Raising Pigs: A first timer’s experiences

This year we decided to expand the farm to include some hogs. For the past few years we had been purchasing half a hog from a friend and neighbour and the results are amazing. The taste and quality of the meat is unlike anything you get in the grocery store – and best of all, we knew how it was raised, where it was raised and how it was treated.

Since we got all the fencing for the cows sorted out last year, we decided this year it was time to expand and try our hand a raising a few hogs.

Our first step was to find some weaner pigs that were going to be ready for their new home in the coming weeks. I managed to find a small farm not too far away that had a few litters almost ready to go. We didn’t want to go crazy and buy them all until we had gone through the process and raised a couple first. You know, make sure we like pigs, that they were manageable with our schedules and so on.

Initially we were going to get 2 or 3 – give it a try and see what we wanted to do for next year. Well, somehow 2 or 3 turned into 5 (I decided it was a nice round number to start with). Turns out that was a good idea since they were all sold before they even got to the farm.

The next step was a place for the pigs to live. We had a few weeks to pull this together but wanted to take our time and do this a bit differently. Sure, we could have gone out and bought 16′ hog panels and been done in a few hours. But at $50 a pop and for the size we were looking to build, there had to be a better (read cheaper) way. And there was. Pallets.

Pallets are plentiful and for the most part, free. I have a friend with a warehouse that would give me as many as I could take. And a few local sources near the farm that were happy to get rid of their extras as well. In the end our pig pen was roughly 1000 square feet – 100 feet x 100 feet. All built from free pallets and a pail of deck screws.

The pen was pretty easy to make, but did take us a while. Basically we screwed each pallet into the next with decking screws and put a metal T-post down the inside of every 3rd or 4th pallet to add additional support to our fortress. If you try this – do not forget to leave one section out to be hinged as your gate later.

To make sure the pigs learned their boundaries, we also put a line of electric fence about 5″ off the ground all the way along the edge – except the gate. Rumour has it if you electrify in front of the gate, the pigs won’t want to cross that line when its time to load up for summer camp.

hog pen from pallets

Throw in a structure for shade and protection from the elements made of a few fence posts, some 2×3 and old election signs and your pigs have it made in the shade…literally. We ended up putting sides on it too after the first warm sunny day.

pig shelter

The pen was done, then it was time to figure out feeding and watering. Again, I am cheap (nicer people say frugal) so I wanted something that I could build myself but that would be strong enough and suitable for the purpose. I started feeding with a simple trough that was basically just a couple of 2×6 boards screwed together in  V and a couple of boards on the ends to keep it upright. It worked fine, but being as there was going to be some times we may not be back to the farm to feed them for a meal, I wanted something that could hold more at a time.

I ended up building a version of this feeder that could hold a few bags of feed at a time so the oinkers never missed a meal. I will probably need to try again next year as it worked, but wasn’t great.

hog feeder

You can see the full plans over at the Colorado State University website. 

Next up, a waterer. The waterer worked out really well. Basically a food grade barrel and a couple of pig nipples screwed into the bottom and we were in business. If you decide to try this, I suggest the barrel where the whole top removes rather than just the caps.

hog water

The pigs figured out the waterer pretty quickly. I was getting paranoid that they weren’t getting it and were going to get dehydrated so I ended up cutting little apple slices and wedging them in the nipple so the water kept flowing. That way if they wanted the apple, which they did, they learned there was also water there. By day 2, they were all on board.

So with a pen, shelter, food and water all ready, it was time to go pick up our weaners. We loaded up the stock rack in the truck,  filled the bed with some old hay and headed out to get the pigs.

pigs stock rack

Once we got the pigs home, we set them free in their new home. They had a great time running around and getting acquainted to their new surroundings. And of course, there was food, so they were happy.

feeding piglets

All in all, we had a pretty good time with the pigs. We had a couple of mishaps like a jailbreak. Turns out the little guy just wanted to run out in the pasture for a while and eventually came back to join his buds. Not going to lie though, I thought “Holy crap, I just lost a pig. There goes a couple hundred bucks.”

They like their ears scratched and their bellies rubbed. In fact, I could start rubbing their bellies while they were standing and they’d flop over like a falling tree to get more rubs. And they really liked the hose on hot afternoons.

And aside from the gong show that was loading the pigs to take them to camp, everything was pretty smooth. That gong show is a story for another day.

Now that they’re back from camp and in the process of being delivered to their new owners’ freezers, we are planning for next year. Going to double up and run 10 next year – now that we are comfortable with them and it really sucked having to turn people away that wanted some. Did you get in on our 2016 pork? Let us know how you like it.

And let us know if you want more information on 2017 pork. 

Easy Pork Chop with Caramelized Onion

Now that the pigs are back from camp and in their new owners freezers, I want to make sure everyone has this go-to recipe in their back pocket. My wife didn’t used to care much for pork chops (I know right, who is this person?) but this recipe has her scarfing them down and looking for more.

Pair this with pretty much any potato or rice and you are all set.

Best Goddam Zucchini Bread

We have an abundance of zucchini on the farm this year. I mean seriously, more than we know what to do with. We BBQ some, I’ve sliced and frozen some for future consumption, and we’ve even stuffed and baked some. Yet still, here I sit with a counter covered in zucchini and plants still producing feverishly.

Freezing is all well and good, but really, the best way to “preserve” zucchini is in bread form. And by preserve, I mean eat 2 loaves in a day.

Having never made zucchini bread before, I had to go searching around for a recipe. Good news – first one I tried is the be all and end all of zucchini recipes.

I would have showed pictures but I didn’t take any and the loaves are long gone already. I will add some in next time.

 

How To Buy A Tractor: New vs. Used

Vintage Tractor

Before you go out and spend your hard earned money on a tractor (or anything else for that matter) remember, to sit down and thing about what equipment you actually need. Once you have that figured out, make sure you know your preferred brand, specs, attachment and horsepower requirements before you start shopping.

Buying an older tractor rather than a new one doesn’t mean you have to be a mechanic but you do need to be aware. One of the first things you should look for is a used tractor with a good hydraulic system that works well. Often referred to as a 3 Point Hitch, this is the three arms extending from the back of the tractor. They lift and hold whatever attachments you use with the tractor. These attachments might be a tiller, snow blower, blade, mower, etc.

The age of a used tractor is not easy to determine. The way to determine the age of the tractor is to find the serial number. You can look it up on the Internet to find information. A good website to find information is Yesterday’s Tractor Registry. Buying a used tractor at an auction or dealer is a good place to start looking for one. Depending on where you live, you may also have a decent sized selection in online classifieds such as Craigslist or Kijii.

Many used tractor have metal foot pedals. They often have a grid or thread that show some type of wear. This is just one factor to determine age but looking at the overall condition of the tractor is a way to determine if it is s good, very good, fair or in passable condition.

Don’t buy a used tractor that leaks oil or has wobbly steering and bad braking unless you are prepared to do a lot of work. This is sign that too much time and money may be needed to repair it. Sometimes a seller will repaint a used tractor to make it look newer. Look beyond the paint job to how it works mechanically.

When you buy a used tractor if you have to replace tires this can cost between $400 to 800 to replace. Look carefully at the tires look for deep cuts and cracks from weather. In fact, its not a bad strategy to include the cost of replacing the tires as part of your budget when you buy a used tractor.

Find a used tractor that is easy to start in the cold weather. Buy from reputable dealers and auction houses so you get a good product.

When you want to buy a new tractor think of the amount of horsepower you will need, weight, size and lift capacity and front loader. You will need to think about four wheel drive and different type of transmission. A new tractor requires less work and upkeep than a used one but it will cost a whole lot more. It all depends on your budget and the amount of money and time you want to invest in repairs and maintenance.

How To Build A Barn, Lean-To and Other Structures

Old farm building

Got some buildings that look like this? Yea, me too.  Not much of value here, not even salvageable planks. Even so, a ranch needs at least a couple of buildings to store equipment, keep hay and firewood dry, and such. Maybe you’ve got some horses that need a new home. Being as we are now under a foot of snow, and being -15 as I write this, the ground is pretty solid, I have be forced to push some building some new structures off to the spring.

That means for now, it’s time to figure out how much space I need, how many structures I need to erect and where I want to place them. To keep costs and building times down, I am edging towards some simple lean to structures.

In researching my spring projects I came across this site from Iowa State University. Basically, it is a large collection of FREE plans for farm and ranch buildings. Take a look, I bet you see a few in their you could build on your property with the help of a few friends.

What Equipment Do You REALLY Need?

Old John Deere

One of the things I struggle with the most, and I suspect that I am not alone, is how much equipment I actually need, and what. Of course I want a shiny, new, bright green, John Deere tractor, but does that make sense? I also want a big, crew cab, F350 dually, but do I need one? The answer in most cases is no, and you probably don’t either. I know, the little boy in me weeps, but my pocketbook, and the ranch’s bottom line thanks me.

But in reality, you need something, right? The answer is a definite maybe. What you really need, and not just want you want,  is going to depend on your operation. If your farm includes row crops of some sort, or a market garden, chances are you’re going to want some type of tractor with the appropriate attachments. Tilling enough ground to plant an adequate crop by hand, while noble, is not realistic.

If you’re running cattle, you probably actually need very little in the way of machinery. Chances are you’re not going to be hauling your animals to the abattoir yourself, unless you’ve just got one or two animals. If you ranch in a harsher winter climate, you may need a means to move hay to feed the animals when the snow gets too deep. While small square bales are feasible to move around manually, chances are you’ve got a stock of round bales. I don’t know about you, but aside from a tractor, I don’t know how to move a half ton bale of hay from the shed to the pasture.

I have seen a lot of people talking about buying their own haying set up. Out here, we don’t produce enough hay for that to make sense. This year we harvested about 50 tons of what is essentially meadow grass in one cut. Could we put in the effort to replant, water and shoot for two cuts, perhaps, but we’ve decided that is not the most effective way to utilize our land. Life is much easier working a crop share agreement with a fellow rancher that already has the equipment. You will have to decide for yourself if you really want to get all the toys or not.

When it comes to equipment ask yourself two questions:

  1. Does this equipment generate income? Which is to say, does it increase productivity enough, and increase yields enough, save time enough, to offset the costs?
  2. What is the opportunity cost of your equipment? What I am getting at here is could you spend $10,000 and get a well maintained used tractor that will suit your needs instead of a newer tractor for $20,000 or $30,000? What could you do with that extra cash? For example, would it make more sense to increase your herd or invest in your marketing efforts?

Whatever route you choose to go, keep in mind that equipment requires upkeep. Tractors require maintenance, fuel, repairs, etc. And in the case of something you’ve financed, it also requires interest payments on top of your capital. For me, at least for now, I prefer to only buy what I can pay for out right. That means a used tractor, an older truck, and the likes.

Have you sat down and thought about what pieces of equipment you actually need, what it costs, and if something less expensive would do the same job?

Required Reading: Grass-Fed Cattle: How to Produce and Market Natural Beef by Julius Ruechel

Cattle Winter Hay FeedAs an ongoing segment here, I am going to provide some reviews, insights, and thoughts on books that I have read. And since you’re probably here to learn more, you may want to read them as well.

To kick this series off, let’s discuss Grass-Fed Cattle: How to Produce and Market Natural Beef by Julius Ruechel.

When I first started reading up on what we might be looking at on this adventure, and really, to see if we really could actually raise cattle, this was the first book I picked up. And I am glad I did.

In this book, Julius touches on almost everything you could think of on your ranch. While it may not be a 100% definitive tell all book, it is extremely comprehensive and gets you thinking about a lot of things I bet you’d never even considered before. Chapters cover topics from herd selection, breeding, to maintaining a healthy pasture, fencing and earth friendly pasture rotation strategy.

Beyond the actual farming aspects of raising grass fed cattle, Ruechel also provides ideas and insights into marketing your product from niche market opportunities to labeling and financial planning. You know, the stuff farmers most often neglect in favor of raising animals. But let me ask you this: what good is raising animals, particularly in a small scale agriculture environment without a solid plan to sell your wares?

If you’re already ranching in a more traditional fashion, not to worry, Ruechel gets into a transition plan to move your operation towards a healthy grass fed operation.

As you read through the book, it is easy to get overwhelmed. Its not a small book. What I found particularly useful is the extensive use of diagrams and images. Trust me, when you start thinking about fencing systems and pasture planning, the pictures go a long way to help conceptualize the concepts.

I think I have probably read through this book cover to cover three times and still refer back to it often. I think what I found most alluring about this book is that not only is it a great resource for natural/organic beef production, but it is also a great resource for cost reducing financial thinking. For insight and ideas into running a lower cost, natural beef operation, this should be your guide.

Buying a farm: how to find your dream ranch

Our cattle ranchOwning a farm can be a wildly rewarding endeavour. Maybe not financially at first, but the rewards are everywhere. There is something comforting about growing and producing your own food. In fact, we just had our fist meat entirely raised and grown on the farm. It was super cool.

Having said that, owning a farm can be challenging and is certainly not for everyone. It can be a lot of work, particularly depending on the condition of the property you buy. If you decide that owning a farm is something that you would like to pursue then one of the most important considerations that you will have is where you will buy your farm and what you should look for when you do.

Before you even start looking, start thinking about what you want to accomplish, what you want to grow or raise, where you intend to sell it, and how much you can actually make. I highly recommend doing a whole lot of research first and putting together a farm marketing plan.

Then get a realtor. One familiar with farms. It’s the best thing you will do.

Regulations and Tax Rebates

Where your farm is located can greatly impact both the taxes you pay as well as the tax rebates that you receive from the government. Many farmers receive some sort of tax rebate or farm subsidies and learning about which programs are available for you in your area of interest is a good place to start. The benefits will be different everywhere so do your homework. Here in B.C., farm status can drastically reduce your property taxes.

Also, make sure the land is properly zone for farm use that is appropriate to your needs. Some regions have ordinances against farm animals and even certain crops. Contact local officials to see if there are any rules that impact your plans and intentions for the farm. No use is buying property to run cattle on if livestock is forbidden. Generally, the further you go from the city, the fewer hassles of this nature you will encounter.

Access to Resources

An area that has good access to resources is important. For one, you will need a market to sell your produce in and a city is often the easiest place to sell, whether it’s through a cooperative, farmers market, or simply direct to consumer. And there are a lot more consumers in the city than the country. So being a reasonable distance from civilization might be something to consider.

Keep in mind that you probably won’t be able to fully support yourself on farm income alone. Access to a community where there are jobs available, either for you or a spouse, including seasonal work during the offseason, to help supplement your farm income should be a consideration. Proximity to small or larger cities will help here.

Resources are also needed for your farm to succeed. In particular water resources are essential to a farm and both quantity and quality of water is essential for your farm’s success. Pretty tough to grow much produce or keep animals quenched without water. As part of the buying process, have the water tested and see ensure a good flow and no hazardous pollutants. Chances are you will be out in the country and on a well so a good, deep, well with a strong flow is important.

And don’t forget about electricity. As you search for your farm, chances are you will come across a number of places that are “off grid”. It’s manageable, but before you just make sure you are up for the challenge. We were not. And frankly running things like heaters to keep livestock water in liquid form at -25 would be a great challenge on a solar power system.

Understanding your product and their prices

Before buying your farm or ranch, consider what you actually want to do. Are you looking to raise animals? Large ones like cows? Smaller ones like pigs? Really small ones like chickens? The size of the property you seek out will depend a lot on what you  want from your farm. It’s also good to explore the cost to getting into your desired product and the prices they sell for. Is it even worthwhile? Here is where a farm marketing plan comes in handy.

Consider the local conditions for the crops you are looking to produce. Not all crops are good for all locations and you should test the local soil to make sure that it has the nutrients necessary for your crops. Typically this means that the soil has sufficient minerals and nutrition and is not overly filled with clay like soil that does not retain moisture well. Consider checking with local agriculture extensions or offices for soil information for your local area before you buy farmland to see if it is suitable for the crops that you want to grow. This is an important consideration for both produce and animals. Remember, if you are looking to raise cattle, you need grass – and lots of it.

Factors that impact the soil you have include:

  • depth and quality of topsoil
  • the drainage of the soil
  • the nutrition and content of the soil (this can be corrected with proper fertilization)
  • the slope and altitude of the soil and farm

The Cost of the Farm

Finally the cost of the farmland is important as well. If the farmland is great but in a cost prohibitive area you will likely need to look for alternative options. Consider your resources available to finance your purchase and then consider the lending and financing that is available to you for your farm purchase. Check with your lender first too – not all lenders will finance farm land. I know, we went through a few trying to find one.

Also, consider if the farm income that you generate, including the farm subsidies and side seasonal income that you earn will be sufficient for you to cover your expenses or not. Cost is an important component to buying a farm and something that warrants significant consideration.

Most likely you will have to find a happy medium. Something that is out of the city, but within a few hours. The farther from large cities, the more affordable the pricing gets – but the fewer local customers you have. Get a few hours out of the city and the price of a farm drops significantly. We are more than a few hours from a major city, but we also bought our farm for less than the cost of a 1 bedroom condo in the city. You have to figure out what is right for you, but chances are half the reason you are even considering farming and ranching is to get out of the city anyhow.

State of the Farm

Finally consider how developed the farm you are buying is and what work will be needed to put your farm in working order. Are their buildings on the farm that can be used? Do they need to be fixed up? What about fences? Shops? Barns? If not, consider the cost of having them built on your farmland before you buy a farm.

That is a high level rundown on how to approach buying a farm and moving to the country. There is more to it than that, but it will be different depending on where you go so you will have to learn that for yourself. Us, we had to learn how to deal with feet upon feet of snow. It’s different, and takes some work, and equipment, but we got there.