North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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The Great Kunekune Mixup

You know the feeling when you meet an acquaintance at a social gathering and accidentally call them by the wrong name?  Reddened face, apologies, laughs, and “please excuse me” usually ensue.  People-to-people, however, your friend can correct you as to their real name with a, “Remember, we met last year at the Heart of the Farm conference.” 

“Oh yes, that’s right, you were just getting started with dairy goats—now I remember.  How has that been going for you?”

In the world of livestock, however, the problem of mistaken identity is not so easily remedied.  A sheep cannot speak up and say, “Wait, I’m not Coconut, I’m Peppermint!”  Using numbered ear-tags (paired with accurate recordkeeping) is a well-used system for keeping track of who’s who for livestock of all types…at least the types with ears.  They have yet to perfect ear tags for chickens.

For breeding purposes, the “who’s who” game can be very crucial when tracing genetic lines and making certain that a breeding program isn’t mixing parents with children and other too-close-for-comfort combinations, leading to problems inherent in inbreeding.  Kara keeps a thick book of records tracing all her ewes and rams, which makes for complicated but accurate sorting during the breeding season.  We want all our little ones to be healthy and vigorous.

As we embarked on our own on-farm Kunekune pig breeding program, we purchased sows from the Jenny/MahiaLove and Rona/MahiaLove lines, and a boar from the Tutaki bloodline to build a diversified genetic start for our future piglets.  The ladies (Agatha, Christi, Deloris, and Tilly) came from the renowned Black Valley Farm in Pennsylvania, while Mr. Handsome (Hathaway) came from At Witsend Farm in Michigan.  With our special “starter pack bundle,” we were off on our heritage breed porcine adventure.

Deloris (black with white marbling) and Tilly (all cream with dark eye shadow) are younger and smaller than the rest of the crew, so they’ve been hanging out in their own pen while the three larger lovebirds have enjoyed tussling over their share of fodder and aquaponics lettuce scraps.  All are quite friendly, eager, and unassuming—belying the mystery mix-up story that unfolded this last week.

Even on the best of farms, oopsies can happen.  Like our first set of lambs this year coming a month ahead of schedule because one of those naughty teenaged boy lambs jumped the fence at night…guess she was just too cute.  Or there can be times when one of the hens from the younger batch of layers sneaks in greedily with the older batch because THEY GOT FED FIRST, followed by a scramble and “was it you?” game to sort out the mischief.

But I wasn’t expecting a phone message from Kara while running errands in town the other day saying, “Oh Laura, just found out we have a Grand Champion Sow!”  A what?  Where did this come from?  Here’s how the great Kunekune mix-up came about.

Alana, the owner of the farm in Pennsylvania who sold us our gilts (young sows) had entered a promising pig “Meadow” in the 2nd Annual Eastern Show and Sale last year and the little darling had won Grand Champion.  Well, this one was for keeps!  But pigs as social animals like sheep and chickens cannot live alone, so she was romping with a look-alike cousin. 

As the two grew, it became increasingly difficult to tell them apart, and when one of the pair unfortunately died (accidents do sometimes happen on farms), Alana was certain she had lost her dear Meadow.  When our order came through for the starter set of Kunekunes, Alana included the look-alike cousin…or so she thought.

The American Kunekune Society has a records system to keep track of registered breeding stock for this special heritage pig.  The paperwork for Agatha and Christi had processed fine, but for some reason the registration for Deloris was being held up.  The DNA matches just weren’t coming out.  “Are you sure you have the right parents listed for this pig?” the officers would ask Alana.

Again, records were checked, until it finally came to light that this mystery DNA pig was not the look-alike cousin at all, but Meadow (now Deloris) herself!  Alana was all chuckles as she relayed the news to Kara about this Grand Champion-in-hiding.  “Guess I should send you the ribbon!”

“I’ll be sure to let Deloris know at chores tonight,” Kara replied.  “So long as it doesn’t get to her head.”

News quickly spread on Facebook about our new celebrity sow.  “That’s some pig,” one Kunekune raiser commented.  If Deloris had started talking and herding sheep, we probably would have had the film crews from Babe the Pig on our hands!

Deloris certainly hasn’t minded the extra attention, though I can’t say she understands why.  Perhaps in her own little speckled pig way she does, but it hasn’t hurt her friendship with little Miss Tilly.  Both are just as eager for breakfast, dinner, back scratches, and fodder.  And as we look forward to our first batches of piglets later this spring, we’ve already ordered our own supply of customized ear tags.  Deloris-Meadow has had quite her own share of Kunekune mix-ups!  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453


New Pigs on the Block

Our good old farm truck has been through many adventures over the years—traveling the steep mountainsides of Vermont to intern at a dairy sheep farm, loaded down with bales of hay or firewood, hauling the latest ram lamb from Minnesota, or protecting the turkeys as we bring them in from wintry weather out in the pasture.  But this fall the farm truck had a different adventure, all the way to central Michigan to pick up some pigs.

Now, you might be wondering why we found it necessary to drive 12 hours one-way to get a handful of half-grown piglets.  These, of course, are a very special sort of pig, and just as it takes extensive research and networking to find the right new breeding ram, so too it has been a process to launch our pig breeding program.

For years, we’ve sourced feeder pigs locally—buying 40-pound squealing porcine mutts to raise out to butcher weight (between 250 and 300 pounds) in summer and winter for our pork customers.  These pigs have generally been healthy, vigorous, and very tasty, but the standard meat pig breeds are addicted to corn, bent on destroying everything their snouts and teeth can reach, and can be quite dangerous.  An 500-pound sow (mother pig) can really hurt or kill you if she feels her babies are threatened.

A pig that is motivated to root and destroy can be a very useful tool on a homestead farm.  We’ve built porcine paddocks where the hogs rooted up and ate the quack grass rhizomes before the land was turned into gardens.  The pigs love to do it, and it’s an effective way to reduce weeds and fertilize at the same time.  But once the desired garden space has been achieved, the craters and mud holes become more of a problem than a help.  And the high corn consumption, while it helps raise pork quickly, is more demanding of the earth’s resources than animals that can sustain mostly on grass (like sheep and other ruminants).  So my sister Kara was on the hunt for an alternative breed of pig that would better suit our pasture and management style.

In the sheep world, Suffolks and Hampshires dominate as the breeds of choice—big, fast growing, and built for heavy muscling.  But there are a plethora of distinct alternative (heritage) breeds with unique characteristics.  Sometimes select breeding strategies can loose sight of other aspects of the animal’s heath—Holstein cows whose feet are too tiny to support the animals longer than three or four years or sheep whose lambs have such big heads that deliveries are labored and sometimes impossible.  Heritage breeds of livestock have uniquely developed over centuries to adapt to certain climates and needs that predate the obsession with production at all costs.

What Kara discovered through her research into heritage pigs was the Kunekune (said KOOnee-KOOnee).  Originally from New Zealand and currently quite popular among small breeders in the British Isles, the Kunekune is smaller than commercial breeds (easier to handle for small people), furrier (better suited to cold weather), built with a smaller snout that allows for grazing rather than excavation (fewer craters and better utilization of pasture), and has the disposition of puppy dogs.  While they take slightly longer to raise, Kunekunes enjoy a varied, predominantly grass-based diet that requires only a pound of grain per animal per day, rather than unlimited access.

Not to mention that the little buggers are the cutest and most personable pigs you’ve ever met.  After Mom and Kara’s 36-hour road warrior trip to and from Michigan, I was able to meet our new piggers in the back of the pickup truck—four half-grown sows and a handsome young boar.  They rustled in the hay, hoping I would hand them a carrot or an apple, grunting and squeaking amicably.  While Kunekunes are a relatively new import to the States, these curious little beings looked quite ready to join the ranks at our farm.

Kara was about to burst with excitement as we backed the old truck up to our homemade ramp.  The week before, she had spent countless hours building their new pens next to the garage, so it would be easy to haul food and water through the winter.  “Come on out piggies, welcome to your new home!”

Hathaway, the boar, took some convincing, but the ladies Agatha, Tilly, Christi, and Deloris trundled down the wooden ramp to begin exploring their new world.  They grunted to the ten eager little feeder pigs next door and then moved on to exploring their straw-filled house, the apples we tossed in for them, and the delicious grass all around.  Their little black eyes with bristly lashes blinked at the warming sun, their short, upturned noses snuffling contentedly.

It didn’t take long for the new crew to learn the routines.  The first sign of humans heading out for chores in the morning sounds a chorus of eager squealings and gruntings—me first, feed ME FIRST!!!  High up on the list of favorites are apples, carrots, and smashed pumpkin.  Leftover bits from the Creamery are also met with eager anticipation, including kale and old baked goods.  Life is good on the farm!

Climbing into the feeder pig pen, the little porkers woof and run in all directions—wide eyes anticipating or thinking devious thoughts.  They grab onto Kara’s pants and tug, racing around in circles.  But when she steps into the Kunekune pen, they trot over expectantly, sniffing her boots and tagging along behind like schoolchildren after their teacher on an outing.

Each pig has her own dish for breakfast and dinner.  Black-and-white Agatha is bossy, wanting to steal everyone’s food all at once.  Deloris, who is smaller, is more demur and cleans up after everyone else has finished, sneaking in when Agatha or Christi aren’t looking.  Little Tilly is a royal screamer when she’s hungry—making her small but mighty opinions known.  And Mr. Hathaway is above it all, regally chewing on his bit of frozen pumpkin as he surveys his kingdom.

The crew should be big enough to begin breeding in late winter, which means that the first piglets may arrive in late spring.  Kara has spent considerable time helping the neighbor with porcine deliveries, so that previous experience will be quite helpful with our own adventures.  With less grain, better pasturing, and a good disposition, our hope is that these new heritage pigs will bring our farm another step closer to greater sustainability and good stewardship.

Sounds like those pigs may be getting hungry.  Time to find another pumpkin for them.  Curious?  Kara’s made a YouTube video of her new little friends (also available on our farm’s Facebook page)  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453


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