Pigs


If you read my last post, you can imagine that we had quite a feat on our hands, as we needed to get that mama sow from her new location she had escaped to, deep in the woods, to our house.  There was roughly 1/4 mile, as the crow flies, between the two areas, but the land in between had no trails, lots of brush and briars, several hills and steep ravines, and a couple of creeks running through.  An impossible feat at best.  For the record, if a hog doesn’t want to move, it doesn’t.  Period.  If there is a baby involved, as was the case here, you increase the danger a bit, as you don’t want to risk upsetting mom or baby!  We were in a quandary, and our pigs were on someone else’s land!

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Well, thanks to hog farmer and blogger Walter Jeffries, over at Sugar Mountain Farm, I had an idea!  About 200 feet in a different direction, the woods dumped out onto a cleared trail that would lead home, albeit in a round-about way.  It increased the distance to about 1/3 mile, but it was fairly clear and even the creek crossing was shallow and nicely graveled.

Remember in my last post when I mentioned that we trained all our pigs to come to our voices and buckets of feed?  We do so for times like these.  After I located the sow, thanks to her rooting behavior and a noisy baby making grunting noises, I began to call her.  I immediately radioed S, who brought out a bucket of grain.  When she heard our voices, she came running.  She actually followed me out to the trail, and a couple hundred feet down the trail for some grain.  When she stopped to eat, S and I dropped a pre-shaped hog panel over the top her and jumped on the sides of the panel.  This was an idea I had learned from Walter Jeffries.

Why jump on, you might ask?  Because once a pig realizes it has been caught, it tries to escape.  In this case, the two of us outweighed the sow by about 25 lbs.  We tried this technique to move a bigger sow between pens once before, but had to use three adults to outweigh her.  We stood on that panel for a couple of minutes as she slung herself (and us) from side to side and up and down.  (Who needs to pay for a carnival ride?!)  Finally, she calmed down.  Meanwhile, we had JR handy to keep her baby close to her.  Even though he was on the outside of the panel, we quickly discovered that as long as she could see him, she stayed calmer.

Once she calmed down, we gently lifted the panel about 1/2 inch off the ground, and encouraged her to walk forward with it.  She did.  Hesitantly at first, but she soon figured it out.  We assigned JR the task of keeping the baby pig in front of her, so she would essentially follow him.  As long as they don’t lay down, they tend to want to move in the direction the panel moves.  I cannot explain why this works, when almost no other amount of pushing or shoving works, but it does.  After the initial shock of her realizing she was caught, she was quite calm and relaxed.  We would stop and give me her a quick break periodically, feed her a few treats, and then move on.  Down the trail, up the trail, over the creek, through the rocks, across the front yard, across the sidewalks, and onto the driveway.  Finally, about 45 minutes after we had caught her, we arrived at the permanently fenced winter paddock!

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So, now you know how to move a pig!  You never know….that info might come in handy one day!

Oh, the saga of our pigs!   As you may recall, we decided to raise the heritage breed known as Red Wattles.  They are popular with small farms due to their gentle, social natures, even though they are full-sized hogs.  They also happen to be awesome at living in nature and foraging for much of their food.  Their meat has won many blind taste-tests with professional chefs around the nation, due to its deep, rich, almost beef-like flavor.  Thus, all that info convinced us, and in 2013, we entered the world of raising Red Wattle feeder pigs.

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All went pretty smoothly.  We did our best to learn from others, trained all our pigs to electric wire, rotated them through overgrown woodlands, and so forth.  We trained them to the sound of a bucket, the sound of our voices, and treats like milk to help get them where we needed them to go.  All went quite smoothly, and we increased our numbers of feeders slightly each year.  Then, this spring, we discovered our supplier had retired and sold all their pigs.  So, we decided to take the next step and jump into the world of breeding and farrowing hogs in addition to raising feeders.

We found a family getting out of hogs, selling 2 sows and their remaining 9, 3-month-old feeder pigs.  We bought the whole lot.  I was so excited.  They even delivered!  They arrived, opened the trailer, and the reality of our decision hit me like a brick wall….or, rather, like the stubbornness of a 400 lb sow!  The sows were huge….comparable to the big barrow we had raised the year prior.  But the difference there was that we raised him and knew him, and he knew us.  We knew nothing about these sows and their quirks.  It was quite intimidating.  We also quickly discovered another issue.  The feeders in the lot included 2 boars (in tact male pigs).  They were already at a size where we couldn’t really handle them to castrate, as we have no special facilities.  Thus, the decision was made to leave them in tact and butcher before they were interested in breeding.  After all, the books said the young boars were too small to breed their mothers, and their sisters would be at least 8 months old before they were really fertile.  That gave us plenty of time to ship the boys to market, right?

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As usual, all went pretty smoothly for a few months.  Since the sows had already weaned the pigs, we were able to keep them all together, which made EVERYTHING easier.  We got to know the pigs, and they got to know us.  We spent extra time loving on the sows to make them as friendly as possible in anticipation of future farrowing.  We even started looking for a nice Red Wattle boar to mate them with.

Then reality happened.  We walked out one day, when the pigs were around 6 months old and discovered those boys getting a bit frisky with their sisters.  Hmmmm….we weren’t prepared to separate anyone.  So we started brainstorming.  We decided to do the unthinkable.  We decided to let nature take its course.  Based on the looks we have gotten from experienced hog breeders, that is not a popular option, apparently.  Then again, we do a lot different around here, so why not?  We figured any gilts that got bred would be shipped off to the processor before they were too far along, so no worries there. It saved us the expense of purchasing an outside boar and then wintering him over.  It also meant we had a chance of having our first litters by mid-fall, which set us up perfectly to offer pork to our customers in the spring.  After the sows were confirmed pregnant, we could ship the boar off to the processor to save the expense of wintering over.  What could go wrong?

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Our RW boar, happy to serve!

Fall rolled around, and with it came a reality check.  We hauled most of the gilts and one boar to the processor.  We hadn’t seen signs of pregnancy in the sows yet, so we decided to hang on to the other boar.  We also didn’t have one of the gilts sold, so we decided to hang on to her for a bit.  If she wound up farrowing, we were OK with that.  Not long after, the processor informed us that EVERY single gilt they butchered was at least half way through her pregnancy!  This meant two things….our remaining gilt was likely due to farrow within the month, and we apparently had a very fertile line of pigs, seeing as how all boars and gilts were apparently fertile and breeding by 6 months of age!  Ok, deep breath…we would stay the course.

We began watching the gilt.  It wasn’t long before her milk came in, and we knew the time was close.  After reading and talking with other natural pig raisers, we took an electric wire and partitioned off a section of the paddock so she could have some privacy.  We set her up with food, water, and shelter.  It was a perfect delivery and post-partum area!  We just forgot to ask her opinion.  She broke right through the electric line and ran to be with the rest of the herd.  We figured we’d try again in a few days.  After all, the books said she would develop wax droplets on her teats just before farrowing, and there was none of that.  Clearly we had time.  Then, she didn’t show up for breakfast.  Or dinner.

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Bad angle, here, but you can just see her milk ridgeline on her belly, and her teats beginning to fill.  Time is getting close!  In fact, she farrowed about 2 days after this photo was taken.

We knew she was nesting somewhere.  We went off in search of her, somewhere deep in the woods and thickets of their 2 acre paddock.  After several hours of searching, we found no sign of her.  Just before we convinced ourselves she was the champion of hiding places, someone spotted cloven hoofprints in the mud…..outside the pen!  They were clearly pig and not deer, as determined by the depth and spacing.  And they were all over the place out there!  She had clearly wandered those woods for hours, stopping occasionally to take a drink from a puddle, and then moving on in search of her perfect nesting spot.  By now, darkness had set in, and we were searching by flashlight, to no avail.  If you have any remote fear of darkness or dark forests, try to imagine hunting for a 300 lb, potentially aggressive/protective sow in the dark, fearing you will stumble on her nest at any moment!  After several more hours, we finally gave up, praying she hadn’t gone too far, hoping she was still on our property, and fearing we were officially responsible for a new wild hog population in central IL.  Of all the ways we could have experienced our first major escape, it just HAD to be a gilt due to farrow!

The next day we searched some more.  When still nothing turned up, we decided to set out some feed in bowls along some paths, hoping she would find them.  We checked off and on through the day, only to find untouched feed bowls.  The third day, I went down to check the bowls, and lo, and behold, there she was!  She was devouring that food like she was starving….and, I noted, she was about 30 lbs lighter!  So, I selected a hiding spot, waited until her breakfast was over, and decided to let her lead me back to the nest.  That was easier said than done!  I cannot tell you the agility, contortionist maneuvers, and other feats I put myself through, trying to follow a 250 lb sow, almost running, under brush, through ravines, across briar patches, and more.  But, she took me straight to the nest…..which was only about 50 feet from her original pen, but surprisingly far from the food bowl where I found her.

Sadly, I discovered 2 dead pigs outside the nest, and only 1 little guy still alive in the nest.  I have no idea what happened, how many there were originally, and never will.  She wouldn’t let us closer than about 5 feet from the nest (yup, I learned just how fast a mama sow can charge!  YIKES!), so S decided to run new electric lines to create a new pen around her nest.  It joined up to the original pen, in the hopes she would want to return there soon.  After all, the books said sows like to return to the group within 3-7 days.

Fast forward a few weeks.  Mama pig and her baby were still perfectly content in their makeshift paddock, and we had no idea how we were going to get her back in with the rest of the group.

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There was still no sign of pregnancy in the 2 big sows, so we took them to the vet for an ultrasound to figure out what our next move would be.  After all, feeding 2, now 500-lb sows and a 300-lb boar can get really expensive, really fast– especially with winter coming.  The good news was that both older sows showed little piggies in their bellies!  The bad news was that, shortly after we returned home, we discovered the mama pig had escaped her nesting paddock.  Guess that was her way of telling us it was time to move on! More importantly, it was clear that electric wire no longer could contain her!  Now we were faced with the problem of finding and catching her, and somehow getting her to a pen 1/3 mile away, over rough terrain, then reintroducing her into the herd, which isn’t as easy as it sounds after a month of separation.

Long, 2-day story shortened (details to come later!), we finally found her, caught her, moved her 1/3 mile back home to a permanent pen, moved all the other pigs to the permanent pen to join her, castrated her little boy to avoid future surprises, and everyone lived happily ever after….at least for now!

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We raised 2 Red Wattle hogs in the forest again this year.  This year, however, we raised barrows (castrated boys) instead of gilts (girls) like last year.  Man, oh, man did those boy grow fast!!  The first hog was sold to customers, and we wound up taking it to the processor several months earlier than planned (the schedule being based on the gilts’ growth last year).  At 6 months old, his hanging weight came to 198 lbs, which is roughly 300 lbs. live weight.  The second hog was destined for our own freezer.  Typically, we butcher our personal animals right here on the farm.  In order to do the larger animals such as hogs and beef, we have to wait for colder weather so we can hang the sides in our garage for a cooling and aging period.  So, after the first hog left, we kept the remaining hog as happy as we could.  We supplied him with happy-hog-staples such as mud, fresh forest forage, roots, nuts, kitchen leftovers, milk and whey, hog feed, whatever we could think of.  Maybe we over did it a little.  Just a little.

OK, a LOT.

When it looked as though S’s elbows were not healing, the decision was made to send our hog to the processor as well.  He was getting to expensive to feed, and he wouldn’t stop growing.  One evening, we bribed him with a little milk, got him up into the trailer (you can youtube “elephant seal trying to climb onto a car” if you want a visual), gave him a pile of soft hay to nest into, and let him settle in for the night.  We just hoped our trailer survived until morning.  Early the next morning, S drove him to the processor.  The workers in the livestock area took one look at him laying all comfy-cozy in his hay bed, and said, “uh, how do we get him out?”  They then proceeded to look at each other with each stating his position that he would NOT enter that trailer with that beast.  So, not wanting to hold up the line, S said, “don’t worry, I’ll get him out.”  He jumped up in the trailer, called him, gave him a scratch behind the ears, and bribed him out of the trailer in seconds.  The livestock guys stood there with their chins on the loading ramp.  Guess they hadn’t seen it done that way before.  It’s so much easier in our opinion, but really, what do we know?  It is only our 4th hog after all.

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By that afternoon, we had a hanging weight of 289 lbs, which equates to over 400 lbs live weight.  I realize that isn’t a huge hog by any stretch of the imagination.  I’ve seen some approaching 800-1000 lbs.  THAT is impressive!  Nonetheless, he was twice the size of a typical hog at processing time.  As it turned out, not only did he have some impressively large pork chops cut out of his sides, but he also had 3 inches of back fat.  Seeing as how S asked the processor for the fat, which is now being stored in my freezer, I’m seeing a lot of lard-making in the not-too-distant future.

Then, by the time I get that task completed, it will be time to start all over.  We’ve already ordered up 6 hogs for next year.  Believe it or not, we are excited about it.  Hogs can be a lot of fun, but there’s no way I can convince you of that.  You’ll just have to try raising one yourself.

WARNING:  Graphic hog-killing photos below!

With Sean’s arrival at Red Gate, the time had come to say “goodbye” to our first hogs.  Here is their “goodbye” photo (unbeknownst to them):

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It was quite simple and stress free.  I opened their gate in the far end of the pasture, rattled their feed bucket, and called them.  Maple and Honey came running and grunting.  We jogged all the way across the main pasture, down the hill to the barn together (with me praying I wouldn’t stumble on the way, lest those hogs think I was for dinner!).  We got them to follow us into one of the barn stalls, where we awaited a career professional butcher who was coming to show S a new way to do the hogs.  S has slaughtered a couple hogs before, but he loves learning new techniques.  As soon as the hogs were in the stall, they immediately began rooting around in the bedding to find the now-fermented corn I had tossed in several months prior.  The butcher arrived while S was setting up the equipment.  I ran inside to get the kiddos situated and grab the camera, and before I could get back, they had shot the hogs with a rifle and were dragging them to the eviscerating cradles.  I LOVE knowing that our hogs never stressed through this process.  They were literally rooting around when he shot them.  In fact, he even used special, quieter, sub-sonic bullets to reduce the noise level.  That way, the shot for the first hog did not frighten the second hog.  She simply looked up, then went back to rooting.  That’s the last thing she remembered.  No worry, no fear, no stress.  Just the way we like it!

They quickly bled the hogs and cut off the heads, then drug them out to the cradle.  For the record, in the past, S hung the hogs to eviscerate, but this teacher preferred “cradles” to make it easier.  S is now a huge fan of the cradles.  Apparently it made the task much simpler, since it prevents the guts from falling out before you are ready.

A headless hog on the cradle

A headless hog on the cradle

Also, in the past, S learned to scald and scrape the hide, but this time, he learned to skin.  He says it was significantly more difficult that any other animal he has ever skinned–except for maybe the old rooster a couple years ago.  It was still a faster method than the scald and scrape, though.  Obviously, both have their place.

After eviscerating, they hung the hogs on gambrels to skin them.

After eviscerating, they hung the hogs on gambrels to skin them.

Skinning the hog

Skinning the hog

Ready to split and hang.  Notice the lack of back fat.

Ready to split and hang. Notice the lack of back fat.

Another new technique he learned this time was to hang the sides for a couple of days to equalize the temperatures of the meat.  Temperatures were perfect in our garage, where we hung them and, by opening or closing the garage doors, we maintained pretty consistent temps around 38* F  for 48 hours.  Then, the butcher returned to show S some professional ways to cut the meat.

Cutting the sides up

Cutting the sides up

Bacon to the left, ribs in the center, and chops on the right.

Bacon to the left, ribs in the center, and chops on the right.

My job was to collect the cuts and wrap them in the freezer paper, weigh and record them, and get them into the freezer in single, spaced layers so they could freeze as fast as possible.

Me wrapping with R supervising the whole process.

Me wrapping with R supervising the whole process.

Just for the record, my last live weight calculation of each hog was 220 lbs, give or take a few.  We weren’t able to get a hanging weight on the sides, but the final in-the-freezer weight of everything was 154 lbs. (about 78 lbs per hog).  This included about 46 lbs of hams, 2 of which we tried brining and the other 2 we cut into ham roasts, an assortment of chops, steaks, ribs, tenderloins, and misc. other cuts, and 28 lbs of ground pork for making into sausage.  Not to shabby for our first forest hogs, I’d say.  It supports the theory that the average hog hanging weight is about 60% of the live weight, and the average take home weight is about 60% of the hanging weight.  In addition, we got a week’s worth of meaty bones and organ meats for the livestock guardian dogs’ dinners, a couple pounds of lard, and we boiled up several of the back ribs for shredded BBQ pork the first evening.  It was delicious!

Some of the ground pork, ready for seasoning.

Some of the ground pork, ready for seasoning.

Dinner time!

Dinner time!

We learned a lot from the experience.  First, the pigs absolutely thrive out in the forest glen environment, rooting, rolling, nesting, whatever.  They are quite hardy, even in cold temperatures as long as they have shelter and wind breaks in the winter and shade and water to cool them in the summer.  They do so well rooting and foraging for their food, in fact, that even though winter had thoroughly killed off all the forage as far as we could tell, despite the fact that we did not feed them any dinner or breakfast (S likes empty bellies for harvest time!), their stomachs and intestines were quite full of whatever they found out there.  It surprised everyone.  Secondly, we learned that heritage pigs on forage will not gain weight like other pigs.  In fact, at 8 months of age, ours had only about 1/2-3/4 inch of back fat, as compared to 2-3 inches on a 6 month old commercial hog.

We have already reserved 4 pigs for this spring, but as a result of what we learned, we are going to try to do things a little differently this time.  We are getting them in early April’ish for starters, so they can take advantage of the lush spring vegetation.  Shortly thereafter, we will hopefully have a tremendous abundance of milk from 1, maybe 2 cows, and 4 goats, most of which will go to supplement the pigs forage diet.  We also hope to have an abundance of eggs to supplement their diet with, and I may cook them up this time, as I’ve learned that cooking eggs doubles the amount of digestible protein available.  Protein builds muscle (meat), while starch builds fat (marbling).  Eggs are good protein, while milk contains plenty of both.  We are still going to raise them until 8 months of age, but that will only take us to October this year, meaning they should have plenty of vegetation for their entire growth period this go around.  It will be interesting to compare the results with this year.

S's cousin holding a trophy (which later went to the dogs).

S’s cousin holding a trophy (which later went to the dogs).

Straw has become one of my favorite insulators in winter.  Our neighbor in CO had a straw-bale house covered in stucco, which was surprisingly cozy.  We use loose straw for the rabbits to nestle into in freezing weather and to line the nest boxes prior to kindling in cold weather.  We use loose straw to add traction in areas prone to icing, and we layer it thick in the  more open-air shelters for the larger stock.  It is my favorite material (other than natural pasture grass) for birthing of larger stock.

This season, I took it a step further.  Our pigs were slower growing than we anticipated, so we had to carry them into cold weather.  The only problem was that they were still out on the forest lot (now void of foliage and, thus, shelter), and I had no shelter for them.  So, I ran to the store, bought some rebar pound-in posts, a few bales of straw, and assembled a nice, cozy shelter for them one afternoon.  I had some scrap lumber and some leftover roofing material from other projects, which became a quick roof.  It ain’t purty, but it sure works!!  It could easily be made prettier with some trimming and a little more attention to detail, but I really wasn’t worried about it this year.  I was more concerned with whether the pigs would tear it down by the next day.

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After assembly of the bales with 2 high and about 2 wide (lengthwise), I drove the rebar down into the bales and further into the ground to stabilize the structure a bit.  Finally, I stuffed the inside with lots of thick loose straw for them to bed into, and VOILA!  Perfect hog hut!

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About 3 weeks ago, it finally got cold enough I had to move their drinking water bucket inside the hut.  I was absolutely shocked how warm and cozy it was when I crawled in there.  We have only had the water bucket freeze twice so far–and both times the temperatures were well into the low 20’s before the metal nipple froze up a bit.  The water itself has yet to freeze.

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I will note that I have been surprised the pigs haven’t bothered the bales at all, and they have been using the shelter for almost 2 months now.  They don’t soil in it at all, so it is perfectly clean on the inside even now.  Finally, I put about a full bale worth of loose straw inside the shelter when I assembled it, and they have kept it surprisingly fluffed up as they burrow down and make nests for themselves.

In summary, economically, it wasn’t the cheapest route, as I could have easily used scrap lumber to build a shelter for much cheaper.  However, it was by far a warmer option, and I didn’t have time for actual construction.  I am hoping though, that the investment will pay off in the meat they put on, rather than having to use excess energy just to stay warm.  I was hoping to get a photo of the girls inside for you, but that just isn’t going to happen.  No matter how sneaky I am, they seem to sense me coming and I rarely get within 100 yards before they are at the fenceline hoping I come baring feed.

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I figured it was time for a little update on our pigs.  

The girls are in their 3rd paddock rotation at this point.  They have not shared this one, so they’ve done the majority of clean up by themselves, and it is quite impressive, if I do say so.  Here is a photo of the land.  When we first put them in, the brush went up to about 3 feet from the fence, and even then, the space right beside the fence was covered in poison ivy, weeds, and vines.  Since this is a major traffic area for the girls, as they run alongside each person walking or driving down the street, hoping for a hand-out (they never get one, they just always hope!), they have really cleared the brush back away from the fence.  

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Yesterday, I decided to get an estimate on their weights.  I used a method I learned from Walter Jeffries over at Sugar Mountain Farm.   To summarize, you measure from the crown of the head, right between the ears, straight down the spine to the tail head, right where the tail attaches to the body.  That gives you the length measurement (L).  Then, you measure the girth, wrapping a string or tape all the way around the rib cage, right behind the front legs.  That gives you a girth measurement (G).

Then, you multiply:  L x G x G and divide by 400.  

I have no idea where the 400 comes from.  In any case, though, I came up with a weight of 117 and 128 lbs, roughly.  Supposedly, this method is accurate on roaster and finisher pigs to within a few pounds.  

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So, based on my research, compared to commercial hybrid hogs on commercial feed, mine are about 2/3 to 1/2 the weight they should be (depending on the source).  Compared to pure-bred, pasture-raised hogs not on commercial feed, however, they seem to be right on par.   I contacted Walter at Sugar Mountain Farm directly, and he said their weight sounds perfectly normal, and he would expect them to almost double in the next 2-3 months.  He explained they really seem to pack on the pounds in the end.  

In any case, this has been a fun experiment.  The pigs have been the lowest-maintenance animal on the farm by far.  They have required absolutely NO clean up, and in fact, have cleaned up the land they were on just as we had hoped.  All we’ve really done is supplement them almost once a day with excess milk and organic kitchen scraps, and on occasion, organic rolled grains.  

The low financial inputs into raising them has taught us that it would be worthwhile to raise our own on just forage and excess milk, even with the risk of decreased gains by slaughter time.  It’s clear why the hog is popular as a good source of meat and income, even for the poorest in some nations.  They seem to thrive so easily.

Due to the fact that we are hoping to sell one of these girls, however, I would like to see a bit more gain.  Therefore, I am going to increase the milk they are receiving with milk I have been stockpiling in the freezer, as well as begin offering free-choice rolled grains and organic corn on a more regular basis.  It won’t be full time, but as close as I can get, as the organic, non-GMO versions can be hard to come by around here.   I use rolled grains instead of whole grains due to increased digestibility.  They will continue to have full access to their forage and woodland paddock until slaughter time.  In the event the weather turns bad first, they will get all the hay they can eat.  

So far, I have really enjoyed raising these girls.  Minimal inputs with seemingly good outputs if their gains continue well.  They are fun, and quite a different experience than other livestock I’ve dealt with.  I am really looking forward to those hams and bacons, though!

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Check out those hams! Still a ways to grow, but looking good so far!

It has been another few weeks of busy-ness around here.  Sorry for the absence.  I realized I haven’t even taken any photos!  To catch you up a bit, though…

Building:  I built more shelves.  Lots of shelves.  I will die happy if I never build another shelf, but unfortunately, I have at least 3 more to finish, which means planing, installing, painting, you get the idea.  I got a little help on a couple of projects from an in-law who lives close by and is very good with construction, I finally have desks, shelves, and a reading closet in both the girls’ and boys’ room, plus a new “activity counter” with 2 more desks and some shelves in our loft.  I promise photos soon.  I have a little more tweaking to finish it all.

Unpacking:  I’ve been slowly unpacking for almost 4 months.  Every move in the past has taken 2-3 weeks, tops.  Every house in the past, though, has had shelves and not been a farm when we moved in.  This house had almost no shelves, hence all the building.  Trying to move a family of 7 with a large homeschool library into a 3 bedroom, 1900 square foot house with little storage was challenging to say the least.  I’m getting there, though.  My upstairs still has paths, but the paths are widening by the day.  I’m almost there.

Visiting:  Nana (my mom) heard my inner plea for help, and came to stay for a while.  She has been here about 2 weeks so far, and has been a tremendous help.  She is filling my normal domestic and mommy role to a great extent, while I focus on finishing many of these necessary outdoor and construction projects.

Homeschooling:  We started our school year the last week of August.  N is K4, A is K5, M is 2nd grade, and JR is 4th grade.  And I still haven’t taken their annual school pictures.  Add that to my list of “to-do’s.”  We are doing Abeka Academy again this year, and loving it.  N and A take a lot of focus, which Nana is mostly handling right now.  Once she leaves, the first half of my day will mostly be spent sitting beside them as they work.  JR and M are totally independent, though.  R is always into things, so that’s why God gave mommies (and Nana’s) eyes in the back of their heads.

More visiting:  S came home!!!  Only for a quick visit, but it was great!  I had a short list of projects he worked on for me, the kids got their “daddy-fix” while wrestling, jumping on the trampoline (oh, yeah, I spent 2 days assembling that thing!), and just being with him.  Then I got my time with him when Nana agreed to watch the kiddos while we headed over to a Bed and Breakfast for the night.

Goats:  I’m trying to sell my 2 remaining goat kids, but I’m finding dairy goats are not as popular here as they were in CO.  It’s a much harder sell around here.  In the mean time, I have had to move poor Pride (our buckling) out with the pigs, to ensure he doesn’t breed Caramel (our too-small doeling).  To reduce my workload, I’ve also gone to once a day milking.  I’m not exactly sure how the milk will hold up, especially since I’m considering milking through rather than breeding this fall, but I’ll just play that one as the time passes.

Cattle:  Red Bull finally went home.  He was sweet and never gave me a days trouble–unless you count the time he somehow got into an adjacent paddock to the cows, the other time when he bred my dairy heifer without permission, or the time when he decided to scratch on an old fence and succeeded in knocking it down, releasing all the cows into the pig forest.  No biggie, though.  They were still inside the perimeter fence.  I just set up a water trough down lower in the pasture so they had to come out of the woods periodically so I could check on them.  It actually made my day easier temporarily, and started some clearing in the next section the pigs will move to.  That all being said, the day finally arrived for the sweet bull to go home.  As soon as he saw his owner approaching with the halter, he turned into a beast.  He completely mangled a 5 foot cattle panel as he lept over it (trying to get AWAY from his owner), then easily cleared 3 hot wire fences.  Watching a 1,000 pounds of pure muscle soar gracefully over a fence without hardly touching it is a very impressive sight indeed!  I was finally able to halter my jersey, Abbigail, and lead her to a stall in the barn, and that finally got Red Bull distracted enough to follow her so he could be confined and caught.  Once caught, he walked out of the barn and hopped up in that trailer with a grace and timeliness that would shame any horse.

Chickens:  While S was home, our biggest project was harvesting our 25 Cornish Cross meat birds.  We used our new Featherman Pro chicken plucker too.  Can I just say, THAT.  WAS. AWEWOME!!!!!  Expensive, yes, but totally awesome.  We may decide to rent it to other home poultry raisers to try to help pay for it.  Otherwise, it’ll take like 50 years to pay the thing off.  But, then again, when I consider the fact that I will never have to pluck another bird, I realize it is priceless!  We did 25 birds in about 3 hours, but that includes all the stops and distractions we had with the kiddos and lack of preparation here at this new farm.  The replacement pullets are growing well.  They still live in the barn, but free-range the pastures all day.  Our layers are also doing well.  We’ve had one go broody on us, so I got smart and decided to get some fertile eggs from a friend.  Unfortunately, at the same time she went broody, another has become an egg-eater.  I have no idea which girl it is, but in addition to eating 1 or more of our eggs each day, she has also destroyed 6 of the 8 fertile eggs.  I’m not sure any will survive to hatch.  Other hens are randomly kicking the broody hen off her nest each day to lay their eggs, and one of them is eating some while doing so.  I tried moving the broody hen into the barn, but she refused the new nest, and after 24 hours, I released her, only to have her run straight back to her original nest in the coop.  Oh well.  I guess she’ll just have to go through the natural cycle for a while, and then we’ll try again next year when our new roosters can ensure all our eggs are fertile.  In addition to losing eggs to an egg-eating hen, we are also losing a few chickens lately.  The girls–both the older ones, and the younger replacement ones, have begun doing some foraging deep in the woods, outside of the main pasture and perimeter fence.  There are openings on one side of the perimeter where the hens can get through, but the dogs and other animals can’t.  Obviously, the dogs can’t protect the girls on that side of the fence, so some of them never seem to make it back up.  I remain hopeful that one or two may have gone broody and are just hiding down there.  Realistically, though, I’m pretty confident they were some wild critter’s lunch.  We’ve lost 4 older hens and 5 little ones.  There isn’t much I can do about it right now, except hope that the remaining ones will learn and stay in the fence.  Only time will tell.

Rabbits:  Nothing too new there, other than the fact that we harvested our summer litter.  That takes us back to our one mature doe, 2 mature bucks, and 2 young does that that we brought with us from CO, and will be ready for breeding in December.

Donkey:  The only farm vehicle I have around here is a 4-wheeler.  I use it to haul supplies down to the pig paddocks, to move my portable shelters, to haul wagon loads of dirt, to haul fence posts, and to have fun.  Before we left CO, S and I decided that Shiloh, the donkey would help earn her keep by becoming a work donkey.  We bought a little homemade driving cart to start out with.  After we moved, I ordered her a custom donkey harness.  With the number of projects I had this summer though, I never really had a chance to teach Shiloh to drive.  Then, my 4-wheeler–long over-due for a tune-up and basic maintenance–essentially died on me.  While it’s waiting for a ride to a shop, I’ve had to get creative.  There are still water buckets, feed, dirt, and fencing that has to be hauled.  Time for Shiloh!  I reviewed the basics of long-reigning I had taught Shiloh in the past, spent a few days reviewing all her basics and getting her accustomed to her new harness, and then took full and total advantage of her being a calm and laid back donkey rather than a flighty horse, and hooked her up to the cart.  Since Nana was here at that point, she offered some assistance for safety in the early stages, but Shiloh took to it with ease.  She still has a little trouble turning in the cart, but that is likely due in great part to the fact the shafts on the cart wound up way too big for her.  Now, I have my first real equine-power on the farm.  I can hitch her up to the cart, and then use the cart to haul all the buckets, feed bags, materials, etc, she can drag small logs, and more.  Eventually we will get new shafts that fit better, but I use these in the mean time.  Pictures will follow as soon as I get the chance.

Dogs and cats:  Due to the unintended and unexpected increase in cats around here, I wound up rehoming our barn cat, Katie, and her litter of 6 kittens.  A new farm was looking for a whole slew of cats to stock their barn with, and they jumped at the chance when they heard about her.  That leaves us with Sarah and her litter of 5 kittens, and she is much better mannered as a house cat, so I have a better chance of keeping her indoors until she can be spayed.  The only cat outside at the moment is Shadow.  Callie is still inside, as always.  Will, the house pet, has loved having all these cats around.  He has discovered there is always a dish of cat food sitting around somewhere, and has become quite adept at finding all my hiding spots.  As a result, he has gained somewhere between 5 and 10 pounds over the last 6 weeks.  At this point, my hiding places are getting higher and higher up on shelves, in an attempt to keep them accessible to the cats, but well out of Will’s reach.  Iris and Athena are doing great.  In fact, Iris has entered her fall heat cycle, and I am debating breeding her this fall or waiting until spring.  I finally found the (hopefully) perfect stud dog.  He is in the next state, so quite a drive, but he is of the Colorado Mountain Dog breeding and quality I am looking for, and has already proven himself as a guardian and homestead-type dog.  As usual, we’ll see how this plays out.

Pigs:  The pigs are growing well on their forest forage diet.  I continue to supplement with excess milk and eggs (though the eggs are few and far between with an egg-eating hen on our hands!), and occasional organic grains.  I am working on setting up their next paddock this weekend.  I estimate their weight to be around 100 lbs. now, so I think they are growing well.  I should research and find out averages for this breed so I have something to compare to.  Whatever the weight, they are big enough now that the kids don’t really go in the paddock unsupervised.  The pigs are very friendly, and in their quest for attention, plenty big enough they could easily knock a child down.

That pretty much brings you up to speed for now.  There’s never a dull moment around here, that’s for sure!!

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