Not Just Us Small Farmers

It’s good to see that it’s not just us small farmers who are up in arms about the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). The NY Times has an excellent story today about large western ranchers who are resisting participation in it.

Mr. Platt said he already did all he could to fight epidemics. He does not bring any outside animals into his herds, and he happily staples on metal tags that identify animals to help with brucellosis control. But as he drove his pickup from grasslands into dense thickets of piñon pine on this highland desert that requires 100 acres per cow, he explained why he thought the federal plan was wrongheaded.

Mr. Platt called the extra $2 cost of the electronic tags an onerous burden for a teetering industry and said he often moved horses and some of his 1,000 head of cattle among three ranches here and in Arizona. Small groups of cattle are often rounded up in distant spots and herded into a truck by a single person, who could not simultaneously wield the hand-held scanner needed to record individual animal identities, Mr. Platt said. And there is no Internet connection on the ranch for filing to a regional database.

Looking over the 22,000 acres that his cattle share with elk, pronghorns and mountain lions and where animals can easily disappear, Mr. Platt scoffed at the idea of reporting every death, as animal health officials prefer.

“They can’t comprehend the vastness of a ranch like this,” he said of federal officials. “They don’t appreciate what is involved logistically.”

Beyond the individual ranchers profiled, the story nicely summarizes many of the program’s aspects that we find so troubling.

Underlying the opposition is the fragile economics of ranches and small farms, which are already disappearing. The extra cost of radio tags, scanners and filing reports when animals change premises would be crushing, some smaller producers say.

“My main beef is that these proposed rules were developed by people sitting in their offices with no real knowledge of animal husbandry and small farms,” said Genell Pridgen, an owner of Rainbow Meadow Farms in Snow Hill, N.C., which rotates sheep, cattle, pigs, turkeys and chickens among three properties and sells directly to consumers and co-ops.

“I feel these regulations are draconian,” Ms. Pridgen said, “and that lobbyists from corporate mega-agribusiness designed this program to destroy traditional small sustainable agriculture.” Paul Hamby, owner of Hamby Dairy Supply in Maysville, Mo., and a vocal opponent of the plan, said, “It is very much an economic and class warfare issue.”

“Fifty years ago,” Mr. Hamby said, “hundreds of thousands of farms raised hogs, and now very few players have control of the market. I believe one of the reasons for this plan is to consolidate the cattle industry.”

Go read the whole thing. It is excellent.

When Coons Attack

A nasty surprise greeted me this morning when I went out to the barn to do chores: we’d clearly had a raccoon attack overnight.

I noticed something amiss as soon as I let the sheep out into their paddock (and from there out to the pasture). There were white feathers all over the paddock, but especially strong concentrations of them in a direct line from the barn to a certain part of the fence. A moment later, my worst fears were confirmed: our flock of geese came honking out of the barn to be let out to pasture with the sheep, and a quick head count revealed only seven White Embdens — one short. They, and the two mature gray geese which have adopted them, all looked fine.

Once they were in the pasture with the sheep, I took a closer look at the carnage and tried to figure out what had happened overnight. There was a heavy concentration of white feathers in a small gap where one of the barn doors doesn’t fit tightly to the old stone wall. None of the birds have escaped through that gap, so I haven’t worried about plugging it. However, the geese often do sleep next to that door, on the inside of the barn of course, at night. One of them may very well have been sound asleep just inside that gap when the coon came prowling. He seemed to have reached in, grabbed hold of a leg or neck, and forced the struggling goose out through the gap.

The feathers led in a trail diagonally from that gap to a corner of the paddock fence. As Scooter and I followed that trail, we got confirmation of the culprit: we found a severed goose head (not pictured). Decapitation is a signature killing style for raccoons.

The coon then seems to have forced the dead goose through the fence — no small feat, as the fence has such small holes that live geese never have been able to push their way through.
I continued tracking the feathers through the hay field, and found the place where the goose had been disemboweled and consumed. (Again, not pictured.) Then the feather trail petered out.

Geese are usually pretty ferocious animals, and a flock of them can easily repel predators even as large as foxes. This is the first goose we’ve lost to a predator in many years; the only other victims have been broody geese who were sitting alone on nests outside of an enclosure.

It’s amazing how sneaky that coon was, pulling the goose right out of the barn the way he did. I had no idea that something could fit through that little gap…but I suppose that if you’re a coon, and you’re hungry enough, you’ll try anything.
Guess what The Yeoman Farmer’s first repair task will be this morning?

Starting Small

In a recent post, I advised aspiring farmers/homesteaders to “start small” in their plans for livestock. For us, that meant we should have tried dairy goats before graduating to a cow. Smaller livestock are easier to work with, easier to contain, cost less to feed, and are often more efficient at transforming that feed into meat or milk.

We got one thing right: we bought a Jersey cow, and not a Holstein. You’d have to have an extremely large family to consume the volume of milk a Holstein produces. For nearly any small farm, a Jersey is plenty — and much easier to manage.

A story in today’s LA Times highlights a number of farmers who have chosen smaller, heritage breeds of cattle.

They bought minicows — compact cattle with stocky bodies, smaller frames and relatively tiny appetites.

Their miniature Herefords consume about half that of a full-sized cow yet produce 50% to 75% of the rib-eyes and fillets, according to researchers and budget-conscious farmers.

“We get more sirloin and less soup bone,” Ali said. “People used to look at them and laugh. Now, they want to own them.”

In the last few years, ranchers across the country have been snapping up mini Hereford and Angus calves that fit in a person’s lap. Farmers who raise mini-Jerseys brag how each animal provides 2 to 3 gallons of milk a day, though they complain about having to crouch down on their knees to reach the udders.

“Granny always said I prayed for my milk,” said Tim O’Donnell, 53, who milks his 15 miniature Jerseys twice a day on his farm in Altamont, Ill.

Minicows are not genetically engineered to be tiny, and they’re not dwarfs. Instead, they are drawn from original breeds brought to the U.S. from Europe in the 1800s that were smaller than today’s bovine giants, said Ron Lemenager, professor of animal science at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

The Petersens’ mini-Herefords, with their white faces and rounded auburn-hued bodies, weigh in at a dainty 500 to 700 pounds, compared with 1,300 pounds or more for their heftier brethren.

Big cows emerged as a product of the 1950s and ’60s, when farmers were focused on getting more meat and didn’t fret as much about the efficient use of animal feed or grasslands.

“Feed prices were relatively cheap, and grazing lands were accessible,” Lemenager said. “The plan was to get more meat per animal. But it went way too far. The animals got too big and eat so much.”

Today, there’s little room for inefficiency on a modern farm, and that has led some farmers to consider minicows.

You should, too. Go read the whole thing.

The overall lesson in here for aspiring homesteaders: don’t think you need to get the “industry standard” of whatever livestock is out there. I’d add, in a vein similar to that of the article, that Giant White turkeys might make sense for Butterball, but are lousy homestead animals. Heritage breed turkeys are usually much more practical.

But that doesn’t mean smaller is always better. White Leghorn chickens are very small, and are highly efficient at transforming feed into eggs, which makes them perfect for packing into concentration camp egg factories — but we tried letting a few run around our farm and we hated their temperament (and there was almost zero carcass left for chicken soup when we butchered them). Likewise, our friends who raise hogs have much preferred heritage breed pigs to the breeds raised in confinement in Iowa, even though the body sizes are similar. And if you’re going to be raising an animal which is already smaller by nature (i.e. goat versus cow), there is no need to keep going smaller. Pygmy goats, for instance, are cute and make nice pets, but I wouldn’t rely on them for my family’s meat or milk supply (unless we were trying to do stealth farming in an urban environment).

Paging Jeff Culbreath: Would you like to post a comment regarding the merits (and drawbacks) of Dexter Cattle? I didn’t see the breed mentioned in the LA Times story.


In the comments thread on a recent post, the subject of “permaculture” came up. I have a couple of permaculture books listed in the right margin, and the commenter was interested in the relative merits of each. As I told him, the “Designers Manual” is much more detailed than the average person needs; the “Introduction to Permaculture” is a good practical overview of key principles. I noted that the prices for both books on Amazon are really high. In the days since, Mrs Yeoman Farmer pointed out to me that the “Seeds of Change” site has the Designers Manual for much less than Amazon is currently listing it for — and they also have a number of other relatively affordable permaculture books. I can’t personally vouch for those, but they look good.

Our one big criticism of Bill Mollison’s books is that he is Australian — and his diagrams therefore assume that northern exposures give the most sunlight for plants (exactly the opposite of the case in North America). He addresses this issue in the text, but many of the diagrams still seem oddly “upside down” and we sometimes struggle to understand them. It’s like trying to work on an American car using a Haynes Manual from England; all the information is there, but you have to keep remembering to turn it around.

Some other good permaculture sites include the Permaculture Institute and the International Institute for Ecological Agriculture. The latter is home to “Farmer Dave” Blume; he’s a fascinating and extremely knowledgeable character, and we had the opportunity to attend one of his full-day permaculture workshops in Illinois a few years ago.

One way to think of permaculture is as “permanent agriculture.” Or, as the Wikipedia definition puts it: “an approach to designing human settlements and perennial agricultural systems that mimic the relationships found in the natural ecologies.”

We have chosen to incorporate some aspects of this approach in our own farm, but we have never been able to set up our entire property following permaculture guidelines. In practical terms, for us, permaculture has meant:

1) Cultivating as many perennial fruiting trees, brambles, and vines as possible. These not only provide fruit for the humans, but lots of “windfalls” and extras that can feed livestock. In the fall, when apples and pears are coming down like crazy, we toss the extras over the pasture fence — and watch the sheep come running at full speed. A few mature mulberry trees out in the chicken yard will provide lots and lots of supplementary feed (not to mention entertainment, as the hens scramble to grab ripe berries every time the wind picks up and rustles the branches). But, as MYF cautions, keep the mulberry trees far from your garden — they will spread and become a real nuisance.

2) Integrating livestock with plants as a system. Our movable poultry pens, serving as tractors, are a prime example. Pens of waterfowl are perfect for clearing new garden beds in the sod. Then make your garden twice as large as you need, and run chickens or turkeys in pens on the unused beds. The birds mow the weeds, get green stuff and bug protein in their diet, reduce the bug population in the garden, and leave fertilizer behind. The next year, those beds get planted — and the poultry pens can move on the beds that had been previously cultivated. We also ran pens up and down the aisles of our vineyard in Illinois; in addition to providing fertilizer and weed control, they also did a number on the Japanese beetles. Next year, we will be introducing bees to our farm; they will provide an important service as pollinators, and will also provide honey.

3) Utilizing large PVC tanks to catch rainwater, and then releasing that water for livestock or the vineyard.

A very important theme of permaculture is that, whenever possible, the outputs from one component of the farm should serve as inputs for another component. Mollison’s book is outstanding in giving ideas for constructing these sorts of systems. (Just remember that North means South and South means North!)

Bottom line: The key to permaculture is to work with your property, taking advantage of its natural characteristics, and fostering connections within it, rather than declaring war on it.

Authorities and Outbreaks

Remember the concerns I expressed last month about the N.A.I.S. (National Animal Identification System)?

When news like the following breaks, it’s hard not to imagine some authority in our own country getting a similar sort of hare-brained idea the next time a disease breaks out:

CAIRO (AP) – Egypt began slaughtering the roughly 300,000 pigs in the country Wednesday as a precautionary measure against the spread of swine flu even though no cases have been reported here yet, the Health Ministry said.

The move immediately provoked resistance from pig farmers. At one large pig farming center just north of Cairo, farmers refused to cooperate with Health Ministry workers who came to slaughter the animals and the workers left without carrying out the government order.

“It has been decided [TYF: gotta love that use of the passive, bureaucratic voice] to immediately start slaughtering all the pigs in Egypt using the full capacity of the country’s slaughterhouses,” Health Minister Hatem el-Gabaly told reporters after a Cabinet meeting with President Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt’s overwhelmingly Muslim population does not eat pork due to religious restrictions. But the animals are raised and consumed by the Christian minority, which some estimates put at 10 percent of the population.

Health Ministry spokesman Abdel Rahman estimated there were between 300,000-350,000 pigs in Egypt.

Agriculture Minister Amin Abaza told reporters that farmers would be allowed to sell the pork meat so there would be no need for compensation.

Bravo to the Egyptian farmers who have stood up to the authorities and refused to allow the slaughter of their healthy animals. And be thankful that there is no N.A.I.S. in your country that would allow those authorities to more efficiently locate and target the smaller farmers who might be less able to fight back.

Piglet The Goat Kid

I have given up trying to figure out the names that our children come up with for various animals on our farm. As long as it’s a certainty that the animal in question will eventually be going off to the butcher, I don’t mind too much. (The two most recent goat kids we had butchered were named “Naughty” and “Less Naughty,” respectively…and our children now seem to be recycling those names for the latest twin male goat kids.)

Which brings us to Piglet. Who, despite the name, is a goat kid.

Last Wednesday, Queen Anne’s Lace delivered a pair of beautiful kids. After just a couple of days, however, the male kid was developing problems. He was struggling to get up and nurse, and had a raspy noise in his lungs. Homeschooled Farm Girl immediately realized something was wrong, and reported the problem to Mrs Yeoman Famer.

This proved to be a very good move. Had she come to me, I would have told her “It’s just the male kid. We’ll only be butchering him anyway, and his meat isn’t worth the veterinary bills. And besides, at just two days old, he doesn’t have the reserves to survive whatever he’s sick with. Which is probably pneumonia.”

MYF also diagnosed pneumonia…but took a different approach. She simply announced that she was taking the kid to the vet clinic in the next town over. Period. I ran through my objections, to which she listened politely…and then insisted that we should do everything in our power to save this kid. Because in her opinion, we’d discovered his pneumonia early enough to do something about it.

I grudgingly agreed, and got back to work. MYF sped off to the vet, and after spending some time in the waiting room (enduring odd/curious looks from all the people who had brought more conventional pets), the vet confirmed our diagnosis of pneumonia. Most likely, the kid aspirated some milk while nursing — essentially “sucked it down the wrong pipe,” getting moisture in his lungs. In the chilly barn, it didn’t take long to develop into pneumonia. He gave the kid a shot of antibiotic, and then gave MYF several more syringes of antibiotic to inject over the next days. He suggested we keep the kid in our warm house, and bottle feed him until (1) he was stronger and (2) the barn warmed up a bit.

So, since Friday afternoon, we’ve had a goat kid living in an old laundry basket in our family room. How our children thought up the name, “Piglet,” I’ll never know…but it’s not something I have any desire to argue about. The wood stove keeps that whole room very comfortable, and Piglet has been thriving. Homeschooled Farm Girl has been a big help in milking Queen Anne’s Lace, and in taking the kid out to her in the warmer parts of the day to nurse directly. Fortunately, Queen Anne’s Lace has not rejected or forgotten him; she bleats urgently as soon as she sees him, sniffs his backside approvingly as he nurses, and bleats plaintively when we take him back out of the barn.

Needless to say, the laundry basket is pretty tight quarters for a growing goat kid. With MYF’s permission, our children let him out a couple of times this weekend (right after he’d relieved himself), and let him romp around the downstairs of our house. Everyone thought this was great fun, though MYF was of course concerned he might try to piddle on the carpet. “Maybe,” I joked, “we can train him to a litter box and keep him in the house.”

“Yeah!” the children cheered.
“Can’t you just see it?” MYF replied. “Him trotting up and down the stairs. Kicking his legs up on the walls, like the other goats do in the barn. Probably smashing windows. And making the whole house smell like goat.”

We all had a good laugh…and hope he’ll be well enough to move back to the barn in the next couple of days.

And, yes, I have eaten my full serving of crow. I’m glad MYF took him to the vet, and have told her so. It’s a tough balance, having livestock. There is a definite “utilitarian” component to farm animals, and it’s much more pronounced than it is for pets. We simply cannot justify squandering resources on an animal that isn’t “worth it.” But there is also a humanitarian component to raising livestock on a small organic farm. In a sense, God has given us temporary custody of these animals…and we have a responsibility to exercise good stewardship with them. That means having a heart, and sometimes making personal sacrifices on behalf of an animal’s welfare — even one which, at the end of the day, might be of borderline monetary value.

In this case, I think we struck a good balance. Piglet’s vet bill was $55, and it will eventually cost $40 to butcher him. That will make his meat more than twice as expensive as the meat from a kid with no medical issues. But given the quality of what we’ll be getting, I think it’s still a bargain compared to buying meat at the supermarket.