Who takes care of them when your not there???

It’s a common question. WHO takes care of them when you aren’t there? In this case, our two horses. Jim always looks at me with a twinkle in his eye, as he replies, “what makes you think they need taking care of?”

treeBeing on the farm, usually just 2-3 days a week at this point in time, the horses are on their own. Most people want to know where the barn is, as well, and are taken back when we say, “Hmmm, we would never put them in a barn! We like our horses healthy. We DO have some awesome trees for them to stand under, though.”

If you consider the nature of a horse, it makes better sense.

FRAME OF REFERENCE

Jim’s reply is telling.  It’s telling because it reflects our frame-of-reference which tends to be a bit different than the current traditional mode.

In the past, on our 65 acre ranch, we fenced the house & garden in, and let the livestock pretty much run free. (It’s a little different on our 5 acre farm, but the principles are the same.)

A side note: Well, except for the miniature milking goats…  but that was partly because they were such appetizing morsels for the local coyotes & bobcats, and the fact that they would work hard to get INTO the garden instead of utilizing the acres of pasture available to them. They were kept confined and when I had to make a choice between the Jersey Milk Cow or the Miniature Milking Goats, Bessie’s 2 gallons/day won out easy over 1 cup/day of goat milk.

Bessie, the cow, came out way ahead in productivity compared to the goats. On top of behaving herself, by utilizing the pastures and leaving my garden alone, she provided the basis of some awesome pastured products: butter, cream, ice cream, whipped cream, and cheese.

Let me tell you, it wasn’t a tough decision, choosing her over the goats. Made Jim much happier, too!

CREATING PROBLEMS for yourself (and more work!)

But back to the horses.  We believe in working toward decreasing one’s work load and working with nature as much as possible. So often we humans create a whole series of problems, by not understanding natural processes, that we then have to solve.

Historically (one of my favorite words), i.e. for tens of hundreds of thousands of years, horses have managed quite well on their own.  In the last 10,000 years we took them from ranging on the land, fending for themselves, and put them into tiny boxes.

In those enclosed boxes they are exposed continually to noxious fumes (from the ammonia build up from their urine & the dust it combines with), and unable to travel the miles and miles that kept them in good shape,  wearing their hooves down naturally. They tend to be fed diets that are too rich for their confined existence & minimal exercise. They would easily travel 20 miles just to get a drink, in nature, while grazing on grasses.

PREDATOR or PREY?

Out in nature, If they are “spooked”, they run.  They run for at least a quarter mile, and then will stop to look around to see if they are ok.  They have survived by running first, then reassessing, as horses are prey animals… other things would hunt them down, so they only feel safe/OK within a herd, as there is safety in numbers.  Humans often isolate them and keep them from interacting with each other, which increases their stress levels.

A horse, give a choice, will choose to stand under a tree, in the rain, rather than go into an enclosure. We have seen that over and over. Horses & cows… will choose to stay outside, as a rule of thumb. It gives them the option to run, if they feel threatened, decreasing stress levels. They just need to have protection available to them, from wind and available shade. Trees work quite nicely, thank you kindly, as well a providing access to good ventilation.

MANAGED INTENSIVE GRAZING (MIG)

Pasture for livestock

Pasture for livestock

Their normal diet includes a broad range of forages (grasses not grains), including access to trees & shrubs (leaves) to supplement their diet for micro nutrients they need.

We do supplement, when needed…. because we don’t have the acreage to fulfill their ranging needs.  Ever notice that almost all horse enclosed pastures are stripped down to the dirt?  It’s called over-grazed and basically strips the soil of it’s natural cover.  We seem to think it’s suppose to be that way and that it’s OK. It most definitely IS NOT.

Jim & I have learned a bit more, since being on that 65 acre ranch in 2005-09, about pasture/soil/land management. It’s all a learning curve and I have to say, we’ve been doing a heck of a lot of learning. At present, we are beginning work on creating our “managed intensive grazing” setup (MIG) on the farm in Cotati.

Livestock confined in a space will go eat what they like FIRST, then move on to the less appetizing, less appealing stuff (sounds about right!). But as soon as the forage they value begins to grow again (from the root’s reserve), they take that next bite of their favorite tasty morsel, which kills the plant. It had no time to rebuild the root’s reserves.  When no reserves are left in its root system to regrow it’s solar panels (i.e. leaves), the plant dies.

Over a relatively short period of time, the only thing left alive in the pasture will be the least desirable plants (to the horse).  And in desperation, they may even eat the nasty stuff till nothing is left…  and they are left standing around waiting for “man” to bring them food.

With MIG, we will create small paddock areas where they will only have access to forage briefly.  They will take a bite from everything available because they won’t have the leisure time to pick and choose. In a well designed system, you would have several species follow in order, as they all tend to eat different forages, so you get maximum use out of a pasture, without allowing it to be degraded.

TRADE OFFS

People say, well doesn’t that take a lot of time? Actually NO, not in comparison to the alternative, and it keeps the forage & soil & livestock in excellent condition, as an added benefit. It conserves water.

Stored hay, for the off season

Stored hay, for the off season

Otherwise, we would have to buy off farm feed/forage, haul it in, store it, haul it out to the livestock, make sure they share, and deal with stripped bare soil/dust/mud.

Much easier to just open an entrance to new pasture and have the cows/horses/chickens, etc., move themselves.  They get to spend a day or so there, and then are offered a fresh paddock.  They are kept from moving back to the prior used paddocks by a single electric tape line (that they highly respect!), which allows the forages to regrow, protecting and maintaining healthy pastures.

It’s so easy, even older kids and teenagers can do it… and us seniors!

FOR NOW…

Currently we are not setup properly but we know where we are headed, on this farm property. Now that we have the well drilled, we need to get some irrigation in, rebuild the soil & forage quality & diversity, and create our MIG pattern.  The neighbors cows ranged the land for years and have stripped all the quality forages from it.  We have to do a bit of work to reverse that.

Presently the two horses are allowed to range freely on the acreage, utilizing the trees for shade/shelter as needed.  They are building up a nice stockpile of fertilizer for us to use in rebuilding the nutrients in the soil (and spreading it around themselves for the most part)! But soon they will be introduced to MIG, and restricted from over grazing the forages we will have introduced.

Right now they are stripping out the less desirable stuff, right before the California rains should appear, to facilitate the growth of the new pasture forages. In case this severe drought continues, we now have access to water to get the forages going.  As we rebuild the quality of the soil (humus) and keep it covered with forage, it will naturally retain more water as the humus percentage increases, decreasing the need in the future for ongoing irrigation.

RETURNING TO THE PAST, it’s easier by far!

Bell eating, Lady

On the Cotati Farm, Bella (head down) & Lady

Our 2nd horse, Bella, came to us just recently.  I swear she had not been in a free-ranging pasture for years.  She immediately raced out to start grazing, and I don’t think she lifted her head from the ground, for more than 2 seconds, in the first few days she was on the farm.

Lady & she bonded, but bonded with Bella’s head to the ground grazing! It was a pleasure to see her start to race around the pasture acreage as she stretched her “wings”.

So, who takes care of the horses when we are not there? They do….

and they do a fine job.

Interesting Tidbit

Discovered that you can tell how many views of the blog posting, and WHERE the views originate!  Thought you might find it insightful to see, as well.  I’m truly surprised at the broad reach postings have traveled. Almost 20 countries, including Morocco, Malta, Fiji…. who would have guessed. Over 1500 views in 10 weeks… just incredible. (list at bottom of post)

While Ruminations is focused on a small family farmstead in the USA,

building trust with the cows

and the happenings on the farm and how they relate to the broader picture, I wonder how other cultures/countries view what I have to say.

I know I have friends from other cultures who mourn the loss of their capacity to be in touch with the land & food production. They are working to return those values to “their world”, as well.

It all has to do with localization, I think. That and rebuilding local community.

Waiting for something to happen on the larger scale (government, business, etc) is just NOT going to happen. If its not about making more money, it’s long-term value seems to HAVE no value to them.

So it is up to us, and our neighbors, and our friends… to support our local resources… encourage, nurture, and give that positive feedback.  We have to take back control of quality, enriching the earth, and thinking long-term… it will matter to our children and grandchildren. We can choose to be victims, or we can choose to make a difference, however small it is.

Anyway, hope you continue to follow this journey with me, as we experience “our return” to an “integrated homestead”! Where land, soil, livestock, gardens, all play a part in an ecological cycle that is complete… Where there is no waste… everything, at some point, becomes an input for something else… just as it does in nature.  Mother Earth has spent 4.5 billions years working out this process, and we are only beginning to touch on the subtle relationships that she has developed.

Patiently we watch & listen… and hopefully, learn!

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Ear Piercing Squeals

It occurs to me that Mother Nature has selected for the loudest, most piercing squeal possible, in piglets.  Those with the loudest voice got the most results.

All Momma Sow's piglets lined up to nurse

Mellow, easy-going guys fell by the wayside (or in real world pig terms “got squished or eaten”). If you didn’t speak up for yourself… you might pay a pretty deadly price (literally, of course)!

Those who squealed the loudest and the quickest, got a response, whether it be a 300 lb mom trying to sit on you, or if you got separated from the “herd” and needed finding…because alone, you were food for the predators!

SHARING…

We invite our visitors (or maybe twist their arm to come see our newest babies!), but anyway… take them out to the farrowing pen. Take them to see all the little ones racing around, burrowing into the hay piles, and trying to chew on each other ears or tails to see if they give milk, or crawling on top of other sleeping piglets to join in a group nap-time! At least until mom gives out the special grunt that says, “come and get it, kiddos… lunch is ready!”

Until that happens the piglets enjoy exploring their world. Job, our farm intern, scoops up two little guys and hands one-off to visitors so they can feel how soft the skin is, and generally, just get a chance to cuddle one of the babies. Who ever gets to actually touch a piglet!

Only, once the piglet realizes it is off alone, all by itself, with unknown creatures stealing it away from  his siblings… he lets out an ear-piercing squeal, and doesn’t stop. If you didn’t know better you would think he was being tortured instead of cuddled! And let me tell you, it’s a non-stop squeal that just gets more tortured sounding each moment it continues.

It’s all the same… you can turn it off… at least, on YouTube!!!

Mom perks up immediately to see just what is going on.  Job is standing in the pen, still holding the other piglet (who hasn’t yet figured out he’s all by himself & thus has NOT started squealing… but will shortly, I assure you).

OH NO, Momma begins her investigation and notices that Job is holding one of her babies.  She makes her way up behind him, and very carefully (I tell you, she IS a good mom, but a GREAT family farm pig) puts her mouth around his calf and gently mouths his leg.

HISTORICALLY…

Now this is impressive… because my husband freaks out.  In his teenage years, he was responsible for 400 pigs and learned to jump a 5 ft high fence, from a standing start, in a micro second. His experience was that a momma pig would take a hunk out of you without ANY warning… if they were even a bit concerned about a piglet.

A warning nip was just not in their repertoire! But a trip to the hospital would be in your immediate future, if you ever lost sight of where and what that mom was doing. Our pigs are bred for a better temperament, but it’s always better to take NO chances.

Job reached back quietly and put pressure on the mom’s shoulder, pushing her away, as he put the piglet back on the ground, all the while talking quietly to her.

Our visitor quickly handed the noisy baby back to Job who got him back to mom, as well. Job continued to keep pressure on the mom, and then began to scratch her.

What an intuitive touch… she responded to his returning her babies and then the treat of a good scratch.  Rather than lose his cool, he worked with the mom and reassured her. Elements of an excellent farmer… one who tunes into the needs of the livestock he is tending.

A FARM EXPERIENCE…

Going out on the farm, to milk!

I have to say that one of the greatest pleasures on our farm is being able to offer hands-on learning experiences at various levels.  Whether it be kids coming out and seeing a momma hen, roaming freely, gather her chicks around her and teach them to scratch, or young adults who want to learn how to milk a cow, make butter, or experience what it is like to care for animals on a day in,day out basis, it each has its own value.

In our lives today, we really live very disconnected from real things. We watch life. We watch movies, reality TV, play video games, interact on-line. We are, for the most part, passive participates in life watching other’s live a fantasy.

We don’t get too hot, too dirty, too tired, too anything.  We are always somehow “connected” (or is that “wired”) into the world and yet, not.

We bike, hike, sail, swim, skate, ski, play baseball, tennis,etc., but it’s usually very recreational and for our own pleasure. Somehow in doing something that is actually productive, there is another quality that comes into play. A sense of connectedness with the world that reaches into the soul. How can you explain color to the blind man?

Ever just stopped to listen… to see… to feel…? We’re always so busy on the way to something that we never stop and actually experience life.  Take that moment out to “just be”. To stop being in control of everything around us.

THE QUIET TIME…

One of the things I enjoyed about milking was the forced quiet time.  I could check out of the rest of the world… and just spend the moment with Bessie as she chews her hay, the milk machine clicks away, and the sounds of the barnyard drift into the milking stall. Bessie’s warmth and smell comfort me in a way I can not really express.

Probably because our culture has lost the words that express those experiences…. sadly.

Quiet time in the day, to milk Bessie

This little piggy….

Whoops: Change of Plans

We were headed out the door to head to town when our intern alerted us.

He walked by the pregnant gilt’s farrowing area… and saw three baby piglets!

Newborn piglets, dozing in the sunshine

One was still wet and working on figuring out which way was up. He was that new.

I grabbed a towel, my cell phone (to call and delay a meeting), and checked to make sure I was wearing something that could get grubby… very grubby. No telling what I would need to do… stand by and just watch a normal labor process, dash in to grab a piglet who was in trouble, or even help deliver babies if the gilt’s labor stalled out.

I say “he was that new” just because I don’t want to check the sex and upset the newborn, and trigger ANY squealing. Turning a newborn upside down and poking around, for some reason seems to initiate an ear-piercing squeal that WILL not stop until he is put back on the ground.  Our new momma has VERY strong instincts and will immediately jump up to defend her newborn.

Unique

Pigs are very interesting creatures as they deliver their young in a totally different way.  Cows, horses, cats, dogs, etc. all deliver and to some extent help their young… usually by licking them to stimulate, to clean off, and to help dry them. But piglets do it all on their own!

Mom lays down on her side and labors.  She gets up occasionally and may go check on the babies delivered (just sniffs them) but then she goes back and lays down.

The critical part is that if there is a newborn where she lays down, he must have an escape route! 300lb momma laying down on a 3 lb newborn can have some very distressing results.

Jim designed and built (with intern assistance!) angled areas in the corners of the farrowing stall.  Enough for a person to stand behind & in.  The angle area cross pieces are NOT all the way down to the floor.

Job, making sure the newborn piglets are safe!

If the momma sow lies down next to the angled area (which of course she does), there is a space that allows the piglet to move away from mom, and she is blocked from that; the piglet can shift into the protected angle.  We have flakes of straw in those areas so the piglets can burrow in and get warm.

Momma pig lays down and breaths/ pants with her labor and then will give a push. Out flies a piglet still encased in its amniotic sac & still attached with the umbilical cord.  As the baby “hits” the ground the sac is pulled away from its snout.  Sometimes the cord “snaps” (i.e. breaks at the delivery & sometimes not).

At first the newborn is totally still. My heart always stops until I see a little wiggle or flip of an ear. I have to consciously “STOP” myself from helping out!

Finally, real movement. The newborn is “shaking off” the shocking introduction to the world! As he begins to move around, the sac encasing him, breaks away.  As he wiggles around, and then finally finds his feet (usually less than 3-4 minutes), he is pulling on the umbilical cord and it  breaks away so that he is free to move away from mom.

On average piglets delivery every 20-30 minutes. We’ve even had them deliver an hour apart.    Our new sow proceeded to deliver piglets at the rate of one every 10 minutes! That includes taking a break occasionally, getting up, nosing around to sniff & nuzzle her newborns.  After a brief check, she goes back to lay down…  carefully, so that any piglets in the way can move, and if they are trapped under her, squeal. A good mom whe will immediately jump up to prevent any squishing of newborns!

Cautious, is the name of the game!

Job, our intern, had never dealt much with livestock (thus part of the reason he is at OUR farm).  Jim had gone over a few techniques to use when working with the laboring mom, and he went right to work.  If mom gets a little bit shook or worried, she can be calmed by rubbing her belly.  Initially he stayed in the protected angled area, where he was in place to rescue a piglet if he needed to. He was just a hands-breath away, and had a clear view of what was happening.

It’s an unknown situation with a first time mom. Some sows can become confused, very aggressive and protective.  We had a sow who started to attack her first baby (it was her first litter) because it was squealing.  She hadn’t quite made the connection that it was her baby squealing but thought the baby was “attacking” her newborn.  We quickly had to scoop that newborn out of momma’s reach & calm her down by rubbing her belly.

As this was a new sow, and this was her first litter… we had no idea how she would act.  I must say, we were really impressed. She will be a keeper. First off, she had 12 healthy piglets (no runts & no super big piglets)… all pretty much 3-4 lbs each.  She was mellow during her labor and very careful of her newborns, even in the middle of labor.

Some TLC for the babies…Nursing

The first group of piglets are now quite hungry and search for a teat to nurse on. Momma sow has a minimum of 14 teats, seven on each side, but getting on for the first nursing can be a challenge. Job works out a method.

Piglets first nursing

When all 12 try to nurse and get to the upper seven teats, nobody gets to eat! Oh, I’m sure eventually they would but to short cut the drama, and make sure each piglet has gotten a good first nursing of the colostrum, we  assist. Remember?  that first milk which has lots of goodies in it for the baby – immunities passed from mom to babe. If a newborn does not get a good nursing within hours of birth, he will tend to be sickly or just not grow well.

So Job divides the group up into two parts, each made up of 6 piglets.  He corrals up one group away from mom, and then makes sure each piglet finds and attached to a teat.  Over a few hours he has made sure all the babies have had several good nursings. What an outstanding start!  And whenever mom would get a little anxious, he would just rub her belly and she would flop back, and snooze.  When Job brought her sweet cob, grain, and curdled jersey milk (her favorite), in a low bucket, she didn’t even bother to get up. Just picked her head up, pushed on the buckets edge until it tilted toward her, and munched away happily on her treat.

In the past, when we’ve had a sows labor stall out, we’ve put piglets to the teats to nurse, to stimulate more contractions. The nursing process releases hormones that trigger the let-down of  milk, and uterine contractions.  I think it’s Nature’s way of making sure the labor process is completed and the placental tissue is passed.

Nighttime…

Enough for now; we’ll leave the babes & mom alone and “pray” they get through the night OK.  I always worry about the little ones getting squished but this mom is very careful. She moves slowly, watches, and nuzzles the straw before she lays down.  If she hears someone start squalling she will immediately jump up, and then carefully try again.

Mom and babies sleep separate! All the babies bundle together, overlapping each other, usually burrowing into the straw… and keep each other warm.  When mom carefully lays down, she will then call to her babies and they all come running, to nurse. But when done, the babies gather together and sleep in their little angled protected area, or huddled together under a flake of straw.

Reducing Losses

If you don’t have a “good mom” you could have a 25-100% loss of piglets! That’s why in the swine industry, in their confinement system, the moms are put in farrowing crates, that barely allow her any movement.

We have lost several piglets in the past, with different sows, because the moms were not careful enough during and immediately after labor. We switched breeding lines to see if we could improve our delivery numbers and survival rates.  In the past we would have 8 piglets, with 6 surviving delivery. Generally never lost a piglet after the first day.

Selecting for Survival

But our approach is different from the industrial model. Instead of using every sow, even if she is not a good mother, we selectively choose who will breed. That way our stock will get better… need less intervention, be healthier, and more productive. Strikes me that the industry method is decreasing the quality of the breeding livestock, over time.

We aim toward a sustainable model, where livestock don’t actually need humans to survive!

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