Are these feral hogs, or domestic hogs? Here in the state of Washington, they are standard farm hogs, living in forest paddocks, completely legally. If they were living in Michigan, their status would be uncertain right now. The folks in MI are wrestling with a new state law that seems to be throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Jury is out on what the decision will be and how it will affect the MI hog industry.
A few months ago, we started hearing some very odd stories about a new law in Michigan, regarding feral hog control. The first hints of this story came in the form of borderline hysterical or alarmist emails that went out to several of the different livestock and farming email groups that I subscribe to. The emails made wild accusations that the MI state government was going to start shooting hogs even if they were on farms. Other emails claimed that the state was adopting Nazi-type tactics about being able to search farms without a warrant, to find and destroy certain breeds of hog. While the Internet is fabulous at helping to disseminate information, it’s just as capable of disseminating mis-information. So when those types of emails come across my desk, without any supporting documentation or reference to an actual law or legislative bill, and particularly if they are merely quotes from some editorial commentary, I generally ignore them.
Then I started to see some of our small scale hog producers on one of the hog lists talking about the new MI policy. And this time, they provided more solid information, with references. The MI Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) had added several species to the state’s Invasive Species Act, which would give the state the ability to forbid ownership of those species and control (or eradicate) existing populations. The amendment would go into effect April 1st, 2012. Wild/feral hogs were included in that list. But because the amended Invasive Species Act language didn’t specify the differences between domestic hogs and wild/feral hogs, a group of MI livestock owners asked the MDNR to clarify the criteria to be used to make that determination. The MDNR replied by providing a final ruling in December, 2011, which listed the criteria.
The original wild/feral hog description from the amended Invasive Species Act reads:“Wild boar, wild hog, wild swine, feral pig, feral hog, feral swine, Old world swine, razorback, Eurasian wild boar, Russian wild boar (Sus scrofa Linnaeus). This subsection does not and is not intended to affect Sus domestica involved in domestic hog production.”
While the summary in general and the last sentence in particular would seem to rule out domestic breeds, the final ruling and subsequent statements from the MDNR have actually made the situation more confusing. The final ruling referenced a list of criteria developed by John J Mayer and Lehr Brisbin, two wild/feral swine researchers working for decades in South Carolina. Their list of common wild/feral swine features was included in the MDNRs final declaration, to definitively answer which hogs would be considered feral, and which would not.
Per the MDNR, any hog having one or more of these criteria could be considered feral and thus subject to the new amendment:
1) bristle tips which are lighter in color than the rest of the bristle shaft
2) dark “points” coloration, ie, dark-colored snout, ears, legs and tail, and lack of light-colored tips on the bristles
3) Coat color combinations including wild/grizzled, solid black, solid red/brown, black and white spotted, black and red/brown spotted.
4) Lighter-colored underfur than the overlying guard hairs
5) A striped coat pattern in juveniles (ie, piglets), typically a black spinal strip and three to four brown irregular stripes along the length of the body.
6) Tails which can curl, but are typically carried straight.
7) Erect ear structure, as opposed to floppy.
8) Undefined skeletal measurements (and because they are undefined, any hog could potentially meet them).
9) Other as-of-yet unknown criteria which will become known over time.
And here’s where folks were getting riled. For one thing, most domestic hogs would meet at least one of the criteria. So, how reliable are those criteria? Mayer & Brisbin first presented those criteria in a research article in 1991, then expanded on them in book form in 2008. Both the original article and subsequent book went to great lengths to describe each criteria, and how the criteria varied amongst specimens taken from the field. Their extensive documentation from the field provided plenty of confirmation that the criteria exist in wild/feral hog populations. However, a crucial point was missed or ignored by the MDNR. In both works, the authors differentiated between three categories of wild swine:
1) purebred Eurasian Wild Boar (both male and female)
2) Feral Boar, both male and female, which the authors defined as escaped animals of domestic breeds, and
3) Hybrids created when Eurasian Wild Boar animals crossed with feral animals.
That description of the overall wild hog population should have, by itself, been sufficient to prove that domestic hogs share traits with the feral/wild hog populations. In fact, Mayer & Brisbin repeatedly pointed out in their article that feral hogs brought those domestic breed traits with them into the wild, and those domestic characteristics were found in the hybrid descendents of any wild hog/feral hog crossing. Indeed they went so far as to say “Therefore, it currently is possible to encounter wild populations that might vary from pure feral hog to pure Eurasian wild boar in composition.” So, by the authors’ own statements, the list of criteria was merely a summary of all the traits seen in the wild. Many of those traits came from escaped members of domestic breeds, and still exist in domestic breeds to this day. The list was never intended to differentiate between wild and domestic hogs. In fact, by the authors’ repeated examples of how domestic traits were seen in the wild, the list could never serve that purpose. From that point of view, the MDNR’s list of criteria is worthless for differentiating between the two, according to the very authors and research the MDNR cited as their authoritative source.
A second issue is one of semantics, and it seems a small point but it’s not. “Feral” has two different meanings in this whole topic. It can refer to a wild animal descended from parents born into captivity as standard pigs, but which at some point escaped captivity and reproduced. That is the definition Mayer & Brisbin used. However, standard English language usage would also define a “feral” animal as a captive animal of any breed which has escaped and is living on its own for any length of time. Both definitions acknowledge the potential for the captive genetics to contribute to the next generation of wild hogs. The MDNR amendment did not clarify which definition it was using - the captive pig which makes its escape, or the wild pig which happens to trace back to domestic breed parents. This concern is at the heart of many small scale hog owners’ objections to this rule. Any domestic pig could potentially become a feral animal in the future. Yet the vast majority of captive hogs never make that escape. If the rule’s intent is to prevent any additions to the wild hog population, are hog farms at risk of having all their animals destroyed, simply to prevent some possible future escape? That concern may seem far-fetched, but we’ll return to this question in a moment.
Third, a number of small scale pastured hog owners raised the point that the only hogs likely to be exempted from this new rule were those in confinement-style facilities. By definition, the more intensive the confinement, the less chance there is for them to escape and become feral. Suspicion quickly mounted that the state’s confinement hog industry was behind the new policy. More specifically, it was suggested that small scale pork producers who pasture their hogs were the ones in the gunsights for this new policy. Pastured pork production is gaining popularity as a cost-effective management strategy, and has a growing market share. While tiny compared to the volume of conventional pork sold in this country, some pastured pork producers felt this new rule was a thinly veiled attempt to outlaw their pastured operations.
While these last two concerns might seem paranoid, a letter from the MDNR’s Director Rodney Stokes to a group of concerned MI hog owners would seem to deepen, rather than soothe, those concerns. In that letter, Director Stokes indicated that the state would use “existing information” to determine which farms and facilities were most likely to house, raise or otherwise own/manage hogs which might meet the wild/feral hog criteria. Any facilities which could have animals meeting the criteria would then be “a priority” for inspections, to ensure that any prohibited animals were not on the premises. Wait a minute, what exactly does that mean? Any hog, of any breed, could meet the criteria. So any hog farm would potentially have prohibited animals. And under the new law, any animals so found, even if they were on farm property rather than running at liberty off-property, could be destroyed under this new policy. By making that statement, the MDNR indicated that it intended to identify and destroy captive hog populations, apparently at its discretion.
So here we are, with a very puzzling situation. The state of MI says it wants to better control wild/feral hogs. Fine. As a result, the MDNR comes up with a list of criteria intended to identify those wild/feral hogs. Except that domestic hogs would also meet those criteria. But never fear, the state has assured farmers that the intent is to control wild/feral populations, not interfere with domestic hog production. Yet the MDNR has stated that its priority is to go to farms looking for animals which meet the criteria. If it found them, it has the authority to destroy them. We’ve already seen that most hogs would meet the criteria. So what’s stopping the MDNR from destroying most of the hogs in the state?
I searched for something in the MI state code which would give some kind of assurance that the above scenario wouldn’t play out. Specifically, what would happen if any given farm’s hogs simultaneously met the criteria, AND were being raised for domestic production. Given the issues listed above, most hog farms’ animals would simultaneously be both. Was there some protection in the code against domestic hogs being destroyed, simply because they could someday go feral? The amended language never stipulated that an animal actually had to be on the loose before it could be considered feral. Furthermore, as of this writing, Michigan state code does not specifically define “domestic hog production”, either in this particular policy or elsewhere. The closest the state comes to a definition is in its Animal Industry Act, which states that a domestic animal is a member of “those species of animals that live under the husbandry of humans”. Elsewhere in the MI state code, “feral swine” is defined as any hogs which “have lived their life or any part of their life as free roaming or not under the husbandry of humans”. Perhaps here was finally a relatively clear, functional distinction. If the animal is born and managed on the farm, MI state law would define it as “domestic”. If it were at liberty and fending for itself when found, state law would define it as “feral”. Yet the MDNR’s new amendment ignored the existing state definition of feral, in favor of criteria that also applied to domestic animals. And the MDNR went against its own promise not to interfere with domestic production, by specifically targeting farms raising those animals for domestic purposes. So the million dollar question becomes: was this new law going to result in destruction of hogs being used for normal everyday domestic farm production? The final declaration would seem to indicate “no”, yet Director Stoke’s letter would seem to indicate “yes”.
One possible way to clarify the situation and smooth some very ruffled feathers, was proposed by a number of small scale hog owners. The suggestion: restrict enforcement of the rule to those animals actually found running loose. It seemed a very easy way to protect the stated goal of the law, namely feral animal control, without endangering entire hog operations. That suggestion was, at the time of this writing, never commented on or responded to by the MDNR. By that silence, the contradictions and questions remain. As of the end of March, 2011, at least four separate lawsuits have been filed to block this policy from going into effect.
I can only shake my head and wonder at how this situation is going to play out. It would seem that the amendment is riddled with inconsistencies, overlapping definitions and contradictory goals. The letter of the law cannot possibly accomplish the spirit of the law. Such is the way it sometimes goes with regulatory code, unfortunately. What bothers me more is that folks who have stepped up to point out not only the problems, but also possible solutions to these problems, are apparently being stonewalled. Other regulatory efforts I’ve been involved with, either directly or indirectly, at least tried to minimize such contradictions, and find workable ways for folks to meet the criteria. That doesn’t seem to be the case here, which again begs the question of what the real intent is.
My only suggestion at this point, to the small scale hog owners in MI, is to keep fighting and keep working for a practical, rational compromise. For folks in other states, we’re on notice now more than ever, that we need to stay in touch with what new regs and policies are being developed which will impact our work. They don’t always make much sense, but it’ll be our job to fight them if and when they surface.
Gaye was one of those quiet, but rock-steady horses that you could always count on. She wasn't very photogenic, and she didn't have the head-tossing spirit or playful nature of our other horses. But she would give you her best to work through a situation. Sadly, sometimes our best just isn't enough.
There’s a saying amongst Alaskan outdoorsmen: Some days, you get the bear. And some days, the bear gets you. Translated, that means that some days there’s precious little we can do to prevent really rotten things from happening. While my last blog talked about ways we can knowingly avoid the development of problems, other days they just catch us unawares and we have to deal with the consequences.
Our “bear day” started the afternoon of Friday the 16th. Our first batch of piglets was due to be butchered the morning of the 17th. We needed to move them up to their holding pen near the driveway, so that the butcher crew would have easy access to them. We had already constructed an “L” shaped connector pen running from where they were being raised, up to where they needed to be. They had spent the last week in that pen, moving back and forth between the new areas. All we needed to do was close off the lower portions of the connector pen, via a short section of fencing across the pen’s width, so that they were restricted to the upper portion nearest the driveway. Simple.
That Friday afternoon, I had the section of fencing in place and ready to go. All I had to do was call the pigs up to the top portion of the yard, then move that short section of fencing into place. I put out their feed near the top of the yard, just like I’d been doing for a week, and they came running. But as soon as I started to stretch that section of new fencing across the width of the yard, things started going wrong. One pig noticed what I was doing, and trotted down to see what the new fencing was all about. As soon as she came down, so did the rest of them. Soon I had pigs milling around the new section of fencing, both in front of it and behind it. Clearly I couldn’t finish my fence post connections, let alone the hot wire, until they were all on the correct side. So I stopped what I was doing long enough to get more feed, then tried to finish. But pigs are stubborn creatures, and the entire rest of the afternoon was spent testing and challenging the new fence. Despite the hotwire at the bottom, every single pig got through the new fence, such that they were back on the wrong side. And the more upset I got at each new escape, the more excited and hyped up they got.
Late that Friday afternoon, I started to understand that we might not get them moved back up to the top pen before dark. They were having entirely too much fun running amok and playing hide and seek in the very same woods, at the bottom of the pen, where they’d already spent the entire previous week. My husband was home from work by this point, and as the light failed we took down the divider fence and tried to drive them back up to the top of the pen. The hope was that with two of us, one of us would be able to reconnect the fence behind the pigs while the other kept the pigs busy. But they weren’t cooperating. The more we did to move them, the more they moved in the wrong direction. Finally, by flashlight, we had to admit defeat. Maybe we could move them in the morning before the butcher crew got there.
By then we were already tired, filthy and grouchy with how things had gone that day, and evening chores only made us more so. We finally got done around 10pm, and had the chance to clean up a little and have something to eat. My husband went off to bed shortly thereafter, and I stayed up a little longer to get a few things done that I’d wanted to do that afternoon. Around midnight I went outside for my typical final check before bedtime. I particularly wanted to see if the pigs had come back up to the top of the hill by themselves (which they hadn’t), but I also took the opportunity to go give everyone else one more looksie before I retired for the evening. That’s when the day went from bad to terrible.
The goat and sheep barn was nice and quiet, with everyone bunked down for the night. The chicken and small animal barn was similarly quiet, with the birds on their roosts and the rabbits just finishing up dinner. My last check was the cow and horse barn. I strolled down the lane to that barn, and saw our two cows, standing very quietly chewing their cud. And Penny, one of our horses, was still visible finishing up the last of her evening hay. But where was our other horse Gaye? I thought perhaps she was out in the yard, and continued to walk down the aisle towards the barn. As I got closer, I could see she wasn’t in the yard. I had to go into the barn to finally see her. Gaye was down in her stall, flat on the floor, cast against the stall wall, flailing to get up. This was an emergency.
Horses are prey animals, and they are most frightened when they feel vulnerable to predator attack. Other prey animals lie down very comfortably all the time, in part because they can get up relatively easily. But for whatever anatomical reason, horses have to work at it to get up. They even sleep standing up. So they only lay down when they feel very secure. When they do lay down, they need to be able to get up very quickly, in case they have to run away from predators. Out on the open prairie where their kind evolved, that isn’t really a problem because they don’t have many obstacles. But if they happen to lay down too close to a fence or wall, such as in a barn or paddock, they can get into a position where they can’t stand up again. That situation is known as being “cast”. And it turns into a life-threatening situation very quickly because the horse gets panicky, starts flailing around flat on its side, and either stresses itself into heart failure, causes injury in the attempts to get up, or slips into shock.
The trick with cast horses is to somehow get their feet back under them, so that they can then start to lift their hindquarters up, then rock forward such that they can come up on their front legs. It’s an ungainly movement for horses, and it can be dangerous for people to move those hooves around when they’re already flailing. I worked for two hours to get Gaye positioned correctly so that she could stand up, but she was so upset she was working against my efforts - I’d get her close to the correct position, and then she’d start struggling again and undo all my efforts. The worst part was, she was exhausting herself with every new, failed attempt to stand. I tried putting bales of hay behind her to get her away from the stall wall, yet give her head room to swing so she could rock herself forward, but to no avail. We were digging holes in the stall floor with her flailing hooves, and not making any progress.
At 2:30am I finally realized I couldn’t do this by myself, and went inside to get my husband’s help To his credit, he was fully awake and dressed and ready to rock and roll within 5 minutes. We went back outside, found Gaye basically where I’d left her, and started to brainstorm about how best to get her back on her feet. Long story short, we successfully got her into perfect position to stand several times, but by then she was so tired and stressed out that she’d get partway up then quit. Her breathing was ragged, I could feel her heart pounding through her ribcage with every attempt, and I started to fear that she was going to give herself a heart attack just by the attempts to stand. It was 6:00am. We had been at it now for hours and we were no closer to getting Gaye up on her feet than when I’d first found her at midnight.
We called the regional veterinary emergency service; no one was available to come out to help, but we were able to talk to the on-duty hospital vet and asked for her suggestions. She asked if there was any way to get a tractor with a loader back to her stall, so that we could lift her with the loader. Unfortunately, our tractor loader was out of commission, and even if it was working we didn’t have the clearance to position the tractor for such a lift. The vet then asked how old the mare was, and we said she was in her mid-20’s. The vet then said that horses do start to get cast more often at that age, because they are starting to get arthritic and they can stiffen up and/or experience pain when trying to stand up. She asked how Gaye’s mood was, and I said she was physically exhausted, but less fearful than she’d been when I first found her. In the previous hour she had been willing to take both hay and water, which was a very good sign that she was calming down. The vet suggested that we give her a dose of oral Banamine to temporarily relieve any pains associated either with possible arthritis and/or the stresses of all that exertion. Then we should let her rest for a few hours, then try again. We had been able to keep Gaye upright with her hind feet tucked under her for the last hour. I tucked her front feet under her as well, so that she wouldn’t try to stand again, and instead would hopefully eat something and rest up awhile. I drove down to the hospital, got the banamine, and drove home and administered that, then followed up with some more hay and water.
After giving her the banamine around 7am, we stopped and took stock of our situation. Gaye was calm and well-positioned for the moment, eating her hay, well hydrated and as comfortable as we could make her. We walked down to the pig yard to see whether they had magically come up to the top of the pen, but no they were still down in the woods at the bottom of the hill. My husband had to work that day, so he couldn’t help any more with either the pigs or the horse. As my husband showered, dressed and left for work around 7:15, I finally had to admit that we weren’t going to get the pigs moved in time. So I called the butcher to let them know we’d have to reschedule their visit. Mercifully they were able to cancel without too much upheaval to their schedule, so we were off the hook in that regard. I checked on the mare one more time at 8am, and she was still eating which was a very good sign. I went in to eat something myself and hopefully catch a few winks. I had been up early the morning before and had worked through the night on the mare, and I was fried. I sat down on the couch to rest and set the alarm to get me up at 9am to go check on the horse again. By then, resting for two hours, she should have had enough time for the Banamine to kick in and her system to have recovered a bit from the overnight stress, and thus would be in good shape to try again. I woke up with the alarm at 9am, and walked out to see how she was doing. Sadly, for reasons that we were never able to answer, she had passed away during that short interval. I don’t know if she’d made one last attempt to stand and her heart had finally given out. Her front legs were extended again, as if she had tried one more time to lift herself. It’s also possible that in her equine mind, she had concluded she was never going to stand again, and she had just given up. We’ll never know. But here we were 9 hours after her emergency had started, and we’d lost the battle.
I was so tired, I just walked back to the house in defeat, emailed my husband at work that we’d lost her, and laid down on the couch with all my clothes still on, and just slept. I woke up around noon, hoping that the whole previous 24 hours had been one long bad dream. Unfortunately, I went back outside and saw that the pigs were in fact still down in the woods, and Gaye’s beautiful face was no longer eagerly watching me from the barn. And that’s when I knew what it felt like to be gotten by the bear.
We buried Gaye that next day. We are watching her lifelong stable-mate Penny, to see if Penny shows any signs of depression, anxiety or other indications that she might need some help with her own grieving. And we’re grieving too, having fought so hard to save Gaye only to have failed in the end. Talking with other horse owners, most horse owners have seen horses cast at least once. Some of those horses were lost - they either injured themselves badly enough while down that they couldn’t recover, or their hearts failed as Gaye’s apparently did, or they colicked and died. Those who recovered sometimes took a long, long time before they were back to their normal selves. Every last horse owner agreed: a horse on the ground is just an ugly situation.
No insightful words of wisdom for how to avoid this in the future - sometimes it just happens. Not even any words of wisdom about how to deal with it when it occurs. There’s ways you can position a horse so that you have given them every possible opportunity to stand, and they still won’t or can’t for whatever reason. I’ve even read that when they’re finally lifted with a sling, sometimes they still die. Some days, no matter what we do, we’ll still have these unhappy endings. And that’s just the way it is.
Stella as a yearling, with her dam Copper in the background. Stella was lost to us but her genetics will remain available through her relatives. Not exactly the same, but some consolation.
Our 2012 kidding season has now come and gone. And as much as we are thrilled with the kids who were born this year, it was a challenging season with some really hard lessons. Given that a big part of this website is to teach folks about how to do things well, and how to avoid doing things poorly, I wanted to talk a little bit about how we did things poorly last year, resulting in some problems this year.
I should start off by saying that we’re not rookies at this business of breeding goats and delivering goat kids. I think this will be our eighth breeding year, with well over 50 kids successfully delivered. But last year, we got behind with our various tasks, and one of the things which should have happened in July and August, but didn’t, was the separation of our does and bucks. You long-term readers of this blog might recall that I had some health issues over the summer, and the doe/buck separation was just one of the many tasks which didn’t get accomplished during that interval. As a result, when the does came into season and the bucks began their rut in late August, everyone was still running together and we had uncontrolled breeding. I had no idea who bred whom, when the deed was done, and as a result I had no idea what everyone’s due dates were. If I can impart a small tidbit of wisdom, DON’T do it this way. It makes for way too much guesswork later. But, it happened and we moved on.
The second thing that went wrong was that I didn’t make special allowances for does who might be carrying multiples, and it turned out one of our smaller does was in fact carrying multiple embryos. Stella had given us beautiful kids in the past, and she had always delivered without any complications whatsoever. She also was one of the higher does in the pecking order, so she rarely ever needed any extra TLC at the feed trough. But this year, unbeknownst to me, Stella had that higher metabolic demand on her system, which I should have caught early on.
The third thing I did wrong was not recognizing how serious things were when I saw the first signs of trouble. Stella started having issues keeping the weight on through winter. I already had all the pregnant does on extra feed and supplements, but she was still not quite maintaining weight. She also was clearly carrying multiples in her small frame, which should have been a very big red flag for me. So it should have been no surprise, given all these conditions, that at approximately 2 weeks prior to her delivery date, Stella went into hypocalcemia, more commonly known as milk fever.
Hypocalcemia is the life-threatening shortage of calcium in the bloodstream. Calcium is not only needed for bones, but also for a host of other purposes including proper muscular function. Hypocalcemia is typically a nutritional deficiency but it also be caused by physiological problems which impact the body’s ability to make use of whatever dietary calcium is available. It can affect any living creature, but it most commonly affects near-term dairy-breed animals (goats, cows and sheep). They are most prone to it because they have been bred for centuries to produce not only viable offspring, but also a surplus of milk. This puts a huge calcium demand on their system at the end of each pregnancy and beginning of each lactation. Many livestock owners will supplement their pregnant animals with calcium-rich foods such as alfalfa, prior to the highest-risk period and then through the first third of lactation. But sometimes even that isn’t enough.
In the case of Stella, she was getting a feed ration which was sufficient for a doe her size carrying a single or twins, but it just wasn’t quite enough for a doe carrying multiples. Simply knowing she was having that trouble should have been my cue to not only up her feed intake, but also start giving her additional calcium as a precaution. But I didn’t.
The morning I found her unable to get up, we began supplementing calcium right away. But by that point, she was already so deeply in deficit that we never actually caught up. We were dumping easy-to-absorb calcium into her body every day, at a rate 10x the amount normally needed for a pregnant doe her size, but we were only able to barely keep her stabilized. Since we didn’t know her due date, we didn’t know if the kids were far enough along to induce labor under controlled circumstances. We continued that way for almost a week. She'd show improvement, then slide a litlte, then show improvement again. We actually reached a point where she was doing solidly better, and I started to think "OK, we're finally getting ahead of the curve." Then finally, the night she went into labor naturally, her body made one more big metabolic push to fill out her udder and bring forth her kids. But she couldn’t meet those demands on her own, and we learned too late that labor was underway. She died before we could get the kids out, and they died with her. It was a crushing loss.
There’s a saying amongst pilots that most flying accidents start on the ground. Translated, that means that most accidents actually have their causes well in the past, at points in time where we could change the outcome if we could only see the problems stacking up. That was the case with this doe. We could have had three or four perfectly healthy kids running around today, and a doe still alive and nursing at least two of them, if we had recognized the problems stacking up slowly but surely in the months and weeks prior to her delivery. Sometimes farming (and life) is a matter of looking at what mistakes we’ve made, and figuring out how to avoid them. This one was expensive, and heartbreaking. She was in her prime, and she took all those kids with her when she went. The only thing I can do now is try to learn from my mistakes and manage my herd better this year, for a more successful 2013 kidding season. More specifically, I need to separate the does and bucks in July so that we have no accidental breedings. I need to know who breeds whom, and on what date, so that I will know the anticipated delivery dates. I need to get those does on a higher plane of nutrition earlier than I did this year, and I need to be ready to supplement any doe who is struggling with her pregnancy for any reason. Those improvements won’t guarantee that we’ll never see milk fever again. But it will help reduce both the likelihood, and the severity, of any future issue. That is some small consolation for our losses this year, but it won’t bring back the doe we lost, or the kids we lost. Sometimes, lessons at the University of Barn & Paddock come with a very, very high tuition. This was one of those times.
The above image is from Threemile Canyon Farms, a certified organic farm in northern Oregon state. They have both certified organic and conventional crops, but they are expanding their certified organic lands each year. They have been recognized by Sustainable Northwest for their farming practices. When we purchase certified organic grains, these are the kinds of farms we support.
As I have written in past blogs, the cost of feed is the single highest cost involved for most livestock owners. Whether we buy in feed or grow our own, a heckuva lot of our time, money and/or effort must go towards feeding our stock. So finding cost-effective feed options is paramount to any farm’s bottom line. My 2012 Feed Bill Challenge has been working to find those options. But now we have a new wrinkle - our recent decision to pursue organic certification has added another layer to our feed bill challenge. We still have the goal of reducing our overall feed bills, but we need to meet the criteria for the National Organic Program now as well. One of the first questions I asked myself was whether we could accomplish both goals? The answer to that is…… a qualified “yes”. But it’s going to take some effort.
My first task was to review my options while under organic certification, to determine which portions of our feeding program are already consistent with the National Organic Program (NOP), and which if any need to change. That actually consists of two steps - first, determining if the ingredients and ratios in our feeding program are both sufficient and appropriate, and second, determining if each ingredient is available from a certified organic source.
The first half of that assignment is more involved than it looks. Part of the application process requires that I provide the actual rations used for each class of animal (young/growing animals, pregnant animals, lactating animals, dry/mature animals). This information is used to determine whether the rations are both sufficient AND appropriate for each class of livestock. By sufficient and appropriate, I mean that the animal’s dietary needs are met, in ways that are environmentally, ethically and ecologically appropriate. For instance, I could say that I feed my hogs a certain volume of food every day, which meets their protein, carbohydrate and vitamin/mineral requirements. If that’s all I needed to do, there would be no way for the inspector (or the customer for that matter) to know what ingredients actually went into my ration. I could be feeding a high quality, wholesome diet of legumes, grains, root crops and grubs. That sounds like pig heaven to me. Or, I could be feeding spoiled foods out of the dumpster and still meet their most basic dietary requirements. By going through the exercise of listing every actual ingredient, and the ratios of each, I can show (and the inspector can verify) that their diet is not only sufficient, but also appropriate.
The second half of that assignment is where a lot of folks run into their first major obstacle. It’s easy to look at a bag of conventional COB (corn, oats and barley), side by side with a bag of certified organic COB, and think that there is no difference between them. It is then very easy to think that someone shouldn’t have to be limited to using the certified organic COB, when the conventional COB looks the same, smells the same, but costs less. But let’s step back and take a look at that for a moment. What’s the difference between the conventional COB and the certified organic COB? For one thing, certified organic COB is made from grains raised in certified organic ways, in certified organic soils. That has a whole boatload of implications. First, the corn would have to come from non-GMO sources. That’s a huge concern to a lot of people (including me). Second, conventional grains are often raised with a whole plethora of artificial substances - synthetic fertilizer, broad-leaf weed killers (Roundup and others), pesticides, grain fumigators and even soil sterilizers in no-till operations. The list of chemicals that can go into every bag of conventional COB is staggering. By using certified organic COB, the livestock owner (and in turn, the end consumer), can be assured that those grains were not raised with any of those substances. Instead, the crops were grown on soils whose fertility came from natural ingredients such as rock dust and compost, weeds and pests were controlled via beneficial insects, mechanical tillage, crop rotation and cover crops, and the seed stock was from non-GMO sources. So the visual similarity between the two bags of COB isn’t the true measure of the difference between them. A thorough understanding of the methods used to raise them gives the more accurate accounting. By using certified organic feeds, we do more than feeding wholesome, non-contaminated grains to our animals. We’re also rewarding another farm’s efforts to be good stewards of the land.
So, having reviewed our rations and our sources, what did I find? Most of our ingredients are fine - we already make a point to feed whole foods in ratios that are both sufficient and appropriate for each class of animal. Our sources, however, need to change. We had fallen into the convenience of buying our raw ingredients from conventional brands from the local feed store. Having made the decision to go organic, we’ll need to find certified organic suppliers. That part is actually fairly easy. Our local feed store already sells a certified organic line of feeds, which I could buy instead of the brands I’ve been buying. We could also go back to buying feeds from a certified organic feed mill a few hours north of us, whom we have used in the past. While the brand available at the feed store is tempting because I already buy my feed there, that per-bag cost is higher than what I’ve been using. That would very quickly blow our budget and our goal to cut our feed bill by 10% this year. Happily, buying from the certified organic feed mill meets several of our goals. First, we’d be buying certified organic feeds, already mixed in approved rations, so that requirement would be met. Secondly, we’d be buying in bulk, which actually drops our feed bill below what we’re currently paying. Third, they bring it to us, which certainly meets the convenience factor. The only two downsides are the need to set up more feed storage, to accommodate the greater volumes, and budgeting to buy our feed a month at a time. While the per-day feed bill will go down, that’s a big chunk to pay for all at once. And that will take some planning and some discipline on our part to set aside that money in advance. But once we make that initial leap, the per-day cost will be lower and that bill will be easier to swallow.
The only other major ingredient in our feed review was our hay and pasturage. One of the most fundamental features of the National Organic Program is that ruminant animals must have access to pasture for a significant part of the year - 120 days. We have been working towards that, and our rental pasture fulfills that need quite nicely. But in order to meet NOP standards, that pasture must be certified organic. That brings along a whole host of management requirements to ensure that pasture is maintained in sustainable ways. Similarly, our hay must also be certified organic, and the hayfield must then also be managed in sustainable ways. The good news is that our landlord has never used synthetic fertilizers or weedkillers on that property, so we have no issues with residue. But the burden falls to us now to show that we’re not merely managing the grass, but also the soil, in sustainable, fertility-building ways. So we’ll need to run soil tests this year to determine what condition the soil is in, then create a fertility program to meet any imbalances or deficiencies. While that was always in the general plan, we’re on the hook now to make it happen. One of the benefits of being certified organic, in my mind anyway, is that our long list of things to do “someday” is forced into the present day. We can’t put off soil tests and fertilizer applications and rotational management for some future date. We have to make time for them now. The good news is that by doing so, our field’s long-neglected soils will almost certainly begin showing much-improved harvest yields, possibly as soon as this year. Had we put off those improvements, we also would have put off the increased yields. Ironically, the boost in yields may very well more than pay for the fertility inputs. Our overall hay cost could very well drop.
So, here at the start of another month, and on the verge of a whole new set of rules, we are rather amazed to see that both our bagged feed bill and our hay/pasturage costs may very well go down as a result of our organic certification. That’s a far cry from the concerns we heard when considering our application, namely, that our feed bills would skyrocket. While we have our work cut out for us, the result will be higher quality feeds, from healthier soils, at lower cost than what we’re currently paying. No matter how many times I go over the books, I keep coming to that conclusion. And if that’s not a drastic improvement in the bottom line, I don’t know what is.