A few years ago I sent an e-mail to Mr. Tom Wharton, a columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune, commenting on one of his columns. He was kind enough to reply and in his reply asked where I worked and did I raise my animals humanely. That set me to thinking–a hard thing to do. So let’s spend a little time talking about this subject.
Starting with chickens, after the brooding stage, all of our chickens spend the rest of their lives on pasture. Of course in the winter there is no pasture but they still have the opportunity to go out each day. For housing we use what we call hoop houses. They are made from cattle panels and pole frames with tarps for covers. They have no bottom and we move them as needed or at least we attempt to move them this often. In my mind the best part of this is not having to clean the chicken coop (A dreaded part of my younger years was having to go clean the chicken coop for my grandfather.) We lock them in the hoop houses at night to protect them from predators. The meat chickens are Cornish cross broilers. We call them dodos they look and act a great amount like the dodo birds in the movie Ice Age. Because they are both young and dumb we surround their hoop houses with electric nets. This both protects them from predators and keeps them from straying too far. The laying hens, after they get past the young flighty stage, are out on pasture and free to roam most of the day. They have a strong roosting instinct and will return to their hoop houses each night. This sounds idyllic and a good life. However, we still lose hens to predators now and again. Did those hens feel humanely raised? A few years ago I found a partially consumed hen about fifty feet from the hoops. Then two days later, as my wife and daughter were putting up electric fence to move cows, they looked down by the hoop and a fox was chasing the hens around. By the time we got him scared off he had killed five. So much for the story about wild predators only killing what they need to eat. Do you think those hens felt humanely raised? On the other hand I will not go back to raising and keeping birds in confinement with the attendant cleaning chores. By the way the fox came back in the daytime one too many times, he won’t be back again. I want a healthy ecosystem on the farm and that means a number of predators but they need to stay in their niche.
A conventional chicken farmer would claim that his confinement-raised chickens were much more humanely raised than mine. After all, his chickens are never exposed to predators. Neither are they exposed to the vagaries of the weather. In the colder months they are in heated buildings, in the hot months they have big fans to cool off the buildings. They are not exposed to outside birds and the attendant risk of disease. Of course they are crowded enough that many times they must be given antibiotics to help prevent disease. Quite frankly I can see the humane arguments for both sides. However, the big confinement people will never get the chance to see their birds come flapping and running out of the sheds in the morning, spreading out to the feeders and then moving around pecking at vegetation. Some of the birds we process will have a gizzard full of grass and clover. Not a diet that creates the fastest growth but much more natural. When we go to shut them up in the evening they will be scattered all over the fenced area picking and scratching and dust bathing. I truly don’t know if it is more humane, however it appears to me that they are happier. Some will say that I can’t tell that they are happier, but a time or two I’ve had to keep them in the brooder coop an extra week and there is a difference in how they act.
Fall has officially come the days are rapidly growing shorter. This leaves me with mixed feelings. Very rarely do we get to the house before dark so long summer days make for short nights and a paucity of sleep. However as the days grow shorter it’s much harder to get everything done before dark. I’m not much on working in the dark, but it does make it easier to both do book-work and get a better night’s sleep. This fall the weather is warmer than normal which delights me. The warmer weather means that crops and pastures keep growing, every grass farmers desire. I have been told by quite a few customers as well as my city living sisters that I need to see the movie “Food Inc.” maybe as winter comes on I’ll manage to do this. The other advantage to fall and winter is an opportunity to learn how to publish photos on this website and blog. I would like to share with you some of the fun and pleasure to be gained in the fields and barnyard. I continue to learn and hopefully improve my grazing and animal husbandry skills. I’m open to suggestions as to content in my musings and would also gladly answer your questions.
Continuing in the vein of why we do this whole grass-fed animal thing, from the time I was in grade school animals were a fascination. I’ve never been much of a sports fan though rodeo does get some of my attention. But almost any of the action-type horse events are attractive, and even though it’s gory and somewhat cruel, I really like bullfights. The bulls that are used in the bullfights have been especially bred for generations and are fascinating to watch and every once in a while they get the upper hand. However I digress, My theory about farming, and I realize that this is not politically correct, is that you raise crops so you can feed animals. To quote my nephews, “Salad is what real food eats.” We have and have had a fair garden and I realize the importance of fruits and vegetables but for me farming is livestock. To watch an animal happy in it’s environment is a never-ending source of pleasure. To interact and, to some extent, direct and support them is even better. Having said that, why would you want to raise animals in corrals or feedlots or confinement buildings when they can be out in a good pasture? And there is a plenitude of research saying that pastured animals are healthier and provide better, more health-promoting meat than their confinement raised kin. And while I certainly wouldn’t call myself an environmentalist I have no doubt that good pastures are more sustainable and environmentally-friendly than many grain crops.
In reference to the question above and our hogs we find many of the same questions and arguments as the chickens. The past few years we have wintered our sows and hogs out in an area where there is wind shelter and we give them plenty of bedding material and they seem to be somewhat content. Many conventional hog farmers would be horrified that we leave them out exposed to weather instead of in climate controlled buildings. When I say exposed they do have shelter and as I say plenty of bedding. However if it is twenty-below zero outside they are in that frigid air. They never seem to suffer any kind of frostbite or other cold-related problems. They are not crowded and you could say that it is a natural way of life. But they are not coddled or protected from the vagaries of the weather. In the summer they are out on pasture. The brush and trees on the farm keep them from the sun, they have a wet area we call the swamp to cool off in, and a good grass, alfalfa, and clover pasture. About as close to hog heaven as there is in our area. If they could talk would they say that summer, spring, and fall offset the winter months? I don’t know.
We farrow (that’s the term used when female pigs give birth) in sheds. Depending on the weather there will be heat lamps behind a barricade which gives the little ones a place to get out of the cold. Standard farrowing practice for conventional farms is to house the sows in a farrowing building confined in a crate. This protects the little ones from being crushed by their mother laying on them. This does happen to us sometimes. Would the mashed little ones think that they were more humanely raised than their farrowing-crate born cousins?
Once the piglets are about a week or two old we turned them and their mothers out to wander over about twenty acres of pasture. Standard weaning practice is about three weeks. We never wean before six weeks and quite often it’s eight weeks. I’m seriously thinking of starting to farrow only in the spring and leaving the piglets on their mothers up to three months. I’m not sure that the sows will think that this is humane. A small sow with eight week old pigs quite often gets lifted off the ground when her litter is nursing. There are several reasons conventional farmers wean at three weeks. It allows more litters from the sows over a given period of time, as a sow will usually breed back three to six days after her piglets are taken away. Also many farmers say that the sows milk down and get too thin if left nursing a litter much longer than three or four weeks. This can be true. A heavy milking sow can have a hard time eating enough to maintain weight. However my experience has been that if out on pasture or fed free choice alfalfa hay and all the good hog feed they can eat, this usually does not happen. Is letting the pigs stay with their mothers more humane? In this case I truly think so. I’ve never yet found an argument that would make me think differently.
As I mentioned previously I tend to be a technological luddite. I can also talk a mile a minute but typing is one of my weaknesses–the only class in which I received a less-than-average grade. I’m showing both my age and attitude by calling it typing not keyboarding. The kids tell me what to do and when and now they say I need to tell you why we do what we do. To be frank sometimes I wonder. Farming for some of us seems to be an addiction. We do it whether we make money or not. And if we are going to do it we ought to make something.
Small farms like ours cannot compete with the industrial, large-scale farms and agribusinesses out there. And I like, at least to some extent, to know and have a relationship with my customers, something that can’t be done in the regular farm commodities market.
We strive hard to research and then raise a better type of animal. A few years back we bought hair sheep. We had to travel a ways to get them–and there are sheep all around us, good sheep–but our research showed that some breeds of hair sheep are meatier and milder than the wooled breeds found locally. My butcher confirmed the meat quality. To quote him “those were damn good lambs.” Lots of meat and they will grade choice, having been fed only on pasture. The proof however is in the eating. We guarantee the meat we sell. If after a couple of packages the customer isn’t satisfied, we will buy it back including the cut and wrap. Very rarely since we started with this policy have we had to do this. These examples are an indication of how we feel about doing a quality job of raising healthy nutritious animals which will help our customers eat well.
As a technological Luddite I have never had in mind any such thing as a blog. However my children are dragging me kicking and screaming into the twenty first century. And I do want a way to communicate with other like-minded individuals as well as current and potential customers. Having farmed and raised livestock the majority of my life I have tried many ways. About ten or twelve years ago I found the Stockman Grass Farmer magazine as well as Joel Salatin’s excellent pasture-raised poultry and beef books and started to learn another way. Being a curmudgeon it took me a while to start to change my paradigms. We have been practicing high-density management-intensive grazing for four years now and even my skeptical brother says our pastures have never looked better. I now have beef steers and heifers as well as dairy cows which have never had any grain. We keep chickens, both laying hens and broilers in bottomless coops which we move around the pastures. The laying hens are turned out to roam the fields daily and locked up at night to protect them from predators. The broilers are kept inside an electric net and are let out of the coops at daylight or a little earlier each morning and also locked up in the coops at night to protect them from predators and inclement weather. My pigs are pastured all the green season. The sows and little ones have never done better than they are now. And from the point of view of labor it has been the least work of any group of sows and weaners we have ever had. All of this is fine and dandy but my real hope is that we are raising and selling the highest quality, healthiest meat we have ever had. It is well past my bedtime so farewell for now.