16 October, 2015

Chickens are not that fragile.

Ah, fall, when new livestock owners panic at the thought of cold weather and break out the heavy duty plastic. I was there a few years back, so I have some sympathy for you, but my learnings, let me show you them.

Chickens are not that fragile, y’all. Provided they can stay dry, they will do just fine roosting in the open air. Most of ours sleep in the barn rafters, a few go sleep in the trees. Before that they roosted in the run the geese currently occupy, which is open air except for the roof. We have never yet lost a chicken to winter cold, not even during the periodic polar vortices that swoop down from the north.

If you’re living way up north, windbreaks become necessary, but you still shouldn’t hermetically seal your barn or chicken house. Damp conditions arising from their own respiration will give chickens (and goats and sheep) pneumonia. If they’ve been living outside, your livestock are well-adapted to handling the weather. Make sure they have food, water, and a way to stay dry and they’ll be just fine. Honestly.

Remember that up until very, very recently nobody considered a chicken a pet. Their bodies are well adapted to outside conditions, and honestly if they can’t handle living like actual chickens you’re better off without them. Certainly don’t breed any bird that can’t deal with the very basics of chicken life. You aren’t doing its offspring or their future owners any favors.

But above all, remember: ventilation is more important than a totally sealed, draft-free chicken coop. Don’t make your comfort more important than the actual needs of your chickens. Sealing up their house is about what makes you feel good, not what keeps a chicken healthy and happy.

A good roof, lots of food, and available water are all you need to see chickens through the winter. They’ll be fine, I promise.

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.

Teacup pigs are a very striking example of the market cycle in my area right now, people are buying it from http://www.pamperedpiglets.com/. 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.

14 September, 2015

Nature’s bulldozers

Two potbelly pigs, heads down and snouts buried in the dirt as they forage. On the left is a barrow neutered male, all black except for dainty white feets. On the right is a gilt, a young sow who has never given birth, who is mostly black except for white feet and belly and a white stripe between her eyes.

Janus and Tethys root around for food.

After a week I’m pleased to report that Janus and Tethys the potbelly pigs are settled in beautifully. They’ve embraced their new jobs as tillers of compacted soil, disposal units for leftover grain from ruminants, and makers of adorable oinking noises. As predicted, they now know I’m the Food Lady and recognize the grain bucket, coming on the run to line up for breakfast.

They haven’t lost a whole lot of weight yet, but they HAVE built enough muscle in their backs to hold their bellies off the ground. They no longer move stiffly, but confidently and comfortably, and as far as I can tell they’re having a grand time rooting through the ruminant pen in search of grubs and roots or whatever it is pigs are after. In their constant foraging they turn over the top two to four inches of ground, and then the chickens and guineas come through and comb through the disturbed earth for whatever seeds and bugs the pigs missed, leaving a layer of loose, smooth soil behind. All of which tells me that my master plan is working and I probably won’t have to turn over garden beds myself unless I really want to.

Tethys is much more inclined to be social than her brother. Yesterday morning she even let me scratch her back while she ate breakfast, despite Janus’s insistence that I was not to be trusted. They’re blooming into lovely animals, bright-eyed and curious, and I’ve assured Janus that even if he never wants to cuddle he can still stick around to till the pastures.

7 September, 2015

Hard choices

Last week my beloved Thea started getting violent with the other ruminants. Not in the usual way of a swing of the head or a light bump, but actively trying to harm the others, culminating in an earnest attempt to hurt or kill Ferrington.

There’s a lot I can cope with, and scuffles for rank in the herd are not unusual, but this was something beyond the usual scuffles. So I made the difficult decision to place Thea in a new home, and sent Frankie with her so she’d have a buddy.

I still feel like I need a good cry. I loved them both, and I can’t even stand to look at pictures of them right now. Luckily Gwyn has adapted to the loss of her mother just fine, because I think if she were crying I really would be, too.

There’s a little bit of happiness, though, in that two potbelly pigs have come to stay and be working pigs to till the gardens and learn tricks.

On the left, a solid black pig about two feet high. On the right, a black pig with a white stripe between her eyes, white trotters, and a white stripe on one side of her neck. They are VERY fat, and also frothing at the mouth.
Apparently stressed pigs foam at the mouth. I did not know this.

The pigs don’t have names yet (I need to consult with my animal naming crew on Patreon![1]) and need to lose some weight, but they’re settling in well and finding the shady places, food, and water. The solid black pig is a barrow, a male pig neutered before puberty. The one with white is a gilt, a female pig who has never had a litter of piglets. She may have one later (she’s only 8 months old) but for now they both need to lose some weight and settle in. Future piglets will be intended for food, but these two are here to be pets and garden tillers.

The goats and sheep, by the way, are horrified.
The entire herd of goats and sheep clumped up and staring off to the right of photo where two small inoffensive pigs are located off-screen.

4 September, 2015

The Next Generation of Chickens

On Monday our black game hen, a native born resident of the Manor, brought eight little puffballs on legs out to see the world.

image

A black hen with black skin and five little black and white chicks plus three little yellow chicks with brown stripes on their backs. They're kicking through waste hay in an area where I just planted fall wheat because of course they are.

We are happy to see these little guys, and hope a good chunk of them survive (free ranging leads to high mortality levels for baby chickens). Both their parents were hatched here, hardy survivors of everything the piedmont has thrown at them from foxes to parasites. They represent the next step in my quest to be the world’s laziest chicken keeper with a flock of hardy, wily birds who need very little from me to thrive and live as chickens are meant to live: roaming around eating seeds and bugs and greenery, dust bathing and sunbathing instead of penned up and dealing with commercial food and accumulations of their own waste. Furthermore, they’re integral parts of our soil improvement plan (as I’ve mentioned before).

Godspeed, little chickens. May you grow and thrive and hopefully at least one of you is a spare rooster we can eat.

2 September, 2015

Answering Googled Questions: Why Are Purebred Livestock Important?

The quick answer to this question is “predictability”. A well-established breed will allow you to make educated guesses about things like milk production, feed efficiency, and even behavior. Nubian dairy goats, for instance, are known for being loud as well as good (but generally not phenomenal) producers of milk. Breeds of livestock selected for meat production build muscle and fat quickly. Leghorn chickens are flighty, spooky bastards but lay eggs like nobody’s business. In short, with purebred livestock you know pretty well what you’re getting.

A close up of a male goat's face, mostly white but with black horns and a black nose and dramatic mahogany brown stripes running from his horns, across his eyes, to the corners of his mouth. He has a short but luxurious beard and he's sticking his tongue out.
Sanglant is the product of a cross between a Nubian doe and a Baylis line Spanish buck.

This leads, of course, to the problem of shrinking gene pools. Closed herd books are a double-edged blade (or, hah, a mixed blessing). As the average coefficient of inbreeding increases in a given breed, individuals become more and more prone to inbreeding depression. You’ll get animals who just don’t thrive, who have weak immune systems. At that point, careful outcrossing may be the only way to save the breed. Done well, it will preserve the breed’s essential characteristics while revitalizing the dying gene pool.

But I digress. Purebred livestock are important because they offer farmers predictability in their stock and when carefully stewarded preserve genetic resources handed down to us by our own ancestors. Pure breeds can offer us a glimpse of what our forebears thought was valuable and important to preserve, and should the major commercial breeds of livestock be endangered by disease or environment, other breeds may step in to save them with a genetic contribution or indeed replace them. The lovely variety of livestock breeds also allows farmers to select animals that will be economical to raise under whatever system the farmer has decided to use, from organic pasture-raised gourmet foods to backyard food sources to industrial production destined for supermarket shelves.

27 August, 2015

Protected: Testing the Baby Animal Early Warning System

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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.

26 August, 2015

Life Stages: Gwyn, it’s time to stop nursing.

Gwyn, Thea’s daughter, is around five months old. Left to their own devices, a doe will get pregnant again about now and wean the existing baby. But I’ve wethered my two bucks, and Thea shows absolutely zero signs of demanding that Gwyn stop nursing. More worryingly, Thea is scary thin, having poured all her reserves straight into her udder. And Gwyn is huge for her age, nearly as tall as Thea.

Thea and Gwyn, both solid white goats with, um, horn-colored horns, lying down together and looking up at the camera.

Farmers with more land can round up kids (or lambs, or calves) and put them in a pasture separate from their mothers, where they can’t hear or see each other. I don’t have that much land, and having watched goats for a while I’d be loath to do it even if I did. Sudden separation from the herd, even with a group of buddies their own age, is really hard on goats. It’s even harder for mother/daughter pairs, who in the wild would stay together their entire lives.

The solution, in this case, was to put surgical tape over the orifices on Thea’s teats. Weirdly, the addition of tape seems to have caused Gwyn to lose the teats entirely — she acts like she just cannot find them. But day one went really well, the tape stayed on, Gwyn got to stay with her mother but didn’t nurse, and Thea was quite comfortable. This morning I milked her out and discovered Gwyn has been getting a half-gallon of milk per day. No wonder she’s huge and Thea is so skinny!

I’ll be adjusting Thea to being milked once every other day, which should be sustainable for her while providing enough for humans to have milk and cheese. Meanwhile, not-so-little Gwyn is happy and Thea is happy and that makes me happy.

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.

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