Sunday, November 7, 2010

Piggery problem solving

Old photo: (Camera still buggered.) These pigs are a lot easier to handle when they're only this size.

Our general lack of capital, and need to make do with what we have around the farm, has frequently caused exceptional amounts of extra, otherwise unnecessary, work and yesterday was a case in point.

I spent about four hours making a lash-up rig to safely load our three gilts in a trailer for transfer to the slaughterhouse on Tuesday.

We've done this before, of course, but it's never gone that easy. What we need is a sturdy metal livestock trailer. But that would cost upwards of $2,000 which we've never had to spend on one. If I had that kind of extra money lying around, I'd always have several other things to spend it on first.

So we make do.

We've tried transporting them in the pick-up truck bed with the truck cap on, but those caps are pretty flimsy, and strong pigs can put much more pressure on it than seems safe. We've built crates and winched the crates with pigs on board into the truck bed, having determined that loading them via a ramp doesn't work. We learned to put tops on the crates after one pig escaped by rocking his crate until it tipped over. Crates with tops work but it's stressful, to say the least, for man and pig.

We have built our own livestock trailer out of wood and sheet plastic on a second-hand trailer chassis, and that worked very well for lambs, but I twisted the chassis while backing it into the barn, which led to tire blow-outs on the road, and so we never got to try it on the pigs. Luckily the blow-outs happened after the livestock were dropped off.

Now we use that old trailer around the farm only, so as not to have to buy new tires every twenty miles.

The best year was last year, when, after a good deal of difficulty with a crate, we borrowed a sturdy trailer from the slaughterhouse. That worked well. There's still the problem of loading them, but experience has shown that pigs given time to get used to a trailer will go in and out of it just fine, especially if that's where their food is delivered for a few days prior to their slaughterhouse date.

This year I have the loan of another sturdy trailer, only not quite as tall, in return for the promise of ten pounds of pork. Last year's had no top, but it was tall. This year I was able to fit the old truck cap to the top of the borrowed trailer. Then I maneuvered the trailer into the barn and organized temporary rigs to hold it firmly in place, and prevent it from rocking on its wheels, so the pigs can go in and out as they please.

I plan to feed them in the trailer for the next few days to build up their confidence in the thing.

Tuesday afternoon, I hope to lure them into the trailer with a good feed and then sneak around the back, slam the tailgate on them, and off we'll all go to bacon-land. Evil pig-betrayer that I am.

Hopefully all goes well. Wish me luck.

Ordinarily I feel pretty sorry for myself this time of year because I don't have a nice livestock trailer, even a little one like the one seen regularly on Life at the End of the Road.

But reading my regular round of farm blogs this morning, I came across this monstrous episode of difficulty for another pig farmer, Stonehead near Aberdeen in Scotland.

British firearms regulations prevent him from owning a gun. Read the terrible tale of how much extra effort, pain for the animal, and danger, was caused by this situation. I'm no great Second Amendment advocate, and I certainly think automatic firearms sales should be controlled, but it seems to me that every farmer needs a gun to keep his animals safe and to put them down when they get injured.

So, I may not have the money for a nice livestock trailer, but at least I do have my trusty 30-30 caliber rifle hanging safely on its (child-proof, locked-down) rack on the wall of my den, to use in cases like this. That, perversely, made me feel better after my four hour's work yesterday.

Still, reading yet another of my regular blogs gave me another idea. Colour it Green Diary butchered their own pig. They didn't slaughter it. British regulations prevent that. But they got it back cut only into sides, and then butchered and cured it themselves. Here in Maine, we could do the whole process ourselves. Experience has proved that shooting our own animals is much easier on the animal than taking them to the slaughterhouse. And we could process our own pork. We'd need a scalding tub of sufficient size for a whole pig, a scalding table, and a small smoker, but we'd be allowed to do it all, here in Maine. We regularly process sheep at home, whenever circumstances prevent their being taken to the butchers.

But I like the service we get from the butchers. Particularly I like the vacuum-packing/flash freezing process, which makes certain that the meat is very high quality and keeps for a long time. I just found an old package of pork sausage in the bottom of our freezer and ate it. The fat in the sausage had gone a little rancid, but this was after two whole years! Ordinarily, meat wrapped in butcher paper is good for a year, that's all. And the butchers do a great job of smoking and making sausage.

And I'm pretty sure if we explained all this to our pig club members, they'd agree, and want the full packaging service too.

One day, most likely in my retirement, with careful husbandry of finances, I will have a proper set-up: a purpose concrete-and-stone pig sty with a large, sturdily fenced run suitable for a half dozen active porkers, additional woodland runs with electric fencing so pigs get to root the way a pig should, a concrete pad for making compost out of pig bedding without losing nutrients to run-off, chutes from the pigs' sty and a loading ramp specially designed to back a trailer onto, and a proper metal livestock trailer that requires only a swift spray with a hose, and, of course, a "proper farmers" long-wheel-base, diesel, Land Rover to pull said trailer.

Oh, the pork we'll raise then! We'll feed the world. Or that part of it that eats pigs, at least.

One day. One fine day.


  1. The human body does not "need" meat to thrive. We can do fine on a plant base diet. These animals - Or rather these small babies that are about to die are being killed for the taste of their flesh alone... Perhaps it's about time you examined your compassionate soul and spared the innocent from your gluttony?

  2. Bea, you make four points, near as I can see, of which I agree with two. The remainder reveal some difficulties with your understanding of agriculture.

    1) I agree, there's no need for humans to eat meat. What we need are proteins and lipids.

    2) We can get by just fine on a balance of the proteins and fats found in some plants.

    3) These animals are about to die, to feed us and five other families, about fifteen people. Including several children. These are not heavy meat-eating families. All of us in the pig club buy local food and wholefoods and base our diets largely on that. The Womerlippis tend to eat what we grow in the farm. My wife is vegetarian, so her diet is more restricted -- she has to buy more food than I do. I eat meat perhaps five meals a week. I don't think this adds up to gluttony, and if you do think so, you are not making careful distinctions, nor are you attacking the most problematic sources of animal cruelty -- particularly industrial farming systems.

    4) The main reason we grow livestock is to make use of plants unpalatable to humans, and to fertilize our vegetable gardens. Animals are needed to complete the nitrogen and other cycles to grow plant foods. The two go together. Here in Maine, at 527 feet above sea level, livestock agriculture is the most viable land use. It's also interwoven in our case with the need for compost for our vegetable garden, and in general in Maine, manure is the primary source of fertilizer on many farms. There are plant-based ways to complete these cycles, cover crops and the like, but none are as effective as manure cycling systems. Other key elements also work well, so, for instance our free range hens eat all the slugs that otherwise hurt our plants. But that means one of them occasionally ends up in the pot, like for instance the time a few blogs ago when a hawk tore a whole in one of our hens.

    So in general, in northern climate agriculture, and for at least 6,000 years, my British Isles farming ancestors used animals and plants together in ecological combination. This is, to my mind, the definition of the word "sustainable."


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