12 October, 2015

Boom and bust cycles, or buy pigs now!

At least if you’re in Virginia between DC a and the south reaches of Richmond, from the mountains out to Fredericksburg, pork on the hoof is cheap as hell right now.

In fact, as the annual rush to secure winter hay supplies begins and the spring/summer breeding cycles come to an end, everything from pigeons to horses can be had at dirt cheap prices if not free. People often get lost in the optimism of lush summer pastures and the lure of higher livestock prices, only to discover that a horse eats a lot of hay, piglets are no longer selling for $150 each, and pigeons multiply like rodents given the opportunity. Looking to reduce feed bills they start dumping stock below cost, and the long plummet b of a market glut has begun.

Pigs are a very striking example of the market cycle in my area right now. A year ago or more, a potbelly or American Guinea Hog piglet fetched around $150-$200 on the private market. Predictably, many people saw dollar signs and began pumping out litters of piglets, with the end result that starting late this summer some folks with young potbelly pigs were having trouble giving them away for free. Everyone in central Virginia who wanted a piglet had one, it seemed like. Prices are running from free to $50 each for potbelly pigs now, and $25-$75 for young American Guinea Hogs. These prices are well below the cost to raise a piglet to weaning age, leaving producers the prospect of either continuing to raise them to butcher age and then putting an entire litter in the freezer (who has that much freezer space??) or to take a loss just to get the animals off their property.

At least there’s little stigma attached to sending AGH to slaughter. The potbelly pigs, while also made of delicious pork, have been sold as pets so long that many of them wind up in bad situations receiving substandard care because of the novelty value. Rescues work hard to take them in but space is limited. Arguably it’s kinder to put an animal down and eat it than to keep it living alone, belly-deep in water and feces, because as it turns out many of a pig’s natural behaviors (like rooting) aren’t compatible with the house pet life. And while pigs are as smart as dogs, they haven’t had the benefit of 30,000 years of selective breeding to be enjoyable companions.

Pigs, goats, and sheep sold for below slaughter value are likely to wind up in slaughter channels no matter how many caps locked “NOT FOR FOOD” warnings the seller puts in an ad. Around here, those channels start with people who trawl craigslist for cheap livestock. They run them to the auctions, where they’re either bought directly by a few small local slaughterhouses that don’t have contacts with enough supplies to buy directly, or by bunchers who then take them to the New Holland auction in Pennsylvania. An animal raised as a cherished and cuddled pet will suddenly find itself in a world of shouting and cattle prods. It’s tough even on animals not socialized to enjoy human company. Dealers expect an animal to lose up to 25% of its weight as a result of the stress even if treated well.

Horses have it much wise since horse slaughter has been effectively ended in the US, meaning they have a long miserable trip to Canada or Mexico awaiting them. There just isn’t a market for pasture pets and half-wild horses that haven’t been ridden in a year beyond slaughter when so many steady, useful horses are also on the market.

In the end it’s much, much kinder for an animal to get a dish of grain and a well placed bullet in familiar surroundings, or one trip to the slaughterhouse. Even more ideally, small producers will limit their breeding to ensure a smaller surplus come fall. The large farms that have made names for themselves aren’t the ones glutting the market, they’re the ones that line up buyers before breeding season even begins, or have built a customer base for themselves at Farmers Markets and in local butcher shops.

Breed to feed yourself and your friends and family. It is nearly impossible to make money in small livestock without access to the economies of scale a large producer has. It sucks, but that’s the market.

9 October, 2015

Where there is love there is life.

A happy anniversary today to me and Mr Goat Lady! He left home, country, family, friends, and the National Health Service to come spend the rest of his life with me.

We’ve had a hell of a ride, and here’s to the best accomplice I could wish for!

A man with long dark hair and a beard wearing a baseball cap and T-shirt bends down to tickle the chins of two tiny goats who gaze up at him worshipfully.

The same man wailing away from the camera, attended by the entire herd of goats and sheep.

5 October, 2015

Things I do when I’m not farming: reading

Black Wolves by Kate Elliott, available for pre-order from Hachette Press via many fine outlets, release date 3 November.

So it turns out that sometimes you can in fact sad face enough at an author (and also be the first person to name a goat after one of her characters) that you can score a sneak peek at a book! Which was me and Black Wolves, because I am a huge fan of epic fantasy and when I heard Kate was working on a new one, I was all a-flutter. BW is set in the same world as her Crossroads Trilogy, although years later. You don’t need to have read Crossroads to read this, but if you have you may find a whiff of comfort among the familiar places (and faces) even as Madam Elliott exercises the reader-torturing skills for which we adore her. I know I’m reading a Genuine Kate Elliott Novel(tm) when at least two or three times I have to resist the urge to tweet “OMG WHAT HAVE YOU DONE”.

The plot synopsis is available at every bookseller, so let me say this: BW is a book about what family means, about love, about grief, about betrayal, about hope and about struggle. It is also about, and I quote, “giant justice eagles”. It is not the book you pick up when you’re half-delirious from the flu and need to kill some time, rather it is the book you pick up to sink into a world and a plot so rich and complex it feels almost more documentary than fictional. If you’re me, it’s the book you pick up because you love fantasy and the recent trend toward “realistic” books (where “realistic” means “full of gratuitous violence against women” hi Mr Martin) has made you wary of picking up new books.

That’s not to say nothing bad happens to women here, but it doesn’t feel like it’s there to titillate or to add “grittiness”. Kate Elliott almost invariably invites the reader to empathize with the victims of violence, though, in a marked contrast to many authors, and it’s no different here. This focus means that the incidents of bloodshed are many times more devastating for the reader than they would be otherwise. You’ll probably join me in the weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth if not the desperate capslocked pleas for mercy on Twitter.

In short, if you would like to read fantasy with giant eagles set in an east Asia analogue instead of your standard western European analogue fantasy setting, if you would like to read fantasy with complex human relationships in all their messy glory, you should pre-order this book in whatever format suits your fancy. If you don’t like to read these things, you should question your life choices and then buy it anyway.

5/5 fuzzy little sheep for keeping me riveted from beginning to end.

2 October, 2015

And the Windows of heaven were opened.

I’m late blogging today courtesy of a combination of an unnamed monsoon followed by the outer edges of Hurricane Joaquin.

A black rubber two quart feed pan full of water. Tethys the pig side eyes it.
The monsoon filled two quart feed pans in just a couple hours.

The heavy storm a few nights ago means Joaquin is dumping water on ground already saturated. In many areas of my pasture that’s not much of a problem, since pigs and plant roots have created enough soil permeability to allow drainage. In other areas, however, there are pools of liquid mud just waiting to try to suck my boots off. It’s not fun.

Hurricane prep also required us to get the grain out of the feed stall and into the shed so we could open both stalls up for the goats, sheep, and pigs to shelter in. Having both stalls open ensures that large pushy animals like Queen May and Sanglant can’t keep the smaller, more retiring animals out of the barn. The rabbit colony needed a new roof and a wall on the east side, and the piglets needed their house moved and stuffed with straw so they could stay warm and dry.

In the middle of all this the goats broke into the feed stall before it was prepped and ate approximately 25 pounds of grain, leading to horrifying diarrhea and the early attempts at exploration by the juvenile poultry who’d been living happily in that stall.

Never a dull moment, especially where goats are concerned. So the ruminants are on a hay-only diet for a couple days while hurricane Joaquin brings cold, wind, and wet. In the house, we’ve filled water containers and located flashlights and batteries. Now we just wait to see whether or not the power will stay on until Tuesday, when current weather predictions show the last of the storm leaving our area and the sun returning for the first time in a week and a half.

30 September, 2015

Things I do when I’m not farming: knitting

Mostly I’m putting this here as a blog post in the hope that it will inspire a vague sense of accountability and I’ll actually finish this thing. You see, I’m one of those knitters who’s really good at starting projects but really terrible at finishing them, which leads to a certain accumulation of forlorn unfinished objects.

My latest project is a shawl, from the “A Handsome Triangle” pattern in Victorian Lace Today. Except that I hate knitting with lace weight yarn, aka “thread” and also shawls knit with tiny yarn are very pretty but basically useless for staying warm. So instead I’m knitting it from heathered brown wool, in fact Fisherman’s Wool from Lion. It won’t win awards for the delicate beauty of the stitches and pattern, but it will be a durable, warm, functional garment. The lace pattern is a little too fancy for me to call it Shaker-esque in its simple, functional beauty. But my preference is definitely for items of clothing that prioritize durability and functionality over, say, the ability to pull the whole thing through a woman’s wedding ring. Much like my beloved Soay sheep, this is a shawl meant to endure and be good at its intended function rather than being flashy and high-maintenance.

Oh wait, you wanted a picture? Here’s part of one half, all stretched out so you can see the lace pattern.

Dark brown sweater-weight wool, knitted into a pattern reminiscent of over-lapping leaves on a vine.

28 September, 2015

Fall growth is coming along

We had a soggy week here last week, so the fall-planted food, forage, and cover crops are growing like, well, weeds. Cool, most weather means our friends the decomposer fungi are coming out to play!

A broad-capped white mushroom surrounded by young grass, legumes, and brassicas.

The primitive einkorn wheat I planted is thrilled with the fall weather, and doubles in size overnight. Here it is as newborn leaves.

Tiny, delicate blades of green wheat leaves standing straight and about an inch and a half tall.

Even trees are getting in on an early fall burst of growth, as this baby sassafras tree demonstrates.

A six inch tall a sassafras tree with a bushy growth of green-gold leaves. Some leaves are shaped like pointed ovals, some like mittens, and some are divided into three lobes.

The late summer/early fall burst of activity from the vegetable world always raises my spirits, despite the number the cool, damp weather does on my pain levels. The grasses and trees will grow until the frost nips them, then sleep until spring when they’ll put on a wild, celebratory burst of growth and become flush and heavy with seeds.

Some time in April, before the wheat harvest, the front grazing area with its ample supply of sunshine will be ready for its first grazing, just in time for spring lambs to really start wanting solid food. I’m looking forward to it, and clinging to the way this small fall growth boom reminds me that spring will come.

23 September, 2015

Let’s call this Training Week. Pigs learn fast.

It’s very much fun to be doing actual training with the critters. Pigs learn really fast, and Tethys is eating cookies within touching distance already, so I’ve moved on to teaching her to recognize her name. This is an easy process: I say her name, then I give her a cookie. She’ll probably have it down by this weekend.

The head of a pig, obviously quite close to the camera. She is mostly black with a white stripe on the left side of her neck and another right between her eyes. Since this is the alt text, we'll pretend the picture isn't a little blurry.
Tethys eating a cookie right by my feet!

Janus is taking a little longer learning to approach, but he’s getting there! The difficulty of pigs of course course is that while they’re smart as hell, they’re not naturally inclined to listen to human voices and watch human faces like dogs are. Selective breeding makes an enormous difference in animal behavior, really, and nothing will make that more clear than playing training games.

The Soays present an even bigger conundrum: I’m still looking for an easy reward that they find meaningful. The ewes Lady Jane and Gwendolyn are easy: they want me to go away. So I walk up as close as they’ll let me, stand for a moment, tell them “Mamogion da!” (Good ewes! In Welsh) and then turn and walk away. I’ve successfully halved their flight distance using this and grain. The wethers however are much more human-social, yet not big on cookies.

The back of a little brown sheep's head, showing off the elegant sweep of his black horns. He is eating pelleted grain ration from a black rubber dish and studiously ignoring the animal cracker in the center of the same dish.
Reuben says cookies just aren’t that interesting.

They are enthused about the little bit of sweet feed they get, but it’s really difficult to use that in discrete chunks as a reward. I may end up making little wodges of oats stuck together with molasses and baked dry to try. Even if the sheep don’t eat them, the goats most certainly will, so they won’t go to waste!

Meanwhile Sebastian is learning to target and touch my open hand, which is a necessary first step to teaching him to lead with a halter instead of his current behavior when I try to lead him, which involves bracing his legs and becoming immovable.

A mahogany red goat with black horns, black stripes on his face and white poll, ears, and nose stretches up to touch my my hand with his nose.
Sebastian will target all day if your hand smells of cookies.

Sebastian has really mastered cookie Zen, which means he gets to move on to things like targeting and learning to wear a harness. His half-brother Sanglant is still really struggling with the idea that to get the cookie, you shouldn’t try to get the cookie. Every fiber of Sanglant’s curious and determined goat brain wants to treat my hand like a puzzle toy, but he’s finally beginning to back off and accept that only through patient waiting will cookies come to him.

The one thing I don’t have pics of, because I need to enlist my husband, is teaching Ella the American Blackbelly ewe to do classic obedience healing. She’s been offering it voluntarily for a few months when I have the grain scoop, so I figured why not work on putting it on cue? Hopefully I can get pics in time for Friday’s post!

21 September, 2015

Training games are the same, no matter the species

I’ve used various elements of Sue Ailsby’s Levels for dogs for more than a few years now. They will helpfully give you a structured way to teach your dog a bunch of very useful life skills. Recently, though, I’ve been using them on goats, who can use many of the same life skills, like “not being an obnoxious shit if a human is holding food”.

Using cheap cookies and my voice instead of a clicker, I’m particularly working on Food Zen. Some goats are catching on quite quickly that backing off makes a treat appear. Other goats are a little slower. The best goats, of course, are the ones who are already polite (and get lots of cookies for that).

A mahogany red goat with white ears and nose and a heavy sprinkling of white hair throughout her coat nuzzles at my hand while watching my face.
Siri tried biting my hand and that didn’t work, so she shifted to gently nuzzling my hand. But no treats appeared until she broke contact with the treat hand.

I need to keep working on it, but Siri grasped pretty quickly that standing at a polite distance and looking at my face got her cookies. Sanglant, on the other hand, just could not believe there wasn’t a way to brute force getting a cookie. He tried many, many ways to get my hand to open, but none of them involved NOT trying to maul my hand for a cookie. He’ll get it eventually I’m sure, but meanwhile Sebastian is highly amenable to positive training so I’m going to start teaching him to work in harness and do silly tricks.

The other animals that need training are the mini pigs Janus and Tethys. They’ve settled down around us a lot but still won’t approach, which is no good when they’ll eventually need routine care. So right now I just sit still and wait, and if they approach voluntarily within five feet I start gently tossing cookies to them. It took about two cookies apiece before they were standing about four feet away, so I gave them another couple cookies and ended the session. Tomorrow they’ll have to come closer than four feet, and so on until they will eat cookies from between my feet. I probably won’t teach them to take cookies from my hands since pig teeth are sharp and I don’t want to have to teach them Cookie Zen later!

Once the pigs are approaching confidently, it will be time to teach them basic skills like letting us examine their hooves and run our hands over them to check body condition. Pigs are clever beasts so I don’t expect it to take long if I let them lead the way and tell me what they’re comfortable with.

I’ll also be working with the Soays in the same way just as soon as I discover a reward they find meaningful.

Using positive reward systems to train various species is a lot of fun because of the cooperative aspect. Prey species like goats and sheep aren’t particularly amenable to harsher methods since it takes very little stress to kick them over into fight-or-flight responses. While you can get results from punishment-based training methods with some species, there’s not a lot of joy in hurting an animal until it does what you want.

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