Monday, August 30, 2010

Rest In Peace

They say every livestock farmer eventually has a loss or losses. I've been very lucky so far, having never lost anything bigger than a chicken. Even losing Frances the hen was pretty hard on our family.
But the school of hard knocks has been in session around here lately, replete with what must be a nun bearing a yardstick. Let me explain.
About a month ago, I noticed one of my beloved Berk piggies started limping. They were outside in the piggie palace, and they liked to sleep in a big pile so I figured maybe she got stepped on by another pig, or twisted something during one of their frequent racing matches. The next day, another one was limping a bit, too. Well, that was strange. The next day, a third was limping. This sent me to the internet, the phone, and email, wondering what on earth was going on.
Long story short, I got lots of different opinions, lots of differing thoughts on what to do. The vet said here, try this. I gave the three pigs a dose of medicine, but it didn't seem to make much difference. Things seemed to level off, and though a few of them continued to have a bit of a gimp, they otherwise seemed totally normal. Then about a week ago, my favorite pig Tiny just went down. Her hind legs stopped working. We brought her bowls of milk mixed with probiotics, mineral and vitamin supplements, and aspirin for any pain and inflammation. She drank it down readily. We kept this up for days, and she seemed otherwise totally normal, with a very good appetite, normal pee and poop, and she had no temperature. Another call to the vet. We tried a couple different antibiotics on her which made no change.

She was in a group of pigs that are just days away from their date with the butcher. I knew if she was down like this, they wouldn't accept her at the butcher (nor would I even think of trying to force an animal in this kind of condition off of a trailer and into a slaughter facility). I knew if she didn't have some kind of miraculous recovery, I would have to put her down myself. I dreaded it. I've shot animals for humane reasons before, even a big boar once. But this was my little Tiny One, she was special to me. As the littlest in the group of Berk weaners we got last Spring, Tiny stood apart from the rest. She had a very broad white splash on her face, and her ears were especially large, giving her a cute, clownish appearance. Her personality was totally endearing. Being the smallest, she knew she couldn't win any push and shove battles, so she would occupy herself doing other things while her mates were squabbling over anything (food, water, the best spot, you name it, pigs are very competitive). When the rush was over, she would quietly yet confidently walk up and get her share. But perhaps the best thing about Tiny was how she knew me and recognized me at a distance. Every day as I approached their pen or paddock, Tiny was always the first to see me coming off in the distance, and she would literally come flying toward me, giant ears flapping, smile on her face. I would call out to her, and once inside with them, Tiny would insist on a good rub. She would press her side against my legs and grunt happily. She loved a good scratching and rub behind the ears, but rubbing her belly literally made her go weak in the knees. As I rubbed her tummy, she would collapse onto her side, usually on top of my feet, grunting her approval, encouraging me to rub more and more. I could hear her saying "Oh, yeah, that's it right there...." She would have liked it if I never stopped. This, I'm sure is the reason for her very gleeful greetings.

Tiny also had a way of spinning and tossing her head under a water shower that made me sing Tina Turners' song Tiny Dancer to her when I was hosing the pigs down. She won a space in all our hearts. Karen often asked if we could keep her as a pet.
So the thought of having to shoot my little Tiny Dancer made me sick, and I kept putting the thought out of my mind. I did know, though, that I would have to do it at some point.

The bigger problem of course, was that I have been vexed by what this strange lameness thing really was. Was it a bug, a feed deficiency, something on our farm? Most importantly, what can I do to prevent this from ever happening to another pig (if indeed, it's possible). So I had decided that I would have a necropsy (animal autopsy) done on Tiny in order to get some answers.

Yesterday, after doing chores with the new smaller pigs, I went to the Berk's pens with a bowl of treats from the garden. I saw Tiny lying up against the fence. When I called to her, she didn't move. I knew she was gone. Dear, sweet Tiny had spared me having to kill her. So it's been a mixture of sadness at her loss, and gratitude that I didn't have to do the deed.

Tonight the vet came out, looked over the pigs, and did the necropsy on Tiny. Though we won't have the results of the samples for while, the vet is pretty certain this was something called mycoplasma arthritis. Having read up on this as one of the possibilities, and talking with the vet about it, I was reassured a bit, and of course a bit concerned, too. Good news is this not something that affects meat quality at all, it doesn't exist in the environment so it won't necessarily be a problem for us forever. He said pigs get it from direct contact with pigs that already carry it. I won't necessarily ever see it again. If a sow has had it and recovered, she can pass immunity on to her offspring, though there is no vaccine for it at this point. Symptomatic pigs can be treated with antibiotics that target the joints. We don't just give antibiotics lightly here, but neither will I withold medicine from an animal that needs it for health and humane reasons. Our ultimate goal is to avoid the need for them in the first place.

The other good news is that everything else on Tiny looked very good. Her liver was perfect with no blemishes, and no signs of any parasites.
So tonight as I head to bed, I am very sad to have lost a sweet pig, but I'm also very grateful that at the same time she helped me figure this dilemma out.

Thank you, Tiny. I will always remember you.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Partly sunny, 79
Moved the cows and pigs last night, into adjacent paddocks. I've been surprised to note that though I planted the Dwarf Essex Rape mostly for the pigs, they have mostly ignored it. Instead, the cows have gone crazy for it. In fact, at first after I got the cows, they went straight for the stuff and I had a hard time keeping them off of it before it was tall enough to graze. Now I am letting them have at it, and they love it.

The garden is really producing lots right now, especially melons (all at once, of course!) and tomatoes. Karen has been busy as a beaver working in the kitchen and garden, trying to get stuff put up. with all the rain, some of our melons are bursting while they are still on the vine. Sad for us, great for the pigs!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

79 Degrees, breezy
The weather today is such a welcome relief. All creatures on Prairie Fire Farm appreciate a warm, not hot and breezy day.

I wanted to mention another issue happening here on the farm. Our bats seem to be dying in large numbers, and we have no idea what is the cause. We haven't sprayed anything, nor changed anything except put up some hay in the barn. Like every good old structure, we have had a resident population of bats here. We welcome them for the bug eating service they perform!

But this year, starting back in about June, we started running across dead bats on the ground. The first bat or two, we didn't think too much of it. Then we started noticing that we were finding as many as 3 or 4 in a week. One near the garage, several under an ash tree, one in the barn, more just in different places on the lawn. Many of these dead bats were really dried out, which seemed odd. Dessicated like they had been dead a long time, but we are pretty sure we found them within 24-48 hours since we regularly walk by, etc.

We have made calls to our local bat conserve folks and the DNR, but haven't heard much back that is at all helpful. DNR suggested in a letter it may be heat related, but I am a little skeptical of that. It always gets hot in Wisconsin in summer, and if it were the heat, wouldn't everyone be seeing these bats dying everywhere? I am very in touch with local bat calls, so I have a very good idea about whether this is going on in other places. I know of one other place - a house in Madison - that is seeing extraordianary die-off. Karen has been corresponding with the DNR, and we would love to help out with becoming part of a monitoring program.

The world's bats perform such a very vital function on our planet. Imagine the devastation caused by a million-fold increase in the number of insect pests. More pesticide use, which poisons more insect-eating animals causing a horrible destructive spiral is one very ominous and obvious result. Here is a link to a short article outlining a crisis in bat health across the country:

This issue has us very concerned. This is real, and it is a wake-up call that the scales of nature are getting really unbalanced.

Here is a link to a local bat conservation group, they have LOTS of great info on their website about how to set up bat houses, what to do with bats in the house, identification of bats, etc.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Dog Days of Summer

Hot, Humid, 90 degrees 68% humidity.

The weather and mosquitoes are taking top billing at any place a few locals are chatting. We have been enduring a very long, very warm spell. Looking back, I see it's been quite hot around here since at least June. Many years when we get real lots of heat, we are also dry, but not this year. In step with the last several years, this year has been much wetter than normal. Beginning to wonder if 'normal' will ever happen again. I have noticed many days lately that we are hotter than San Antonio. We have been getting hit with monsoon-like rains. Between severe rains, we get less severe rains, but almost every single week this Summer, it has rained at least twice. As of about three weeks ago, we were 7 inches above normal for the year, and we have gotten plenty more since then. So all this moisture means we are inundated with mosquitoes as well. They are crazy thick this year. Karen and I have actually had to retreat back into the house on several occasions, despite mosquito blocker clothing and full on DEET. I don't remember ever hoping for an early frost so much! It also means the lawn is acting like it's on steroids. I simply can not keep up with the growth of the lawn this Summer. Seriously, it could use a cutting at least three times a week. Even if I had the time to mow three times a week, we are lucky to find one afternoon when the grass dries adequately to be cut. I'm telling you my grass is growing at a rate of at least a half inch a day!! Insanity.

There is a silver lining to this, however. This great grass growing weather also is great for growing pasture! Honestly, I need more cattle to keep up. The 8 calves and the pigs I have should have been about right for a normal year. But in these conditions, I believe I could stock at least double that amount right now and be just fine. Of course, the trick is being able to predict the future. Since I have no idea when or if the water works might shut down, it's hard to justify getting more cattle at this point in the year. We have maybe two more months of growing left, not enough time to put enough weight on a stocker calf to make it worth it.

We took the biggest three Berks to the processor a couple of weeks ago, so now we are down to 5. We had brought them back up to Piggie Palace for when we were on vacation (much simpler and more secure for non-swineherding farm sitters!)and then we let them enjoy the shade there for the worst of the heat. We did move them back out on to pasture last week. They are managing the heat just fine out there. Of course we provide them with plenty of water both for drinking and wallowing. There have been a few days when I have spied their armor of wet mud, and I tell you, it does look almost invitingly cool and mosquito proof! Four of the remaining 5 have an appointment to be finished in September. This time, we are keeping one back for breeding! We've been planning on taking the big leap from buying our feeder pigs to farrowing/raising our own litters. We will start with 2 or 3 gilts (females that have not yet had a litter). A female pig can have two litters a year. It takes approximately 6 months from birth to finish a feeder pig @ 250 lbs. You never know how many piglets your gilt will have, but we are hoping for an average of 8 weaned per litter.

SO....doing the math.....that means that if we get three gilts bred in October, they will farrow in three months, three weeks, and three days (February). If we get 8 from each litter, that's 24 piglets. Common advice says we may lose a few along the way. So we hope to have maybe 20(?) pigs to finish exactly one year from now. of course, our numbers may be way off, one never knows how many live pigs they will have. I spoke to my Berk guy today and even though he is more experienced than I will ever be, he had a sow have 10 pigs last night, but only 5 were born alive. Stuff happens. I know that sort of thing is going to be pretty hard for both Karen and I, and frankly it's been a deterrent to taking the breeding leap. But our pork business is growing, we'd like to have more control of our genetics, and it really is time. So we'll just have to learn to be good midwives. Good thing Karen is one of the best there is ;)

We planned to buy all the gilts at once from the Berk man. But one of this current batch of pigs is just a really nice looking gilt. Big Girl, as her name implies, has shown herself to be made of great swine stock. To my untrained eye, she looked pretty good - long, rectangular, good shoulders and hams, good underline. Then we had a swine consultant come out to help us figure out how to expand our pork business, and she really liked these Berks, and confirmed my opinion of Big Girl. Now, our pig farmer has a couple litter mates to Big Girl saved, as well as some other nice gilts from other litters to choose from in September. So it feels good that I'm going to be using one gilt that I raised myself, and it will be neat to see how she looks compared to her sisters. I've arranged to go down with the trailer in September and pick out the basis of our breeding stock, and bring them home to give them a chance to all get to work out pecking order, etc. before they get bred.

Our consultant recommended that we get a boar simply because it is easier to get the girls bred. But we feel like it doesn't quite make financial sense to buy, keep and feed a boar for only 2 or 3 gilts. So we are going to try our hand at AI. Stay tuned!

In the meantime before our future piglets are ready, we will be short on pigs! Our Berk guy doesn't have any feeder pigs available now, so we will be getting a batch of crossbred pigs from our original pig man. He happened to call just as we were wondering where we were going to get more piggies. We know his pigs are healthy and good growers. These pigs should finish around the first part of December.

I don't know if I've mentioned this in here before, but a long-term goal of ours has been to put up a hoop barn for the pigs. A hoop barn can be deep-bedded, Swedish style for comfort and well-being of the pigs year-round. I don't know if we'll need it year round, but we definitely will love it during Spring, Winter, and Fall... I'm also hoping to be able to use one end of it for parking my tractor out of the snow. We are hoping to get this project underway soon, and we hope to have a hoop barn up before the snow flies. I have done as much reading up on these types of barns as a person can do, I needed to talk to some real folks who have used them. In the last two days, I have talked to three different farmers in my county with them, and it was very encouraging. They all love their hoops, and would build another. All of their hoops have stood for over ten years, and have held under our 100" snowfall years recently, so I'm convinced they are a good investment.
To the right is an example of a hoop barn.