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 September, 2015

Pregnant Onions, Grains, and Greens

Thanks to the kindness of my Patreon supporters and some folks who picked up seeds from my wishlist, fall planting is about to kick off.

Well, technically it already kicked off when I planted wheat that had grown from spilled chicken scratch, but then the black hen brought her clutch of babies out into the world and they’ve been industriously hunting every. Last. Seed. I planted back there. I don’t have the heart to run them off it with the hose since they’re such cute little puffballs, so I’m giving up for now. I also scattered some other forage seed on the grazing areas, including dormant alfalfa, forage rape, and some clovers to help fix nitrogen in the poor soil. I never go too heavy planting any one variety, since I prefer the goats and sheep to get a varied diet of weeds, grasses, brassicas, and legumes.

A glossy black hen, her feathers showing off their iridescent green sheen, kicks through waste hay alongside her eight tiny chicks -- five black, three yellow with brown stripes down their backs.
The black hen and her babies, hard at work destroying my tiny wheat field.

But I digress! I was talking about planting food for humans. I’ve ordered pregnant onions, a multiplier onion variety that doesn’t require me to plant from seed every year. Instead, you plant the small onions. They’ll grow up to be big onions and spawn more little onions. You can of course eat either big or little onions, as long as you’re mindful of leaving enough to make new onions.

I also ordered kale seeds, which should offer us fresh greens even through the winter, peas (They may not flower, in which case we’ll eat the tips of foliage and young leaves), and white einkorn wheat. Along with the beet and turnip seeds we already have, the garden will hopefully feed us more this fall and winter than it did this summer after the disastrous goat invasion.

A close-up of a the face of a brown goat with a white stripe down the middle of his face. He has a stick taped across his elegant black horns, and is peering up into the camera.
Frankie looks innocent, but was a cheerful participant in the destruction of our strawberry bed.

The einkorn wheat is almost as exciting as the multiplier onions. It was a staple of agriculture back when my Soay sheep were cutting edge wool growers. Compared to modern wheat it has less gluten and more protein. In fact, some folks who can’t tolerate modern wheat varieties can handle einkorn just fine. Einkorn is, however, apparently an absolute bugger to thresh, requiring vigorous flailing. I suspect either I’ll have a threshing party or we’ll end up leaving it in the hull and using it for feed. I’m all right with either eventuality. And I’m definitely planting it in the front garden, where it should remain unmolested, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise (and the goats and poultry don’t rebel).

I was going to pick up a mushroom spawn kit to establish in the straw mulch on the getting garden beds, but decided to splurge on a book instead. There’s always next month, the piedmont climate is quite kind and we have plenty of time before the cold kicks in.

27 August, 2015

The magic of domestication

A friend of mine linked this article about the changes to various plant foods after domestication a couple days ago. I fund the ways we’ve selectively bred crops to be fascinating — particularly the way teosinte has made such utterly radical changes.

Our changes to animals have been large, but in the cases of livestock those changes haven’t been nearly as radical as what teosinte underwent, at least not physically. When we domesticate animals, the changes tend to be mostly mental: they have a much shorter flight distance and a much larger tolerance for novelty than their wild counterparts. Dogs, of course, are the canonical case of domestication that wrought large physiological changes but even larger mental ones. On the basis of pure physicality my German Shepherds are recognizable as cousins to the wolf; Zille even carries the agouti striping on each hair that gives wolves their camouflage. But mentally they are worlds away from their wild cousins, who would rather eat sheep than herd them and would never dream of being a service animal.

The bezoar ibex (Capra aegagrus aegagrus) is, if not the only ancestor of domesticated goats (Capra aegagrus hircus), then certainly the majority ancestor. Looking at it, it is recognizably a goat, and the “bezoar” color pattern of a lighter body with black markings on legs, belly, and face along with a black dorsal stripe persists in our friendly dairy goats.

Compare this bezoar ibex buck to lovable Sebastian:
A largish goat with freakin enormous black horns curving straight back. The animal has a grayish-brown body with black stripes over the shoulders and black markings on face, legs, and belly.
Image via Wikimedia commons.

A tall, sleek mahogany red goat buck. He has the same black markings as the ibex buck only slightly reduced. He also has flaring moderately sized black horns, pendulous ears speckled with white, a white nose, a white spot on top of his head, and pale spots scattered all over his body. Behind him is Terror, who is his mini-me and shows the juvenile version of the pattern, which involves having less black.
Sebastian shows off the adult bezoar pattern in domesticated goats while Terror shows off the juvenile version.

If I had Alpines instead of Nubian/Spanish crosses, the physical resemblance would be even more striking, since Alpines have retained the upright ears of most goat breeds. Physiologically and skeletally, however, the ancestors of domestic goats and my goats are indistinguishable aside from matters of size (and those magnificent horns!).

In chickens the wild type has been retained as a modern breed, referred to as “Jungle Fowl”, and game breeds originally bred for fighting adhere to it quite closely except in matters of color of tameness. Most domesticated breeds of chicken have had their ability to sit a nest and raise young bred out of them by the advent of incubators and brooders, something that’s been quite the problem for us in establishing a self-replacing free-range flock.

Sheep haven’t had the wild type preserved in domestication, not even by beloved Soays. Though they’re closer to the wild mouflon in size, appearance, and shedding than other breeds, they’re still recognizably touched by selective breeding. But they’re still closer visually and physiologically to their ancestors than teosinte and corn.

Indeed, we may have to go back to dogs and turn to the Chihuahua to find an animal that’s come as far from its ancestors as corn has. The plasticity of plant genomes appears to out-perform that of mammals at least in terms of non-lethal mutations useful to humans.

At any rate, the story of human-guided evolution remains fascinating. Unfortunately the wild equivalents of much of our livestock are in danger of disappearing (the aurochs is already gone). Without care and conservation, our grandchildren may no longer be able to look and see where goats came from.

21 August, 2015

Sustainability part 5: human labor

Yesterday I talked about sustainability in the micro level and got into money. Today, let’s talk about another micro-level resource that’s seldom considered: human beings.

As many of my readers know, I’m disabled by chronic pain and fatigue. This means I’m more focused than many on ways to conserve human effort, and if I’m brutally honest it’s at the heart of many of my sustainability efforts. For instance, I talked about conserving the genetics of disease- and parasite-resistant livestock. Not only does this mean I need to use fewer medical interventions, it means I’m spared having to wrestle a relatively large, extremely irate ruminant while I attempt to administer those medical interventions. Having free range poultry means no need to shovel out a chicken coop. Using no-till and biointensive growing methods for plant crops not only sustains and improves soil health and conserves water but also means that once a bed is established we never again have to engage in the heavy work of digging it over.

A guinea hen struts past the camera, head cocked.
Most tilling here is done by poultry, who will pick out and eat weed seeds and grubs while they do it.

Still, it’s unavoidable that some heavy labor is involved. Deep bedding the ruminant stall may mean I don’t have to dig it out weekly, but it still needs to be dug out. I’m lucky to have a group of friends who can be bribed with food and are willing to help with farm tasks from mucking out stalls to rounding up sheep and loading them in the car. Communal labor used to be a major part of agriculture, as neighbors gathered to shuck corn, build barns, shear sheep, boil down syrup from sorghum or maple sap, etc etc. Industrialization has indeed conserved human labor, but it’s also undoubtedly isolated farmers. Another sad knock on effect has been to isolate the vast majority of human beings from the sources of their food.

Agriculture must be healthy and sustaining for the human beings it serves. While there’s no going back to pre-industrial agriculture while still feeding everyone in industrialized nations, the choices we’ve made to produce that food have been questionable at times. We’ve reached a point where agriculture at the macro and micro levels can be dangerous to everyone it touches, from farm withers exposed to pesticides to consumers eating fish contaminated by bacteria from manure run off to the Chesapeake Bay with its dead spot fed in part by excess nitrogen run off from surrounding farms.

A crowd of goats and sheep chews their way into a stand of brush.
We certainly don’t need to do any bush hogging here.

Yet calls for more sustainable agriculture practice often fail to resonate, perhaps because they often center livestock. It is very difficult for many people to relate to a chicken, no matter how nasty, brutish, and short that chicken’s life is. Framed with human beings at the center, sustainable agricultural practice becomes more relatable, which in turn may lead to pushes for legislation that supports and subsidizes more ethical practices the way we currently support and subsidize industrial ag.

Meanwhile, down here at the micro level, me and my friends will be shoveling out this goat stall.

20 August, 2015

19 August, 2015

Sustainability, part 3: genetics

It is no secret that the overuse of antibiotics in animal feed is of great concern. While regulations for meat and milk withdrawal times do a reasonable job at keeping antibiotics out of the food supply, large populations of livestock receiving subtherapeutic amounts of antibiotics over long periods of time has contributed to the development of drug-resistant bacteria. Life, as Dr. Ian Malcolm tells us in the movie Jurassic Park. Bacteria are no exception.

If you’ve read the first two entries in this week’s series, you may recall that leaving my property better than I found it is something of a theme right alongside sustainable agriculture. The same goes for the gene pool of the livestock I keep. Standard farming methods require the use of dewormers, supplements, antibiotics — whether synthetic or natural, animal owners use a whole host of interventions designed to keep animals healthy.

I am not averse to treating acute illness or parasite infestation in my animals, but with every use of every intervention, we run the risk of that intervention no longer working. This is true both of synthetic medications made in a lab and herbal treatments: they all use chemicals toxic to bacteria or parasites in order to kill the problem organism. Unfortunately this can cause an unskillfully treated flock or herd to become a tiny evolution lab as pathogens and parasites find a way to thrive, becoming resistant.

What does all of this mean for sustainability? For me it means selecting hardy breeds and/or only breeding animals who thrive without these interventions. I’m not concerned with whether or not an animal has a parasite load, for instance. Any animal living and foraging outdoors is going to have one. What concerns me is whether or not an animal needs constant intervention to moderate her parasite load to a level she can handle. If so, these aren’t genes I want to add to my program, and the animal in question will be sold or culled.

Our chickens and guineas, living free range, are the most ruthlessly culled, but not by us. Birds that don’t thrive usually get picked off by predators before we even notice there’s a problem. The result is a core flock that is hardy, wily, and excellent parents. They aren’t purebred anything, making their offspring not particularly marketable in today’s pet chicken economy, but they are birds that my ancestors would have recognized as good livestock — unlike the purebred flocks that have lived confined and medicated and coddled for so long that they’ve forgotten how to even sit a clutch of eggs.

The goats are a slower game, since it takes so much longer to raise a new generation. Here I crossed in Baylis line Spanish, renowned for their hardiness and good hooves, to improve my beloved but relatively fragile dairy goats. Being a large investment per animal and living confined, it’s much easier for me to spot signs of acute illness and parasite infestation and act on them, but if it’s happening too often then an animal must move on. There’s a small market for my outcrosses, since there are still people who value hardiness and low-input care in goats over pedigree. Certainly it’s easier to sell the babies than it is with the chickens!

Two small, graceful Soay ewes. One is auburn, the other dark brown. Both have creamy markings under their chins and bellies, relatively long legs, and elegant quarter-circle horns.
The Soay ewes invite you to admire their phenotype and cherish their genotype.

Lastly, the Soay sheep offer their own conundrum as I learn to shift to conservation breeding. To remove a Soay ewe from the gene pool is a monumental act, although not so much for a ram provided he has plenty of brothers. Each kid is precious to the small Soay genetic legacy but the ewes, who can only produce one or two offspring per year, are most precious of all. Here, the best way to maintain hardiness is to try like hell to avoid inbreeding depression while at the same time matching the most disease and parasite resistant rams with ewes whose bloodlines need a little boost in that area.

The maintenance of animals who can establish a detente in the arms race with parasites and pathogens on their own means that when I really need a medical intervention for one, it will work. It means that when I sell an animal, the new owner isn’t also getting a load of well-evolved parasites that laugh at the thought of fenbendazole. And it means that I’m not constantly rounding animals up to give them shots of antibiotics, drenches of dewormer, or other unpleasantness for the animal.

Sustainability isn’t the fast game of this year’s show season, milk test, crop of lambs. And hilariously, in this case, it means not only selecting for and protecting livestock gene pools, but conserving the gene pools of parasites and bacteria as well, to maintain populations susceptible to medical intervention for as long as I can.

18 August, 2015

17 August, 2015

What does “sustainability” mean?

Along with words like “heirloom”, “heritage”, “pasture-raised”, and “green”, “sustainable” is one of those food buzzwords that’s been getting a lot of play. The problem of course is that there are no hard and fast definitions for any of them, which can lead to a lot of frustration for consumers.

So I thought I’d write a little bit about what sustainability means to me, and what approaches I take to meet my own sustainability goals.

For me, sustainable agriculture is all about being conservative. Not in the sense of being a political conservative, or voting for the Republican party, but in the sense of using the fewest resources possible to accomplish the greatest good. This week I’ll be talking about the most important resources I have to work with.

The first resource to conserve for sustainability is the soil. Those of you who have been around a while may remember that a previous property owner  scraped up all the topsoil and sold it, leaving us with red clay subsoil rich in potassium and phosphorus, but with zero nitrogen. When we did our original soil tests, the nitrogen test didn’t even react.

There are two other problems with having red clay as our only soil to work with: one, it compacts if you so much as look at it too hard; and two, once compacted the rain runs right off it in rivers and takes soil nutrients with it, or else forms mucky, soggy puddles that are bad for plants, animal hooves, and keeping your shoes on and your feet dry unless you’re wearing well-fitted boots. Waterproof ones.

Our greatest assets in the struggle to not just conserve soil but to improve it are the flora and fauna. First we ran the goats through the sections of the property covered in small, scrubby, invasive pine trees. Once the goats had killed the trees, we cut them to allow sunlight to reach the earth. Then we started planting, using wildlife food plots with added clover and vetch seeds. Alsike clover and vetch are both nitrogen fixers that do pretty well in heavy clay soils, and the turnips and chicory sink big roots that break up and loosen the soil. Annual grasses have a part to play as well, since they send their roots into the first few inches of soil and then die back, leaving organic material behind that feeds future generations of grasses.

Meanwhile, the goats and poultry are eating the plants and creating manure. As they scratch and peck their way through the pasture sections, the poultry break up the hard soil surface and any organic material (including manure) on it, mixing them together and planting whatever seeds they don’t eat. Our industrious flock of chickens and guinea fowl is a topsoil-creation machine.

A guinea cock, dark grey with tiny white spots in rows in his feathers and featuring a naked head that is mostly white except for bright red wattles, heavy black eye makeup, and a brown fin like a very silly hat, stands on the edge of a tire.
A guinea cock contemplates all the work he has to do to create topsoil.

Native fungi are another surprising ally in the soil improvement fight. Primary decomposers take advantage of the tree roots left in the ground. As the mycelium feeds on the wood, it releases nutrients into the soil to feed the surrounding plants. Unfortunately for me and my taste for mushrooms, I haven’t yet found any edible species growing here, but I do plan to establish some later this summer. Mycorrhizae form symbiotic relationships with plants, attaching to their roots and helping the plant draw more nourishment from the soil, improving things as they go.  The better the soil gets, the more able we are tho feed the livestock from the pasture we have on hand.

The tiniest helpers are, of course, bacteria. Along with fungi, anaerobic soil bacteria decompose organic matter, releasing nutrients for plants. Aerobic bacteria are crucial to the nitrogen cycle, and it’s friendly little bacteria who make it possible for legumes to do their handy nitrogen-fixing trick.

Back in 2012 I also wrote about keeping soil nutrients on the farm. That brief post still holds true: every product of the farm that leaves takes some of our soil with it. We try to counteract that whenever possible, for instance by burying offal and bones from the slaughter of livestock, but it’s inevitable that we’ll lose just a little. I’m too Southern and enjoy sharing food with people too much to keep it all here.

A handful of radishes in gold and red with vibrant green leafy tops and a little dirt still clinging to them.
I ate all these radishes myself, though. They were delicious.

In my next post, I’ll look at water as a resource for conservation and protection.

10 August, 2015

Planting for Fall

It’s still quite warm here in the Virginia piedmont, but nonetheless the days are growing shorter. That means time to start thinking about all kinds of cool weather crops: the ruminants are getting hormonal, soon my rabbit buck will no longer be heat sterile, and it’s time to start getting fall crops in the ground.

Due to some unfortunate fencing failures in late spring, the goats demolished the garden. On the one hand the relentless destruction of everything we planted was incredibly discouraging, but on the other the garden got a fallow season and we’re starting with a blank slate.

Cool weather crops we can put in the ground now include the delicious and useful peas, greens such as kale, collards, and lettuce; hardy root vegetables such as beets and turnips; and over-wintering crops, among them grains, garlic, leeks, and old-fashioned multiplier onions I want to establish in a permanent location.

The peas will be done shortly after the first frost, but after a light frost the collards will be at their most sweet and delicious. The over-wintering crops will grow a little and then slumber the winter away, while root vegetables will hang on until the first hard freeze. Kale and leeks will keep going all winter with a little care, as will lettuce if I decide to plant it. Nothing beats the winter blues like a fresh salad, after all! Fresh greens also make a nice treat for the goats and sheep, who will be on dry lot all winter so we can reseed the grazing areas and let them recover from a long productive season.

Farming even on a small scale like I do it requires a split vision, constantly assessing the needs of the present while simultaneously planning at least one season out. Here at the tail end of summer that means monitoring hormonal livestock to ensure the males survive the breeding season and preparing garden beds while making sure female livestock gets adequate nutrition to carry a pregnancy to term and raise healthy offspring and we have a solid plan for what to put in the beds starting early next month.

If a fox hadn’t relieved us of half the poultry flock earlier this year we’d also be looking at selecting roosters for slaughter. As it is we’ll up the grain ration for ducks, geese, and turkeys, to get them nice and big by the time the holiday harvest rolls around. There’s also a pile of guinea keets and Old English Game bantam chicks in the brooder. Guinea fowl have proven themselves incredibly useful in controlling insect pests, and we find that OEGB hens make some of the best broody hens and mothers. Next spring when these birds are grown up, we’ll stick them on nests of full-size eggs to increase our flock size.

7 August, 2015

A Paradigm Shift to Conservation Breeding

Previously in my livestock endeavors, I’ve been making specific selections for traits (or collections thereof) that I really like in animals, as farmers have been doing for millennia. So I’ve bred for goats with nice, moderate conformation; good hooves; feed efficiency; and milk production. I’ve turned the chickens loose to free range and selected for hardy, wily birds that reproduce well. I’ve selected rabbits for those that thrive in a colony situation on a varied diet.

But then came the Soays. The gene pool is so limited, globally, that if breeders were to start selecting for conformation, or wool production, or meat, or whatever, that we would quickly and disastrously run out of genetic material to work with. This is especially true in the US, where the original population of Soays was just six sheep. Although the gene pool has been augmented since the original herd by imported semen from the UK, we’re still working with a severely restricted gene pool, a tiny slice of an already small pie.

An elegant Soay ewe, long-legged, lean, and small compared to modern sheep breeds. She has a warm brown-auburn fleece, small horns, and dark patient eyes.

Breeding Soay sheep therefore becomes an entirely different game: preserving the genetic legacy of each healthy animal. You might cull for health, but not for color or conformation or quality of wool or fast growth. Instead of looking at fleeces, you’re looking at pedigrees, trying to find the furthest outcross available to you.

A sad knock-on effect of this from my point of view is that small flocks like mine can rarely keep a ram more than two years. As soon as any of his daughters are retained, a ram needs to move along to spread his genes elsewhere. So while I do adore my ram Ferrington, he won’t be here for the long term like the ewes and wethers.

Ferrington stands side-on to the camera. He has a heavy body, a mahogany fleece, and a long black ruff of guard hairs on the front and back of his neck. His horns are exactly what you think of when you think of ram horns. His face is black, with white under the chin and striking white eyebrows, and he has a Roman nose.

It’s an interesting mental shift for me from selecting for production to preservation, but very rewarding work. I spend my time studying pedigrees of the three Soay flocks nearest to me, looking for someone who might have a ram for me in 2017, and balancing distance against the genetic diversity of my flock. Someday maybe I’ll be able to import semen to artificially inseminate my own ewes, and more actively contribute to helping preserve these tiny woolly jewels.

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