Hanging Around

14 Month Old Boar Meat

The above is meat from a 14 month old boar. The meat was great and even better after hanging for a week. This winter we slaughtered a four year old sow. She was tender and delicious – with proper hanging. I had been meaning to do a hanging experiment and did it with her.

Little Pig died in the blizzard on Valentines Day. I hung the quarters in our shed during the second half of February. The shed temperature was 36°F. We have done this testing before in a less vigorous way which lead me to the idea that hanging would be good, especially with an older pig.

Day zero – we ate a loin within hours of slaughter – tough, rigor mortis.
Day 3 hanging – loin – okay, tougher than a finisher.
Day 5 hanging – loin – good.
Day 7 hanging – loin – good, fairly tender meat.
Day 10 hanging – loin – excellent, tender meat.
Day 14 hanging – shoulder – excellent, very tender, increased flavor.
Day 21 hanging – remaining quarter slimy on the outside, to the dogs although the meat inside was fine.

Note: At the time I did the research I had fairly simple facilities for hanging. I suspect that with better control of humidity and temperature I could hang another week or two for tenderizing just like with beef. For over five years now we have been hanging for a week which works well with our weekly pigs to market schedule. The results above shows that extending this to two weeks would perhaps be optimal but that does not work with the hired meat processing facility’s schedule or our delivery route schedule at this time. Meat continues aging in the cryovac packaging if kept fresh – this is called wet aging. Not as good as dry aging but something.

The remaining quarter was probably still good on day 21 although very slimy on the surface. I chose not to risk it. Probably the humidity was too high in the shed from what I’ve read. We weren’t starving and the livestock guardian dogs have to eat too so they got the last 80 lbs or so. When dividing it up into packages of dog food to freeze on the porch I found that just under the surface the flesh looked and smelled fine.

The standard ‘word’ I’ve read and heard from most butchers is that pigs don’t need hanging. It is now recognized that sheep and cattle both benefit from hanging. There are some butchers who disagree with the convention and think everything benefits from hanging. Some say all grass fed meat should be hung. You’ll note that the top restaurants brag about how long they hang meat. Perhaps the reason commercial high production pigs aren’t hung now is that most pigs that go to slaughter are only five or six months old so the need for hanging was lessened and thus expensive reefer space was conserved.

So what to do with an old lady? Certainly grinding her for sausage is safe. I guess it depends on if you’re doing the slaughter and cutting and thus more willing to take the chance. Then if she’s a tough old sow you can always grind.

My personal favorite cut of pork is the Boston Butt steaks and Country Ribs, both from the same section of meat, out of older sows. It is well marbled and tender with a rich, robust flavor. The connective tissue is more developed so at cooking time one needs to do a better job of trimming that out which is quite easy.

There are those who wonder on the sentimentality of life and death, of eating a pig I have known for so long. I liked Little Pig in both life and death. She was a good sow and I knew her well. She is survived by one sister, Saddle Pig. In nature, as on the farm, there is no waste nor would a pig want it that way.

Related:
Sugar Mountain Butcher Shop Project
Of Pig Brains and Tea Cups
Box of Death
The Second Pig
To Kill or Not
Cutting Death and Disturbance
A Quick Death
A Brief Dance with Death
Adams Farm Slaughterhouse
Death on the Farm

Update 2014-12-28: Since I originally wrote this back in 2007 we’ve continued to age our pork for about a week which fits with our farm’s weekly cycle of taking pigs to butcher and then cutting the meat the following week for delivery to customers. Interestingly, while the ‘industry’ has been doing hot cutting and zero day aging (<24 hours) for decades there may be a move towards what we've been doing of hanging for a week as discussed in this article "Ageing and the Impact on Meat Quality” on ThePigSite.

Saturday-Friday Outdoors: 80°F/40°F Mostly Sunny, 1″ Rain
Farm House: 76°F/53°F
Tiny Cottage: 72°F/67°F

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Econoline Mileage


This morning we fill up our second tank of gas on the 1996 Ford Econoline van. Using the gallons between the two gasoline fills and the mileage I now have an measure of the miles per gallon we’re getting on the new van:14.5 mpg. That’s excellent for a large vehicle like this which can carry almost three tons.

Brand new the Ford Econoline E-250 is rated for 13 mpg city, 17 mpg highway so at 14.5 mpg and 11 years old it’s doing well. Our driving is a little bit of two lane interstate highway like I-91 and I-89 with lots of country roads and mostly small winding state highways like Rt-302, Rt-10, Rt-5, etc as we deliver pigs to the butchers, pickup loads of cheese trim and such.

There are of course far more fuel efficient road machines. A motor cycle might give us 100 mpg. My parent’s small car gets something like 40 mpg. The Mustang I borrowed last week when our Caravan died probably gets great mileage too. Yet I wouldn’t want to try to deliver pigs to market in on of those vehicles’ trunks.

On the one hand 14.5 mpg might not seem good but it depends on what is being hauled. Our recently deceased 1993 Dodge Caravan got about 15 mpg towards the end but the new to us Econoline easily carries three times cargo weight while getting almost the same mileage. This means we are able to save gasoline by making fewer trips. It is almost like getting 45 mpg in the Caravan. Miles per gallon per ton are important and it’s looking like the Econoline will actually save fuel with our increased hauling. It’s the right time for us to be moving up to a larger vehicle for farm hauling – things worked out.

The really good news is we don’t have to add oil every time we go some where. The mechanic says we should now get several thousand miles to a gallon of oil instead of the 100 miles per gallon we were getting with the Caravan. That is much better mileage!

Outdoors: 55°F/48°F Light rain 1″
Farm House: 65°F/59°F Econoline work
Tiny Cottage: 71°F/68°F sink arch cures continue

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Bone Eaters


I’ve often been asked if pigs can eat meat. The question comes both from, will they naturally pursue chickens and can one feed them the slaughter remains of chickens – something many people have after putting the poultry in the freezer.

The simple answer is ‘yes’ but I don’t feed chicken to our pigs but it is because I do feed them to the dogs. The pigs would probably like the bones – In the wild they would eat mice, birds, etc – but the dogs rank and get first pick. There is never any left over for the pigs to have.

The bones, raw or cooked, have never hurt our dogs. The thing about dogs and bones is a myth, at least for ours. Perhaps there are some delicate toy dogs that have been bred to the point they can no longer handle a bone diet but ours crack through big and little bones from all species. I was told this myth as a child, that chicken bones would kill a dog. Later someone said it to me about pork bones. I observed the reality that the dogs eat bones when ever they can – raw, boiled, baked, fried, canned, etc. What goes in the front end as sharp crunchy bones comes out the back end as paste (doggie doo-doo). They have very powerful jaws and stomach acids.

A veterinarian I asked about this said that he has seen one case in his long career where a dog had a problem with a bone. It was a beagle and yes, a pork chop bone. The first problem he said was the dog didn’t chew. Normally that would be okay because of the dog’s strong digestive juices. His guess was simple chance combined with inbreeding may have created that situation. So it can happen – it’s just unlikely. I don’t worry about it with our dogs. Of course, your dog may be different so you’ll have to make your own choices.

At our place the dogs get first dibs on animal protein like meat and bones, etc – after us. Then chickens get it next (slaughter offal) from when I do a pig. Thus there is never any for the pigs even if I did want to feed them bones or the like.

Additionally I prefer raising vegetarian pigs. These are big animals. I would rather they didn’t get into the habit of eating meat although they probably snack on the occasional mouse or snake out in the field. Since we do pasture the pigs, sheep and poultry together it seems best to not have them be thinking of chickens as dinner.

Of course, a most of the best bones make a side trip to the soup pot before getting to the dogs. We people types in the household get first dibs and we like bone broth which makes a fine soup stock.

Wednesday – Friday Outdoors: 77°F/47°F Mostly Sunny, Light rain
Farm House: 74°F/60°F Econoline body work
Tiny Cottage: 71°F/67°F

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New Econoline Van

Tiny Cottage, New Van, Old Van

We have a new van. Our souped up 1993 Dodge Caravan SE, the closer one in the photo above, has served us well trucking ever so many tons of cheese, milk and pigs to market for the past ten years. But it is beginning to get tired. It no longer leaps tall buildings or leaves speeding trains in it’s dust. Rather it huffs and it puffs and it slowly climbs the mountain.

Back in January the clutch gave up the ghost 400′ down the mountain from our driveway when the van was loaded with about 1,500 pounds of cheese trim for the pigs. We had already unloaded half the load at a neighbors in hopes of making it up to our place but it wasn’t enough. In a gout of smoke the van was no longer climbing. I walked up, got the tractor and pulled the van the rest of the way up the mountain. Our neighbor Brian, being the great guy he is, later delivered the remaining cheese to our doorstep.

The Caravan went to the mechanic for twelve days to get a new clutch. We don’t have another vehicle so fortunately we weren’t going anywhere. I didn’t feel too bad about having to get the clutch replaced because it had lasted eight years longer than the mechanics had said it would. Since then the van has been doing pretty well but the engine doesn’t have good compression. The cylinders may be worn. Perhaps the rings. The crank shaft bearing is loose. It still runs but who knows for how much longer. Holly suggested we should get a replacement vehicle before the Caravan gasped its last breath. It is much easier to buy well when your not in panic mode.

I have another relatively new rebuilt engine that I can put in it but the change over cost is significant. There is also the question of whether the unibody frame of the Caravan will last much longer – it is 15 years old since it is a 1993 model that actually began life in 1992. The frame is very rusted. We’ve added a lot of tin and other patches over the years and even that is rusting out. When your patches need patching it is perhaps time to consider the vehicle driven into the ground. I did literally drive one vehicle into the ground once – it split in two on the interstate highway – sparky! I would rather not repeat that.

So we’ve been looking around. New car prices are outrageous. I could buy a new car and even then there is a good chance of having to do annual work on it plus the insurance is so much more expensive. Even used mini vans are horribly expensive. I went back to thinking about switching the engines. Ed at the cheese factory and quite a few other people keep saying to get a pickup but that really isn’t as practical as a van. There are just too many times I want the fully covered vehicle and the flexibility of being able to switch between carrying cargo vs people. We also have some pretty dang cold weather in the winter – I don’t fancy pigs would appreciate being delivered frozen to the butcher when it is -20°F plus a 55 mph wind chill from driving on the highway never mind the cross wind gusts. A pickup with a cap or an extended cap doesn’t cut it. The price of pickup trucks are also very high. My brother suggests that this is because pickups are ‘sexy’ and every red blooded American boy wants one thus driving up the price. I never have wanted one – perhaps I need my blood type checked.

So we’ve continued to run the Caravan, doing all the maintenance and work it needs but knowing one of these days it will probably for good die climbing back up the mountain. Even doing all it needs we have only averaged $600 a year which is less than two monthly payments on a new vehicle. I consider that very reasonable and prefer to continue maintaining a vehicle I know to the devil I don’t.

Two weeks ago we were headed up to Cabot to pick another load of cheese trim and saw an extended body cargo van for sale on the side of the road in Plainfield. Only $1,375 for a 1996 Ford Econoline E250 with only 110,000 miles. That’s about half of our Caravan’s miles. It even has heavy duty added springs already and a 5,300 lb rear axle rating – extra rear springs are something I’ve always ended up adding to all our vehicles so we can haul heavy loads. The Econoline is in excellent condition. Almost no rust. It even has a tow bar incase we need to get a trailer – heaven forbid. So, why the low price we wondered?

We looked in the newspaper and found quite a few other cargo vans for low prices. Holly suggested that perhaps there just isn’t much market for used cargo vans. Families don’t want them because they lack rear seats and windows in the back. Businesses want newer vehicles. The cargo vans aren’t sexy. Maybe low demand was pushing the price down of a good vehicle class.

On the other hand, this full framed vehicles was just what we needed. It would take some work to transform it but we could add rear seats in just behind the driver and a cargo box for transporting pigs, cheese and other heavy things. A roof vent would give the pigs ventilation and suck their air away from the driver and passengers. I can also add an opening side window behind the driver for the rear passengers using a window from one of our older vans. In short, while this van might not fit the typical family or business needs it was just what we were looking for – we just didn’t know it until we saw it.

We met with the owner and took the van for a test drive. The engine purrs sweetly and quietly – quite the change after having gotten used to the gradually increasing volume of our old Caravan. The suspension is smooth even over deep potholes that would have slammed our van’s failing struts. The only negative is it is an automatic transmission. Holly and I would both prefer manual but it seems that is a thing of the past.

We took the Econoline van to the mechanic who has been doing CPR on our old Caravan. He gave it a regular state inspection and then a deep inspection to find anything that might need attention. It passed the first with flying colors. The second turned up some minor issues but less than I would expect. We’ll put a little money into the van beyond the purchase price to bring it 100% up to par before we start using it. Even then we won’t have come close to even 1/2 the book value and only 1/13th the new price. Ironically, the Econoline gets about the same gas mileage that our old Caravan did so even there it’s doing well.

Once the new Econoline van, new to us, is ready our old Caravan will no longer get so abused and should last much longer as a regular passenger vehicle. I’m glad we stuck with a van rather than getting a pickup or worse a trailer. I like vans for all sorts of reasons – that is what I learned to drive on, the load is covered and the vehicle is more flexible in how it can be configured. Since the Econoline is so large it means we can put off buying a trailer for that much longer. I’ve watched people with trailers and am not thrilled with the idea of pulling one, much less pushing one when backing up. If you saw the curves and mountain you would understand just how poignant this is…

The other interesting thing in that photo is that Holly follows directions very, very well. She backed the Caravan in next to the Econoline such that they were parallel, the two vans are even at back bumpers and in line with the back of the tiny cottage for this photo. The cottage is about 20′ away in the distance beyond the Econoline because of construction materials. Parked this way we can make some comparisons:

Tiny Cottage: 20′ long by 12′ high by 14.5′ wide.
Econoline: 19’6″ long by 6.5′ high by 6.5′ wide.
Caravan: 14.5′ long by 5.5′ high by 5.5′ wide.

So what’s inter
esting about Holly following directions like a champ? Well, you see she couldn’t see what she was doing and I directed her as she backed in. It wasn’t a straight shot but rather she had to curve around twice to get in line. When she got out of the Caravan and saw how closely she had parked, about 2″ from the Econoline with their mirrors almost holding hands, she was horrified and said to me, “If you had told me what you were having me do I would never have done it!” But she did. I love to lead and she dances backwards so oh so well.

Update: On Friday, after I first wrote this, our trust, dusty Dodge Caravan SE died on the side of the road at the top of a hill on I-91. At that point we were getting almost 100 miles to the gallon – that’s 100 miles to the gallon of oil, the lubricating kind. We were only getting about 14 miles to the gallon of gas. The rings were leaking badly and the compression was shot. It made a horrible noise and gave up the ghost. So Holly, Hope and I sat on the side of the highway for about an hour watching a power line crew cut trees and making plans while we waited for a tow truck. Fortunately we had bought this ‘new to us’ Econoline van just a couple of weeks before.

Outdoors: 78°F/57°F Sunny
Farm House: 74°F/59°F
Tiny Cottage: 72°F/68°F

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Mystery Cooking


My, my! What happened here?!?
We opened the pot and what have we got!?!

Leave ideas in comments…

Tuesday Outdoors: 7°F/57°F Sunny
Farm House: 76°F/59°F
Tiny Cottage: 70°F/68°F

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Hi-Tech vs Boar Taint

For an update on this topic see the article Have Your Pig and Eat It Too.

Big’Un has ’em.

That is Big’Un, one of our breeding boars. This photo gives no perspective as there is nothing to compare him with but take my word for it, he’s big. He is a fast grower, long, friendly and throws great piglets. He is primarily Yorkshire with a pinch of some other breeds. He is not castrated – and that is not just because he’s a breeding boar. So far I have not tasted him so I don’t know if boar taint is an issue with him. None of his brothers or sons had boar taint so I suspect it is a non-issue with him as well.

I don’t like doing castration. It isn’t a fun process for me or the pigs. The question was, “Is castration necessary?” After much literature research on the topic as well as eating progressively older and older boars I’ve come to the conclusion that routine castration is not necessary at least for our pigs and possibly not for most pigs. Recently there was an article in the Wall Street Journal about castration of pigs. Unfortunately it read like an advertisement for high tech sex selection and a new vaccine for immuno-castration – an injection that would be required for every single male pig for all of eternity if you follow their logic. I for one don’t want to be dependent on some big corporation for my breeding herd.

There is a myth that boars will taste bad and the word for the taste is boar taint. There is a scientific basis for this in some pigs. In fact, it can even show up in female pigs (gilts & sows). Boar taint, when present, is caused by two chemicals, skatole and androstenone. Skatole is formed in the intestines and androstenone is formed in the gonads and the adrenal glands. Research shows that the vast majority of market age pigs, about six months, don’t have boar taint because they are too young in addition to possibly not being high taint even at older ages (pers. obs.). Perhaps there are some breeds of pigs that do develop boar taint early enough to be an issue but thankfully ours don’t.

There is a simple test for taint – fry up a piece of meat and smell it. Most people, especially women, can smell it. For the more analytically inclined there are complete laboratory analysis’s that will tell you how much of the taint chemicals are in a line of pigs. I’ll admit that when we began this research I had trepidation, I had been warned that boars tasted and smelled so bad it would make the house uninhabitable if I cooked any boar meat. Fortunately that wasn’t the case. I do admit to timidly frying up a tiny piece of fat and meat the first time. I started with a young boar – but there was no taint. Would there be in an older boar? No, again and again as we taste tested progressively older boars. The oldest to date has been well over a year and was kept with breeding females, sows, for the ultimate test. At this point a very large sampling of people have eaten meat from our intact pigs and declared it delicious so I’m very confident of the taste.

Since I don’t like castrating and I haven’t found boar taint in our pigs I’ve been working to educate people who buy piglets and meat from us that castration is not routinely necessary. Most people are open minded about it. After tasting the meat from our pigs or reading the articles I’ve written about our experiences (“To Cut or Not” and “Boar Meat“) they realize they can’t tell the difference between boars (non-castrated males), barrows (castrated males) and gilts (females). Of course, if you had a line of pigs that was full of boar taint then your results would be different. Personally I would change breeds or actively work at breeding away from the taint. As much as I dislike the idea of government attempts to micromanage our lives I can see a time down the road where routine castration is likely to be banned. It is already happening in Norway.

Castration can also cause needless deaths. If a piglet has a hidden hernia then when it is castrated the piglet’s intestines may shoot out of the cut in the scrotum resulting in extreme pain and death, especially if the intestines are cut during the castration. Even with the best of techniques this is not possible to avoid 100%. There is also the chance of infection – pigs are not good about keeping bandages on or keeping their cuts clean – the first thing they want to do after being castrated is rub the wound on the ground which could lead to infection requiring antibiotics for treatment – something one tries to avoid in the meat.

There are very significant advantages to not castrating, besides the avoidance of the unpleasantness, infection and death. Boar pigs, on average, grow faster and leaner than barrows or gilts. Boars put on more muscle and are more efficient and economical to raise. Castrating them sets them back several days as they recover from the castration and loses these advantages.

Another rationalization given for castration is temperament – people claim that boars are inherently dangerous. This has not been our experience. We see about the same aggression in all three groups, boars, barrows and gilts. Most importantly, breeders need to select for temperament. I won’t keep an aggressive animal – they go to the butcher, not the breeding herd. It is just too dangerous to breed ill tempered 200 to 800 lb animals. The result is that with a little section you can have well mannered livestock which means less danger for you.

I do have to question the logic of maintaining a breed that requires routine mutilation when there is a better way. Some suggest that the ‘need’ is more myth than fact and better management practices eliminate the boar taint. If one had pigs that were high in boar taint then a good solution would be to either change breeds or simply select toward pigs that don’t have the taint while retaining the rest of the characteristics you want to keep. Selective breeding over a few generation should help greatly. But there are plenty of breeds of pigs that don’t have the ‘boar taint’ so one can start ahead of the game with one of them. Our pigs are primarily the large white Yorkshire but they have a bit of the Hampshire, Berkshire, Tamworth and probably some other breeds mixed in – genuine all American pigs.

Contrary to what the Wall Street Journal article suggests we don’t need is a new vaccine against boar taint. That’s just a money making program for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer that doesn’t really solve the problem. I don’t like the idea of injecting one more chemical into our food supply. We don’t use antibiotic feeds or hormones in the meat we raise – immuno-castration from Pfizer would sort of defeat our Naturally Grown certification.

Another high tech non-solution that I’ve heard proposed is using Artificial Insemination coupled with sex selection of the offspring to simply not have boars. I’m not incline to do this either for the simple reasons that 1) it makes the whole process more complicated and expensive; 2) most sex selection methods are only partially effective but most of all 3) even if it did work inexpensively it would turn over genetic control to some third party rather than our having control over our own breeding boars and replacement stock. That last thing in the world I want is more control of my life by corporations – they have one goal, suck the money out of my pockets at minimal expense to themselves.

We also don’t need genetic engineering, or patenting of taintless pigs as Monstersanto would be likely to do. Turning over control of our food supply to the likes of them through patents on life is one of the black marks on our current times. These high-tech ‘non-solutions’ are unsustainable and expensive approaches to a non-problem. Beware the marketer who sells you a solution for a problem you don’t have.

Castration is a questionable practice for most pigs, and perhaps other animals as well. Just because you’re going to eat someone doesn’t mean you need to make them miserable. In fact, they’ll taste better if they’re not stressed. It’s a wholesome, all natural fact – happy meals taste better.

For an update on this topic see the article Have Your Pig and Eat It Too.

Sunday-Monday Outdoors: 80°F/56°F Mostly Sunny, 1″ Rain
Farm House: 76°F/59°F Econoline body work
Tiny Cottage: 70°F/68°F Dog house ceiling tests, sink tests

Update: The problem of accidental injection for men is quite serious and should not be dismissed so lightly. Two injections are not required to have a problem.

Sterility can occur from the first injection – permanent or temporary. Subsequent injections make it worse such that they recommend if you get injected once that you have nothing to do with the vaccine in the future. This is not a case of it taking two injections to make you sterile. One injection can do that. With each injection the effects get worse, higher risk.

Note that this effects both men and women. It does not just produce sterility but may affect secondary sexual characteristics. e.g., you could lose muscle mass (get weaker) and lose other male characteristics. Why risk it?

“People who get injected with the vaccine can become sterilised according to an EU report:“Accidental self- injection may produce similar effects in people to those seen in pigs. The risk of these effects is greater after a second or subsequent accidental injection than after a first injection.“[7] The manufacturer’s web site further expands on this: “accidental self-injection may produce similar effects in people to those seen in pigs. These may include a temporary reduction in sexual hormones and reproductive functions in both men and women and an adverse effect on pregnancy. The risk of these effects will be greater after a second or subsequent accidental injection than after a first injection. The product label advises anyone who has received an accidental self-injection to seek medical attention immediately and not to use the product in the future.“[8]

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boar_taint

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Watchful Sheep

Ram 2 and Ewe

We used to have more sheep but over the years we’ve found we like pigs more so our focus has shifted and the sheep have dwindled. I do like eating them thus the dwindling. Lamb and barley soup has got to be one of my favorites. The sheep probably don’t think much of my taste – they’re always a bit suspicious of my intentions.

In the photo above they’re keeping an eye on Cinnamon Dog who is eyeing them back and waiting to see if I’ll tell him to take them home. He has his hopes but this time I didn’t so he waited.

Behind the sheep is one of our matron sows, Mask. The sheep and pigs co-graze very nicely. In fact, the pastures do best when they have a mix of poultry, pigs and sheep, each of which grazes just a little differently resulting in the best mowing effect. In this photo they’re down at the far end of section one in the south field. Beyond the paddock fencing is section two which they just moved out of this week.

All of that area was forest ten years ago. Fifty years before that it was pasture having originally been cleared by the settlers back in the late 1700’s. In the distance you can see the stone wall that marked the edge of the original field and to which we cleared. After we cut back the regrowth we let the brush grow up for a few years, primarily poplar trees which make great forage and shade for the animals. Gradually the animals are recovering the pasture from the brush – their grazing patterns encourage the growth of grasses and legumes like clover as well as margin plants and animals such as the raspberries we love to pick along the edges of the field.

We’ve been doing lots on the cottage – Details to come. Up until now I’ve tended to have the windows and door shut to keep the humidity high for curing the concrete. All closed up the great thermal mass of the concrete keeps the temperature about 69°F to 72°F. I was curious about how the cottage would react to day and night temperatures with the door and window opened. The temperatures below are the answer – the house varies a bit more when opened up but still maintains a more comfortable range than the wooden farm house or the outdoors.

Sunday to Saturday Outdoors: 80°F/49°F Mostly Sunny, Two Rains 3″
Farm House: 77°F/56°F
Tiny Cottage: 72°F/59°F Sink pour, Arches, Parging, Ceiling Tests, Temp tests

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Marshfield Farm


That is not our farm.
That is not our barn.
That is not our tree.
Lovely as it may be.

I took this photo along Rt-2 coming back from Cabot Creamer to pickup cheese trim for our pigs. It is a lovely farm house and barn near the covered bridge to nowhere that I wrote about in January. I love the roiling clouds in the background of this photo.

On the tiny cottage we’ve been working at parging experiments. I’m not happy with how the parging of the arches is working. Very difficult. I may go with brick or stone arches instead as that may be easier and come out looking better.

Today we weaned piglets from five sows. It went amazingly smoothly. Last week we had moved the piglets and the sows into a paddock in front of the house that was subdivided into sections. Then today we gently shifted the sows back into the south field area and closed off two gates between them and the piglets. Easy and smooth. We’ve used this technique a couple of times now and it is my favorite method. No picking up of ticklish, screaming piglets. No upsetness by sows or piglets. Easier for us and less dangerous. I’ll write more about it later and make up some diagrams to show the layout and little tricks we’ve figured out.

Saturday Outdoors: 85°F/63°F Sunny
Farm House: 77°F/70°F Weaned piglets
Tiny Cottage: 75°F/65°F Windows and door open

Friday Outdoors: 86°F/63°F Sunny, Brief intense thunder storm, 2″ Rain
Farm House: 81°F/72°F
Tiny Cottage: 77°F/67°F Windows and door open, parge experimenting

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LGD Expectations

Saturn surveying his domain.

We have a pack of Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGDs) who help us on the farmstead. I love training and working with the dogs. I would not want to farm, or even homestead, without the help of dogs. Their superior senses alert me to things I would otherwise miss. Their tireless patrolling keeps our herd, our children and us safe from predators and pests. Because of the dogs we never have problems with deer, crows or woodchucks in the garden. People see our dogs here on these pages so I get a lot of questions about how to train, requests for puppies and various other aspects of the dogs.

Is it necessary to get a purebred for herding and guarding?

No. In fact, some purebreds are problematic as they’ve had the working stuff bred out of them and hip or other problems bred in. Ideally get a dog from parents that are doing the work you want your dog to do. It’s not pure bred that matters. It’s inclination, exposure and training that is key.

Can you just take any mutt from the pound?

Picking a random dog at the pound probably won’t work because they haven’t grown up around livestock and had any selection for the work. Even picking a purebred dog at the pound, on the assumption that the instinct is there, is probably iffy since the dog probably wasn’t raised with livestock and may really be a show dog or a family pet rather than a working dog.

We got lucky on that score with our original dog Coy. He simply showed up and started doing the job. We have had many unsuitable dogs that we rejected so maybe it was selection rather than luck. People dump a lot of dogs on our road – People see a farm and toss out their dog thinking we’ll take it in and it will have a nice home. It doesn’t work that way. 99.9% of the dogs go to the dog catcher, the cops, the coyotes, get hit by a car, etc.

What criteria would one use to pick a dog from the pound?

Look for the usual, good health, active, alert, not spastic, intelligent, etc. The few good dogs that have been dumped here at our farm that we kept showed a talent for the tasks right away. In a pound situation there wouldn’t have been a way to see that. Those dogs are in cages in a very artificial environment. The real test is going to be taking the dog home and working with it around your livestock. Take your time picking. Be ready to fail and get lucky. The younger the better for training and exposure to the livestock but the younger they are the less you see of their behaviors.

There are groups that try to place farm working dogs who have gotten old and that may be a good way to start. An older trained dog that has lived a life of working with livestock. That dog will get you started and help train a pup later. Dogs learn a lot from each other. Watching an experience dog work will teach both the pup and you.

The best way to get a good working dog is to look around your area for other small farms and homesteads that have working dogs. Better yet would be to look in the farm classified ads for dogs born on farms. You want to get a pup that was raised with livestock, ideally similar livestock to what it will guard. The parents should be healthy and on the farm working. These things are far more important than being purebred or papers.

Realize that when you get a puppy, it may be 18 months before it is big enough to really work and even train. Some start training much younger but some aren’t ready to train until they’re that old. I start training when they are just a few months old with the basics. A few dogs will herd when they’re just puppies themselves. They aren’t ready to take on big predators until their full grown and really need a pack of their own to handle a cougar or a coyote pack. I find that our dogs typically reach adult muscle and weight when they’re two or three years old.

The quick alternative to a pup is a dog that is partially or fully trained working dog but expect to pay a lot because someone has put months or years into training the dog. Ideally the dog should have been exposed to the type of animals you are planning to have it work or something similar. A good working dog can cross over from guarding one thing to another. If it was exposed to many species then this will be easier.

Can you give me details on how to you train?

Sometime I’ll write about it in depth. Basic ideas in a nutshell:

  1. Get their attention – if you don’t have their attention you can’t train them – seems to be true of people too. Name, Good, No, Treat, etc.
  2. Establish communications both ways – teach them the basic commands. Observe them to learn how they communicate. Get down the basic obedience training.
  3. Positive reinforcement in the form of words (GOOD!), pets, attention and food are all powerful training tools. I hardly ever have to use punishment and usually it is simply NO! or rejection – dogs are very sensitive to being ostrazation so it is a very powerful tool.
  4. As we have older working dogs they act as role models and actively teach younger dogs. This helps immensely.
  5. Raise the dogs with the target livestock – it makes a big difference.
  6. Everything else is details, daily work with the dogs, etc. Time wisely spent and a great investment. Fun too.

It does help to start with a dog with potential – that will speed up the learning curve. Intelligence, health, vigor and a desire to herd, guard and do the work. They must want to do what you say be it working with you or independently. Expect the dog to be capable but have plenty of patience.

Myth-busting

Only certain breeds are LGDs. False. It’s not the breed, its the function that matters. Some breeds that are traditionally used for LGD like the German Shepherd and Great Pyrenees now mostly consist of dogs that do shows or are house pets. These dogs are not LGD dogs – they’re from LGD stock but they are really show dogs and house pets. Nothing wrong with that. Other dogs that are mutts are out in the fields working hard to herd and protect real livestock. These are LGDs – it is the function and ability, not the breed that matters. Generally speaking LGDs are typically of larger frame, longer coats and rugged physique so that they can withstand the rigors of being outdoors all the time. That is not universal though and it can vary greatly with climate. Our dogs have long, thick double fur coats and are adapted for our cold climate. They probably would be less than happy in Texas. So would I. :) Evolution and selective breeding are wonderful.

LGDs work totally on instinct – you can’t train them. False! The best LGDs are intelligent so that they are able to work independently and make their own judgements. Ours are highly trainable and interested in learning. They like both the routine of their jobs and also learning new tasks which keeps life interesting. Not doing any training wastes some of their potential. There are all sorts of schools about training from do nothing and rely totally on instinct to clicker training. I train as above and use words, hand signs, tongue clicks, whistles and the occasional growl or howl. Some dogs come out of the womb like their ready to work and seem to just pick up everything by watching their elders. Others need a more shaping but are wonderful working dogs. Some just don’t take yet still make good companion dogs – keep them off the farm if they are actively dangerous to the livestock.

A LGD can only guard one species of animal. False. Ours guard and herd pigs, chickens, sheep, ducks, geese and kids – the human kind. I could easily add new species. It is my responsibility to teach the dogs that a new species is to be guarded and the process is simple – Show them the new animal and say “No Touch”, “Guard” and they understand. One might say that comes from training. Yes, but what it really shows is that we have established communications, a common language. That is the key. Do that and dogs can do amazing things.

LGDs will kill chickens. False – sort of Chickens are the hardest animal to train some dogs to because the chickens natural fluttering motion make it such a tempting target and their fragile health make it so easy to even accidentally kill. However, even Killer Kita learned to guard, herd and protect chickens and chicks although she still dines on wild birds. Ducks are similarly difficult for training although a little hardier. LGDs can learn to do both and some dogs just understand.

You can’t interact with a LGD – socializing will ruin it. False! Some people will tell you that you can’t interact with a LGD, you can’t play with them, they can’t ever come in the house, they can’t come in the car, etc. Those are all myths. Over the years I have observed a number of people who follow this rule and fail despite their claims. I have trained many LGDs – Ours interact with our family. I cross train ours to work in the field, the house, the car, on a leash, on voice command, with people, etc. There is instinct but there’s a lot more intelligence. Possibly this myth came about because people wanted to just dump the dog in the field and expected it to do its work without any training. The dog has a lot more potential if your willing to put in the effort. By cross training the dog for many functions you will extend it’s working life. When a puppy it isn’t ready to go out into the field and tackle bear but it can still work closer in with smaller animals. When old and arthritic a working dog can no longer handle the fast herding or fence jumping yet it can still easily herd and guard a flock of chickens or ducks relying on it’s skills rather that fleetness of foot and power moves.

Once a killer, always a killer. False! There is a myth that if a dog kills livestock then it is untrainable. Put down that shotgun! It is just a myth – Dogs can be retrained and they may make mistakes. Unfortunately, people can ruin a dog by miscuing it to the wrong behaviors, spoiling it or simply never training it to begin with – I have retrained several of these ‘ruined’ dogs who had become livestock killers. After retraining they went on to become wonderful working LGDs. Witness “Killer Kita for one beautiful example of how a dog that was ruined by people leaving her chained and untrained. When they moved to an apartment they returned her to us. Later she killed a sheep, ducks and chickens here. The other dogs, including her look-alike twin sister didn’t trust Kita with the animals. She was a livestock killer. Yet, now she is a wonderful, dedicated, trusted, free-roaming livestock guardian dog. I’ll readily admit she was challenging to retrain – she was my most problematic of the one’s I’ve retrained. It was worth the work and the myth is false – Killers can be retrained.

Kita being quite clear to Saturn: No Touch!

Don’t feed raw meat to LGDs. False. Some people will say that a dog that has tasted blood or eaten raw meat is ruined and will kill livestock. That is false. Alternatively I’ve heard people say that eating pork, chicken or raw food will hurt the dogs’ health, the bones will puncture it internally, etc. Our dogs have eaten raw and cooked pork, lamb, chicken, ducks, mice, wild birds and even crow. I have to wonder where these myths were created. Is it the commercial dog food companies trying to improve sales? Well, BARF – Bones and Raw Food – on them. Wild canines eat a healthy diet of raw food. Traditionally shepherds fed their LGDs raw meat, culls from the herd, just as the shepherds ate from the herd. We feed our dogs raw meat that comes from our livestock. This may gross you out so stop reading – I warned you – but one of the favorite things for a canine is guts. It is the first thing they want given the chance. Yet this doesn’t make them into livestock killers. They don’t kill the livestock – I do. They share in the harvest as they rightfully should being part of our team. Additionally, part of a dogs’ job – another gross out warning – is to clean up any dead born lambs and piglets so that the carcasses do not attract predators. Our dogs hunt, kill and eat pests (mice, rabbits, chucks, coon, coyotes, etc) daily. That doesn’t turn them into livestock killers. They’re intelligent. They know the difference between a domestic chicken from their flock and a wild bird, between their herd of pigs and a coon, etc. They care about and protect their livestock. Dogs are natural farmers and share in the rewards.

You can’t chain a LGD. False. Some people claim that chaining or tying will ruin a LGD. Runs and chains on pins are a useful tool for training when the dog is not up to par as well as for when you have visitors whom you don’t want to interact with your dogs. One trick is put a long overhead cable out in the pasture for a dog. This lets the dog move over a large area and works great. Such a cable run also works for sheep and would probably be great for goats who need training or restricting. We found that putting the lead ewe on a chain on a long cable run or a pin worked great – the flock sticks around on a pasture even without fencing.

LGDs must be spayed/neutered or they will roam. False! The reality is spaying/neutering doesn’t change roaming – out of a great many dogs I’ve worked with I have seen zero difference in roaming or other behaviors in spayed/neutered vs intact LGDs. It’s not real – how did the myth get started? I suspect that this myth was came about in several parts:

  1. People who feel all animals must be spayed/neutered and are looking for any excuse made this up. They push this propaganda to take away our right to own and breed our own animals. Beware of spay/neuter legislation – watch MyDogVotes.com.
  2. People spay/neuter the dog when it starts roaming and the roaming phase passes – thus they get a false correlation. It wasn’t that the dog was spayed, it simply matured and does not roam as much. Age is the single largest indicator of roaming – adolescent dogs go for walk-abouts because it is time for them to leave their pack and form a new pack – you’re asking them to form a pack with you and behave more human and less dog.
  3. People get LGDs to do a job and then are upset when the dog tries to do the job – cruise the territorial boundaries look for signs of predators, intimidate them, mark the edges of the territory with sign posts (scent, hair, piss and poop), know who’s around the area, check for farrowing or lambing going on out in the brush, etc. Then the owner gets upset that the dog can’t read the human maps and know where the human owner’s territory ends. Well, did you piss on the edges?!? Get with the program! The reality is LGD’s roam a bit – they’re cruising the boundaries of their territory and marking it. You need to come to an understanding with them about where that boundary is – that is your responsibility. It is doable. Start by walking the boundary on a daily basis. It is weeks to months before you should let a new dog free roaming so you have plenty of time.

Castration isn’t the answer at all and worse yet, not o
nly does castration not solve roaming but there are health problems that I have seen in spayed/neutered dogs such a weight gain, cancer, sex change and faster aging. This is very sad to see in an otherwise excellent working dog. I would only spay/neuter if the dog is one I do not want to breed due to some genetic fault and there is no other way to control the breeding issue. There is a reason we have those hormones in our bodies. Remove them and you are messing up the entire system.

How do you get maximum performance from your dogs?

Send them to a Dale Carnegie course. Well, maybe that is too expensive. Have great expectations, learn to communicate, set good routines, firm boundaries and train patiently. It does take time and commitment to train dogs, children, spouses, etc to their maximum ability. Ask yourself, what have you done to day to improve yourself and your team? Hmm… Too ethereal?

I’ve read of many people getting excellent work from their dogs so I don’t think our results are unique much as I like our dogs and think highly of them. There are a great many high performing dogs out there and they make wonderful partners on the farmstead. I suspect that the number one reasons people don’t get the maximum potential from their dogs is they don’t have high expectations and patience. The various myths make people think the dogs are less capable than they really are. This lowering of expectations results in a lowering of performance. It does take time and training to establish routines and communications. You are a team with the dog and you need to be the leader. You need to spend time working with them – a couple of times every day is ideal. You wouldn’t expect a person to be born and six months later drop into a full work situation requiring an advanced training and degree. Same for the dog. Train, expect, communicate and be patient.

Can you recommend a dog training book.

Nope. There are many dog training books where people talk about dogs being able to do this sort of thing. I’ve not actually read much about dog training although my wife likes the book by the monks of New Skete. I think they have several books. Start with that or you could try Amazon and look at the reviews if you wanted to pickup a good book.

I’ve got problems with coyote, bobcat and cougars.

Oh joy – the last one’s a killer. If you have a single dog it will primarily operate by alerting you and deterrence of territorial marking. If you have serious big predator problems then you will need two, three or more LGDs. A single dog can easily get killed by large predators or a pack of coyotes so don’t expect a dog to tackle them alone.

Cougar are the toughest in that group. They have vast big territories, are impolite, rude, self-centered, violate territorial boundaries, leap tall fences in a single bound (even with a lamb in their jaws), kill even what they don’t take and are main predator to which we’ve lost livestock in addition to a few owl kills. I’ve read that it takes three dogs to tackle a cougar, known as a catamount in these parts, and you’ll probably lose one and the other two will be injured. Cougar, no matter what you call them, don’t exist in Vermont, according to the Department of Wildlife officials. My wife and I have seen these ghosts several times – in broad daylight. I’ve found their prints (the cougar’s not the game warden’s). We’ve run into them in the dark in the woods – thankfully we had dogs with us. With our full pack of LGDs the cougar seems to generally follow the other side of the valley staying well clear of our main farm area. But as I said, we’ve lost sheep to them on one occasion – I had the fence off in the evening to work on it (dumb of me), the sheep had spread out over the entire south field, the dogs had come to check out what I was doing, the mountain lion took advantage of dinner at the far end of the south field. Rather than taking just one ewe it also tore apart another before leaping back over a high electrified fence with dinner in it’s jaws leaving no sign on the fence. Just a ghost of course that left those claw marks. I guess our sheep just have a mighty powerful imagination… I would never want to contradict the Vermont Department of Fish. Although, if we don’t have cougar why are they putting it on the new license plates?

Black bear seem to be very observant of our dog’s territorial markings. Since we put up a perimeter fence (High Tensile 3 smooth wire electric) they have not come into the fields. We stay out of their dens areas too. The dogs and they seem to have an understanding. Polite neighbors but I wouldn’t trust them with children. We always have dogs with us. The rule is it takes two dogs to tackle a bear. We don’t have grizzly bears so if you’re out west the rules may be different. My understanding is they are worse than black bear by far.

Bob cats are something I’ve only occasionally seen or tracked. We’ve never had trouble with them and probably they stay back due to the dogs. They seem more timid than…

Fisher cats are a serious issue around here for chickens if one doesn’t have dogs. One dog seems to be enough to keep them away, based on our neighbor’s experience, but when her dog died of old age, the local fisher cat came in and immediately killed all her chickens. Easy pickings and a very wasteful diner.

Weasels, skunks, possum and coon are minor predators that can be a big problem with chickens but our dogs seem to have eaten up the local population so I’ve not seen any signs of them in maybe 15 years. One dog should be enough to keep them back. House the dog in the hoop house if necessary.

Rats are a problem with chickens. For two periods we had trash pickup. The garbage trucks delivered rats. Yuck. The rats killed chicks, ate eggs and were up to 16 ounces – I weighed one. Each time the dogs cleared them out after I stopped the trash delivery and that was that. Again, the dog in the coop works wonders. I gave up and now we just go to the dump – hopefully not bringing back any passengers. So far no rats after all these years.

Owls are big problems for poultry – they glide in at night and eat chicken heads, off the still living chickens. Headless the chickens are not very functional. The best protection is a coop with a small chicken door. I don’t find it has to be closed, just small.

Hawk Attack Survivor

Hawks are a danger for small animals. Kita almost got the hawk that attacked that chicken above and that is why the hawk didn’t kill the chicken. Normally the hawks don’t come down because the dogs are actively pacing them from the ground. A hawk can’t get airborne again with much of a load so hunting here is dangerous for them.

Kita seems to think that ravens are a threat although I’ve never seen them harm anything. We’ve always had ravens, long before we had livestock. I like them. The dogs do too but in a different way. They track the ravens from the ground and make sure they don’t land in our fields.

Foxes are easy for LGD to deal with and
crunchy according to Coy Dog who long ago cleaned out the local population.

Coyotes are the worst problem around here. They are smaller, about 45 lbs, than our LGDs but they work on the gang principle. Our gang’s bigger than your gang. They can kill a lone dog and are smart hunters. This is the reason we have so many dogs. Our dogs work on the gang principle too. Generally the coyotes are smart enough to stay out of our fields and even stay on the other side of the valley. When they come into the valley our dogs howl to warn them off – it is quite the chorus and it works. This week we started hearing the young pups so we’ve had singing a few nights – train your dogs not to bark or howl continuously as it doesn’t take much to verbally mark their territory and just annoys the neighbors even if they are a mile away. Every once in a while a foolish coyote or two will try to sneak in to our pastures. I’ve watch our dogs tag team and three-way work the coyotes. It’s not like a dog fight where one dog goes up against another. Two of ours will distract the coyote, the third dog comes in from behind to kill it. In a flash all three on top of it. Very fast and efficient. Then they dine – the dogs have no objection to eating cousin coyote or cousin fox.

Stray dogs can be an issue just like coyotes from our LGDs point of view. Around here we have a problem with bear hunters running their dogs across our land without permission. I call the game warden and hopefully he gets here before the hunting dogs get into our fields.

Rabies patrol is one of the most important things the dogs do. I can’t vaccinate all the animals but I can vaccinate the LGDs who are the first line of defense.

One other detail about good LGDs of any breed or mix, they’re often territorial, roamers and many are loud. They use their voices to communicate (learn their calls) and to deter predators. If you have close neighbors they may not appreciate this. As I mentioned above, you can train dogs to be quieter – it takes time and patience. Barking and howling is part of their tool set for doing their work. They are marking their territory with sound. They also use the barking al a call for reinforcements.

I train them to be specific – not to bark for hours like some dogs I hear. That’s not useful. In time you can learn their language – they will say what they are barking at by category (uncertain threat, known threat, predator, deer, bear, cougar, ATV/Snowmobile/Dirtbikes, etc) and even by specific (Mail call!). Pay attention – it’s just like learning any other language through immersion. You can teach the dogs to bark at specific things that are important to you and they may even give specific barks. Want to be alerted when the mailman is coming and about half a mile away? Teach the dogs to tell you – then you can get out to the mail box in time.

Thursday Outdoors: 81°F/61°F Sunny
Farm House: 76°F/70°F
Tiny Cottage: 73°F/69°F Parging tests on colosseum

Wednesday Outdoors: 81°F/60°F Sunny
Farm House: 77°F/68°F
Tiny Cottage: 73°F/69°F Peeled concrete forms, parged test foam wall

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Tipping Point


Tonight this moth flew into our lives. My son Will spotted it in the kitchen but it didn’t look like the above picture. I took a photo, the one above, and then it flew down and landed on my chest, spread its wings and displayed its colors showing red and black bands on the rear wings. Will used Wikipedia and quickly found it. See his blog for the other, prettier view and more details about this moth.

In local news there was an interesting article in our local newspaper, The Valley News, about service employees (waiters & waitresses, etc) of Dartmouth Collage’s Hanover inn wanting to get their full compensation including tips when they were on disability, etc. Apparently it is hard to live on $3.60/hr disability. It got me to thinking. I’ve always found this system of mandatory tipping to be rather odd. So I wrote:

Dear Editor,

I was amused to read that Service Employees International Union workers at Dartmouth think they are owed tips by their employer when they were not working. Looking ‘tip’ up in the dictionary I find:

Tip -noun
1. a small present of money given directly to someone for performing a service or menial task; gratuity: He gave the waiter a dollar as a tip.
Valley News 20070728

It is also interesting to note from the etymology that that the word originated with thieves as in “‘give a small present of money to,’ 1610, ‘to give, hand, pass,’ originally thieves’ cant”

Is it time that perhaps we should eliminate tipping? It is a rather odd situation that some people are paid low wages by their employers and the customer is expected to pony up extra money to make sure the wait staff have enough to live on. Ceasing the practice of tipping would also solve this whole issue of are tips owed by the employer during vacation, leave, disability and unemployment time thus killing two birds with one stone.

Alternatively the tipping system could be expanded! Since the restaurants, and fine institutions like Dartmouth College, like paying employees on a “base plus tip wage” scale maybe we could also do the menu prices that way. If I really like the food I’ll ‘tip’ the restaurant to let them know. If not I’ll perhaps just tip the waitress for her superior service. Or not. I suspect that if employers were forced to operate on the same basis they are forcing on their employees they would quickly abandon the tip system and go with a simple wage.

Of course, if we eliminated tipping there would then be no recourse for the customer when poor service, or food, is rendered. That sword has two cutting edges.

WalterJ
in Vermont

Outdoors: 81°F/54°F Sunny
Farm House: 77°F/66°F
Tiny Cottage: 72°F/69°F Tank Wall top beam poured 3 buckets

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