To Build on a Hill

To Build on a Hill

To live on a hill is a beautiful thing. The way the light spills over the horizon during the golden hours morning and eve; the way the dew and frost settles and then burns off again in pockets; the way the wind dances through the […]

A Few Favorite Things: Scenes of September (So Far)

A Few Favorite Things: Scenes of September (So Far)

September 2017 does not want to be taken lightly. In Houston, dear friends — plus thousands of their neighbors — ushered in the month with catastrophic loss. As I type this more dear friends and beloved members of our family are hunkered down in the […]

On The Practice of Life & Living Creatively

On The Practice of Life & Living Creatively

“To do writing practice is to ultimately deal with your whole life.” – Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

I’m not sure people understand how much a small-farm life depends — completely, utterly, wholly — on creativity. Or how quickly it collapses in the absence of it. I’m not sure even I understood it before.

I’ve been trying to come up with a metaphor for the peculiar feeling I’ve been inhabiting for nearly two years now. As long as I have been settled, however unnervingly, in this space I have tried to describe it. For me. For The Man. For you. For the sake of the practice of writing which I have missed so dearly but have also been completely and utterly paralyzed away from. Periodically throughout this time I’ve had bursts of creative energy, and I’ve continued the kind of quiet behind-the-scenes contract writing and communications work I’ve always done, of course; bills must be paid. But never once have I felt the flow to which I had become accustomed. Never once did I sit down here, nestled up to the old wooden library table that was once my Grandpa’s and then my Mom’s and finally now mine, and feel the familiar slide into the rhythm of storytelling.

I’ve tried everything. I’ve written with the honey-colored table top as buried in unfinished business and unfiled paperwork as I am. I’ve written with it freshly straightened, cleaned, barren and beautiful and minimalist to its bones. I’ve constructed and demolished and re-constructed offerings to the artistic muses on its surface, just beneath the righthand corner of my computer monitor; teetering black stones The Man and I gathered along the Lake Michigan shore more than a decade ago atop one another in elaborate towers of nostalgia. I’ve lit candles and burned incense and re-arranged knick-knacks. I’ve switched to the lap top and taken it outside, to a coffee house, to the barn. I’ve walked first, before a word has been written. I’ve walked mid-sentence when I wasn’t sure which word should come next. I’ve walked at three in the morning, after staring at a blinking cursor on an empty page for hours. I’ve forced the words onto the page and hated every single one of them. I’ve tried taking pictures first and then writing about them, and writing with a picture I wanted to take later in mind. I’ve written while drinking a steaming mug of vanilla caramel chai, a bright white coffee cup of Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, a tall sweaty glass of iced black tea, a fizzy coke in a can, a glass bottle, a mason jar filled with ice, and a perfectly poured glass of my favorite red wine. I’ve tried to write with a Border Collie on my feet and under my feet, and — much to their chagrin — with all the dogs locked out of the office. I’ve written with a barn kitten curled asleep in my lap and immediately after kicking all of the barn cats out of the house because “they’re barn cats! They don’t belong in the house let alone on the counter! GET THEM OUT NOW!” None of it has worked.

But then the other day I plucked my copy of Writing Down the Bones off the shelf beside my desk and carried it outside for what has become my own little nightly ritual of reading and thinking beneath the stars. (That too began as a hope for a returned ability to write, but then morphed into a practice both unto and for the sake of itself; a story for another time.) For a book that’s been on my shelf since at least 2008, this one is embarrassingly pristine. I don’t think I’ve ever read it all the way through. I distinctly remember thinking it a bit superfluous when I picked it up on recommendation from another writer all those years ago. “Good heavens, lady! Just write!” Of course, at the time I was blissfully unaware that nearly a decade later I would be the one desperately in need of the solace and the advice of a lovely Zen teacher out of Taos. Now, I’ve been scarfing it down ever since.

Later in the book Goldberg writes about “a pile of spiral notebooks about five feet high,” that she began writing in sometime around 1977. (She penned Writing Down The Bones in the mid 80’s so it would have been a little less than a decade later at this point.) She wants to throw them out, but a neighbor convinces her otherwise. Instead she piles them on the neighbor’s doorstep before leaving to teach a workshop in Nebraska. Upon her arrival back home the neighbor stops by to talk about the notebooks, which she’d been reading since Goldberg left them nearly a week earlier, “If you could write the junk you did then and write the stuff you do now, I realize I can do anything.” The neighbor tells her that the main thing she saw in the notebooks was a breathtaking persistence. “I saw that you kept on writing even when you said, ‘I must be nuts to do this,'” Goldberg quotes her, and then goes on to explain her philosophy on writing practice further: “When you begin to write this way — right out of your own mind — you might have to be willing to write junk for five years, because we have accumulated it over many more than that and have been gladly avoiding it in ourselves. We have to look at our own inertia, insecurities, self-hate, and fear that, in truth, we have nothing valuable to say… [but when you finally do] it is very stable. You are not running from anything. You can have a sense of artistic security. If you are not afraid of the voices inside you, you will not fear the critics outside you. Besides, those voices are merely guardians and demons protecting the real treasure, the first thoughts of the mind.”

It’s funny how we put things like this out of our mind. I had forgotten how this began — this blog, this farm, this very life of mine — as a writing practice. Or I had at the least taken it for granted. I too have filled years worth of spiral notebooks and the digital equivalent of them. Most have been destroyed now, but some still live on those same book shelves and others in these very archives. All of them were filled with the drivel of the mind and I never gave it much of a second thought. On this I agree with Goldberg once more, I don’t mind people reading my poor writing alongside my better work. I don’t mind them seeing me for who I am. We all want to be seen and accepted in a manifestation that is whole and true. It’s a verification of being human. What I mind is that somewhere along the way I thought, perhaps, that I no longer needed the practice. I had done it once, after all and so when I came back I expected to be able to jump back into writing as if I had never left. But that’s not how it works. That’s now how it’s worked for me. If I’m to come back fully, perhaps I have to embrace what “fully” entailed; most essentially the practice, the dealing ultimately with the whole of life. Even when it’s messy and I don’t have anything valuable to say. And in so doing, perhaps there will even be a metaphor for where I’ve been in the meantime.

Let’s Talk About San Marzano Redorta: The World’s Best Canning Tomato

Let’s Talk About San Marzano Redorta: The World’s Best Canning Tomato

This morning I plucked a few early canning tomatoes from the garden. Straddling feral watermelon vines that went berserk while we were at fair last week, I found the first ripe torpedoes of the year tucked down deep beneath the six-foot canopies these parent plants […]

Rural Roadways During Harvest: A Guide

Rural Roadways During Harvest: A Guide

Life is hectic. We all have places to be, people to see, and a revolving list of things to do. Rarely however, are those places, people, and things urgent. Sure, we have schedules to keep as closely as we can. And, certainly, it’d be nice […]

For Every Loss a Lesson

For Every Loss a Lesson

We lost a bottle lamb this week.

It hasn’t been a good year for us as shepherds.

We lost the bottle lamb we had at easter, too. And last week, the sole remaining ewe from our original flock of four. At least those two were expected though.

The ewe was ancient for a sheep. We never expected her to live past early fall. She didn’t have a lamb this year; too old, probably. And she struggled to keep weight on over the winter. We were letting her live out one last summer on pasture, because she seemed happy and not in any pain. We didn’t see her go down. She wasn’t ill first. We didn’t witness any suffering. She was alive and grazing at morning chores, dead that afternoon. There were no signs of struggle. She seems to have gone quickly, and by all evidence naturally. It was a graceful and poignant end to the long and good life of a wily ewe.

The bottle lamb this spring, on the other hand, deteriorated over time. Even despite the great lengths to which we went on his behalf both before and during his battle with what we now know was likely navel ill. It’s a topic worth a post all its own — on the tough decisions tied to routine antibiotic use — and there will be one here on it sooner or later. For now, suffice to say that even if less graceful and poignant, the writing was on the wall at least as clearly with that lamb as it was the old ewe, and to some extent that always makes it easier. Though the emotional toll of a death is amplified when you’ve poured your heart, soul, and sleepless nights into an animal, in those instances you also have at least some peace with the knowledge that you did everything, and often a few things beyond everything, to save the life.

This lamb went quick though. From tail-wagging and run-jumping to his death bed in a couple hours. From “is he constipated?” to “he’s definitely dying” in less than one. There aren’t many things that will take an ovine life so quickly, and these losses are harder when you don’t see them coming. Harder because there’s no time to prepare yourself, sure. But also, harder because there’s less time to learn; fewer opportunities for weaving a moral out of the story.

Sometimes the lessons we learn are simple — if an old ewe has to die, there are worse ways to go than a final summer retirement on pasture, for instance. And sometimes they’re more complex — the art of finding a thin line to walk between minimal antibiotic use and risk to animal welfare, as in the example of the Easter lamb. Big or small there is always something we can glean to become better for next time. It’s just not nearly as satisfying when that lesson is that sometimes there are no lessons.

You do it right and something terrible still happens. Circumstances can be beyond your control. He had his first round of vaccination against the bacteria that would be his demise and was quickly getting to the age where he could have a necessary booster. He didn’t have a mother whose immunity he could draw on in the interim. We didn’t change his feed or the size of his meals quickly or abruptly. Still, the bacteria proliferated in his gut and caused problems. Sometimes the lack of a lesson is the lesson.

A Few Favorite Things: The Optimism of Never-Ending Summer

A Few Favorite Things: The Optimism of Never-Ending Summer

In Michigan summer can basically be divided in three: June, July, and August. While warm temperatures often begin as early as April or May and stretch out into September and the beginning of October, there is a distinct difference in the way the seasons feel. […]

On a Rarity of Firsts

On a Rarity of Firsts

We don’t enjoy many firsts here anymore. We’ve raised at least a few of all the common types of poultry, we’ve farrowed thousands of pigs, a couple handfuls of lambs, we’ve been putting beef steers by in the freezer for years, we’ve raised everything from […]

When Pigs Won’t Eat: Keeping Show Pigs Growing

When Pigs Won’t Eat: Keeping Show Pigs Growing

Summer has arrived in Michigan. It’s been in the nineties here for the better part of a week. And, like any time it’s hot in the middle of June and July, I’ve spent a not-insignificant portion of that time begging pigs to eat.

Contrary to their gluttonous reputation, pigs are selective consumers. Their appetite, like ours, can be suppressed for many reasons and temperature is one of them. When it’s already sweltering outside, the heat given off during digestion can make the difference between a comfortable afternoon nap and an uncomfortable afternoon spent feeling too hot to rest. To avoid the extra heat, pigs just won’t eat when it’s hot outside. For normal farm pigs — especially on a small farm like ours, where we’re not under contract to meet certain growth or production rates within a certain time frame — this isn’t the end of the world. We just plan ahead, knowing that any pigs raised out here through the dog days of summer are likely to have a week or three of slower than usual growth. But for some pigs — in some stages of life or being raised for a specific purpose, even here — sacrificing growth and production according to the whims of Mother Nature isn’t an option. Sows who are nursing a litter, for instance, need all the nutrition they can get. Making milk for ten or twelve or fourteen ravenous little pigs who are growing at an astronomical rate is energy intensive. One missed meal may make the difference between there being plenty of nutrition to go around, and a shortage at the milk bar that leaves the smallest or weakest piglets with empty bellies and the Mama in declining body condition. As the old saying goes, if Mom’s not happy, no one is happy!

Show pigs and fair pigs are another type whose growth rates can’t be left to chance. Whether you’re attending open shows on the jackpot circuit or bringing a (hopefully) prize swine to the county 4-H fair, each show’s rules include weight limits — usually at both the bottom and top ends of the spectrum — and pigs whose weight doesn’t meet the range laid out in the rulebook may not be allowed to compete.

Fortunately, there are tricks and techniques for encouraging pigs to eat in the heat (and at other times of low appetite, or when you just need them to grow faster too.) And a few more for helping them get the absolute best growth rate out of each bite they take. Since show pigs are the more common problem for our readers — including many of our longterm customers whose kids have been taking pigs from our sows to county fairs around the state for many years now — some of these tricks of the trade are specifically for them, but most can be employed across both show pigs and other types of pigs if you need to get optimum growth or performance out of a batch of feeders, a breeding herd, or some other type of pig. Ready? Let’s go:

  1. Deworm!

    None of the following tips or tricks are going to do you much good if your pig is carrying a load of parasites. Not only do worms create havoc in the stomach and intestines, preventing pigs from getting all the nutrition possible out of the feed they do eat, worms also take up space in the digestive tract, reducing appetite and the overall amount the pig will eat. There are many deworming medications on the market, but the one we recommend most often to our show pig customers is Safe-Guard feed through. It can be easily measured with any kitchen scale, and top-dressed onto their usual ration or mixed right into the feed. If you’re deworming more than a few pigs, safe-guard is also available in larger buckets and bags. It doesn’t have as many resistance issues as some other options, and since it’s designed to be fed to the pigs it eliminates the need to give a shot, which can be intimidating to people who aren’t well-versed in the art of sticking pigs.

  2. Keep Them Cool

    When the temperature climbs above eighty degrees and the humidity follows suit, keeping your pigs cool in the middle of the day can go a long way in moderating how much their appetite wanes due to the heat. Make sure they have shade, rig up a fan to blow air across their favorite resting spot if there isn’t a natural breeze (and maybe even if there is), and get them wet. Pigs can’t sweat, and sweat is an important cooling mechanism for most animals. You can mimic the evaporative cooling effects of sweat by gently wetting your pigs every hour or two throughout the heat of the day. Don’t keep them wet, which will actually trap heat. Just take your hose, make sure the water coming out of the end is nice and cool, and spray them down all over and then leave them to dry in the breeze or under the fan. The water evaporates off their skin, taking some of their body heat with it. It’s the same reason you feel a chill when you get out of the pool on a warm summer day.

    Sometimes, when it’s really hot, we even freeze milk jugs and 2-liter bottles full of water. These are great for dropping in their water trough or barrel to keep their drinking source nice and cool, and for scattering around their pen as a sort of personal air conditioners. Think: reverse hot water bottle. They can lay up against the ice and enjoy the cooling effects just like you might tuck a rice sock under your covers when you go to bed in the wintertime for extra cozy heat.

  3. Feed Less, More Often

    It may seem counterintuitive, but having feed available all the time can actually decrease the amount pigs eat. When there’s a full bowl in front of them all the time they lose any sense of urgency to eat and, especially when it’s hot outside, their nibbles throughout the day don’t add up to as much as they would otherwise eat if they were getting limited meals hand-delivered a few times per day. To transition to hand feeding, take their feed away in the late afternoon or early evening of day one. Since they were probably nibbling throughout the day, but not eat heartily they’ll get good and hungry overnight. First thing the next morning they’ll be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to see you and their breakfast at the gate. At that first meal give them only as much as they can eat in twenty-minutes, then collect up their feed pans no matter how much is left and put them away until lunch time. Repeat this each time you feed them, up to six times per day — but if you’re really desperate for growth I suggest at least four, as evenly spaced as possible; less desperate times call for two or three times per day — and soon you’ll have pigs who know they need to clean the dish in one go or risk being hungry. Which often results in better feed intake than having free access to nibble a little here and a little there.

  4. Get Your Days and Nights Mixed Up

    No matter how hot it is, chances are the nighttime is at least a little bit cooler. When it’s over ninety degrees we push our show pigs’ mealtimes back in both the morning and at night. Feed as early and as late as possible to take advantage of cooler temperatures even if it means rolling out of bed and going to the barn in your pajamas at three or four in the morning and then going back to bed after you’ve delivered a hearty breakfast to the swine. Remember: show pigs are a project and sometimes a project requires sacrifice for the best outcome.

  5. Slop Them

    Slopping pigs was once a staple of hog rearing, but it’s not nearly as common now. Some bigger farms have wet-dry feed systems which allow the mixing of water and feed for a nice sloppy ration, especially for sows who may be prone to constipation, but on smaller farms and for families just raising a few show pigs for the summer, dry feed is easier to handle and therefore more common. Pigs, on the other hand, haven’t changed all that much over the generations. They love a good slop in the summertime, and will often happily eat more wet feed than dry. To slop your pigs, just add a little water out of the hose to their feed pan when you deliver it, stirring with a stick or your hand to incorporate it well. A nice thick paste is a good consistency, but you may find your pigs like it best a little drier or a little wetter than that. Experiment a bit. Just make sure you only hand feed them when slopping and wash out their pans quickly after they’re finished eating so the feed doesn’t go rancid and/or attract bugs and rodents.

  6. Feed More Fat

    Since most pig feeds are advertised and sold by protein content — that’s what they’re talking about when they tell you it’s “sixteen percent” or “eighteen percent” — the first nutrient people tend to go for when they want a pig to grow faster is protein. As I covered in Feeding Pigs however, the reason feeds are sold by protein percent is because protein is the most common limiting factor in swine diets, not because it’s the one that promotes growth or the one that is most important. Protein is important for muscle development, but excess protein runs right out the other end of your pig, increasing the nitrogen in his waste, but not much else. To get more bang for your buck, more growth for your feed, you want to focus carbs and fat. And fat, as we all learn sometime around the fourth or fifth grade, has a distinct advantage: it contains more than twice the amount of calories by gram. That is, one gram of fat contains more than twice the calories as one gram of carbohydrate — nine to four. This means that if your pig is only willing to eat two pounds of feed, increasing the fat content of that two pounds of feed is a good way to get more calories in her without trying to increase the amount she’s eating. There are fat supplements on the market that are made specifically for pigs and can be added to both feed and water. Purina Mills’ High Octane Heavyweight is a good one that’s water soluble so you can make even their water calorie dense. But if you’re on a budget or just prefer a simpler option you can also use plain old corn oil. Start with about 1/4 cup per pig per feeding, mixed right into their feed, and increase slowly to up to 1 full cup per pig per feeding, keeping an eye out for digestive upset.

    One caveat: Fat can suppress appetite in large quantities, so always aim for balance in supplementing and watch to make sure your pigs don’t decrease the amount they’re eating beyond the benefit they would otherwise get from the higher fat content. If, for instance, your pig is eating two pounds at a meal and reduces down to one pound after you increase the fat content a bit, you may be losing growth rather than gaining. Watch their weight and intake closely.

  7. Sweeten it Up

    This is another area where you can either go the pre-bagged or DIY route, but the goal is the same either way: make the feed irresistible. A few different show feed and supplement companies make appetizers that you can add to feed to make it more exciting for the pigs’ palate, in turn making them want to eat more of it. I haven’t used any of those products so I can’t recommend one in particular, but a quick google will pull up a few options if that’s the way you want to go. What I have used, and have recommended to others for use successfully however, is cake mix. That’s right, plain old $0.99 pre-boxed cake mix. Duncan Hines, Pillsbury, Betty Crocker… pigs aren’t brand conscious so feel free buy whatever is on sale. Most seem to like chocolate, strawberry and vanilla flavors best. It’s a good idea to get a few flavors and alternate them so they don’t get tired of just one if they are eating if for a long time before the show. (Yes, they will get flavor fatigue. I know, it seems ridiculous.) The process is simple: mix anywhere from a third to a full box of cake mix into your pig’s bowl of feed at each meal (works best if you slop them too) and watch them go wild for it.

  8. Consider Paylean

    Paylean is the trade name for the the beta-agonist Ractopamine, which encourages a pig’s body to convert more of its food into muscle rather than fat. While this won’t be an option to you if you are opposed to giving your pig medications for growth — note again, ractopamine is a beta-agonist not an antibiotic — it can be a handy tool for getting extra gain on a show pig who might not otherwise make weight, ruining months of hard work. Paylean is available over-the-counter at most feed elevators or Tractor Supply stores. If it’s not stocked on the shelf, ask an associate, because they all work with companies who carry paylean-containing show supplements and will usually be happy to order it in for you. There’s no withdrawal for paylean, but keep in mind that the best effects are seen in the first two weeks of use. After that the benefits start to decline quickly. If you need just a little boost it’s best to feed paylean in the last two weeks of your project, leading right up to show day. If you need a lot of growth help, you can also count back from your show date, alternating so you are feeding it for two weeks and then not feeding it for two weeks on and off throughout the project to get the best possible growth enhancement out of it. Just try not to use it on pigs weighing less than 150 pounds, and watch closely any pigs who are naturally very muscular. In pigs who are “hard bodied” — those who carry a lot of muscle in their hams, especially — paylean can sometimes cause lameness. If your pigs are large hammed and have low body fat to begin with the effect of the paylean adding more muscle to the frame can reduce their flexibility too much and cause them to limp or move out a little odd. In those pigs, you should discontinue the use of paylean as soon as you see the slightest hint of a problem.

  9. Remember the 3:1 Rule

    Or guideline, really. While genetics, environment and a whole host of other issues can affect a pig’s feed conversion ratio, a good rule of thumb is three to one. That means the average pig needs about three pounds of feed for every pound of gain. It can be a bit more or a bit less, but three is a good starting place. The real value in the 3:1 rule is the concrete goal it provides. If you know you need three pounds of gain per day to make weight in time for your show, for instance, you also then know you need to be trying to get at least nine pounds of feed into your pig each day. You can then keep record of your pigs’ weight to see how much gain they’re having compared to the amount of feed you’re giving them for a more precise number in your exact circumstances.

  10. Do All of the Above

    Each item in this list is one way to incrementally increase rate of gain to help you get your show pig to weight in time for your big day. But what if you’re really, really behind and need a miracle? In times of extreme need, you might need to do a combination of the above, or even every single thing on this list at the same time. Each item alone will help up your gain a little bit. All together, they’ll add up to as much as a couple extra pounds per day over what you may have been doing before. One family we talked with this year, for instance, started doing most of these when they realized they were behind schedule and panicked over needing nearly three and a half pounds of gain per day to make weight in time for their fair. One or two of these probably would have increased their weight gain a bit, but by adopting almost all of these they’ve gone above and beyond to bring their pigs up to 3.3 – 4.3 pounds of gain per day. Which, if you’ve ever raised pigs, you know is one heck of a rate of gain. Will their pigs make weight for the show? Only time will tell, but they’re on the right track and learning how to adjust their routines to get the best possible result with their animals in the meantime. That’s a win no matter what in my book.

On Batch Work

On Batch Work

2017 will go down in family history as the year we survived two months without a dryer, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. One day a few years ago our then-eleven year-old washer kicked the bucket. It wasn’t a good time. I was […]