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.