Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Home Alone...with Babies!

Most people know that spring is the time for babies, especially on the farm.  However, our sows have 2 litters of piglets each year so we do have babies in the fall as well.  I'm happy to report that Charlotte gave birth to 8 piglets on Saturday and all are doing well.  Our other sow, Fern, is due a few weeks from now. This is Char's 5th litter and will be for her sister Fern as well.

Char went into labor early Saturday morning, and Dan gave me updates throughout the morning and early afternoon as I was  waiting on the stand.  We were both very happy she chose that day, because Dan had been planning a hiking and camping trip with his brother and was leaving late Saturday.  Having livestock, especially the varied assortment we have here at the farm, means it's next to impossible to get away for more than a few hours.  I had assured Dan that I would be fine, that I can handle anything that needs done here while he took some time away with his brother.  Everything was going well in the hog house and there were 6 piglets born by the time they left.  I checked on her again at chore time and was excited to count 8.  Pigs are known for taking care of themselves during delivery, they don't need assistance with the regularity that cows or sheep will, so I made sure she had plenty of fresh water and left her in peace.  Yesterday morning I fed her, but she wasn't her usual hungry self, being pretty much exhausted from labor.  By evening, she had eaten a little during the day but didn't greet me during evening chores.  Char also seemed to be breathing a bit heavy.  Now, it reached a high of 89 degrees during the day and was a bit humid, so I was really hoping that she was just hot and still tired.  But a nagging little worry in the back of my head said what if something was wrong and she was still in labor?  After all, she has had 10 or 11 piglets in a litter the past couple of times.  Dan wasn't here to take a look and tell me not to worry, and although I have neighbors that would gladly lend a hand if I needed something, they don't raise pigs.  The closest vet is 20 miles away (one way) and farm calls aren't cheap, so I would hate to make that call unless I knew for sure something was wrong.  And everything has gone fine with the pigs the past 10 litters.   So just to be on the safe side, I called Dan's dad who has seen more baby pigs born than I can imagine.  He said it did indeed sound like she was just hot and tired and gave me some advice about what to feed her for an energy boost and how to keep her cool since she's penned up with the babies away from the mud wallow.  I was so grateful just to hear that I was worrying too much, and that I could go catch some of the Steelers game with my sister without worrying about abandoning a farm animal in need of attention.   This morning Char was up and waiting for breakfast and all 8 piglets were doing well too. She was excited to see some rather large zucchini included in her meal! I was so relieved.

Changes in routines always seem to cause trouble...for some reason just switching who is in charge of feeding which creatures means you'll probably find something on the wrong side of the fence, a broken gate, or something like that.  It's so hard to prepare for every contingency, which is why farmers don't take vacations often.  Even if you can find someone willing to try and tackle the feeding chores, you worry about things like "what if the 800-lb boar hog gets loose?" or "did I tell them how to get Dixie (a 1-ton draft horse) unstuck if she walks through the fence again?"  Many of these animals, like the breeding stock or the horses, are here for years.  Each have their own quirks and personalities and we get to know them much as a pet owner does.  Respecting their temperaments allows us to give them the best care in the most humane way possible, even if it means doing things a little different for one animal vs another, even of the same breed. Like a pet owner, we want them to get the same loving care if we get the chance to go away.  But unlike a pet, these animals are also our livelihood.  If something goes wrong and we lose an entire litter of piglets, that's lost income when we wean them, as we often sell some weanling piglets, or possibly a sausage shortage next spring at our farm stand.  It's even a little intimidating for me, because even though I know my animals and they know me, I'm still new to most of the livestock we raise, having only had contact with these species of animals for the past 3 years or so.  If something seems off or out of the ordinary, I rely heavily on Dan's judgement because he has a lifetime of experience behind it.  And I'm so lucky to have a good relationship with his parents, who are just a phone call away if I need a second opinion in the meantime.  I'm hoping that the rest of the week will be uneventful and filled with tomato picking, salsa making, digging the first onions of the season and cleaning up the barn. While I can, if necessary, screw a gate back together or fix wire fence, I'm really hoping to not need those skills while I'm in charge this week!

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Butchering Season Begins Again

The trailer from our local meat processor just left with some of our pigs on board.  By law, we're required to send them to a USDA-inspected slaughtering facility.  We are able to process the sides of meat here at the farm, which means a busy week next week.  I'm usually in charge of the wrapping & labeling of our pork products, as well  as mixing up the herbs & spices for our multiple sausage varieties.  Some of the pigs that left today will go towards filling last fall's freezer pork orders, and the rest will be frozen for sale at the stand when we open at the end of the month.  We'll have fresh pork as well, but we like to have some frozen on hand too, and this allows the necessary time for the smoking & curing of the hams and bacons so we'll be able to have those as well.  It was nice to have a break from meat processing over the winter, but it's that time of the year again. It really takes a lot of planning to get everything scheduled properly!

We moved our broiler chickens to a larger pen today.  We want to get them out on pasture as soon as possible, but it actually snowed here today and these birds just don't handle cold & wet weather well.  To keep them healthy without pumping them full of antibiotics, we decided it was best to put them in another indoor pen with a raised floor, but we'll be watching the weather to get them out on grass as soon as possible. Unlike the pork, we are able to process our chicken start to finish here at the farm, so that will take place just a couple of days before our opening day.  Not only will we have some chicken available at the reopening of the stand, we also have a new batch of broiler birds arriving this week.  They will be able to be out on grass for a longer period of time, as we hope the weather will cooperate when they no longer need their heat lamps in a few weeks. 

The cold continues tonight, with frost forecasted.  We're a bit concerned about some of the crops, like sweet corn and blueberries, but the majority of what's in the ground, like lettuce and onions, won't be damaged if it gets nipped by frost.   It's so exciting to actually see veggies up, and I even have some early radishes to incorporate into our dinner tonight.

I was delighted with the new bottles that arrived this week and have been in the process of filling them with flavored vinegars.  Our Thai Sweet & Hot dipping sauce will be in them as well, so be sure to check them out when you stop to see us! 

 
 

Can I Have One?

We kept 10 piglets from the last litters.  I don’t name them, because they are going to be in someone’s freezer come spring, and I know that.   I do try to keep somewhat of an emotional distance from the food animals, while at the same time treating them with love and respect.  Pigs are smart and funny.  Our have been trained to water themselves…it makes less mess if there isn’t a big container of water for them to wallow through in their pen.  So, just like the horses and cows, we open the door to the pigpen every evening and they run down to the creek to drink.  After quenching their thirst, they usually run around, rooting up the snow or chasing the sheep and geese.  It looks like they do this just for the entertainment of watching the other critters run.  Eventually, they file back into the building they live in.  They know fresh food and a dry bed await them when we close them in for the night.

If the piglets could talk, I have no doubt they would tell me this is their favorite time of the day. The minute they hear me filling a bucket of water or opening the door to the hen house, they squeal and start pushing at the door.  I think a pen of hungry dinosaurs would probably make less noise.  When it is their turn, they rush out so quickly that I sometimes see one on top of another for a few steps, since none want to be the last one out.  After the frantic racing is over, I watch the door some nights to shut it when all 10 are back inside.  Lately I’ve offered them a cookie by standing very still next to the path with my arm outstreched.  One taker one day led to much friendlier piggies.  Last night, they were racing down to the creek when one stopped, turned around, walked up to me and just stared at me, head tilted to the side ever so slightly.  I looked down at this piglet at my feet and realized that she was asking me for a cookie.  I pulled one out, offered it to her, and she took it gently.  Munching the cookie, she turned and scurried down to the water with her siblings.  It was one of those times when you are certain you know exactly what another creature was thinking, without words. I also don’t believe she’d taken a cookie from my hand before, so it was a rather charming moment. She had seen the others get a snack and saw that they trusted me enough to eat from my hand, and that nothing bad happened to them. I know it sounds a little Disney-fied, but Dan happened to be filling a bucket of water and saw the whole thing.  Even living on the farm his whole life, sometimes he sees the animals act in a way that is still surprising.  This was one of those times.  He agreed that there really was no explanation other than that the pig stopped, turned, and asked me in her wordless way for a cookie.

 

 
 

The Pig-o-Tiller

We've worked hard to get an electric fence up around the smallest part of the barnyard so our little piglets can get some fresh air and sunshine.  Many of our customers who stopped by last Saturday enjoyed seeing them run around;  they're very playful at this age! Besides providing an outdoor space for the sows & piglets, we also had another reason to get them out in this particular space.  This part of the barnyard isn't grazed very heavily, so weeds have started to choke out the plants that the livestock find tastier and more nutritious.  A pasture without maintenance will become simply a place for the animals to exercise, but not much of a source of food if the plants that are best for that species are overgrazed or taken over by weeds.  So it's time to re-seed this patch of pasture.  We plan on using just a general hay mix- grasses, clover, legumes and other plants that appeal to pretty much all of our critters.  However, with the weeds thoroughly covering the ground, we have to prep the soil to give the seeds the best possible chance to grow and thrive.  While we do have a very high quality rototiller which we use in the garden every spring for that purpose,  that wasn't the route we wanted to take.  Round bales of hay were fed in this spot for years, and every spring I pull up yards and yards of orange baler twine.  It would quickly wrap around the tines of the tiller and cause major problems.  Besides, we try to use it as little as possible,  both to keep it in great shape for years to come and because we try not to use too much mechanized equipment.  This particular area is also too small and rocky to use the horses to plow it up.  Enter the pig-o-tillers!  Hogs have a natural instinct to root- they use their extremely strong snouts to dig into the dirt and then lift up.  This way they discover all sorts of piggie delicacies like grubs and roots. In the process, they expose the bare dirt and uproot whatever is growing on the surface. Two sows and 18 piglets can do a lot of work or damage, depending on your point of view. They can cause a huge mess if you don't want the ground completely uprooted, but  this is just what we're looking for to plant! So the pigs get exercise and some extra food at no cost to us, and they get to entertain themselves by doing what pigs naturally want to do.  And we get the pasture reseeded with just minimal time and work on our part.  It's what we like to think of as a win-win situation!
 
 

A Big Problem

What weighs 750 lbs, has tusks, a bad attitude, and won't stay where he's supposed to?  Lately the answer has been our boar (male pig) Wilbur.  Normally, he's quite a pleasant guy to be around;  he loves having his back scratched and will take a treat gently from my hand.  However, this week has been a reminder that we really keep Wil for one thing only, as a breeding male, and that means an animal won't always act like a pet.  They can get very dangerous.  

This is the 3rd time we've had piglets from these animals, Wilbur and both sows, and haven't had a problem before.  Some boars get very aggressive and will go as far as getting in with the sows and killing the little ones.  The past 2 times we've had baby pigs, the sows were each locked up in a large pen with plenty of water, food and fresh bedding while Wilbur had the main hog run to himself.  The sow pens were in the hog house though, so he could still smell, hear, and to some extent see the girls.  While he was a little more vocal than usual, we had no problems.    Because we're about to put a new roof on the hog house and didn't want the piglets to be damp and cold in the meantime, the girls were moved to another building we usually use for the sheep & goats, but fixed it up for pigs.  Wilbur seemed ok until last Thursday.  Baby pigs will become anemic if not given iron shots, so that's what we do at 3 and 10 days of age.  One of our sows, Fern, gets very aggressive when you handle the babies and they squeal, so to avoid being bitten, we turned the sows out into the barnyard for the few minutes it took us to vaccinate the babies.  Fern decided to go over and say hi to Wilbur, and for the next 4-5 days we've been fighting to keep him away from our girls.  An animal that big is hard to contain when they are determined to be somewhere else.  When Wil got out, he was always found by the sow pen, ususally after doing something destructive because he couldn't get in.  Our poor plastic barrel we keep chicken feed in has been knocked around and spilled more than once, the plastic covering a couple of windows for draft protection on the henhouse needs replaced now, and we've had to put the gate back on its hinges too.  And our lovesick pig is a real monster to get back to his own pen.  The noise is horrendous, it sounds like a dinosaur or something terrible!  He's also been so agitated, he actually foams at the mouth and is beyond uncooperative. Handling him requires holding a piece of plywood in front of your legs, that way he can't bite you.  Usually he'll go anywhere if he's promised food, but that hasn't motivated him at all lately. It takes patience, bravery and some luck to get him where he needs to be.  Pigs are one of the world's most intelligent animals, and they can figure out pretty quickly you are trying to trap them somewhere they don't want to be.  That much weight and muscle can also make short work of fences and wire and boards.  Our biggest tool to keep the pigs where they are supposed to be is electric fence wire, but he has no respect for that right now, so we have to keep him penned up inside. 

This was a good morning however, as I saw no loose pigs when looking out my window.  So either Wilbur's calming down or the boards keeping him in the hog house were stronger this time! Normally, I don't tolerate mean animals.  More than one breeding rooster of ours has gone to the livestock auction because they were attacking people. One of my criteria for a new male sheep or goat is that they are calm and gentle towards people.  I refuse to spend all my time in the pasture making sure nothing is behind me.  Something that weighs 300 pounds and that will head butt you out of the blue is not acceptable.  A pig this big is nothing to take chances with either.  However, since it's only one bad week over 2 years, I'm going to give him a little time.  Dan told me he wasn't crazy about keeping a boar at all because behavior such as this is common in most of them...it would be very hard to find one more gentle than Wilbur's been 99% of the time.  So, here's hoping he's calming down for another 2 years of good behavior...or else I guess we'll be running some sausage specials!

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Who do you belong to?

Well all the babies all made it through the first night ok.  Piglets always look so small and frail, and there is a possibility that the sow could accidentally step or lay on one or two without realizing it.  After the first week, the piglets are alert and mobile, but right now I hold my breath every time one of the sows gets up or lays down.  Fall is also rapidly creeping in, with temperatures falling into the mid 40's during the night.  We gave the pigs lots of good clean hay which they use to make a nest to keep everyone warm, but we still wake up in the night and wonder if we should have put a heat lamp on the babies.    I guess farm babies are always a little tougher than I give them credit for; they usually do just fine without much help from us humans.  There was only one small problem this morning; Charlotte had an extra piglet and Fern was missing one.  This is the first time we've had piglets in this building, it is a temporary arrangement until we get a badly needed new roof on the hog house.  So in building the dividers, there must have been just enough space for a smaller piglet to squeak through!  They grow so fast, they'll be too big to fit through the gap in a matter of days, so we're just going to leave it as is. The great thing about our sows is that they love thier babies and when something like this happens, they just take care of it as though it were their own.  So extra piglet was snuggled up to Char, nursing just like a piglet is supposed to.  We decided not to leave the piglet though, and keep things even so each sow had enough milk for her babies.  I knew Char had 5 black babies and 4 blue butt patterened ones and that most of Fern's babies are black with very little white.  As there were 6 black babies, I looked for the smallest piglet with the least amount of white.  So I picked up the most likely suspect and quickly but gently set it next to Fern, who wasn't upset until she heard it squeal (piggies don't enjoy being picked up!).  Char picked up her head as well and seeing that everyone was ok, I quickly exited the pen.  Commercial pig farms use what they call farrowing crates, which are basically a little cage for the mothers.  They can't get up and move around, so there is less chance that they will squish the babies, but the babies can put their heads inside the crate to nurse.  We don't use anything like that, so I am very cautious about angering the sows.  Char probably weighs around 400 pounds, and a pig is incredibly quick when it wants to be. In walking into their space, I had no more protection than blue jeans and sneakers offer, and so Kept a wary eye on my only exit door! That's why Char is in the pen by the door, she's more docile when she has little ones and we can just lean over her side of the fence to feed Fern, whose name becomes "Evil Pig" when she has babies because she is so protective.  But I escaped unhurt, I think the piglets have grown already, and now it's back to canning....I have the last of my tomatoes ready for the food mill, so I guess this is it for the salsa.
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It's a boy and a girl and...

On a farm, by necessity, you live seasonally.  This is the time of year when I'm busy freezing and canning what I am able to prepare before the first killing frost and the long winter that follows.  It's generally not time for babies.  Today was a big exception.  Because pigs will breed year round, we were expecting a litter from each of our 2 sows soon.  We had moved them into the same pen the mother goats occupied a few months ago after a lot of cleanup and a little work to make 2 seperate, pig-proof pens.  We then moved Charlotte & Fern to thier new home to let them get adjusted before the big day arrived.  Although they were appearing close to farrowing (giving birth if you're a pig), we thought they were still a week or so away and were still allowing them access to the outdoor run.  Fern also started to build a nest out of hay, grasses & corn husks, but again, that means she is close but not necessarily beginning labor.  I was in the kitchen canning a wonderful peach barbeque sauce when my brother in law came in and informed me that the pigs were in labor.  I had to go out and see, as most farm animals birth at night, not at 1PM wit the sun high in the sky.  However, Char was outside with 2 piglets by her side and Fern was inside with 3.  It's very unusual for pigs to need assistance when farrowing, so we let them go.  Each of our girls had 10 babies, with one from each litter being stillborn, not uncommon for pigs.  I've learned not to cry for those ones and instead be glad about having 18 live ones.  While our girls have always had their little ones within a week of each other, It's pretty unusual to have them on  the same day, much less at the exact same time!  We had to get the moms inside where everyone can stay warm and dry.  Fern weighs around 400 lbs and gets really mean after she has piglets, so while she was exhausted and fairly calm we picked up all her babies and moved them, then she reluctanly followed.  Char was thirsty, so she was already up, it was a matter of picking up her babies as well and moving mom & the kids inside.  Everyone quickly settled down and no humans were injured in the process.  It was a good day.

 

I know some of you are wondering how the Delaware tasted.  I still don't know.  We offered free samples of our homegrown chicken at the stand this weekend and had lots of leftovers from roasting 2 whole birds.  So the Delaware went into the freezer and between stuffing ourselves with the last of the garden's bounty of sweet corn and using up the leftovers, I'm not sure when I'll get it cooked.  But I promise I'll post it here! 

 

Apologies to Maureen for not personally replying to her comment from last post, but it's been hectic here.  She wanted to know why a commercial chicken would have all that salt water added.  The industry calls it "plumping" and says they do it because customers like the taste better.  A natural chicken will have a bit of sodium in it- 45-60 mg if you don't add any salt during the cooking process.  A plumped chicken can have 10 times as much.  To put that in perspective, it's more salt than an order of fast food fries!  Why?  You are buying by the pound but purchacing salt water, which is dirt cheap for big business to add to their product.  And customers across the country paid billions of dollars last year for the weight of the salt water alone! I'm also guessing that the salt and the seaweed product carrageenen, which is also used in the plumping process, preserve the chicken somewhat and allow it to sit in the store's cooler a bit longer before it starts to smell or look funny.  I haven't seen that in print though.  The best way to avoid all this is to find a farmer you can trust and buy direct.  Your taste buds will thank you too! 

 

Ok, I just can't get the pictures to come up on this blog.  If you'd like to see the piglets, just go to www.pleasantvalleyfarm.weebly.com and scroll down until you see "Our Newest Arrivals".  The piglets are about 2 hours old in the pictures!

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