1.   I would have had serious issues with animals running out of water this summer were it not for the fact that the younger daughter was at home most of the time and was therefore able to check all the waters around mid afternoon.  That one thing alone turned out to be a weak point in the whole set up.

I actually went into the summer knowing it would be an issue, but just didn’t create a contingency plan to deal with it.  Last year, when I was still working at the local library branch down in the village, it was a 3  minute drive home – plenty of time on my lunch break to nip home, throw jeans on, add water to all the pens, and whip back to work with time to spare to swallow a sandwich.  Now that it’s 15 minutes one way, it’s still possible, technically, but not super practical.  Yet this was the thought in my head at the start – if no one was home, that’s what I would do.   And when I did have to put it in practice a few times, I quickly realized how unrealistic the plan was.  15 minutes each way, plus 20 minutes doing all the waters, plus 5 minutes to find a parking space again when I got back to work – it was a tight race.  If I ran across an issue while I was doing the waters what was I supposed to do?  Ignore it and get back to work on time?  Call work and say I had an issue to deal with?  My supervisor is incredibly supportive of my farming activity and has said more than once that I can do just that, but I don’t want to abuse the privilege.    Planning to handle it on my own was not a good plan.

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Younger daughter now has a job herself that will likely involve way more hours during the summer months.  She’s not an option I can rely on next time.  So what should I do?  What is the real issue?  Do I need a person to be there at midday to do the waters?  Could I set up the waters so that they don’t run out?  My other daughter has suggested having two waters per pen, at least during the day, a practical suggestion that should be simple to implement.  It might mean reducing the number of birds per pen a bit because of the space, but I believe it would be worth it.

It’s not just the water.  During brooding, the chicks need checking several times daily.  When it’s butchering day, catching the birds goes a lot faster with two people, and I’m not strong enough to lift a poultry crate with 8 birds by myself, so someone has to be up at 4 in the morning to help me catch and load 20 crates worth of birds and unload them a couple of hours later at the processor. On customer pick up day, with fresh chicken and the need to keep it chilled, there is only about a 2 hour window between pick up at the processor and having the chicken in my customers cooler or fridge.  Some customers come direct to the farm to pick up, and about half meet me in town to pick up, which means one person stays at the farm and one person goes into town.   Astute readers know that I don’t own a truck, so transporting the birds to the processor has meant either renting or borrowing one – borrowing is cheaper (1 chicken or a small ham) but means that I’m depending on someone for yet another aspect of this enterprise.  I’d love to get a truck, but the reasons why I haven’t done that yet are numerous, so I’ll spare you.

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Even more important than the physical requirement for an extra set of hands and muscles, however, is the benefit of companionship.  Someone to talk over the issues, brainstorm for solutions, commiserate over the bad stuff that sometimes happens.  Someone to crack terrible chicken jokes with, who will enter into plans for improvement and sees things from a different angle, but can still see mine as well.  This of course applies not just to broilers, but to life – although maybe not the part about chicken jokes.

So I’m not completely sure about long term prospects for the broiler enterprise.  My plans to expand this enterprise are all well and good, but without a second person available at least at certain points, it will not work.  Whether I tap into my local community and neighbours for that, or rely on family, or hire someone, that second person is essential.  Part of this depends on scale – like any small business.  I could affort to hire someone for an hour/day if I was producing enough to pay for them.  To produce that much I need to hire someone.   Part of the reason for working my way through my lessons learned in such detail (sorry, but thanks for sticking with me!), is to determine whether I’ve mastered enough of the basics to be able to take a big enough step up in scale to hire someone to help.  The answer at this point is – I think so.  Do I want to do that?  Still thinking about it.  What would you do?

p.s. Sorry for all the recycled pictures from previous posts for this series – I simply didn’t take very many pictures this summer, and didn’t want to post such long screels without decorating them in some way 🙂

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Broiler Lessons Learned-#4

Bedding in the brooder.

Again, I think this is one of those lessons I’ve been trying to master for more than a few years, and this year was the first time I feel like it went as it should.  I try to practice deep bedding, but whether it’s my brooder set up, or the wood shavings I use (about all that’s available here, at least through the feed stores), or my management techniques, I am usually in a desperate and losing battle to keep the bedding in the brooder from feeling soggy.  These little birds excrete a LOT of moisture and it takes a lot of wood shavings to absorb it all.  Others around the world are using different beddings, and some sound like they work much better.  I’d really like to source a finer grade of wood shavings, as I believe it might absorb better, but I’m not sure how to go about that, so it may not happen soon.  Ideas, anyone?

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In the past I’ve tried removing half and replacing (a lot of work and it panicked the birds) it with new shavings.  I’ve tried adding shavings daily and stirring them in.  I’ve tried adding shavings twice a day.  This year, I was adding bedding in the mornings, quite a bit of it each time, over the whole floor space –  a few centimetres deep.  Didn’t stir it, just let it sit on top.  I also made sure the place was always ventilated (even at night), thinking that perhaps the moisture was building up overnight because the shed is insulated.  And I think that may have done the trick, because for the first time since I’ve been using that building, the bedding got damp, but not soggy, I didn’t get any respiratory issues with the birds (a problem in the past),  Having that window open 24/7 (it’s away from the brooder, so no draft, and it has mesh, no rats) did rely on the hot dry weather of August, so this is another point in favour of starting chicks end of July.

Another factor of course was that this was the shortest time I’ve ever kept the broilers in the brooder – 12 days for most of them (I kept a few inside for a couple more days), and I know in the past the weather has compelled me to keep them inside the brooder for a week or so longer.  They start getting big after week two, and their size has a big impact on my ability to keep up with the bedding.

Key take aways on brooding.  Be religious about adding a good thick layer of fresh bedding at least daily.  Try and source a more absorbent non-dusty bedding material.  Ventilation, ventilation, ventilation.  Get the birds outside as soon as possible.

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As a sort of postcript to all this, I let a broody hen from the layers set a batch of eggs this summer – 9 of the 12 hatched, and she raised all 9 successfully.  Her own body temperature was all the heat they got, and even when the ground got damp from rain, the chicks always thrived – her own body heat and the thick pad of hay they had for a nest seem to have sufficed.  She had them venturing out of the brooder within a week, and by the end of week three, they were going through tall grass, and under brambles, scrambling over and under and around to keep up with her.  Watching those chicks while I was providing all my careful TLC to the broilers across the yard in their brooder, I am aware as never before of just how fragile we have bred them to be.

 

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.