Wednesday, March 30, 2016


We live in a nation that has been at war with its own working people for at least four decades now through Democrat and Republican both. The victims have finally caught on and that is what much of the upset and direct talk on both sides of the current Presidential race is all about. People are finally awake! The elite use a variety of methods, ranging from automation and consolidation to winking at the people streaming across the border to find work, then treating them worse than I treat my animals as they use them to drive wages down. Or they rig the game so the factory can move over the border. Or close the factory up and hire a Chinese one. And have you noticed that with all this easy movement of people there is still not a few foreign born and trained dentists coming in to help control the price of crowning my worn out teeth down from four figures? Ever wonder how that works?  Dentists are evidently not allowed to cross the border. 

We independent farmers, the few of us that are left, have stubbornly gotten ourselves into the situation where we can effect small, but potentially large changes by starting right within our own farms. We are a strange breed, both management and labor, and that gives us a certain freedom. What we have done here at our farm as we needed to expand our hog production to keep up with markets is to begin to take human needs into account in the decision making. 

Let me tell you about just one outcome of that; the breeding and gestation areas. We need to keep about a hundred sows to keep our new farrowing house in full production. When we were deciding how to house and handle them, we knew a few things thanks to our forty year history in the hog business. We knew we wanted the herd to have access to a considerable quantity of forage feeds-pastures in summer, quality hays in winter-as this has a wonderful effect on milking and mothering ability. We knew we had to be careful how we fed the grain part of the ration, as we aren't interested in gestation crates and sows in a group can be pretty savage when they fight over feed. We knew we needed three gestating/breeding areas for our three group farrowing system, one for replacements, and two for regular sow groups, plus another short term holding area so the farrowing house could regularly be clear of all hogs for cleaning. And most important, we saw that we had more help coming, both in terms of the next generation so interested in farming and the coming need to hire part time help for the business.

We saw early on that we could readily offer pasture access to two groups at a time due to the farm's layout so we decided that the replacements would be held off pasture and fed hay year around instead. We split two standard hoops-30X72-across the narrow middle and concreted them. We designated one half hoop for feeding, the other three were for sow housing. We also poured an apron outside each for sow water access and manure handling. That done, we devised a set of lanes and handling traps so that each of the sow groups could be allowed access to the feeding area in its turn. The feeding area was equipped with refurbished and modified gestation stalls. We narrowed them to twenty inches to fit 18 of them in each of two rows, and modified the back gates so they would function as feeding stalls. Each group of thirty plus sows comes into the area three times per week for grain feeding by means of a wheelbarrow and hand scoop on each feed alley, a process that takes about three hours for the three groups. This comes out to about one hour of work each feeding day plus two hours time for the sows to eat the ration. The sows have forage, either pasture or hay, available to them at all times. This practice considerably moderates the tendency to fight and bite.
Now this setup lends itself to scheduled AI or boar breeding in the feeding area, and that part works pretty nicely as well. It also maximizes the “eye of the master”, and this is critical to us. 

 Public radio regularly does a farm report here in Minnesota. Whenever a hog disease is running amok it will be about hog production. And when it is, it will invariably feature the sow herd set up at the University research center in Waseca, which uses a set of electronic sow feeders and not the one in Morris, that is set up for hand feeding in feeding stalls similar to our layout. Several times I have contacted them and pointed out how the sow herd at Waseca features bitten and marked up sows, a consequence of sows piling up to wait in front of the feeding area for the computer to allow them in and dole out their ration for the day. But nothing changes in the public radio's coverage. Now I take this to be a sign of how firm a grasp technological fundamentalism has on our imaginations, for this is a radio service that caters to the levels of society that tend to worry a great deal about animal treatment. Still the answer to any problem in production is always more and more sophisticated technology.

Our system, by contrast, maximizes the impact of human management, in part by strictly controlling spending on technology. The stalls were bought at junk price, modified and welded together in the shop in a day or two, then installed. Feed tanks, feed scoops and wheelbarrows are all available at the local farm/fleet store. But the human eye and imagination? That is priceless. For us, the worker doing the feeding is expected to check for heat in all groups at every feeding and to know if that group of sows should or should not be bred. He is to notice if any of the sows show up stiff or lame or do not come to eat at all. Pregnancy checking by hand held machine is also done here, as is observation for parasite load and general health and well being. Sows are handled with a certain level of patience and respect which does wonders for their attitude at farrowing. While each group is eating its ration, the feeder can be doing general light maintenance of the area as well as pasture observation in summer. The feeder knows which sows eat slow and which gobble their feed. He understands from his work a great deal about their personalities and is able to link this knowledge with genetic differences to help with breeding decisions.

Now I am sure that much of this could be done in some fashion by computer. Ration eating could be timed, body temps taken, general health “observed”. And I know also that the usual approach to the next generation coming into a hog business would be to double it and buy a few more computers, so that every “manager” can have a screen to look at. I am just saying that it is not always the best idea.
When we as farmers, or as working Americans, or as citizens are content to have our lives so divided into compartments that we cannot see over the wall dividing “technology adoption” from worker under-and unemployment and despair well enough to notice that the two are essentially one problem in many ways, then it is difficult to see how we will ever think and act our way out of the mess we are in. And I don't think our politics will ever get clear headed and straightforward enough to deal with issues like this, until we who operate the systems do.

Monday, March 28, 2016


The Senate last week refused to pass the bill offered and backed by Pat Roberts of Kansas that would essentially have killed the GMO labeling movement in the states. Minnesota's two Senators, to their shame, both favored the bill, but both were eventually persuaded to change their votes and send the bill to defeat.  This is a major victory for us here at Pastures A Plenty, if it holds, because now we will be able to get to a time when we can require our occasional suppliers of pigs to feed non gmo rations.  This was difficult to do given the hoops we had to jump through and the premiums to be paid to make our own pigs gmo free.  Those premiums should be narrowing now as we go into a future where the elevators and feed mills discover that yes indeed, they can find the time and the bin space to segregate the grains, in view of the growing interest in sourcing non-gmo feeds.  Big battles are usually won in little steps!  Monsanto's lock on seed corn just got a little less tight, as farmers discover they can save big dollars on seed and perhaps access a premium by simply beginning to once again manage their own crops.  

Monday, March 7, 2016

farmer situation

Today we work to pull the knots out of a situation we got into by not supervising the boars closely enough at Thanksgiving time.  We have around forty head of sows to farrow and only thirty pens.  This is something a farmer should cope with, but not complain loudly about.  After all, it is a problem in the right direction, so to speak.   We will try to move some of the early litters with their sows to an older building and group them with plenty of straw.  Generally that practice goes pretty well and thankfully we have mild weather.  Hopefully we don't have too many opinionated defensive sows.