Tuesday, May 28, 2013

"And on this farm, he had some..."

Pigs!  This past weekend we brought home our new pigs that we will raise over the summer months.  Compared to our hog debacle last year in which all of our hogs got loose the day we brought them home and my poor husband ended up chasing one of them all over the neighborhood (read about it here), things went smoothly with no added stress.  See?  We DO learn from our mistakes!

Pig pile!

Our two main reasons for raising hogs are: 1.  We want to produce our own meat and know exactly what those animals ate and how they were treated, and 2.  We want to clear some land of invasive plant species, mostly Tree of Heaven (China Sumac) and Garlic Mustard weed.  Hogs are terrific at tilling the land.  It's as if God created a creature with a bulldozer built into the end of it's snout!  Last year, we were a bit disappointed that our hogs didn't tear up the land as much as we had hoped.  We couldn't decide if it was the breed (modern hog breeds are raised indoors for commercial pork production, where they physically cannot root, so the instinct is not as strong anymore) or if it was the drought that made the ground too hard for them to root.  Last year we had Yorkshires and this year, we decided to try Hampshires, a Heritage breed not widely used in commercial pork production.  Hampshires are one of the oldest American breeds and are well known for their foraging ability (the desire to  find their own food), which makes them a great candidate for raising on pasture.

Checking out all the good stuff to eat. They especially love the walnuts from our Black Walnut trees.

The pigs we brought home are about 40 pounds and we will raise them until fall, when they reach about 250 pounds.  The hogs will have about a quarter acre of pasture to explore and root around in.  Hogs are omnivores, so they will eat nuts, roots, grass, worms, bugs, vegetables, meat, kitchen scraps and pretty much anything else you give them.  In addition to what they find to eat in their pasture, we also offer them feed.  We were thrilled to finally track down a mill that sells Non-GMO hog feed (Tom's Feed Mill in Coopersville, MI - they don't have a website).  In the future, we hope to be able to raise our hogs on an Organic feed, but at this time, the cost is prohibitive (Organic feed costs over twice as much as conventional).  Non-GMO feed is not perfect, as the crops are still sprayed with herbicides and pesticides like conventional feed, but we feel it's a step in the right direction... and we're trying to not beat ourselves up and let "Perfect Be the Enemy of Good".  We're doing the best we can with the resources we have right now.

A sign of a happy hog is a dirt covered snout!

When we brought the pigs home, we spent a long time simply watching them settle into their new home.  They had never been outside before, and it was obvious to see they they were delighted to root in the grass and dirt.  This fills me with such joy - to see animals engaging in the activities that God created them for.  Cows were designed to eat grass, hogs to root in the dirt and chickens to peck and scratch the earth.  In the past few decades, we have increasingly denied farm animals these basic rights.  Cows are now live in small enclosures or concrete pads and eat corn (GMO corn, mind you), something that they are not created to digest and eventually makes them very sick.  Hogs are confined to indoor barns made of metal and concrete, which offer them no opportunity to root.  Chickens are trapped in tiny cages for their entire lives, or if allowed to be "cage free", are crowded into barns and have their beaks removed so they can't cannibalize each other.  Industrial agriculture has not been kind to animals.  I'm not saying that all animals need to be treated like pets, but it seems to me that since they are providing us with such life-giving milk, meat and eggs, it only seems natural that we would want to give these creatures a comfortable, fulfilling life in return.  I don't think that is too much to ask.

Doing what they do best - rooting in the dirt, looking for grubs, worms, nuts and roots with their bulldozer-like snouts.

We're working on treat training the pigs and getting them used to being handled.  Since we have young children and so many friends with kids, it's important that all our animals be friendly and tame.  Of course, we bear safety in mind, but we love allowing children under supervision to enter the hog pen and play with the pigs.  We're also trying on to come up with names for the pigs, as we observe them and discover their personalities.  I know many people think it's morbid to name the animals that you intend to eat, but we find it to be the opposite.  Naming them gives them dignity and respect.  Last year, we named each hog and took their photograph.  At the end of the season when they were sold, we gave our customers a photograph of their hog.  Our picture of Ned the hog is still on our fridge and each time we eat pork, our kids shout out "Thank you, Ned!"  I know, some of you are horrified by this... but this is our way of honoring our animals and appreciating them.  I love that my children know exactly where their food comes from.  It creates a meaningful, almost sacred eating experience.

So come on over and check out our adorable hogs.  They are sure to amuse you with their playful antics and joyful pig noises.  See you soon!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Spring has Sprung!!! (Finally...)

Can it be?  Is it actually spring?  Do I dare put the winter coats, hats and mittens away yet?

It has been a loooooooong winter.  We Michiganders joke about our crazy weather (because otherwise we would just cry), but this year pushed us all onto the edge of insanity.  Last year, it was 80 degrees in March and this year we had snow several times in April ...and about 2 weeks of rain, which caused record flooding in Grand Rapids and the surrounding area.  As someone who suffers from a mild case of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), I've been in a major funk for the last month or so.  Most years, if I can just make it through March, everything is fine.... but this year March seemed to keep going all the way through April and the weather just. didn't. get. better.  The only thing that kept me sane was the grow light set-up I have in the basement.  Sitting under those lights, planting seeds or transplanting starts is the best therapy I have found. 

But I digress... No more talk about snow! Spring is finally here!  And there is so much to do!  Since April was so cold and rainy, we feel like we're about a month behind and we're playing the game of catch up.  Here's what we're up to right now on Third Day Farms!

Goats:  We put a deposit on 4 dairy goat kids a few weeks ago. All 4 are castrated males (called "wethers").   In order for dairy goats to give milk, they have to have babies (obviously).  If the kid is a female, she can be used as a milking goat too, but the males are pretty much worthless.  Only one buck (male) is needed to breed several does (females), so there is often a surplus of male dairy goats that often end up as meat.  These kids will come home with us in a few weeks when they are weaned from their mothers.  Their job will be to keep the pasture mowed over the summer and then in October, they will be sold for meat.  We're excited to see adorable goat kids bounding around!  In the meantime, we're working on beefing up the electric fence to make sure those kids stay put in the pasture.

Chickens:  The 19 babies graduated to Chicken Tractor 1.0 yesterday (our first version of a chicken tractor).  They were outgrowing the brooder box in the garage, but it just too cold to put them outside.  Thankfully, the weather seems to have turned, hopefully for the long term.  The babies were delighted to have some room to run around and be out on the grass!

We will keep the 19 babies locked up in the chicken tractor for a few weeks.  Eventually, we will release them and they will begin to integrate with our existing flock of 14 laying hens.  When everyone is playing nicely, they will all be moved into the new and improved Chicken Tractor 2.0. 

Orders have been placed for meat birds.  This will be our first attempt at raising chickens for meat.  We decided to order Freedom Ranger chickens from Freedom Ranger Hatchery, after learning more about Cornish Cross chickens, the breed used in almost all meat bird production.  This is just my opinion, but I think Cornish Crosses look freakish and sickly.  They have been bred to grow such large breasts at such a fast rate that many of them have their legs break because of the weight.  The catalogs advised against providing too much food, saying it would cause them to have heart attacks.  They also advised butchering them by 9 weeks old at the latest, saying they would start to die off after that age.  Call me crazy, but I don't want to eat an animal that can't reach adolescence because it's so poorly bred.  When I saw the Cornish Cross chicks at the farm store, I couldn't help but notice how many of them were lying on their sides, struggling to breathe.  No thanks.  We're going to try our luck with Freedom Rangers, a breed that grows more slowly and looks like a real chicken, not a pair of chicken breasts on legs. 

Hogs:  We have 5 piglets coming in a few weeks once they are weaned.  Last year we raised Yorkshire hogs.  This year, we're going to try Hampshire hogs. Hampshires are a heritage breed, noted for their black bodies with a white belt, good foraging ability (we'll raise them on pasture, in addition to grain and garden produce) and tasty meat. We truly enjoyed raising hogs last year and look forward to more fun this summer!


Garden:  After a late start, things are finally shaping up in the garden.  The lettuce we planted in the green house is doing well and we'll have lots of fresh salad soon.  The peas and spinach in the garden beds are coming up.

I've moved all the plants from the basement to the greenhouse.  There are still a few extra tomato plants for sale, if you want to pick some up!  Check my previous post to see what varieties I grew this year.  The plants will be ready to go in about 2 weeks.  Many people plant their peppers and tomatoes in mid-May, but I like to wait until around  Memorial Day weekend, just to be on the safe side.  Our Average Last Spring Frost Date is from April 30-June 1, and seeing how cold this spring has been, I have a feeling we just might get frost right up until June!

Good news: the asparagus is coming up!  Our first official meal from the garden - tomorrow night's dinner will feature some of this delicious asparagus.  Bad news:  we can only eat a few spears.  Asparagus is a perennial plant, which means it grows in the same place and comes back each year, even when you cut it down.   For the first 2-3 years, you can only steal a few spears.  Leaving the spears allows the roots to develop and create a stronger plant, which will yield more asparagus in the long run.  Patience....

 In addition to all the regular garden work, we've also been busy preparing a berry patch.  We have about a half acre of grass on the corner of our property that we are sick of mowing.  In the spirit of "Grow food, not lawns", we are slowly trying to convert some of that useless lawn (that costs us money to mow!) into a productive berry patch that hopefully will yield some delicious berries and maybe even some cash!  We're just getting started and couldn't afford to invest in as many plants as we'd like, but here's what we're starting with (click on the link for the catalog description):
There won't be much of a crop this summer, but we're looking forward to lots of fresh berries (and jam!) next year.

 Whew!  So much to do around here, but we're thrilled to finally be working outside.  The children have rediscovered the joys of playing in the backyard.  When they're not playing, they're "helping" us with various chores around the farm. 

Our sweet baby girl turned 4, which is totally and completely incomprehensible to me.  How did this happen?  Over the past year, I've watched her transform from a needy, rascally 3 year old into a helpful young lady.  She melts my heart when she tells me "When I grow up, I want to be a mama just like you!"  Baby girl certainly still keeps me on my toes, but I can see that in the very near future, she will be my right hand woman. 

There is the quick recap of our last few weeks.  Stay tuned for updates on goats, hogs, chickens, berries and veggies.  Hope you all are enjoying this spring sunshine!