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


Germ Concerns

We all know the winter holiday routine well.  Starting at Thanksgiving and continuing well into January, kids come home from school, families and relatives travel and visit, airlines are busy, and viruses have a heyday.  Sniffle, cough, sneeze, we’re all miserable with colds and the flu.  These germs rely on the movement and congregation of people to spread and multiply during a season when we’re primarily stuck indoors with each other due to inclement weather.

The same is true for the care of livestock.  Taking animals to the state or county fair is an easy place to pick up a not-so-friendly bug from another farmer’s place, with animals mingling in the show ring and little children petting first one animal and then the next.  Sale barns, feed lots, and other crowded, high-animal-volume spaces are ripe for spreading diseases.  But one of the worst offenders is the practice of CAFOs (Confinement Animal Feeding Operations).

In the name of efficiency and keeping consumer prices low, long polebarn structures crammed with caged hogs, chickens, turkeys, and others factory produce the bulk of supermarket meats.  The animals living inside are under continual stress from overcrowded and cramped conditions, which leaves them vulnerable to illness.  The meat industry has combated this issue by including antibiotics in feed rations.  Yet, while this “maintenance” level of antibiotics may be helping to prevent some diseases in CAFOs and increase weight gain by 3%, it has also spawned an outbreak of drug-resistant bacteria that plagues the livestock and the human healthcare system.

But all the antibiotics in the world cannot make a dent in a virus outbreak, since viruses are not actually living organisms.  Most of these lethal viruses have been spreading globally from Asia, where cramped and comingled quarters for raising large numbers of pigs and chickens together have been common practice for centuries.  Avian flu, pig flu, and others have been news-breaking viruses that have affected the lives of people as well as livestock.

The latest superbug to come from the Asian continent is PEDv (Porcine Endemic Diarrhea virus), which is currently devastating the pork industry.  Easily carried via manure on shoes, coats, and trucks, its virility can take over a porcine CAFO very quickly.  Especially harmful to young piglets, the virus causes the little creatures to vomit and have diarrhea resulting in dehydration with a 100% mortality rate.  Currently, somewhere between four and six million piglets in America and Canada have been lost to PEDv, which has now been deemed a “mandatory reportable” disease, with outbreaks noted in 23 states.

Wisconsin already has reports of 8 outbreaks of PEDv, causing the state veterinarian to cancel all hog weigh-ins and all showing of hogs at fairs except for “terminal shows” (hogs being shown that will go directly to the butcher and not return to the farm).  Instructions for sanitizing loading trucks and feed trucks have been mailed to all registered Wisconsin farms listed as raising pigs.

Yet another germ vector leading to the spread of PEDv has been detected, which is the use of animal protein byproducts in feed.  There are strict rules because of the threat of Mad Cow Disease (in cattle) and Scrapies (in sheep) that byproducts of ruminants cannot be fed back to ruminants, but there is no such legislature that prevents porcine byproducts from being fed back to pigs.  Dried hog plasma, collected from the cleanup of the kill floor in slaughter houses, is a common dietary supplement for piglets in factory farms.  While the connection hasn’t been firmly established, the link between piglet outbreaks and this potentially contaminated protein addition is being examined.

While a vaccine is being fast-tracked by industry and university scientists, there still is no cure or prevention other than biosecurity measures.  In desperation to try to build herd immunity, some veterinarians are instructing their clients to grind the dead piglets and feed them back to the mothers, despite the illegal state of this practice.  The situation, on a whole, has become quite desperate, with expected shortages of fall pigs and rising market prices.

But what the agricultural newspapers are not sharing with their readers is that super-bug diseases like PEDv are directly correlated with the faults in our livestock system.  Pigs, in their natural state, are meant to live outside, in small groups, with plenty of space to roam and forage.  Their diet should be diverse, but feeding ground or dried body parts or fluids from their own species is simply asking for trouble.  Cramming animals together in environments where, should the electricity to the high-powered fans be interrupted, the creatures suffocate in their own ammonia in less than an hour—this is not responsible, naturalistic practice. 

If we want to make a difference in the germ concerns that plague our food industry, legislating riparian areas as potential contaminant sources from wildlife is not going to make a difference.  And the conglomerate corporations that control CAFO production across the country are too big and powerful for most legislative bodies to condemn.  It will therefore be up to the public to make an impact on the system by actively choosing where their food comes from by voting with their dollar. 

If enough people choose to buy pork from small, outdoor, sustainably minded hog farmers, then there will be increasingly less demand for confinement pork.  Those operations are entirely run with profit and tax breaks in mind, and if they can’t make it, then they will see no reason to expand their reign of animal terror.  Likewise, by knowing your farmer and her practices, you can have greater confidence in the health and wholesomeness of what you’re eating, as well as its environmental impacts. 

While outbreaks like PEDv might not hit the headlines outside of the world of agriculture (sometimes they just don’t want the public to know these things), it’s important as enlightened eaters to know the dark underbelly of the agribusiness system.  This is real, and it’s very scary.  And it’s our job to be informed and proactive in our response.  Do you know where your pork comes from?  I’m glad that I get to know mine every day, out behind my own house.  This, to me, is real food security.  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



Sassy Pigs

It’s one of those days.  You’ve been invited to chill at a neighbor’s bonfire, the chores still need to be done, it’s been a busy day at Farmstead, and you would really just like to sit down and put your feet up…when the pigs decide it’s the best time to escape.

Not really an all out run away escape—this is the let’s tear down some fence and make some mischief kind of escapade.  You know you’ve been meaning to move the hogs to a new pen, but this new behavior triggered by procine boredom is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.  It’s time to build the new pig pen and move them onto fresh grass NOW before real havoc begins (like the pigs taking themselves on a tour of the farm, terrorizing the garden and the ducklings in the process).

Kara and the interns worked most of the afternoon, pounding fence posts, stringing wire, moving feeders, and getting the new lush spot with succulent lamb’s quarter as tall as me ready for the new hog playpen.  It looked like paradise for a pig—lots of places to explore, new roots to dig up, a lovely shade shelter, and more space for romping.  But the pigs were not impressed.

In fact, they were even less than not impressed.  Those little buggers changed their minds and decided they were no longer interested in leaving their old pens!  Wait a minute, just a moment ago you wanted out, and now you won’t go???  That’s a pig for you!

“You sassy pigs,” our intern Sanora scolds.  “Shoo!  Come on piggies, the fence is open, just GO!”  The white mischievous one with long wispy lashes looks at us out of the corner of her beady eye.  She rocks from side to side, looking for a way to escape to the far corner of the rutted up old pen.

“Fee-fi-fo-fum, I am scary!”  Clara, our other intern, spreads her arms wide as we walk slowly in a semi-circle around the pig, trying to convince her to move on to the next paddock.  We stomp our feet, clap our hands, and holler “Hup, hup!”  If this were any other situation, folks might think we were more than just a little bit strange…or crazy.

The pig is not convinced and darts past my left leg towards the safety of her old three-sided house, then doubles back to hide in their muddy whaller by the water spigot.  She knows it’s a safe spot because the mud is so deep we don’t dare enter—boots or more could simply disappear in the unstable muck, and then you’d be little more than a pig chew-toy!

“Laura,” my sister cries, “Get some goodies from the Café!”  I hurry back on our ever-trusty blue utility golf cart to Farmstead Creamery and snatch up the liner from the bin where we save kitchen scraps for the pigs and chickens.  A whir of wheels, and I’m back at the pen.  Tossing one at a time, we try bating the obstinate pigs with bits of bread, banana peals, and egg shells.

“Come on you guys, move it!” 

A few have become brave explorers, happy to trounce through the tall weeds and explore the contents of the moved feeders.  Their jowly lips smack noisily as they devour the kitchen slop, rooting it around in search of the tastiest morsels.  The bait helps, but a few pigs are still staying stubborn.

There is always one.  Usually, it’s a smart little black pig that seems to be able to read your mind.  This time, it’s the sassy white one, determined not to cooperate with us, even though we’re just trying to help her.  “Life will be better on the other side of the fence!” we explain, but English doesn’t always work on a pig.

Then, it starts to drizzle.  I can feel the warm mugginess of it slowly plastering the T-shirt I’m wearing to my back.  The dim darkness is settling in on the farm, and I still haven’t even started on evening chores.  The chickens are going to express their displeasure with extra vigor tonight—where have you been, dinner is late! 

Mom drives up from finishing tending the aquaponics greenhouse.  “Hurry!” Kara implores.  “Come help us!”

It starts to become a joke as to how many people it takes to move a pig.  Here’s Mom, Kara, and I, as well as Clara and Sanora, all in our tall rubber farm boots, arms outstretched, trying to move a sassy pig into a new pen.  No wonder some folks think we’re more than a little nuts.

Pigs are too compact and muscular to wrestle into where you want them to go.  They won’t lead like a sheep or donkey, and you can’t just pick them and carry them like a chicken or a duck—at least not when they weigh close to 200 pounds.  A pig requires convincing in order to move, which is just as much psychological as anything else.

If the pigs had been trying to escape because they were either hungry or thirsty, then the move into the new pen would have been much simpler.  Open the fence, offer the desired item on the other side, and at least most of them would have willingly walked through.  But since the cause of the problem was porcine boredom, the cure was not as convincing.  Little Miss Sassy was probably more concerned that the biting electric fence was going to get her than she was curious about the new pen.  “I’m not going!” you could see those little eyes say.  “No sir-ee.”

Finally, it was time to use some force.  Lashing a hog panel to a wooden post, we formed a chute into the new pen.  A few times of walking and clapping our hands, and the secured swing panel convinced most of the hogs to saunter through.  But not Miss Sassy white one.  Slowly, slowly, we crept up behind her until she entered the corral, then swiftly bowed the hog panel into a large U, so she could not escape back to the old pen.

She gave it a good tussle, trying to push through or lift the fence with her muscular nose, but we held on tight.  A few seconds of real struggle, and then she seemed to just shrug and walk in like it wasn’t even a problem at all.  Sassy pig.  Really?  Did the simple task of moving into a new pen really have to be this difficult for you?

We shake our heads, scrape the well-pigged mud off our boots, and have a good laugh at the little adventures agrarian life throws you once in a while.  Then, it’s off to do evening chores.  Guess we’ll have to enjoy a bonfire another night.  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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