Archive for the 'animal husbandry' Category

Searching for a dog

By Tom Read

Rocky knew to smile for the camera instinctively it seemed. One of Rocky’s favourite spots was on this end of the deck where he could look out over much of the property to make sure no pesky deer or ravens invaded his space. This territorial guarding just came naturally!

As I mentioned in my previous post, we lost our beloved dog, Rocky, to cancer back in February. We still miss Rocky, but the mourning is less, and it’s time for another dog to join our rural Texada Island household. When searching for a new canine partner, it helps to create a list of desirable traits. We may not find the perfect dog, but if we could, here’s a short list of what she or he would be like:

—  Beta dogs are much friendlier than alpha dogs (who just want to boss everybody around), so we’d really like a dog who thinks that all the world is his or her friend, including cats. Among other reasons, this is important to Penny, our cat, who grew up with Rocky and is accustomed to having a canine friend and protector.

—  Either a young male or female, but definitely a mutt. We like the steadiness, durability and intelligence that haphazard reproduction can bring. My experience with pure-bred dogs when I was young was mostly positive, but they generally seem a little too precious to me now.

—  We like a big dog — Rocky weighed about 140 lbs — because we’re just more comfortable with large dogs, and we think our property offers lots of room for a big dog to roam. Also, there may be some truth to the stereotype that big dogs tend to be gentler and quieter than small dogs.

—  We’d like a dog whose instincts tend toward herding and protecting rather than roaming, digging or fighting.

—  An outdoor dog is a must. This place is heaven for dogs, with a climate that’s seldom too warm or too cold for a dog with a decent coat. Rocky preferred living outdoors on all but the very warmest of days, when he snoozed in a cool spot indoors during the afternoon heat. As for cold weather, that was his joy. His insulated doghouse that’s on the covered deck right outside our front door kept him safe from cold winds and moisture yet gave him freedom to go roaming in his designated 2-acre guard area when he wanted to. And he frequently wanted to, as we would sometimes know from his “get off my property, you darn deer!” bark in the wee hours of the morning.

So where might such a dog be found? At the “pound?” Our region lacks an animal shelter, with volunteers taking the role of “fostering” unwanted dogs. That’s how we found Rocky 10 years ago. Lately there haven’t been many dogs, let alone large ones, available hereabouts. So we’ve been searching online, and we’ll probably find our future dog soul-mate in the Lower Mainland or Victoria. The search is on.

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Bee check-up and housecleaning

By Tom Read

This was the scene yesterday as my beekeeper friend Ted (right), assisted by bee inspector Carolyn Stoddart, began spring check-up and housecleaning on one of Ted's hives.

In the spring we clean our houses, after a long winter, and so it is with bees. Beekeepers on Texada find that April can bring the right weather conditions for opening a hive to check on its health and clean things up a bit.

By this time there are plenty of flowers and pollen-bearing plants around to feed the bees, but spring weather is notoriously capricious. If a stretch of cold, windy, rainy days ensues, our bee friends may not be able to fly, and could even starve to death if they’ve used up their over-winter store of food. So we help out by feeding some sugar during such wet and cold spells.

I am a novice beekeeper, but I find this activity a fascinating mix of art and science, as is all animal husbandry. When a beekeeper opens a hive that’s been undisturbed since the previous fall (except for occasional feeding as mentioned above), one wants to get a feel for its state of health: how many bees, how much pollen and honey remains stored, is the queen healthy and laying lots of eggs to make new “daughter-worker” bees, are there signs of a potential swarm, are there other creatures living in the hive that shouldn’t be there, such as slugs, sow bugs, snails, mice, and wax moths. There’s also a visual check for the dreaded varroa mite, which so far has not come to Texada Island.

Spring cleaning consists mainly of scraping excess wax off of frames and boxes, and cleaning off the bottom board. Bees are quite clean by nature, and will remove debris and dead bees from their hive by themselves. But after a long winter of staying mostly inside the hive, there’s a build-up of stuff that needs removal, so we give them a little help.

One result of this check-up and housecleaning is that we get a better idea of how to manage the bees as we enter the new season. For instance, a beekeeper will usually ponder, at this point, whether the hive is strong enough to support a division (making a new hive, also known as a colony) or should the bees be given more time to build up their numbers and food stores?

Our goal at Slow Farm is to facilitate an optimum number of healthy bee colonies for our area, and eventually to take some honey when the bees can afford to part with it. This is an agrarian rather than industrial standard, and sets a sustainable example we intend to follow throughout our agricultural endeavours.

Bringin’ in the slops

By Tom Read

Usually, the slops are waiting for me just inside the kitchen back door at the Texada Island Inn. Today I lucked out when chef Elaine saw my arrival and met me halfway.

It’s Friday afternoon and I’ve just pulled up to the back door of Van Anda’s Texada Island Inn, right outside the restaurant kitchen. At home each day, we feed a small stream of kitchen scraps to our chickens and compost pile, but the volume of “table scraps” flowing from a restaurant kitchen seems like a river by comparison. I’m here at the Inn — known to locals as “the hotel” even though it also includes a restaurant and bar — to pick up the Friday slops.

One of the hotel’s excellent cooks, Elaine, saw my car pull in the driveway, and she brought today’s slops out of the kitchen to be loaded in the back of my car (photo). In return, I gave her a couple of clean buckets from a previous slops pick-up. I make sure to scrub the returning buckets with soap and hot water to comply with the stringent sanitation standards required in a commercial kitchen. Sometimes Linda and I will have dinner at the hotel, then I’ll go fetch the slops and we’ll head home. Of course, there’s never anything left over on my plate.

So why am I going to all this trouble, and burning a few extra litres of gasoline in the process? Answer: I’m retrieving slops from the hotel thrice weekly, all year, because the organic matter feeds our animals and our soil. Food-growing removes a certain amount of soil nutrients every year; if we don’t replenish those nutrients then our food-growing will eventually fail for want of soil fertility. Thus, a constant balance must be maintained between what we take away — harvests — and what we add to offset the soil nutrient depletion caused by those harvests.

Slops use is only one part of the balance. They’re a little heavy on tired lettuce, surplus French fries, deep-fried onion rings and mashed potatoes. So we’re fortunate that we have our own chicken and pig manure and that Texada is abundant in wild sources of soil amendments. Texadans also have access to some very effective commercial organic fertilizers that are sold across Canada but brewed right here on the island from imported ingredients.

The wild stuff includes seaweed (collect in fall only), nettle (collect before it forms seed-heads), nitrogen-fixing trees (Western Red Alder) and lots of maple and alder leaves. If you cut thistle tops before they form a seed-head then these widespread “weeds” also become a good input for the compost pile. How attitudes change! When we started our first garden after moving to Texada ten years ago, I tried in vain to remove all the nettles and thistles from our property — the hard way, by hand with a shovel and a hoe. Now I welcome these useful plants on the farm (but not directly in the garden beds).

But I digress, and must conclude by returning to the slops. It’s a privilege to be given those buckets. They help offset the cost of animal feed, even though I must carefully inspect the slop bucket contents just in case a bit of plastic should find its way there. That’s rare, but it happens. And sometimes I find meat scraps, which become dog treats. As for the travel costs — I’m usually able to combine slops pick-up with other errands, so what’s another stop along the way?  Plus, there’s a real satisfaction in keeping something of value out of the waste stream that would otherwise end up in a landfill at Cache Creek.

Now, if I could only get the hotel to add more seaweed-based items to the menu….

Pigs: lessons learned

By Tom Read

Pinky, the young weaner, in July weighed about 25 lbs (above).

By his last supper in late November, Pinky now weighed about 215 lbs.

What did we learn from our first pig-raising experience here at Slow Farm on Texada Island this year? We learned:

1)  That it’s ok to name your pigs, even if you plan to eat them, because human affection helps raise happier and healthier pigs. In my opinion, we take better care of animals if we see them as worthy of our respect and affection, and giving them a name, however whimsical, helps set the stage for a mutually beneficial relationship. I enjoyed training our pigs to patiently wait for their food to be placed in the feeder before digging in, and they enjoyed their many mini-massages, especially the behind-the-ears rub.

2)  Pigs are, indeed, natural rototillers and great fertilizers. This year’s pig pasture now needs only a little touch-up to remove some large tree roots that the pigs couldn’t eat, plus some raking or harrowing to smooth out the bumps, and it will be ready for planting in the spring. We’ll not need to put pigs on this ground again for quite awhile.

3)  You can feed a pig nearly anything, but they especially enjoy greens, apples, milk and potatoes. Ours also got a daily ration of “hog grower” grain pellets, plus some fried veggies and thick soups later in their lives when we were given “slops” from a local restaurant.

4)  Fencing matters with pigs. One day Spot, the adventurous female, built a mound of dirt up against the electric fence and then vaulted herself over it to freedom. She quickly found some adjacent plantings of potatoes, beans and pumpkins, and made quite a mess before our friend Jim happened along and eventually put her back in the pasture.

5)  In fact, several friends and neighbours helped us all along the way. We bought our two “weaners” from Richard and Linda on Vancouver Island, but Richard kindly brought them over to Powell River for us, a big savings in time and money from our perspective. Our friend Jim fed the pigs for us when our work schedule sometimes interfered with feeding time. We’re also grateful for the many gifts of apples, garden gleanings and restaurant leftovers that were given to us as pig food. When slaughtering time finally arrived, we were able to borrow a clean steel drum for dipping, a “tiger torch” for water heating, and a freezer for carcass storage. And I’m also grateful to Colin, a Tom’s Texada Journal reader who lives in Cariboo country, for sharing his wisdom and literature about pigs.

6)  As for the killing and dressing, we were fortunate to obtain the expert services of a friend who came early one Saturday morning. Each pig died instantly by the .22 method, one while eating an apple. The dressing also happened cleanly and quickly, and that night we enjoyed dining on fresh pig liver prepared with an Asian sauce and veggies. Linda also made some pork liver pate, a true delicacy.

7)  The weather wasn’t cold enough to hang the sides, so we packed them carefully in a large chest freezer using clean wood spacers between the quarters. By keeping the freezer on a timer, its temperature held at exactly 2 degrees Centigrade until we could transport everything to the Texada Market in Van Anda. James, who has built a well-deserved reputation on Texada as an excellent butcher, had all four sides cut, wrapped and labeled within a few days.

8)  About half of the out-of-pocket cost toward raising the pigs was for commercial grain-based pig food purchased in Powell River, but undoubtedly grown and processed well outside our coastal region. In future years we hope to replace most if not all of this imported feed with a comfrey/seaweed/grain/root crop concoction of our own making.

The bottom line: We found raising pigs a very positive experience, and plan to do it again next year. Yes, pigs are a whole different challenge compared to raising chickens, but it’s all about animal husbandry. If you like animals, it feels good to take on such challenges. To borrow a phrase from Colin, it really does make a person feel wealthy to have a freezer full of home-raised pork.

Pork and Chop or Spot and Pinky?

By Tom Read

Spot (obvious) and Pinky take a drink after some serious rooting in the grass.

Spot (obvious) and Pinky take a drink after some serious rooting in the grass.

They’re here! Yes, it is pig time at our homestead. A pair of two-month-old weaners born on a small farm on Vancouver Island arrived here at our place a little over a week ago and settled right down to rooting, snorting, fertilizing and, most of all, eating. This is our first experience raising pigs, so we’ve been getting advice from local veteran pig-raisers, plus doing some reading, naturally.

So far, so good. I’m quite pleased with the effects of rooting. What started as thick, tall grass now looks much like soil that I’ve dug with a shovel, except lumpier. After a bit of raking it should eventually make fine garden beds, no rototiller needed.

We generally do not name our food, so when asked if we’ve named these young pigs we make a joke out of it by saying, “well, we call ‘em Pork and Chop.”  Or maybe “Meat 1” and “Meat 2.”  But the truth is much more personal, at least for me. The surprisingly quick movements, wide range of sounds and aggressive rivalry of these pigs are quite fascinating. I can’t help but feel a familiar fondness for the little porkers. Our friend and chief animal-raising mentor, An, assures me that naming creatures in our care should be considered a normal part of animal husbandry. Perhaps every bit as normal as someday killing and eating them.

But for now I’m starting to think of “Spot” for her spots and “Pinky” for his complexion. I’ll keep you posted on progress with these two, since we intend to enjoy their live company for another four or five months.


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