Last week marks the second birthday of the first animals born on our farm. The steers (castrated males) Beardo and Little Will were born April 24 and 22 respectively, and Siibi the heifer (female who has not yet had a calf) was born April 12.

It has been a juggling act ensuring that the cattle get enough to eat as they rehabilitate our depleted fields, but as you can see below Beardo has grown into a fine young fellow eclipsing his mom, Koko.

Beardo far left, his mom far right

Given that the cows weigh about 500 kg, I would guess Beardo is closer to 600 kg -- a very respectable weight for a Black Angus steer, and that is before finishing him (fattening him up) on the spring flush of grass.

Beardo with Rob

To paraphrase the schoolyard taunt "bet my two year old can beat up your two year old" :-). Looking forward to 100% grass-fed Black Angus beef this August.

I can’t speak for other farmers, but here is why my pastured pork costs as much as it does.

Higher costs to the Farmer

Food: Feed is the biggest cost of raising pigs; each pig eats almost half a ton of grain. I feed my pigs custom milled certified organic rations because I still believe you are what you eat. Organic feed costs roughly double conventional feed; keep reading for why I think it is worth the money.

Pasture: Pasturing animals doesn't scale: you can do a few or a few dozen, but not 20,000 hogs per year like the Perth County hog farmer I chatted with this year. Pastured pigs will root up a paddock to bare dirt in under a month, and each paddock needs to be fenced and supplied with water and shelter. I also have to bring all those tonnes of food to them; feed trucks aren’t designed for off-roading.

Piglets: The cheap industrially-produced piglets are bred for confinement (a lot of them spend their lives in near constant darkness on metal slats or concrete). Heritage breeds or crossbreeds including heritage breeds are harder to find (especially in volume) and cost more, but they won’t sunburn, they know and love foraging, and their immune systems don’t need to be supplemented with antibiotics.

What you are NOT getting for your money

Funny title, eh? Read on.

No pre-emptive medication: as Steve Leech from Chicken Farmers of Canada said in a 2015 Global News article "...you can’t eliminate preventive use of antibiotics entirely. At least, not unless you want to completely change the way you raise livestock, making meat that much pricier to produce and to purchase." Raising pastured livestock is completely different from how livestock is raised industrially, and yes, it makes the meat much pricier. New directives came out in 2016 to reduce or ban a lot of drugs that are also used on human beings. Do you trust that the current industry-funded science goes far enough? Or is it worth spending more to know that what you eat received no pre-emptive medication of any kind?

No forced cannibalism: Remember mad cow disease? That was spread by feeding the flesh of diseased cattle to cattle. At huge cost the industrial food system made changes to ensure that never happens again: they no longer feed cattle to cattle. They still feed pigs to pigs and chickens to chickens. Don’t believe me? Look for “pork meal” in the ingredients list on bags of hog feed at TSC or a feed mill.

No “residual feed streams”: “Residual feed streams” is a euphemism for “what waste can we safely feed meat animals.” It can include waste products from industrial food processing such as faulty Skittles, for example. (I note that this Wisconsin story was only reported outside of North America).

My organic feed costs twice what industrial agriculture feed costs because it excludes all of the above, as well as being free of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Just remember: if you are what you eat then you are what your food eats too.

When you buy our meat, you get only meat from our animals: A 2015 Washington Post article estimated (because no one could say definitively) that an industrially-produced hamburger patty can contain the meat from up to 100 different animals in a one-pound package. Think how problems proliferate if every one of thousands of packages of ground beef sent all across the country contains bits of 100 different animals. This is why health authorities and industrial processors have been pushing for traceability. Instead of the reassurance that authorities can trace any problem after the fact, I give you my personal assurance that every animal I send to slaughter is healthy when I send them, I send them in a way that minimizes their stress and time around other animals, and the meat I sell contains no animals but ours.

What you ARE getting for your money

Near-organic: Everything else we produce on our farm is certified organic. I can't certify my pork because there is no certified organic abattoir within two hours’ drive and I haven’t found a provider of certified organic piglets, but I do my best to raise the pigs according to organic standards while they are in my care.

A better planet: We regularly move livestock to maximize their benefit and minimize their damage to the soil. This builds soil fertility and a healthy soil ecosystem which sequesters greenhouse gasses (see page 12 of “Putting Soil Health First” published by the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario). Moving them to new pasture takes a lot of time out of a farmer’s busy day, but we strongly believe that it is best for the animals and the planet.

Improve our local economy: Money spent in a local store recirculates much more in the local economy than money spent at a chain store. Buy from me and you are paying the local feed mill that mills the hogs' feed from grain supplied by local farmers, among many other local transactions. All of us pay local taxes and most of us believe in buying local too, so every dollar you spend on a local product gets repeatedly circulated in the local economy. In other words it increases local economic activity many times more than buying the same item from a grocery chain store. Multiple US studies have found the difference to be anywhere from 30% more to 300% more positive local impact (Cape Cod Commission research brief, chart page 3).

Food Security: With climate change making harvest yields more and more uncertain, a trade war with the US, which is the source of most of our food, and transportation costs that can only rise as oil becomes more expensive, it’s a good investment in risk management to buy a decent proportion of your food from local producers. You may pay a little extra today but in an increasingly uncertain world it is good to have some locals who retain and have refined the basic skills that keep us alive.

Humane compassionate food: Our animals live their lives as they have evolved to live: in their herd (usually they all come from one or two litters), out of doors (as soon as they learn to respect electric fencing and are big enough to have a fighting chance against coyotes). We minimize their stress by letting them express their natures and by ensuring their needs are met. This makes for visibly happy and content animals. It is the old-school paradigm of choosing animals well-adapted to the environment and empowering them to manage themselves, as opposed to the industrial and regulatory approach of trying to control everything and thereby raising animals in an environment that is not natural to them.

Summertime and the living is easy... at least for the pigs in their wallow

Conclusion

I know our meat is expensive. I know money is tight. But while the government spends money figuring out what waste and antibiotics to feed meat animals to keep prices down, we produce our meat using paradigms that are more resilient and more respectful of the animals.

Thank you to every customer who spends or has spent the extra money to buy some of our pork. I hope you now see it as I do; not just an investment in good eating, but also an investment towards a better community: more healthy, more wealthy, and more resilient.

2 Comments

What fool would go out in -30C wind chill and stick their bare hands in ice water? ME! My cattle's water supply had frozen over in the night so I had to break the ice and take it out. (Bare hands because I need to keep my mitts dry to keep the skin on my hands from freezing.) They could probably survive eating snow for moisture for a day or two, but since their rumens are a major source of warmth I want to ensure they are eating as much hay as possible over the next few days.

The cattle take it all in stride, by the way. Snow collects on their thick black fur indicating they are not losing too much body heat to the cold.

This photo was taken in another cold snap when it was only -10C (-17C wind chill) and the cattle chose to spend the night outside their shelter.

There is frost on the INSIDE of the window where I am writing this. At least it is not cold enough for our plumbing to freeze (a lesson from the even colder winter of 2014-5).

Time to pull the blinds and hide in the living room in front of the wood stove with our dog.

It has been 30 months since my last blog. I thought I should do something grandiose, but that was a year ago. So today's post is just a quick slice of life on the farm.

This is our second winter with cattle. Last night was surprisingly snowy, given that the temperature only rose from -17C to -10C. A steady wind kept the wind chill about 7C colder, so I figured the cattle would spend the night in their shelter.

Here is how they greeted me this morning.

Snowing, windy and -10C (-17C wind chill) and the cattle chose to spend the night outside their shelter.

They also know how to take care of themselves: staying outside in the cold reduces parasite and disease pressure versus stabling them. Ee! Bah gum, they're all champions! I wish our old farm house was as well insulated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We have been so busy farming we haven’t posted in months. What’s been happening?

  • Vegetables are in full production and we are at the Flesherton & District Farmers Market every Saturday morning from 8 AM to 1 PM until Thanksgiving (except this Saturday, July 25).
  • The first batch of chickens is in the freezer and the second batch move out to pasture in the next week.
  • We got our six Berkshire pigs at the end of May and they are finally moving from the barnyard to full pasture this week.

this is good stuff

Many projects around the farm in support of the above:

  • Frost-seeded two fields to increase their forage and soil quality.
  • Replaced the barn board on the south wall of the barn.
  • Finished painting our bridge.
  • Built a third chicken coop for pasturing.
  • Rented then bought a wood chipper to convert brush from our tree lines into bedding for the pigs (and managed to keep all my fingers and toes attached).
  • Bought/built equipment for the pigs: portable electric fencing, waterers (thanks to Bullfrog Machine and Tool in Desboro for welding them to T-bars so I can use them in the field), a brush cutter so the electric fencing doesn’t ground-out in deep grass and weeds, and feeding troughs (thanks again to Bullfrog for finding a galvanized water tank and converting it into two troughs).

June and July are the busiest time of year on the farm. For the vegetables, everything is going on simultaneously: seeding, weeding, harvesting, and markets. I am seeding the last of the head lettuce this week and weed pressure will decline in August (if I can stay on top of them a few more weeks). Most of the livestock transitions also happen during this time: moving chickens from the brooder to pasture once they fledge (get their feathers), moving the pigs to pasture once they learn to respect the electric fence. It is also the only time of year when we can do outdoor painting: most paints don’t cure properly below 10⁰ C and our frost-free window is from early June to early September. That means anything I need in 2016 that needs weatherproofing or painting needs to be built and painted now.

Sunny days ahead make today a perfect day to hand weed. Time to rescue those cooking onions…

"Humanity, despite its artistic abilities, sophistication and accomplishments, owes its existence to a six-inch layer of farmable soil and the fact that it rains."—Anonymous

Think about it: our food supply is measured in days, weeks and, at best, months. The oceans are over-fished and hydroponics can't scale up. Lose our ability to grow food on the land and this is how long we have to live. Because of their importance, the UN has declared 2015 as "the international year of soils". Read more about the issues and what we are doing at Better Together Farms below. ...continue reading

A lot of my friends think that my winters are like vacation time because I don't have any livestock over winter. The pace is more relaxed, but winters are more like having a desk job than being on vacation. Some of the things I've been up to:

  • Accounting: catching up on entries for the last year and re-structuring the system to manage things better.
  • Continuing Education: Winter is the best time for farmers' availability so most workshops, conferences and seminars occur now. I missed the big conferences this year but took a course on holistic management, attended Grey-Bruce Farmers' Week Eco-day (for us weirdos who don't want to spray if we don't see a problem), and workshops of woodlot management and soil microbiology. A woodlot conference and a forestry workshop are also scheduled.
  • Website Development: I've put up few new posts or pages despite the best of intentions, but it took a while to figure out how to backup the site before I could upgrade everything to the latest version. I have designed a structure, but still need to implement it and populate it with content. An RSS feed so you can conveniently subscribe to our latest news is also in the works.
  • Strategic Review: After two years on the farm I have a better understanding of the land and my capabilities as a farmer. I've been exploring raising beef cattle and pigs, but each of these includes analyses of the minimum infrastructure required to get started, how big an operation I could manage and its infrastructure and profitability, as well as related decisions on making or buying infrastructure, keeping a herd versus buying in for a season, and impacts on my organic certification.
  • Planning: I'm behind on vegetable planning for this year, but I'll sow the first seedlings this week. The farmers' co-op finalize their "chick days" schedule and prices around Valentine's Day so I'll be picking that up next time I'm in town and scheduling the meat bird slaughter dates before I place the order for chicks (our processor only does certified organic runs on Monday mornings so I have 20% of the dates available).

Of course, I can do all of this (except the continuing ed) in my pyjamas with our bouvier Beauregard keeping my feet warm, so it is still a pretty good life.

For another farmer's take on winter, see Fertile Ground's post.

Here we are on the last day of 2014. It has been a challenging year at Better Together Farms, highlighting some of the limitations of ourselves and our land. I think we finally know enough to chart a plan to get us where we want the farm to go (with a little help). Charting this course will be the major challenge in the months ahead.

Many of my former actuarial colleagues don't believe this is as difficult as I make it out to be. I think the major challenges are breadth and risk. You need to know a little about a lot of things to farm: soil chemistry, soil biology, plant biology (of both what you want to grow and the weeds that get in the way), a little plumbing and managing water pressure and volume for irrigation, basic mechanical skills to use, maintain and diagnose equipment, basic construction skills. Also everything you grow on your farm has its own learning curve. For example each vegetable crop has particular frost sensitivities in spring and fall, sensitivity to summer heat, optimal spacing, moisture and sun requirements, harvest period for each seeding, particular pests and diseases (and tips to identify them), particular nutritional requirements (and tips to identify deficiencies), and variations by variety.

There are the skills and knowledge not directly related to production. Research is a big one: after touring dozens of farms in Ontario I believe each farm is effectively a unique combination of soil, flora, fauna, topography and micro-climates and a unique expression of the skills, resources and values of the farmer. So finding information relevant to our situation or transforming the results of studies for application on our farm is a tricky business. Purchasing is another a big one: farms aren't big money-makers so you want to innovate to use what you have and what is cheap as much as possible. A lot of industrial farmers like big shiny new equipment; a lot of them are in a lot of debt and would be bankrupted by a couple bad years. Also most of the supplies and equipment are heavy or bulky, so you want to find things locally if possible. The one-size-fits-all world of online shopping doesn't work when shipping costs are greater than the cost of the item.

As a former actuary, I can talk a lot about risk, so I guess I'll leave that for a future post.

I wish all of us a happy, healthy, successful 2015!

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Looking back, I am embarrassed at my inactivity on this blog and website. Going forward this will be the main source of news and photos for Better Together Farms since we will delete our Facebook account before 1 January 2015. I hope to add webfeed functionality like RSS so it will be easy for you to stay in touch with us, but I expect it will be something like March before I get around to setting that up.

Our second year on the farm brought many lessons including:

  • The stony ridge in our vegetable field curves around to the north -- I broke several tools finding this out.
  • Twitch grass must be brought under control before you plant -- we were running late due to the wet spring so we transplanted our most robust crops after knocking back the twitch. Those plantings were eventually overrun and lost to the twitch -- you just don't have the time to do the volume of weeding required.
  • A lot of our crops have a narrow window of opportunity on our farm. I realized last year that our frost-free period is almost two months shorter than the first farm where I interned near Toronto. This year, delays from fighting the twitch grass made me realize that this only allows a couple of weeks to plant our long-season and hot crops like tomatoes and winter squash.
  • Don't plan to build in the spring. Paint and other weather-proofing only cure reliably in the warm nights of July and August. This means that by springtime we need to have designed and sourced materials for stuff we think we will need next year before seeing how things work this year -- tricky.

It has been four years since I left actuarial work to pursue our farm dream, so we are taking this winter to do a strategic review. We will definitely add pigs to our enterprises in 2015, but the ultimate size of each enterprise needs to be re-evaluated.

We will be at the Flesherton Farmers' Market next Saturday, August 2, with Swiss chard and fresh heads of lettuce.

It was an uphill battle against the twitchgrass, but I eventually gained the upper hand and got all our crops sown. Now I'm wishing for a few sunny days in a row to finish this round of weeding...