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Homesteading and Livestock
Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.


Techniques to Stop Your Honeybees from Swarming

Photo by Damien Tupinier on Unsplash

How wonderful it is to visit your apiary and watch all that industrious honeybee activity — oh, no, wait! You see hundreds of bees flowing upward on the hive exterior from the entrance and bottom board? That means you've got a hive that's swarming. It's a sign that there are problems in that hive that requires prompt attention.

Common Reasons Bees Swarm

We all know who's in charge of the hive: the queen. If she decides that more space is needed, or if the original queen was superseded and more than one queen is present in the hive, one of them will signal to the colony that they're leaving. Stop! There she goes with 40 percent of the colony!

This all means that you didn't check conditions in the brood super, or reverse its position in the spring, and you also didn't check for supercedure cells. Well, give yourself a quick whack on the wrist with a hive tool (ouch!), and then get busy and do some hive inspections.

Technique to Stop a Swarm

There they are, flying in a cloud right through the air as you stand there and gawk. Well, you just might succeed at stopping them if you try a trick I learned during my nearly 20 years of keeping bees.

Keep an old tin bucket, stainless steel bowl, or other metal container, and a heavy metal spoon, handy to your bee yard. Then, if you're present when the bees are leaving the hive body, start banging on the metal container with the spoon (or your metal hive tool). Keep it up nonstop, as loud as you can, until you see them going back into the hive bodies. Don't worry what your neighbors will think — they might decide to watch and learn something in the process.

As I understand it, bees don't exactly hear as we do, but they're sensitive to vibrations in the air. Something about that clanging noise causes them to turn around and head back to the hive. Even when they're in flight through the air, I've seen them change course and return back home.

It's worked for me many times and is really nothing short of a miracle. This technique may sound like an old wives’ tale or witchcraft, but it works. A very experienced beekeeper friend and winemaker clued me in on this. At first, I didn't believe it, but I tried it, and it worked almost every single time! Usually my apiary contained about 15 colonies, so it wasn't just a hive or two, and I didn't want to lose any of them. After trying this the first time, I became a believer.

The Bees Returned. Now What?

When they come back, you must be right out there and prepare to give Madame Queen more space — now! Try to quickly enlist a helper during this "crisis" who either can do the clanging and banging, or fetch the stuff you'll need.

First, immediately either reverse the deep supers of the swarming hive, or give the colony another deep super of clean empty frames, placed at the very top of the stack directly under the lid. After the bees have settled back in a bit and you see a large population, you'll likely need to do a split. Don't walk away, figuring you can come back later and do this. It must be done right away if you want to keep the hive intact.

Count all the Queens

You'll need to do a queen count as quickly as possible. If more than one queen is present in the colony, they'll swarm again. You'll need to either do a split, making sure you get a queen for each colony, or take a chance and cold-bloodedly kill all but one queen and hope she holds the colony together.

We'll discuss these, and other swarm prevention measures I mentioned in future blog posts (check my full blog post list here). If you have any of the good beekeeping books such as The Hive and the Honeybee or The ABC XYZ of Bee Culture, around, they cover this subject very well, complete with great photos. A veteran beekeeping mentor can also explain and show you what must be done.

Don't be afraid to admit that you still don't know it all when it comes to beekeeping. (Hint: nobody really does; we're all still learning!) Having bees in your backyard is a privilege and an opportunity to marvel and learn, and swarming is an incredible sight. But once is enough — too much swarming and you'll be out of bees and have to start all over. That's both expensive and unnecessary. Good luck!

Mary Moss-Sprague is a certified Master Gardener and Master Food Preserver in Corvallis, Ore., and author of Stand Up and Garden: The No-digging, No-tilling, No-stooping Approach to Growing Vegetables and Herbs. Read all of Mary’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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Getting Started With Milk Sheep on the Homestead, Part 1: Housing and Supplies

Milking stanchion 

Milk sheep are a unique and fun option for dairy livestock on the small homestead. We have had dairy cows, goats, and sheep here at Willow Creek Farm and each one has a unique set of pros and cons about keeping and milking them.

We enjoy the dairy sheep for several reasons. First, they are able to be a triple-purpose animal (milk, wool, and meat), which on a small farm means more efficient use of space. Secondly, they consume a lot less food than dairy cows and are a smaller, more manageable size. This, of course, means they produce less milk as well, but the amounts are adequate for family use. Third, they are only in milk for 6 months of the year. This could be seen to some people as a negative aspect, but for our family it is a benefit because we don’t have to milk through the long, cold winters. And sheep milk, unlike cow or goat milk, can be frozen and then once thawed can still be used to make cheeses and other dairy products. So, even though they only are being milked for 6 months, we are able to freeze milk to be used year-round for all our dairy needs.

With our busy little farm, this is also a benefit when I don’t have time to get around to cheese making. The final reason we like keeping dairy sheep is the milk. We enjoy the taste and it has a very high nutritional content. It is also the creamiest of the milks and creates more cheese per gallon of milk.

To help you get started with milk sheep on your homestead, we are going to share the basics through a three-part series. You'll be able to find them all on my full blog post list page.

  • Part 1: Housing and Supplies
  • Part 2: Basic Care
  • Part 3: Lambing, Milking, and Dairy Products

If you decide that milk sheep would be a good option for your homestead, you are going to want to prepare your housing and supplies before you acquire your sheep.

Housing for Milk Sheep

Milk sheep need basically the same housing as any other sheep. Sheep are particularly vulnerable to predators. Good fencing, indoor night housing, and a well-trained Livestock Guardian Dog are all good ways to combat loss to predators. We have a lot of predators here in the Rockies of Colorado, so we use all three methods for our flock.

Our fencing is 5-foot-high wood rail fencing with 2-by-4-inch welded wire on it. We also use chicken wire on the bottom two feet of the fence and bury it out from the fence a foot to prevent predators from digging into the barnyard.

Milk sheep fencing

We close all of our livestock into the barn from dusk to dawn every day. And we have a wonderful Anatolian Shepherd that lives with our flock full-time. Sheep also need protection from extremes of heat, moisture, wind, and cold. A shelter that provides shade, and blocks wind, rain and snow, is necessary.

Lambing Jugs

In addition to basic sheep housing needs, to keep milk sheep you will need lambing stalls (called jugs) and a milking area. Lambing jugs are small stalls that fit one sheep and her lamb comfortably. An average size for a jug would be 5-by-5 feet. Jugs give the ewes a place to lamb safely and help them bond well to their lambs. It also prevents other ewes in the flock from stealing lambs from the mother.

The number of jugs you need will depend on the size of your flock and how you time your breeding. We breed five to six females and have two jugs. At times, we have to set up a 3rd jug to accommodate our flock when the lambings are very close to each other. Jugs can be built out of many different things. Our permanent ones are built with wood and 4-by-4 metal cattle panels.

Lambing jugs

Each jug will need to have a feeder and waterer. The water container needs to be safe for a newborn lamb - you don’t want them to somehow end up in the water, chilled or drowned.

Milking Area

Because sheep are so short, it is ideal to have a raised stanchion with a head catch to use when milking your sheep. You can buy one, or they are pretty simple to build.

Milking stanchion

Ideally, you want to set up your stanchion in a cleaner area of the barn, not in a housing area. This will keep the milking process cleaner and reduce the chance for milk contamination.

Milking Supplies for Sheep

The supplies you need to have to milk and care for your milk sheep can range from very basic to extensive. The very basic supplies to get started are:

  • Pail or Milk Machine
  • Supplies to wash the udder
  • Mesh strip cup
  • Teat dip and cup
  • Milk strainer and filters
  • Glass jars with lids

It is possible to milk sheep by hand, however, the anatomy of their udder and teats is not generally ideal for hand-milking. They have very small teats that are located to the sides of their udders, just barely in front of their legs. If you are hoping to milk by hand you need to shop around to find a ewe (or ewes) with larger teats that are in a more downward position. You can hand-milk a ewe with the typical sheep udder conformation, but it takes longer and is harder than using a machine. If you decide to hand-milk, you will need a short bucket that can fit under the ewe to milk into. You can also milk directly into a jar if you are milking one side at a time and can hold the jar with the second hand.

We have some ewes that we hand-milk, and some that we machine-milk. We like the Dansha Farms milk machines. They are economical for a small farm and a small flock, and we have not had any problems with them. They offer a smaller teat cup that is ideal for sheep teat size. It is important to fully understand how to use the machine properly, or you can hurt your ewe.

Milking sheep with machine milker

Machine milker. Photo credit Kade Ludlam.

Whether you hand-milk, or machine-milk, you will need a way to wash the udder beforehand, as well as a mesh strip cup to check for mastitis, and a teat dip to treat the teats after milking (unless you are milk-sharing with the lamb immediately after milking). Your udder wash can be as simple as a small plastic container with warm water with a small squirt of dish soap in it and a rag, all the way to purchasing wipes specifically made for udder washing. Mesh strip cups, teat dip cups, and teat dip are all inexpensive and available at most farm supply stores.

Once you have milked the sheep, you will need to strain the milk and get it cooling as soon as possible. You will need a strainer, filters, and jars. Strainers and filters are available at dairy and livestock supply stores. We like to use glass canning jars, with the plastic lids that fit them. We have both quart and half-gallon jars.

After you have your housing and supplies together, you are ready to take the next step and bring home your milk sheep. Watch for Part 2 to learn more.

Kat Ludlam is a high-altitude homesteader and owner of Willow Creek Farm in the Colorado Rockies, where she breeds landrace sheep, chickens, and crops accustomed to elevation. Check out Kat’s custom fiber-processing business, Willow Creek Fiber Mill, and read all of Kat’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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3 Options for Turning Farm Refuse into Revenue

Farm Stand Red Cooler

If you’re among the growing number of young farmers and homesteaders and you’re planning for your first selling season, you may still be questioning how to make the most from your new harvest. Whether you’re planning on selling at a local market, delivering dozens of CSA boxes, or quite simply leaving a cooler outside for your neighbors with an honor-system cash box, here are a few tips for building a loyal client base and making the most of what you have to offer.

Excite and Educate Your Customers with Recipes

Offering a free recipe for your customers is a great way to sell more of your lesser-known offerings or push produce that was surprisingly overabundant. This can be something as easy as a dip for everyday snacking, as simple as a quick pickled item for topping that casual family taco night, or something more adventurous like designing a complete meal kit-in-a-box with a protein, side, and starch.

Consider your resources and plan ahead to help get your clients interested and excited for new items to come throughout the growing season. You might even use this as an opportunity to educate and promote sustainability by featuring recipes for some commonly wasted or avoided foods, such as Radish Green Chimichurri or Nasturtium Salad. And it’s a great way to continue building your audience by posting recipes alongside other content on your social platforms.

Take Advantage of Convenience

There is a cost to convenience and many people are still willing to pay it. Lots of home cooks prefer the comfort of pre-prepared cuts of meat to butchering themselves at home. If you’re farming and selling meat, that can leave you with a lot of unsalable off-cuts.

You may have had an unseasonably warm or wet growing season resulting in unsightly produce that is still just as tasty, but still a potential waste. Don’t lose out on the opportunities from these oft thrown-out pieces. Instead, look at the possibility of making and selling your own stocks and soups.

Those leftover chicken feet and backbones will make an amazing foundation for braised greens. The beef oxtails you have can turn into an incredibly rich base for Asian soups and Southern stews. And all those “ugly” vegetables many customers overlook for their appearance will still develop into a wildly delicious broth for infusing into grains like rice and polenta. You can easily put a pot or two on the back burner to passively simmer as you take care of other tasks throughout the day. Gift your customers the convenience of this service and use this flavor in your favor by offering these stocks — fresh or frozen — alongside the rest of your inventory.

Set Up a Compost Take-Back Program

If you have any customers with a green thumb or interest in gardening, themselves, offer to take back their food scraps in exchange for your farm fresh compost at no additional cost. Not only does this symbiotic relationship provide you, the farmer, with an additional source of trustworthy food waste to continue developing your composting system or help feed your animals, but it’s also a surprising perk for your customers as they discover and develop their own paths into sustainable food systems. It is also a great way to build trust and loyalty between you and your clients as they will be able to get a peek into your planting process and the health of your soil.

Remember to provide a list of acceptable compost items for your system, then let your customers freely swap out bags at your farmstead or offer pounds of fresh compost as an add-on to your CSA box. Recognize, too, the option this creates for you to sell any excess seeds you saved from the previous season.

You may ultimately develop an audience for an all-in-one gardening kit, further encouraging your relationship with your customers and your customers’ relationship to sustainable growing practices.

Planting is one thing, but selling is another — don’t forget that as you begin your farming journey. Word of mouth is the best advertisement, so when it comes to your customers, let your passion and hospitality lead the way.

Zack Shornick is a chef and hospitality manager with a passion for sustainable agriculture and who founded the men’s beard and body care company, Raleigh’s Grooming. He and his wife are traveling across the country in their upcycled DIY camper van, searching for the perfect plot of land. Connect with Zack at ZackShornick.com and on Instagram. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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Tough Choices When Raising Goats: Disbudding, Tattooing and Meat Animals

Freshly disbudded kids rest 

Bouncing baby goats! There’s no more joyful sight on the spring homestead. We stand around watching them for hours. They are full of vitality and energy, the best advertisement possible for drinking lots of goat milk. But before you rush out and breed goats — or buy some new ones — I want to tell you about the less delightful kid-rearing tasks. Some may not apply to your goat-keeping situation, but they are all worth knowing. I have a 4-doe home dairy herd, so that’s my perspective.

Disbudding Goat Kids

When kids are a week old or so, there are horns to consider. Most goats, male and female, are born with patches of fast-growing cells on their skulls that turn into horns. These cells can be felt as small bumps well before they are visible through the hair on the goats’ sweet little heads. This is the one time in the goat’s life it’s easy to prevent horns from growing. Full-grown horns are actually part of the skull and are sheathed in blood vessels — not something you can just chop off. But taking off this little patch of cells now means no horns for the rest of the goat’s life.

Another consideration: Most goat shows only accept hornless goats. If you plan to show, or sell goats to people who do, research your breed and decide whether or not to take off horns.

Many goats do just fine with horns. Pack goats, for instance, or fiber goats who are going to need some convenient handles when they are shorn. But a dairy goat that is going to be waving her head near my face twice a day for years — well, I had enough casual near-eyeball-misses when I had a horned goat to make me grit my teeth and take off their horns at a young age.

“Disbudding” is the term for taking off these little bumps. I use a cauterizing tool that gets red hot, which I consider the safest and surest method. Some people use a caustic paste, but I don’t like the risk of that goop running into a goat’s eye. I would rather put on my leather glove and be careful for four seconds while I press the iron to the horn bud.

There is much singed hair and yelling, but the kids go right back to their moms after a few minutes of being comforted with an ice pack or frozen cube of comfrey pulp on their heads. The kids stay with their moms (or we have a bottle of milk ready for them if they are used to the bottle) so that they can recover quickly. Only one stressful thing at a time when you’re raising goats!

Disbudding tool kit

Tattooing Goat Ears

After waiting two days for the goats to recover from disbudding, the next stressful thing I do is tattoo anyone who needs it. That is for any young animals destined for registration and breeding. I register through the American Dairy Goat Association, and each goat that leaves my farm should have a clear tattoo in each ear. The right ear has my unique herd tattoo (HF17) and the left ear has a letter to indicate the year (2020 is M) and the birth order of the goat.

For example, the fourth goat born on my farm this year has the tattoo M4 in her left ear. If you are buying a new registered goat, check her ears for legible tattoos! Goats can get turned away from shows and appraisals if their tattoos aren’t clear. Re-tattooing an adult goat can be an unpleasant rodeo with everyone getting way more ink all over them than they should, so you might as well check the tattoos on the goat before you buy.

Remembering when they got disbudded, the kids aren’t eager to get back in the kid-holding box for tattooing. I wear green rain pants and rubber gloves to cope with the abundant tattoo ink that’s going to get smeared everywhere. Tattoo kits are available for sale from livestock supply companies. Get ones appropriate for the size of animal you are tattooing.  LaMancha goats, lacking big ear flaps, get tattooed in the tail web, which I am happy to say I haven’t had to do yet.

Double-check your letters and numbers to make sure you have a full set. When the J year rolled around, I discovered I had a set of letters with two Ls but no J. ADGA is pretty particular when it comes to tattoos and I wasn’t going to fudge it by turning an L upside down, but the tattoo kit company was kind enough to send me a solitary J. Disbudding has a limited window of time that it will work, but the window is much longer for tattooing. Even adult goats can be tattooed, but trust me, no one will like it. Secret tool for tattooing? A child’s toothbrush to scrub green ink over the puncture wounds left by the letters and numbers. Ouch! But getting that ink way down in there means that the tattoo will last for life.

While disbudding has a safety justification (why leave the brass knuckles on the goat?), tattooing is only necessary if you are going to register the goats or otherwise need them to be identifiable. Registering a goat in and of itself does not make her more productive, of course — she doesn’t care! — but certain shows and programs are open to registered animals only. When I’ve shopped for a new goat, I like to see the performance records of her ancestors. If her mom and grandmother were star producers, chances are she will be as well. These official records are typically only available to registered animals.

But what about the bucklings?  Many of them won’t get tattooed because they are headed to pet homes or the freezer. ADGA doesn’t register wethers (castrated male goats), so I don’t tattoo mine. They get castrated at around two months old or whenever they have adjusted to weaning. Doing it this late means their urethras have developed enough to lower their risk of urinary tract stones later in life. Those stones can be lethal, so for a goat who is going to be a long-term pet, we give him the best chance of avoiding them.

Male goats raised for meat usually don’t get castrated here, especially so they can be sold at a premium for the Islamic market around the Eid holy day. Goat is the most common meat eaten around the world, so enjoy the international and cultural heritage of this incredible generous animal!

Determining When to Process Goats for Meat

I have a “breed the best and eat the rest” approach. My suburban farm has a ready market for young males as pets, but we also eat any extras. I need to know this when I’m delivering the kids, so I don’t get too attached! And I need to realistic enough about the quality of my does to know that they are not going to produce a champion buck every time, or even at all.

No matter how cute a male goat may be, at some point, he is going to be an obnoxious teenager. We’ve always been glad to get six-month-old bucklings into the freezer. Mentally prepare yourself for the possibility of eating those guys, and don’t put it off, especially if they have access to any females. Some goat-raising friends had a young female get bred by her brother when she was only five months old, which wasn’t optimal for her long-term health. So don’t delay on separating those goats, and if you have the ability to raise them for cheap or free meat, go for it.

I have tried a wide variety of weaning strategies, which also change every year depending on who is kidding. Kid-rearing is worth another whole post, but I can say that it works best for us to move moms to a neighboring pen where they can still sniff their kids but not nurse. By providing nutritious food for the youngsters, whether it’s still milk in a bottle or protein-rich browse, we avoid prolonged yelling and stress. The does seem relieved to have their kids nearby but not nursing.

To sum up my list of baby goat responsibilities: Do only one stressful thing at a time, and think ahead about what is going to be necessary for the long-term interests of your goat. In roughly chronological order, you need to consider disbudding to prevent horns from growing, tattooing for identification, weaning, castration, and butchering. I love sharing my life with goats, and tending these needs is part of the domestication relationship humans have with them.  This is what works for me and my herd, and I encourage you to sit with your animals and find out what works for you!

Alexia Allen is a farmer, teacher, and homestead orchestrator at Hawthorn Farm in Western Washington State. She taught at Wilderness Awareness School for 12 years before moving into farming full-time and enjoys a Renaissance woman life with something new every day of every season. Read all of Alexia’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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Experimenting with Forage Options for Pastured Pigs

Heritage Pigs In Pasture

Everybody has (or should have) something that really makes them feel alive — some topic or calling that gets them unreasonably excited. At Singing Pastures farm, that topic is “How much grass can a pig eat?”

 

I use the term “grass” loosely. By grass, I generally mean forages. (Many people do not realize it, but this loose definition is also applied to grassfed cows that are fed all manner of forages, including, but not limited to, clover, alfalfa, and broad-leaf forages.)

 

Types of Forage for Pastured Pigs

 

So, how about pigs? What can they eat? Here are some of the things on the menu: broadleaf forages, like lamb’s quarter and pigweed. Brassicas, such as kale and turnips. Legumes, such as clovers and the vegetative bodies of pea and bean plants. And of course, grasses themselves, whether they are perennial, cool-season grasses like timothy, orchardgrass and fescue, or the common annual crop grasses, like oats or sorghum-sudangrass.

 

At Singing Prairie Farm, we strive to make these the foundation of our pork production. To be sure there always has to be more involved than just forage, but these forages represent the most heavily utilized resource option in our research on pigs.

 

Forage Mixture Peak Grazing Form

 

The Pig Forage Experiment

 

We set out this summer (2017) to document the nuts and bolts of feeding forages to pigs. Thanks to a grant from Sustainable Agriculuture and Reaseach Education (SARE) and our friends at Practical Farmers of Iowa, we are going to be able to offer the results of our research by the end of the year. We are recording data on three separate groups this summer.

 

The control group: Pasture rasied pigs on a full grain ration. These pigs receive a standard ration of 100% non-GMO grain, based on weight and age. This grain is a balanced ration of 16% protein from our local feed mill. They are kept in paddocks of about an acre and moved at least twice a month, sometimes more. They eat some grass and clover and benefit from it.  However, it is not contributing tremendously to their rate of weight gain. These pigs were born on our farm and are Red Wattle, Hereford, Hampshire crosses.

 

Experiment group #1: Pasture-raised pigs on a 50% reduced non-GMO grain ration. Because the growth curve for young, growing pigs rises so steeply relative to grain intake during the first 10 weeks of life, we elected to keep them on the fully prescribed ration until that time. This will put the pigs at about 3pounds of grain per pig per day by 10 weeks. Rather than increase their ration as they continue to grow, we maintain 3 pounds per pig per day for the rest of their life. In this, they should  receive roughly 50% the total amount of grain usually required by the time of their harvest date (around 7 months of age).

 

It should also be noted that 40% of a pig's allotted ration is required for maintenance. This means that 40% of their feed is used just for basic body functions, like maintaining body temperature, respiration, heartbeat and movement. So, when you reduce a pig's grain ration by some amount, you must increase the availability of some other resource to the same extent.  Failing to do this will increase the days to maturity as it will take the pigs significantly longer to reach their target weight. That prolonged days to maturity may increase the total quantity of grain consumed so much that it surpasses that of a pig on a full grain ration for fewer days!

 

We offer our 50%-grain group oceanic quantities of our spring annual mix (forage peas, dwarf essex rapeseed and forage oats.) These pigs are also from our farm and are are Red Wattle, Hereford, Hampshire crosses.

 

Experiment Groups #2: Pasture raised pigs that are grain free. This is our most radical experiment in alternative pork production. This group has never tasted grain and consumes tremendous quantities of our spring annual mix. They are supplemented with acorns, which we gathered last fall and a small quantity of organic milk powder. This batch of pigs was purchased at about 10 weeks of age from a farm in Nebraska. Their ancestry is of mixed parentage including Hereford and Large Black.

 

Experiment Group #3: Pasture raised pigs that are grain free. This is a second group of grain-free pigs, with the same management plan as the previous experiment group, but of a different heritage. These pigs are from Sugar Mountain Farm in West Topsharm, VT. (We will be writing a follow-up blog about Walter Jeffries and Sugar Mountain Farm next month.)

 

Grazed Forage Crops Comparison

 

There is something special about our no-grain groups that makes these experiment groups possible. Both of our no-grain groups are from farms that have selected breeding stock for a high fiber diet for upwards of 15 years. They are able to consume large quantities of forage and gain in body mass as a result.

 

My homegrown, pasture raised pigs that we are using for the full grain and 50% reduced grain groups, do not have this quality to same extent. I mention this as a cautionary statement: Don’t go out and buy 12 heritage-breed pigs, put them out on stemmy fescue and expect them to grow without some grain. It won’t work. Just like in grassfed beef, genetics matter.

 

The chief difference here is that in pigs, those genetic qualities are exceedingly rare. Finding a farmer with the time and motivation to manage pigs for grass finishing are equally so. Currently I am only familiar with three farms nationwide that do this with pigs. Bear in mind that feeding grain to pigs is not a bad thing in many systems. If your local farmer feeds grain to his pigs, AWESOME! Be glad you have a farmer raising pigs!

 

There are a million and one ways to raise a pig. Your local farmer needs to take into account his or her local resources and time constraints.

 

As the summer progresses, we will be recording data on forage quality and quantity, pig growth and if the opportunity pops up to offer some other resource (pumpkins, apples, unsalable farmers market tomatoes etc). We hope that we can shed some light on the techniques that make grass finishing a pig timely, profitable and humane. That is part of our calling here at Singing Prairie Farm. We hope that you also pursue your calling, whatever it is, in a precise and passionate way.

John Arbuckle aims to change the trajectory of modern pig farming at Singing Pastures by demonstrating that a thinly wooded pasture, when managed well, can sequester tons of carbon, support lots of family farmers, create the most nutritionally dense pork and nurture an army of coyotes, owls, frogs, worms, bobcats and happy children. Read all of John’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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Spring Lambing Season with Finnsheep

Golden Retriever Licking Sheep Face 

Spring lambing season is always a time of anticipation accompanied with a bit of angst. We had three ewes deliver nine nice lambs this spring. Each delivery was a different experience. I prefer to let nature take its course, with as little intervention as possible on my part.

I was looking forward to this year’s lambing season with excitement and a bit of anxiety. When the time comes, you need to keep your eye on the ewes, look for the often-hidden signs of labor, and make educated judgements about when to help out and when to leave well enough alone. With Finnsheep, the breed we raise, lambing is also a time of discovery. Regardless of the color of the parents, you won’t know ahead of time what color the lambs will be. Even though none of this year’s breeding stock were white, we still netted four white lambs and a nice variety of colored ones.

Preparing for Spring Lambing

Our former cow shed has been remade into a maternity ward for sheep. The three pregnant ewes spent the second half of winter in one large pen in the ward, separated from the rest of the flock while we supplemented their feed during the later stages of gestation.

Because Finns typically have litters of lambs, they need extra nutrition during pregnancy to remain healthy and deliver healthy, good-sized lambs. As lambing drew closer, they were separated into individual jugs to give the ewes private space to deliver and bond with their lambs.

Duchess, one of our foundation ewes, was the first to deliver. This was her third time lambing. She’s an old pro at motherhood, and I was hoping the two new mothers that were following her would learn something by watching. Just like in her prior pregnancies, she was as round as a barrel when she started pawing the floor of her pen on delivery day.

Finnsheep Ewe With Four Babies

Finnsheep Lamb Delivery

Once she started, her quads — three rams and one ewe — were all born quickly and healthy. Duchess does very well on her own, although I stood outside the pen and watched for signs that she might need help as the babies started coming. She had the first one and cleaned it off in no time. It was up and looking for food in just a few minutes. But it was a while before she settled in to deliver the next one.

The second lamb came out and she showed no signs of getting up to clean it off. So, I stepped in and cleared its nose and mouth and gently shook it as she delivered two more in rapid succession. Once they were all sucking air, I got out of the way and she took over. She had two white lambs, a black-and-white lamb, and a brown lamb. Her three-year birthing record now stands at three, three, and four lambs, which meets the Finn ewe standard for delivering 10 lambs by the age of three years.

Lambing with a First-Time Sheep Mother

It was almost two weeks later when Petunia, a first-time mother, showed her first signs of labor. She went off her feed abruptly one evening, a sign that lambing may be imminent. It was around 11 pm when I did my final check of the barn that night, and Petunia’s first lamb was starting to show. By midnight, she had delivered a gorgeous black-and-white ram with curly long locks, followed by a tiny brown-and-white ram, then a white ram — both born with their eyes closed.

We lost the white ram after a few hours. She did a good job cleaning her babies, but she was nervous when it came to nursing. Because that initial shot of colostrum is so important to the lambs, we put a halter on her, tied her to the corner of her pen and helped her babies nurse the first few times. It was a sleepless night for us in the barn.

She still hadn’t passed the afterbirth by the next morning, so we called in the vet to help. After delivering her placenta, gently pulling the little brown ram’s eyes open and giving everyone a shot of vitamins, the vet declared they should all be on their way to good health. She said Petunia likely had delivered a little early and that’s why her third one didn’t live. After a couple days, we were able to remove Petunia’s halter and she settled into being a perfectly sound young mother.

The last of our ewes to deliver was Daisy, who is the largest of our Finn ewes. Judging by her size in late pregnancy, it was no surprise when she had three large lambs. Her signs of labor were very subtle, and it was just good luck that I checked in on her at mid-day when her first baby was about to be born. Like her mother Duchess, she had no problem delivering and she readily cleaned up and looked after her little ones. She had two white lambs and a black and white ram lamb.

Baby Finnsheep Lamb Nursing Sheep

To Bottle Feed or Keep with the Mother?

The black-and-white ram was wobbly on his back legs at a day old and was having trouble nursing. I thought he had been stepped on by his mother, so I took him to the house for bottle feeding and some TLC. I also gave him a dose of Selenium and Vitamin E paste. Twelve hours later, he had a miraculous recovery. Based on his response, I believe he was born with a Selenium deficiency.

Then I was faced with a dilemma — keep him in the house as a bottle baby or try to reintroduce him to his mother and litter mates? I chose the latter and to my pleasant surprise, his mother readily accepted him back. He lagged a little behind his litter mates but did just fine in the barn.

Our lambs are almost two months old now and are eating grain and munching on hay. The barn is a noisy and busy place. Finns begin showing their friendly personalities at a very young age and are always happy to see you when you step into the barn. Happily, these little guys and gals are no exception.

Fluffy White Baby Sheep Finnsheep

Cindy Dayton is a shepherd and DIY enthusiast who raises Finnsheep and honeybees on a Western New York homestead that has been in her family since the 1950s. She and her husband tap maple trees for syrup, mill lumber and preserve much of their garden’s harvest. Read all of Cindy’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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Clearing Land with Pig-Headed Determination

Jordan takes time to give Raspberry a scratch.

The move to a piece of rough and rugged bush land to develop a homestead for myself and my son was a big undertaking.  (Read my first installment for how we came about finding our land.) I had no money to speak of, and no experience to depend on, but I fully believed that this was the right thing to do. I asked God how I should live and was given the word “simply”. That is how this journey began.

When we look at how long humans have been on this planet and compare it to how long electricity and gas engines have been around, we are forced to recognize that the majority of humans have gotten along just fine without them.

I have now been living without electricity for 20 years, and the most popular response is, “I don’t think I could do it.” But I’m hardly a pioneer. When I need something, I jump in my vehicle and drive to the hardware store — and in a moment of weakness, I might grab a coffee and a cheeseburger along the way. I am a far cry from living off the land, but that is my destination. I want to not only learn how to survive, but how to live well. I am getting there by taking one small step at a time.

Clearing the Land with Pigs

The first step was clearing the land. This was accomplished by a combination of me with a set of brush-cutters, men with chainsaws, and pigs. Pigs are natural roto-tillers. Unlike cows or goats that compress the land under their feet, pigs will dig up and loosen the top foot of soil and remove tough roots.

I remember our first pig, whom my four-year-old son Jordan, named Raspberry. I put Raspberry in her new pen and brought her a big pan of clean water. She walked a couple of feet away, picked up a piece of dirty old root, dropped it in the pan, and looked up at me as if to say, “I am a pig. Thanks for the clean water, but I enjoy mine with a bit of mud.”

To be honest, I have a love/hate relationship with pigs. At feeding time, they make a heck of a lot of noise. Pigs also require solid fencing. Failure to do so will end in mayhem. Pigs are smart and useful, but they are always busy looking for more food and, if possible, adventure. They are perfect for digging up tough root systems and undesirable plants. They will also tear apart your lovely flower gardens or turn over the neighbour’s front yard, if given the opportunity.

Fencing Challenges with Pigs

I have used a variety of types of fencing to contain my pigs: log fencing, page-wire fencing, and solar-electric lines. Their long, fat, sausage-shaped bodies limit their agility, so they don’t tend to climb fences but they will certainly attempt to borough underneath.

I learned the hard way (as usual) that electric fencing cannot be used along a stone ridge. The pigs must be grounded in order to experience the electric shock that keeps them within the boundaries. If they are standing on rock, the fence line is nothing more than a bit of string. Once they know they can run through it, it will be a challenge keeping them in.

Our pigs cleared tough land enabling us to establish gardens.

Transporting Pigs to Slaughter

The many pigs we have had over the years resulted in some great stories, many hours of fun for Jordan (who attempted to ride a few of them), nice, loose, rich soil, and pork chops for friends with freezers. Some of my pigs have been harvested on my property and some have been driven to slaughter houses.

I once drove three pigs that were 150 to 225 pounds each to my buddy’s butcher shop in the back of my small pick-up truck. I didn’t have a ramp, so I walked them down the road where a small hill had been cut into. I counted on them being hungry to make this plan work. I forgot about the neighbour’s dog, chained to a tree, along the way. After eating his dog food, they happily followed me with their food bowl into the back of the truck.

I had put together a simple barricade with 2-by-2s to keep them in.  The simple frame-work was just a visual boundary line. I wasn’t attempting to keep them in with solid construction; I was depending on prayer and trust. It would be fun. Why on earth would they want to jump out?

They had plenty of food and straw in the truck bed, and I continually shouted encouraging words through the open window. They seemed to enjoy the 45-minute ride. The scene in my rear-view mirror changed every 15 minutes.  First it was three happy faces, then the broad-side of a fat pink body, then three wagging, curly tails.

As I pulled into the yard, my buddy came out, shaking his head in disbelief. He recounted a story of a customer attempting to deliver pigs under the canopy of a fibreglass truck box cover. Upset pigs are a nightmare.They bolted right through the fibreglass, and he was left trying to round up his injured and extremely distraught animals. Served him right. He had forgotten about the love part of the equation.

My pigs had considered their country drive as an exciting outing; they never felt threatened. The butcher shop building I parked beside was clean and empty, so taking them off the truck was without incident.

Raise Meat Animals with Love and Gratitude

On other occasions, when my pigs were processed on my property properly, they never felt fear. They even lined up for the baited food trough. If you are going to raise or hunt animals for food, do it with love and gratitude, and get the ugly part over with quickly; for you and for them. My pigs had a great life. The pigs that provide the pork in the grocery stores have a completely different story to tell.

Living off the land isn’t all roses and whippoorwills. If you raise animals for meat, you can at least make sure they have a great life while it lasts. I raise my animals in surroundings they enjoy and thank them for their lives upon the ending of it. The result from raising my own meat is that I eat much less meat. I know what’s involved — this is a good thing.

Life here in the back woods is an ongoing educational experience. I am always looking for ways to do things better. I look back to our forerunners, the natives and the pioneers. I am grateful to be able to combine their knowledge and skills with our many tools and conveniences. I thank my lucky stars for the era I am living in. For me, learning to live simply is a choice. Thank God, I have that choice.

Jo deVries (Jo of the Woods) designed and helped build her off-grid Ontario home, where she and her son have enjoyed a pioneer-type life-style without electricity. She is the author of Does Your House Know Where South Is? and generously shares what she has learned during her on-going journey of turning a piece of bush land in to a self-sufficient homestead. Connect with Jo of the Woods and read all of Jo’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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