Thursday, February 12, 2015

Treadle Fever

One of the mainstays of our farm philosophy has been the idea that all animals belong outdoors on pasture.

This means real access to the outdoors and pasture whenever possible.

Many of the claims by industrial farms that their animals have access to the out-of-doors refers to a small doorway at one end of a huge poultry barn (as an example) where chickens can 'freely' access a woefully inadequate (small) outdoor area.

And things can get MUCH worse!

For our poultry, this was best accomplished through our use of chicken tractors out on pasture. (See previous postings on our construction of one of our tractors).

Now there are times that this can go completely sideways and turn into a muddy mess or snow too-deep for the chickens to navigate, but as a whole, it works quite well and the chickens seem to really love the fresh air and dirt to scratch and explore.

One of the downsides however has been our wild bird population.

Slowly, the wild birds (starlings in particular) have discovered that they too can enjoy the bountiful buffet that is our chicken feeders.

Given that feed costs are the farm's #1 expense, we realized that something must be done - ASAP!

After some online research, we settled on the idea of using treadle feeders.

The name comes from idea of a treadle, much like the pedal on a sewing machine, that when depressed by the weight of a large bird (like say a chicken), lifts the cover over a feed tray and VOILA! : the chickens can access their food.

When the starlings show up, they get NUTHIN!

After researching online for a commercial product and networking with some other small producers who have trialed some of those commercial products available, we settled on building our own. (The farms we talked to that had tried the metal treadle feeders said they were cheaply made and not suitable for a small scale but commercial use).

I was able to find a couple of sources for building our own feeders and set about building a prototype and this was definitely my favorite:

(Thanks to Mr. del Cielo for his wonderful article on building a treadle feeder)

When you're looking to build up to 40 or more of these feeders, you want to get all the kinks out of the system. (Also, we have found that some things that have been useful for other farmers on their properties, have just failed miserably when put into use on our own).

A couple of changes we made on Mr. del Cio's model:

1. We're using 1/2 plywood for the side walls and feed cover, and 1 inch heavy rough sawn oak for the treadle. The extra weight seems to help with the ease of opening and we've gotten our weight-needed-to-open-the-feed-cover down to less than 2 lbs.

2. We opted to use a stronger steel bold for our primary and secondary hinge pins with washers. 

The washers help displace the side arms away from the side walls of the feeder and decrease the chances that they will get stuck rubbing against those side walls if the whole unit gets torqued.

3. Locking nuts. We combined these with our hex bolts to control how tight these hinges would be.

4. We invested in some steel screw posts for the small hinges. The aluminum posts just didn't seem sturdy enough to last. We were able to find these steel posts online for about $35 per 100.

Here are some images of our protoype being built to give you a sense of how it looked:

We intentionally left the side arms long until I could figure out the optimal location for each pivot point to optimize function.

you can see there were a number of adjustments made to find the best location for each hole. 

The prototype allows me to leave this in the hands of our interns to work on when I'm not there. 

I'm not always the best about writing down measurements and so there's a lot in my head that never gets written down.

That's a 1.9 # hammer on the treadle.

We added a 1/2 inch lip on the bottom and side edges of the feed tray to help with billing of feed out of the feeder. 

We initially started with a 4 inch front wall for the feeder, but that seemed too deep and I reduced to 3 1/2 inches.  I was worried that the fresh feed would continuously cover the feed on the bottom and it would spoil. (One thing we've found to be important is to allow the chickens to periodically finish the feed in their feeders and really clean them out).

I have also kept the feed opening fairly narrow,  again to help with feed wastage.

More to follow on how they hold up to daily use by our 1000 birds!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

A house is not a home...

A chair is still a chair
Even when there's no one sittin' there
But a chair is not a house
And a house is not a home
When there's no one there to hold you tight
And no one there you can kiss goodnight

- Luther Vandross

And apparently, if you're a pig, a house is not a home unless it has a floor!

But let me elaborate...

While pigs are incredibly hardy animals, most types are essentially bald. As a consequence, they need shelter from the elements in the wintertime, at least here in Maryland. 

And one of the big pig controversies in pastured hog housing is whether to put a floor in your shelters or not. Very controversial stuff here on the farm!

Young gilts snuggle in for a nap
The floor-less crowd favors a dirt floor and 'deep bedding' of straw. The idea is as the straw is soiled through the winter, the straw starts to compost and actually heats up, thereby helping the pigs to stay warm. The pigs can snuggle down into their 'heated' bedding and make a nest where surface temperatures can approach 70 degrees, even in the coldest of weather.

Mama sow and her fresh piglets
Of the contrary opinion, other farmers say you need to put a floor in to the keep the hogs dry and that dryness is the most important quality of any shelter meant for pigs.

For those of you not in the farming business, this debate might seem incredibly dull and unimportant, but for farmers, these are the things of daily discussion and heated debate.

A few years back, we were fortunate enough to hire our neighbor to build us some custom hog shelters. Our requirements were:

1. It had to be tough as nails - pigs are the excavators and wrecking balls of the livestock world. They love to tear things apart. 

There are stories of farmers looking to remove a stump putting this behavior to good use - they would dig a hole under the stump and fill it with corn and other treats that the pigs love. Let the pigs loose and a few days later, the stump is out free of charge!  

2. It had to be tall enough for me to stand up in the shelter.

One of the beauties of the Gloucester Old Spot (GOS) breeds is their wonderful temperament. We commonly climb into the shelters and assist with delivers. Its very nice having some room to work and someplace for us to sit or kneel without being too close.

One of our farmtek shelters. They tend to not be nearly sturdy enough for the pigs and we have modified them to pig-proof them. This is a fairly typical setup when we're farrowing.

3. Good ventilation.

Pigs get overheated in the summer months and can sometimes have trouble with ammonia build-up in the winter, especially if you're using a floorless shelter system. For both reasons, we wanted excellent ventilation.

4. Room to work. 

Our pigs co-habitate and help keep each other warm in winter. We sometimes lock sows into a shelter for a few days after farrowing. We set up creep feeding areas for young piglets in shelters to keep the food dry.

Mama sow transferring straw from one shelter to another for a nest prior to farrowing.
For all these reasons and more, we wanted something of a decent size. In the end, we settled on 8 x 8 feet.
Nick helps a sow after farrowing.

5. Mobile.

From a sanitation perspective, we always move our shelters periodically through the year. This allows the natural processes of wind, rain and sunlight to sanitize the area where the shelter was parked.

Skids can be very useful in this regard but do have some disadvantages. One of the biggest for us was the fact that the higher the clearance from the ground, the more problems we could anticipate allowing our very young piglets free access in and out of the shelter. They're so small, their little legs just can't get them up easily to climb into a structure with a high entryway.

6. Affordable. 

Don't really need to say much about this. Most hog shelters tend to be on the high side as far as costs go, because they typically have to be very well made with heavy materials, which tend to be more expensive.

one of our farmtek shelters in winter - note how we create a wind block in the doorway.

7. Local.

We like to support our local economy whenever possible. This means buying from local craftspeople, hiring local contractors and buying local materials whenever possible. This puts our money back into and builds up our local economy.

Kind of a ragtag collection of our various shelters in winter.

We were fortunate to able to buy our custom shelters from our neighbor, a master metalsmith, who built them to our specifications. Nice rear flip-down window for summer ventilation, galvanized sides with pressure treated plywood on the interior, and enough height to standup inside.

What has our experience been without floors?

WAY TOO WET for our liking and not nearly enough 'composting' to compensate for the wet cold of the floorless shelter.

In fact, after one especially wet, cold, rainy March day we watched in horror as water was literally sheeting into the shelter and flooding it. Because the pigs like to root and dig, they had lowered the grade of the ground in the shelters below the outside grade!

 We had had enough! Our shelters were going to get floors.

So we set about building floors and then bringing them in and placing the metal shelters on top. A few screws and we were set.

Our pigs were now high and dry, and they seemed to be very happy with that! 

Future modifications on horizon for us? 

1. Some sort of lip that will help hold straw in the shelter. they tend to drag it out with them when they leave the shelter.

2. Some sort of door that partially closes the entrance during the worst of winter to help hold in the heat.

3. Insulate the underside of the metal roof - it tends to heat up in the summer and helps to make the shelters too hot.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


This has been a tough winter for these two farmers in Maryland.

Will grew up in P.G. County and I've been here since 1993. 

I grew up in Upstate New York, 1.5 hours from Toronto and I used to jokingly refer to being from the Canadian Riviera because of the horrible winters.

Maryland was like a dream - mild winters with some change of weather but very rare cold snaps and very little snow on the ground. fantasies of life in Maryland have been shattered.

During the winter of 2013-2014, we have experienced some really brutally cold temperatures.

Unfortunately for us, we had decided that a winter lambing would be a good idea for this season. 

We follow an accelerated lambing schedule loosely based on the STAR system developed at Cornell, that allows us to get 3 cycles out of each ewe/doe about every 24 or 26 months. Because lamb is so hard to produce profitably in our area, anything we can do to improve the economics of this operation is vital.

Previous winter lambings had gone swimmingly, and we had actually come around a full 180 degrees from our belief in 'following the seasons' and lambing later in the spring when the grass has come in. 

Our experience this past April was classic. A bunch of lambs that were weaned onto grass, just as the parasite loads on grass hit their stride. The lambs floundered all summer with very poor growth and lots of scouring from heavy parasite loads. Here it is in February, almost a year later, and I still have lambs that are not really ready for butchering because of their small size and poor weight gain. Believe me, trying to put weight on feeder lambs using only hay is an expensive and slow process.

Given the bitter cold, the sheep were brought into the barn for lambing. Stalls (called jugs) were setup and heat lamps were put in place. We were as ready as we would ever be.

Now, ask any farmer about using heat lamps in their barn, and a mix of fear and quiet resignation will wash over their face. Heat lamps are responsible for horrific barn fires every year and yet, for many farmers, the prospects of doing without them is just not thinkable.

Some farmers refuse to use them altogether deeming the risk too great.

So how cold was it? (Well, for those of you from further north, you can skip over this part as you will be completely unimpressed.)

'Cold as a witches tit!' as my mother used to say. Really cold. Frigid. Minus single digits. So cold, waterers froze, the snow crunched like potato chips under our feet, and our wimpy Maryland animals shivered and hunkered down in their shelters.

For the breeder pigs, we stocked their shelters with lots of straw, commonly referred to as 'deep bedding'. The pigs burrow into the straw and as it composts in situ, it gives off heat. I've heard of temperatures into the 70's at soil level in pig operations with good deep bedding even during bitter cold.

As proof of this, I was impressed to see our compost heap hitting 145 degrees, even during the worst of the cold. That's some impressive heat production.

The dogs seemed oblivious. Except for a few of the coldest, windy nights, when wind chills reached -40 degrees, I would find them asleep in the snow, not anywhere near their cozy shelters.

Which brings us back to lambsicles. What these wickedly cold temps did mean was we were checking for new lambs, every two hours, day and night, so we could get the newborns dry ASAP.
Once hypothermic, newborn lambs, kids and piglets are in trouble and often, we can't turn them around.

Here we have a picture of two hypothermic piglets. In order to save them, we have to get their body temp up ASAP. Here we have submerged them in a bucket of warm water. Works like a charm!

I'm happy to say that with 70 lambs and baby goats (kids) on the ground, we had no losses to cold.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Pregnancy? check!

The following was submitted for the Whitmore Farm blog by Trevis Carmichael, one of our interns summer/fall 2013:

The thrumming in my head turned out to be my cellphone alarm, not whatever strange machination the dream-logic of my mind had turned it into. It was something like 3:00am and I quickly prodded my hand around on my nightstand to silence the noise. I hoped I had turned it off fast enough to have not fully pulled Kasey out of her slumber beside me.
In the dark, I pawed around for the clothes I had worn the previous day. I figured the ladies wouldn’t mind if I didn’t dress up for the occasion. The night previous had been Kasey’s night to check and nothing had happened. We were on a four day rotation. We had arrived at Whitmore Farm a couple months prior and had yet to see any births but the season was upon us.
Unfortunately, our expectations of an earlier spring didn’t come to fruition. The first weeks that the sows could be expected to start farrowing had been cold. They had been moved from their pasture to the barnyard so we could keep on eye on them. Conveniently enough, the “old barn” here had been renovated recently and we didn’t have to travel far to check on the sows. In fact, a single concrete wall separated our apartment in the barn from the animal space.
I was dressed —mostly— grabbed the flashlight, and stumbled half coherent into the other half of the barn. I flipped one of the light switches on so that a soft light cast across the heaving masses of life. I was just settling in to the fact that hogs are just as personable and playful as any dog, only a couple weight classes higher. Each had her own rhythmic breathing going; some the staccato patta patta patta on the exhale, others the swine equivalent of a sneeze on every other.
There was something uniquely beautiful about the scene. For some reason I was reminded of those background sound CD’s you see near the check out at Barnes and Noble — Thunder on the Plains, or Waves Crashing on the Coast of Ireland — that are simply 78 minutes of an audio of some romantic place. I could imagine the scene in front of me on the cover and the title Sows in a Banked Barn Sleeping Restfully, Safe from the Cold.
I opened the two blue metal gates that made the lane-way for handling the sheep and goats and moved as delicately as one can half awake and wearing muck boots. We were to check all the sows and make sure that if any were giving birth or looked on the verge, we would stick around and assist the process. Essentially this meant making sure each newly emerged piglet made the correct first choice of left toward mother’s life-providing teats instead of right and into the cold oblivion. It seemed wrong somehow that the first choice in their lives was 50/50; life or death.
It was the probably the third night I had been in charge of checking and because nothing had happened yet, the anticipation was building. As I delicately closed the second blue gate, I could pick out one of the sows breathing that sounded more urgent and strained. She was apparently already awake because she turned suddenly towards me, startled. Suddenly, I was fully awake. I was immediately sure this was time.
She did what can only described as “a near-term sow trying to get up off her side in the middle of the night dance.” She used the support beam beside her as a fulcrum to get to her feet and anxiously searched for some characteristic in the straw bedding all around her. Again, this looked like a dog trying to find a good place to lay down. I figured she was looking for just the right place to start having some babies now that I was present.
She grunted and snuffed and shook her had as she dug through the layers of straw. She reached a spot that seemed satisfactory. I was trying to decide if I should go get Kasey, did I have time? Could one of these piglets slip out quickly in the short time it would take me?
The sow then turned towards me, looked me in the eyes, and grunted. I figured she was about ready to send one out. Shouldn't she be on her side though…….?
*                            *                                  *

I went back to bed with a particular grin on my face, I’ll leave the adjective modifying grin out to avoid any bad puns. I debated whether or not I would tell anybody about my mistaken conclusions about what that sow needed to do. I decided to wait a few months. What came out of that sow on the fateful night was, sadly, not a piglet.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Real Cost of Food

As a small scale farmer, I tend to obsess a lot about money. 

Ask any small farmer and they'll admit the same...

If you ever wondered what's going through the head of the farmer standing behind the table at your local farm market, here are some examples:

Will we have enough to pay our bills this month? 

Can we buy feed this week? 

Do we have enough to buy hay? 

The pigs ate HOW MUCH this month!!! 

Boy market was slow this week :(

...and even, occasionally, 'I think I'm going to have a nervous break down'. 

Surprisingly, my worries are less about running the farm, sick animals, staffing issues, the weather or any of the thousands of things affecting my farm. Its always about the money.

While any small business owner can identify with the chronic undercurrent of financial tension that is owning a small business, farming is a famously awful way to make money.

As the old joke goes, 'how do you make a small fortune in farming?'

Answer: 'start with a big one!'

So, why is that? Are small producers just clueless and terrible business people?

Well sometimes, it is just that. Some farmers are terrible at managing money, but those guys are usually gone pretty quickly. The survivors, in my experience, actually tend to be pretty good at getting by on a shoestring, very innovative, resourceful...often just down-right clever!

I cannot tell you how many times I've been impressed and a little intimidated by the resourcefulness of some of my peers. 'Why didn't I think of that before!' is another common thought that crosses my mind.

So what is it that makes farming so financially challenging? 

Growing up in Western New York, farms built in the 19th and early 20th Centuries typically featured a large, often grand, main house, a large barn, and many outbuildings, often including small cottages for a good number of farm workers. 

Clearly, these people were not just scraping by....

When I visit many modern day farms, the thoughts that most commonly crosses my mind range from 'the whole place could use a coat of paint' to something much worse.

Are these people just lazy? Blind? Clearly, given how hard these small farmers work, a strong work ethic is not the problem.

What it boils down to is the economics of farming.

At the turn of the 19th to 20th Century, the average American household spent 18 to 20% of their disposible income on food. Food was expensive, it was local, and it was essentially 'organic' by today's standards.

After WWII, the United States created a policy of lowering the cost of food, primarily through farm subsidies that encouraged efficiency, centralization, and mechanization of our food supply.

This was a time where everything modern was viewed as superior. Tang instead of orange juice, science and technology over nature, and an end to hunger in the U.S. at least, if not the world. Sounds pretty good, doesn't it?

Well, how things have changed!

While, hunger remains a big problem in much of the developing world, in the U.S. we have the unique problem of persistent hunger in some populations alongside an explosion in our rates of obesity. 

We are overfed, and often, paradoxically, malnourished.

Much of this, in my opinion, relates to the 'cheapness' of food - not just its monetary value in the market, but also, what's in it.

We now spend about 9% of our disposible income on our food. We have some of the cheapest food in the world, and yet I would argue, we are far worse for it.

By artificially price-supporting cheap food at all costs, we are now swimming in it. The farm bill in combination with the industrialization of our food system, effectively produces food on the retail level that is priced below its cost of production.

But the costs are still there, just hidden in government subsidies, low wages, environmental pollution, and animal cruelty.

At the turn of the 19th Century, meat cutters at this country's abbatoirs made a living wage. A man could support a family on the wages he made working there and these were desirable jobs.

Now we pay poverty-level wages to the workers in our meat-processing facilities, shifting the burden of providing for those workers to other government programs like food stamps, in order to survive.

The animals have faired far worse than the people in most circumstances. Despite the pretty names and pictures on the packaging of most grocery store items, most food comes from industrialized farms where the animals are treated very poorly, often cruelly, all in the name of maintaining low costs.

The system teeters along, the whole time assuming that gasoline and corn will be cheap and plentiful forever.

Now, even these horrible facilities in the U.S. are too pricey in the eternal quest to maximize profit. The FDA has recently approved plans to begin sending whole poultry to China for butchering and packaging, then back again to the U.S. for resale.

We throw antibiotics at our sick livestock, pesticides and herbicides at our crops, all in the name of producing more for less. The environmental and health effects are catastrophic.

Depleted and contaminated aquifers (thank you fracking), depletion of our topsoil through non-sustainable farming practices, and long-term affects of the overuse of pesticides and herbicides on human health and the environment are what we have to look forward to.

So what can your average person do? 

First of all, accept the idea that good food, real food, costs more than what you see at your local Walmart or Costco. 

Secondly, STOP shopping at Walmart and Costco. Agree that you will make it a priority to buy less but a better quality of food whenever possible.

Third. Buy fresh, buy local. Seek out local producers and support them. Pay what they ask. Ask them how they're doing. Make them feel important, not just some idiot banging his head against a wall to change the world for the better.

Fourth. Buy organic. While there are problems with the NOP (National Organics Program) as run by the USDA, the organic label does require (if properly enforced) non-GMO and NOP-approved inputs. This increases the market for non-GMO crops and organic farming methods on a larger scale.

Fifth. Avoid products grown and produced outside the U.S. There are fewer controls and a greater risk of shortcuts. Did you know for example that only 5% of USDA, NOP-approved 'organic' producers overseas are inspected annually?

Sixth. Kill the Farm Bill. More specifically, kill subsidies in the farm bill. If any subsidies are to be provided, they should produce the following in your local grocery store:

a. fresh fruits and vegetables should be the cheapest items on the shelves.

b. processed foods, sodas, chips, and the like should be the MOST expensive items to buy.

Seventh. Cook real food. This means cook things from real, raw food, not boxed processed food, not bagged precut vegetables.

Eighth. Learn about seasonal eating. Rediscover the deliciousness of fruits and vegetables that used to be staples of the American diet - squash, parsnips, rutabaga, cabbage, etc.

Ninth. Rediscover pickled and fermented foods. There are many studies that suggest eating these products promote good health.

While there are many more possible suggestions, the truth is that if followed, these 9 ideas would transform the average American's diet in a very positive way, would support local sustainable agriculture, and would start the process of dismantling our dysfunctional, industrial food chain.