Size Matters

“While it is always possible to wake a person who’s sleeping, no amount of noise will wake a person who is pretending to be asleep.” – Jonathan Safron Foer (Eating Animals)

We consider factory farmed meat unacceptable.

It is unacceptable in its practices–from how animals are treated, to what they are fed, to how they are medicated, to how they are slaughtered–not one step in the process is okay with us.

Meat Diaper

Meat Diaper

Every piece of meat that magically appears in your grocery stores (on styrofoam plates, to boot), sitting on a meat diaper (yep, that’s what that weird piece of cushioned plastic is called), and wrapped in plastic has ALWAYS had a brutal existence in over-crowded, confined conditions with no sunlight, no space to move, no loving interactions with any other animals, and no opportunity to live a life for any reason other than for human consumption.

If that doesn’t bother you, then consider the fact that in order to maintain these standards, factory farms must constantly medicate (at increasingly high dosage levels) their chickens, cows, and pigs in order to stave off the inevitable diseases that come with overcrowding in confined spaces.  You are guaranteed meat that is riddled with hormones and anitbiotics.

Why does this matter?

First of all, it is bad juju to treat another creature with such raging disrespect.  Second of all, girls as young as seven and eight are getting their periods due to the high levels of hormones in the meat and milk they are being fed.  Third of all, should you ever need to take antibiotics for an actual illness you may actually have, the efficacy of that medication would be dramatically impacted by a lifetime of ingesting second-hand drugs.

Plus, you can really taste the torture.

(I was going to include a photo here of pigs in a factory farm. A perfunctory Google search of images was so upsetting that I couldn’t bring myself to do it. If you don’t know what’s happening to these poor creatures, you should take a look.  It is important to know but it is not easy to see).

As omnivores, we made the decision many years ago that we would never purchase or consume any meat without knowing the provenance of that meat.  That means a fair amount of research, establishing relationships with local farmers when that is possible, and not making any assumptions (i.e. “local” doesn’t necessarily mean “organic;” not all small farms love the animals they raise; ask questions; do research).

When we lived in Brooklyn, many restaurants would say that they “sourced locally or organically whenever possible.” That always rubbed me the wrong way.  It is ALWAYS possible, it just isn’t cost-effective.  Those last two words are a cop-out allowing for randomness and leaving the diner uncertain as to what they may or may not be getting.

When we moved to our small, upstate farm, we agreed that if we were going to eat meat, we were going to raise it ourselves and finish it ourselves.  That way, we would be responsible for the process from beginning to end and could ensure that the animals we were raising for food had lives that were exactly the opposite of those in factory farms.

We decided to raise happy animals.

IMG_5546

Bubble, enjoying a foot soak over lunch.

Which brings me to Bubble.

Bubble is one of our two sows and she has lived on applewood farm for a record two years. The life expectancy of a pig destined for porkness is usually somewhere between six and eight months, but Bubble was our first breeding sow, giving us our first litter of piglets almost exactly a year ago.

We had hoped to breed Bubble once more, but when breeding time came, Girl Pig was the only one of the two to get knocked up.

Despite our boar’s best efforts, Bubble wasn’t having any of his shenanigans.  We waited and waited until, finally, I started doing research to figure out what was wrong.  After all, we knew she was good for it, having already had a litter, as was he, having recently proved  it with Girl Pig.

It turned out that the problem was size.

No, not like that.

Since Bubble was larger than the boar, she didn’t respect him enough to let him mount her.  I’m not making this up.

Bubble, our 700 lb. pet, with Girl Pig and some of the piglets

Bubble, our 700 lb. pet, with Girl Pig and some of the piglets

And since both pigs were going to continue to grow at roughly the same rate, we could never hope for him to catch up.  We had to resign ourselves to the sad truth that Bubble was not going to have a second litter.

The problem is that we now have a barren, 700 pound pet sow.

So, this Tuesday is going to be the day we finish Bubble.

We can confidently vouch for the fact that Bubble’s life was the full and total opposite of the lives of those luckless factory pigs.

Not at all cute.

Six of Bubble’s piglets nursing (the other five are under the visible six)

She has spent the last two years roaming the woods, rooting weeds and grasses, being fed organic compost, pig feed, and garden weeds.  She gets a hose shower on hot summer days and big troughs of hot water on cold winter nights.  She had a lovely litter of 11 healthy piglets. She has had many a hearty scratch behind the ears, to say nothing of the occasional belly rub (although, to be honest, these tapered off around the 400 pound mark).  All in all, Bubble has had a really good life.

And her death will be quick, painless, and without stress.

When we finish pigs, we do it right where they have lived their whole life.  We don’t make them endure the stress of transport; we simply bring them some feed, wait until they are eating, and shoot them right between the eyes with a single-shot .22.

The pig is immediately dead and has not experienced any uneccessary pain or trauma of any kind.

Some folks might argue that our system isn’t a reasonable way to be able to keep up with the amount of meat consumed on this planet.  To this I say, well then, perhaps we should consume substantially less meat on this planet.

Anything is possible, really, we just need to stop pretending to be asleep.

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The Boys and the Band

Dot and Janie had their kids this June and, to our dismay, two were boys.

When we started keeping goats, we’d decided that the girls would be used for milk and the boys would be used for meat.  It was a simple formula that provided us with two essential products, maintained a manageable sized herd, and seemed perfect in its simplicity.

Not for eating.

Not for eating.

After keeping goats for almost three years now, I would no sooner eat one of our goats than one of our dogs.

Goats are incredibly personable; they are friendly and gentle and interested in everything that goes on around them. They will give you a kiss right on your nose and try to eat your clothes right off your body.

Perpetually hungry and willing to eat just about anything, goats would have you believe that they are always starving to DEATH and that someone MUST have forgotten to feed them earlier, because they are absolutely going to DIE if they don’t get more food NOW.

And, generally, I’m a sucker for it and they get a nice pine branch, a bunch of apples from our tree, or some apple-flavored horse treats (they go straight-up apeshit for these).

Janie’s boys, Jeb and Atticus, balls intact.

So, why our dismay at having two of the four kids be boys?

Because boy goats on applewood farm need to be castrated.

We don’t castrate our pigs because we don’t find it necessary and we don’t castrate our roosters because we aren’t snooty French chefs interested in capon for dinner.

Goats are a different story.

We serve no purpose.

We serve no purpose.

Because we’ve decided that we won’t eat the bucklings, and because we don’t want to keep bucks on our farm (to clarify, intact male goats are called bucks, while castrated male goats are called wethers), the boys that stay will really just be pets, necessitating castration, and serving no utilitarian purpose.

So, how does one remove the balls from one’s bucklings?  THAT is a matter of some serious debate.

As animal lovers and caretakers, we are always interested in handling our animals in the kindest, gentlest manner.  If we don’t know how to do something, we find someone who does, or we learn how.

When it came time to castrate our first-ever buckling almost two years ago, we learned that there are a handful of methods, and each one comes with its own set of pros and cons, and each one has a fairly RAGING political divide hovering around it.

There are basically three ways to neuter a buckling–cutting, banding, or burdizzo.

Cutting involves cutting the bottom of the scrotum off and pulling out the testicles. Sounds awesome, right?

Dave had the dubious pleasure of practicing this method on our friend’s piglets last year.  It is unpleasant for everyone involved, but is the most reliable method for certain castration and involves only temporary pain for the animal. Cutting open does provide the possibility for infection and tetanus, but proper after-care can avoid both from happening.

DSC_0136Banding requires the use of an elastrator, which is a pliers-like tool that stretches an elastic band so that it may be secured around the base of the testicles.  The band stays in place for about two weeks, or until the testicles “die” (i.e. shrivel up and fall off).

If banding is done improperly, it can be painful for the buckling, not to mention opening the door to infection and tetanus.  If done properly, however, there should be no blood and the buckling should experience pain for no more than an hour after the procedure.

Burdizzo involves a clamp-like tool which crushes the spermatic cord and blood vessels leading to the testicles. This prevents blood circulating to the testicles and they gradually shrivel up and die. Even though this sounds HORRIBLE, when done properly this is another bloodless method with only temporary pain to the animal.

We are banders.  We have banded all of our bucklings with wonderful results, no lasting trauma to the animal (after that first hour anyway), no bleeding, and no infection.  I wouldn’t ever presume to recommend any one of these methods over another because, done poorly, any one of them has potentially dire consequences.  I would only recommend that the person doing it be informed, confident, gentle, and thorough.

Which brings me to the story of our FIRST BANDING.

When Dot was born, she had a brother named Ramyu.  (side note: Ramyu is still alive and well and living on a friend’s nearby farm). We learned all about banding and, when it came time to band Ramyu, the process could not have gone more smoothly.  The band was on completely, both testicles were securely in the band, and for the first few minutes he was flopping and flailing and carrying on as though someone had just put a tight elastic band around his balls.

Oh, wait…

But when, after two weeks, we noticed no discernable change in the appearance or feel of his testicles, we knew something was off.  They were just as robust and plump as the day we banded him. Clearly, we had done something wrong, so we took him to the vet.

The vet looked him over and immediately started laughing.

Apparently, we had used elastrator bands meant for calves, not for goats. The difference in the elasticity was just enough, as the vet put it, to “basically give the goat a cock ring but not ever make the testes die.”

Oops.

We weren’t sure whether to apologize to Ramyu that we had done that or that we were going to remove it, but ultimately we replaced the erroneous elastrator with the correct one.  Within two weeks, he went from buckling to wether.

Lesson learned.

Well-banded buckling on his way to Wether-Town

Well-banded buckling on his way to Wether-Town

This time around, we made ABSOLUTELY SURE we had the right size bands and gently banded Jeb and Atticus.

We check the boys every day to ensure that there is no sign of bleeding or infection and to ensure that the testicles are withering as expected.

This time, we seem to have gotten it right the first time.

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Pig Wires

The piglets have been escaping every day.

DSC_0137

Welcoming committee

It is not uncommon to pull into the driveway after work only to be greeted by the usual menagerie of chickens, only NOW that coterie is intermingled with the random piglet, or two.

Or eight.

The wire line that we use to keep them in their enclosure is laughably inept when it comes to piglet-containment.

A full grown hog will obey the wire.  A full grown hog understands the zappy power it wields and responds with appropriate reverence and caution.

On beyond zebra.

On beyond zebra.

A piglet, however, can be zapped and zapped and zapped and still, the lure of BEYOND THE WIRE is just too strong to ignore.

The laughable, ineffectual wire.

The laughable, ineffectual wire.

The wire itself is a fickle instrument.  It is strung from post to post only inches from the ground where it has the best chance of dissuading potentially wayward piggies.

The flaw in the system is that the wire must remain free of grasses, mud, and other things that will sap its energy.

So, for example, if weeds grow up around the wire, those weeds will draw the energy out and diminish the strength of the zap.

Lots of other things have this same effect and, as a result, maintaining the wire is an ongoing process.

So, when something like a Tornado-Level Storm hammers through the area, taking down tree-sized branches as it goes, our little pig wire really can’t compete.

Tree-sized branch lying ON the pig wire

Tree-sized branch lying ON the pig wire

Which is what happened last week.

The storm came through, complete with marble-sized hail, crazy strong winds, and grey-out condition clouds. And once it passed, all of the piglets had made their Nature-aided getaway.

Those dinky defectors were nowhere to be seen when we grabbed the chainsaw and started breaking down that enormous branch, piece by piece, until the wire could be unearthed.

The stronger pull

The stronger pull

And when it was all finally cleared and back up to speed, everyone was magically back home with mom.

Feeding time has that effect.

No matter how the travel bug may bite, the stronger pull is always that of the feed trough.

Sigh.

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When Goats Fly

I can’t believe I haven’t told you about the goat kids.

Life has gotten insanely busy over the past month and there has been precious little time for such lovely frivolities as blog post writing, but it is verging on criminal that the goat babies haven’t been shouted about from the rooftops.

So, on with the shouting.

Stinky Love Man and his Ladies

Stinky Love Man and his Ladies

Back in January, we borrowed a buck from some friends. We knew we wanted to expand our small tribe but didn’t want to commit to the maintenance and olefactory torture that comes with year-round buck-having.

Goat gestation takes 150 days, so we assumed we’d see kids sometime around the end of June or beginning of July.

And that’s just what happened.

Freshly born goatlets.

Freshly born goatlets.

Dot (who was born on applewood farm two years ago) kidded first.  When we went to check on her, her two girls had just been born.  They were still wet and messy and beautiful and crazy cute.

There was no trouble with the birth, but Dot seemed to be troubled by the fact that these two creatures appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and now wanted to start using her as a milk dispenser.

She kept walking away whenever they tried to nurse.

This was troubling, but the babies continued to be alive for hours and days and eventually weeks, so we decided they must be getting some milk and left it at that.

Two days later, I took a break from work to go let the dogs out and check to make sure the pigs had water and see whether Janie had kidded.

Birth, al fresco

Birth, al fresco

When I looked in the first goat shed, I found Dot and her girls, but no Janie.  I looked into the second goat shed and still no Janie.  Then, I glanced down the hill of the enclosure and noticed movement under the pine tree.

Upon closer inspection, I realized that not only was Janie sitting under the pine tree with her brand new, lovely sons, but she had also given birth to them right out there in the open.

Everyone involved seemed quite pleased.

The boys had clearly been born hours before and were already dry and fluffy.

And yes, goat babies are probably the cutest creatures on the planet.

DSC_0211The kids are now about three weeks old and all six goats are living harmoniously together.

I try to let them out of their enclosure about once a day to wreak havoc on the farm, frolick with the piglets (who are ALWAYS escaping), and munch on the wonderful leafy greens that are apparently way better than the leafy greens on their side of the fence.

When they are not busy wreaking or frolicking or munching, they will turn absolutely anything into a toy.

It can be climbed!

It can be climbed!

Favorites include lawn chairs, picnic tables, ladders, and benches.

If it can be climbed, a goat kid’ll climb it.

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When goats fly.

And fly off of it.

And they will repeat the performance ad infinitum.

DSC_0271Unless, of course, they are busy reading.

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Chicks and Tractors

Chick hatching season is upon us and, so far, we’ve got 11 new chicks bopping around the farm.

All the hens seem to go broody within weeks of one another, so we tend to see a sudden drop off in egg production every May and June.

Mama and her solo chicklet

Mama and her solo chicklet

One of the hens was sitting on a clutch of six eggs.  The first egg hatched and she stayed on the remainder of the clutch for another day.  Then, she took her solitary little yellow ball of fluff and left.

And she never came back.

The problem here is that the remainder of the eggs are undoubtedly fertile and are most likely only a day, or possibly hours, from hatching.  Being abandoned at this stage of the game ensures their shell-bound death.

The upshot being that that hen sucked.

So, we dusted off our incubator, fired it up, and placed the remaining eggs inside.

Within a day, we had three more chicks (the two remaining eggs ended up not hatching – one wasn’t fertilized and the other wasn’t fully developed).

Since Sucky Mama camped out in our mud room with her solo chick, we thought it might be worth a shot to introduce the remaining three to her and see if she would take them in.

We brought her all three, placed them nearby, and waited.

After about a minute, she moved toward them gently and, just as all seemed like it might go pretty well, she began pecking at them viciously.

In the safe zone.

In the safe zone.

Removing them as quickly as possible from Sucky Homicidal Mama, we created a little space for them indoors with food, water, and a heat lamp.

We knew we had a couple of days before they’d be ready to go outside, so we went to find our old chicken tractor to see what sort of condition it was in after being abandoned for almost two years.

Hahahahahaha

Hahahahahaha

It wasn’t in good condition.

It had largely been reclaimed by the earth and, when we went to lift it, pretty much fell apart and laughed at us for thinking we could use it safely.

And then it laughed some more.

Time to build a new chicken tractor.

We happened to have a few spare pieces of 2×4 in the garage and some old 1″ pvc from last winter’s mini hoophouses.  These made the structure of the tractor over which we simply draped some 1″ chicken wire that we secured with staples and zip ties.

side note: There is nothing in the world more useful than zip ties.

DSC_0150The end product looked WAY better than its predecessor and we were pretty stoked to move the abandoned chicks into their new digs.

The chickies will stay here, learning how to be chickens in a safe and protected environment, until they have feathered out and are at least half as big as the others.

Without the benefit of a mama hen to show them the ropes, this is a necessary precaution that will keep them alive and well.

And, because Karma is a swift and merciless bitch, Dave found Sucky Homicidal Mama’s only chick having drowned in one of the mini troughs we keep for chicken/dog/cat water.

Which is why, as the old saying goes, you should never ditch your eggs before they hatch.

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A Swarm in June

Trying to take the bees away.

Trying to take the bees away.

A friend of ours found a bee swarm on a sapling in his yard and asked if we might, pretty please, come take it the hell away.

Another friend of ours just had all her beehives decimated by a bear, so this seemed like a no-brainer problem-solving mission.

All we had to do was go get the unwanted bees and bring them to where they’d be appreciated.

That’s all.

Easy, right?  Ha.

Bees tend to swarm in early June.

But, let’s back up a moment.

As winter settles in, all the male bees (drones) are booted from the hive to conserve resources.  In the spring, they are reared again and the hive comes back to full capacity with a select handful of new drones expected to mate with the queen and start the cycle over again.

Bees communicate through pheromones which are produced by workers, drones, and the queen.  These are shared when members of the colony feed each other, thereby passing the pheromone (and information) from bee to bee.  The queen produces her very own, Extra Special Queen Pheromone which attracts the workers to her and gets them to do all the stuff she wants them to do (draw comb, forage for pollen, and tend the brood, specifically).  Since everybody in the hive knows that they can’t survive without the queen, they’ll pretty much do whatever it takes to keep that lady happy.

Because if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

In May, when temperatures start to warm up, the newly-repopulated hive becomes more and more crowded until a large portion of the worker bees lose contact with the queen. When they reach this point and are no longer receiving her pheromone signals, they believe they are queenless and are motivated to create a new queen.

This is when swarming can happen.

Because there is no space in a colony for more than one queen, and because over-crowding can motivate a swarm, the old queen will leave, taking about half the colony with her.  This group goes in search of a new home, which can take hours or days.  Since the queen is not a particularly strong flyer, she will need to stop for breaks and THIS is when people tend to see large swarms of bees on tree branches, doorways, cars, etc.

These potentially daunting clusters are merely the queen bee taking a pit stop and her colony surrounding and protecting her.

From this resting place, scout bees will go off in search of new digs and the swarm will tend to stay where it is until that new spot is found.

Our friend’s sapling happened to be this swarm’s resting place.

So, the other night, armed with a bee suit, a smoker, a bee brush, a hive super filled with drawn comb, a bee patty, and a rubbermaid container with a tight-fitting lid, I went to get that swarm.

Getting the main cluster into the box was the easy part (the bees didn’t really see that coming, so they were moved before they had a chance to assess the situation). It was the remaining bees that were the trouble.  They’d dispersed and scattered, making a catch of any significance pretty impossible.

2,432... 2,433...

2,432… 2,433…

This was when I started collecting bees one by one, allowing them to crawl onto my hand and then placing them into the bin.

It would be a gross understatement to say that this exercise required a display of patience and calm not typically exhibited by this particular beekeeper.

But it was also really, really lovely.

The sun was setting and the bees were being rescued and the world was silent except for some crickets and, of course, the bees, and everything was pretty gosh darned great.

I didn’t want to leave any bees behind, so it was important to be peaceful and methodical.  By the end, I felt reasonably sure I’d gotten almost every bee.

A bear-proof fortress.  Maybe.

A bear-proof fortress. Maybe.

From the swarm site, I drove with my friend’s new hive to the site of the most recent Bearmageddon and did my best to set up her hive with the new bees.

In a day or two, I’ll go back with a frame of drawn comb that has eggs and brood in it.  This will give the bees what they need to make a new queen.

That is, if they’re still there.

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Slow-Roasted Pork

The piglets were born on Saturday and by Sunday night, the weather had gotten really cold.

After finding one little one dead on Sunday morning, we needed to ensure that the remaining nine were as protected as possible insofar as we could interfere.

We could pretty much only interfere by making sure that their shed was protected against the overnight chill.  With temperatures dropping into the low 40s, those little guys would need more than just Mama to keep them going.

Once again, it was a job for Farmer Dave.

Dave is pretty great at ensuring that the animals have what they need to make it through the cold.

He started by hanging a sheet where the larger cracks would potentially let in rain or cold and, over that, draped a huge tarp to cover almost the entire face of the structure. Once that was done, he brought a couple hay bales to block openings around the shed, and then hung a heat lamp.

This was a good start, but it wasn’t enough.  The piglets were still visibly shivering and a visibily shivering piglet (while ADORABLE) is not one that’s going to survive.

The next step was to affix two space heaters to the wall, high enough that Mama couldn’t reach them, but low enough that the heat would reach its intended targets.

Hay and Heat Lamps and Space Heaters... Oh My!

Hay and Heat Lamps and Space Heaters… Oh My!

This step made me panic because I was sure that a) the heaters would fall and set the hay on fire and burn the shed down and kill everyone inside or b) the heat would rise and go out the top of the shed and never reach the piglets and they would die.

Dave patiently tolerated my worrying and went so far as to demonstrate the automatic turn-off function on each heater when tilted sideways.

So, then all I had to worry about was it not keeping them warm enough.

Toasty warm ramshackle mess

Toasty warm ramshackle mess

The last step was to bring bath towels to stuff into gaps in the side wall where we could feel the heat escaping.

The end result was the most ramshackle looking mess you ever saw.

But it totally worked.

Despite our electric meter spinning like a levitating graphene (look it up), we could rest easy knowing that these nine little piggies and their big, fat mama would make it through this cold spell.

That's one hot mama.

That’s one hot mama.

At one point, Mama even moved the whole gang over toward the doorway.

Evidently, she needed to cool down a bit.

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