I’d planned on doing chainsaw work yesterday, finishing the fence paths in the woods. I’d planned on doing it for the past three weeks, but it kept raining. And raining. And raining some more. Sunday’s forecast looked good for the week—drier, cooler. Great.
Sunday night we received emails and voicemails from the Sun Prairie School District. Our kids’ grade school had developed a significant mold problem due to the weather, and that they needed to cancel school for Monday and Tuesday in order to establish a relocation plan for the students while their school gets cleaned over the next two to four weeks. So much for chainsawing—not something you can safely mix with keeping an eye on two six-year-olds.
Since I’d have the kids at home for two days, I shifted my plans to smaller projects around the farm. Sarah left for work before the kids were awake. She called twenty minutes later to tell me the car had stalled on East Washington Ave. I woke the kids, grabbed some bananas and cereal bars for them while they dressed, and put them and my tool bag in the RAV. Monday, big time. On the way to meet Sarah, I got annoyed with how my day was going (I’d just come in from chores and hadn't had coffee yet) when thought about how much crazier life had once been.
“No plan survives contact with the enemy” is a common military maxim, but in Iraq, I saw that most plans didn’t even survive contact with us. Trucks from headquarters showed up late or too few. Dust storms grounded the helicopters we requested. Communications gear worked on base and failed on patrol. The once-a-week resupply convoy finally brought a generator but forgot to bring the drain plug for its fuel tank. Marines’ collective drive for mission accomplishment made us successful, but sometimes I’d get pissed off cross eyed at our self-inflicted setbacks.
Then we started working with local Iraqi tribes, training Indigenous Counterinsurgency Forces or ICF (a hard way to say “militia”) to fight terrorists. Who needed an enemy with such unpredictable allies? The forty recruits they promised to bring at 10 am, become thirty at 2 pm. The three guys who were supposed to come on patrol at 4 pm to point out weapons caches don’t show, but six guys show up the next morning at 2 am, excited to go patrolling right then. When one of the ICF members accidentally shot himself in the foot, our docs patched him up. We got used to it.
As a company commander, I had to integrate my company’s operations with other units around us. I made an operational calendar every week that listed larger planned operations, resupply convoys, police recruiting drives, etc., so my platoon commanders would understand the bigger picture. Two or three times a week though, we’d be dealing with an inter-tribal squabble or the sheiks asking us to “make operation” right now on some local insurgent, forcing us to adapt our plans.
Late one night in our patrol base, I put “Unexpected Arab Crisis” on the calendar, making it repeat every day until we left the country. The tongue-in-cheek entry reminded me that my time wasn’t my own and that every day would bring new challenges requiring additional time, diplomacy, and effort. My lieutenants immediately understood the joke and the shift in perspective. That perspective shift didn’t reduce the chaos, it just helped us deal with it. Mostly, we laughed. Sometimes, even when bullets were flying.
In an empty parking lot for a car title loans place on East Wash, Sarah’s engine would crank but not fire, something I couldn’t fix on the spot. We got her to work, the rest of us back home, and the car towed off for repairs. I didn't laugh, but I didn't get worked up either.
So the past two days didn’t go as planned, but the kids learned to mix chicken feed (they learned ratios in the process), and we’re deep into the first Harry Potter book. Our twelve-year-old VW diesel needs a fuel pump. The kids will get shuttled to another grade school for the next few weeks. Its’ all good. All family members and livestock still have a roof over their heads and get fed on time. I’ll still get the rest of the fence built in the woods, and the pigs will still get to market in November. I need to make some phone calls and do some chainsawing tomorrow. There’s no “Unexpected Crisis” on my calendar, but I won’t get too worked up if one happens.
*My hat is off to the Sun Prairie School District Staff and Eastside Elementary Staff for their rapid response to a problem and developing and communicating a plan in less than 24 hours to efficiently relocate five grades across the district while Eastside gets cleaned for the next few weeks.
There’s a great series of Rocky & Bullwinkle episodes where they attempt to operate a ranch that Bullwinkle purchased. Moose and squirrel travel west only to find out that Bullwinkle bought a “worm ranch”. The rest of the series hinges on the pair learning to run the “worthless”ranch.
While pulling weeds the other day, I uncovered some earthworms beneath several large plants and thought about the worm ranch episodes. The whole premise couldn’t have been further from the truth (the “worthlessness” of the worm ranch part, not the idea of a talking moose and squirrel—we suspend our disbelief for that, jeez.)
Location, location, location, might be the mantra of real estate value, but if we’re talking about land’s intrinsic production capability, then the mantra becomes soil life, soil life, soil life. One of the most visible indicators of soil life is worms. Decades of intensive row cropping and chemical use depleted and compacted this farm’s soil. When I could get a shovel to penetrate, I’d only bring up a slab of lifeless—worm free—clay.
We raise pigs (there’s a picture or two on the website, you know—some words about them here and there), but the pigs and their regular paddock changes over pasture and cover crop all fit into a larger scheme: soil building. The cover crops prevent erosion, provide the shade and moisture retention for fungal life to break down organic matter, and put down root systems that feed soil microbes with sugary and starchy excretions. When pigs graze and disturb the cover crops, the plants’ roots die back, leaving organic matter in the soil, which becomes food for more soil organisms—most noticeably, earthworms.
Earthworms convert the organic matter into plant-available nutrients. They eat their way through the soil, digesting organic matter and leaving a trail of castings—worm manure. Earthworms can produce their own weight in castings in a day. Their borings aerate the soil, providing routes for oxygen and water to enter. There are thousands of other organisms at work in living soil, but earthworms are an easily visible indicator of soil life.
I have years to go in soil building, but I’m glad to see more (any) worms. We have a pig farm on the surface, but part of our future success in farming depends on building up our livestock underground.
I’ve managed to keep up with the pasture rotations, maintain the feed quality, and raise happy hogs by satisfying their nature to root, explore, and play. But in the end, handling at slaughter can ruin all this effort to raise top quality pork. I knew from my family’s own experiences in raising beef cattle that handling stress at slaughter could impact the meat. It wasn’t until I read studies by Temple Grandin and others that I understood how stressed animals have higher lactate levels, which can lead to poor meat quality.
I’d scheduled my hogs with Country Meat Cutters based on recommendations from others, but my own unanswered question hung at the back of my mind. How could I really know that my hogs would be handled well at the critical moments? How could I ensure myself and my customers that months of humane animal husbandry wouldn’t end with hogs squealing and freaked out in the moments before death. It’s not like packing plants let you walk around and see what goes on behind closed doors, at least not the plants I’ve been to.
Leslie, a friend of ours, brought the whole question to the front of my mind, asking if I could ensure that the hogs were killed as humanely as possible. I had to tell her that I didn’t actually know, that I had to go on reputation that Country Meat Cutters processed animals with up-to-date methods. I hated not knowing the complete answer.
When the rain kept me inside on Tuesday, I called Country Meat Cutters to ask about their killing and handling process, and spoke directly with Deb, one of the owners. “Why don’t you come up and see?” she said after answering a few of my questions. “We kill on Thursdays. Cattle in the morning, hogs in the afternoon.” I told her I would come at some point.
I wondered what I’d see. I knew it wouldn’t be pretty. What if I didn’t like it? What would I tell customers? What would I do then?
After pondering it while moving pigs, while taking a shower, while lying awake in bed, I decided that I’d write exactly what I saw on the blog. People who eat meat need to understand how it gets to the grocery store. I figured whatever I would see at Country Meat Cutters would be a representative example, and that if people couldn’t stomach at least reading about the process, then they shouldn’t be eating meat.
“That’s quite a position for you to take, if you’re trying to sell pork,” my dad said on the phone. True, but I can’t separate my obligation to answer the question from the obligation to honestly share the answer.
I pulled into Country Meat Cutters at exactly 1 p.m. yesterday. I wondered if they’d remembered inviting me. Walking up to the office entrance, I expected a surly woman of a certain age, the front-office gatekeeper personality that always seems annoyed when someone walks through the door. A bright-eyed woman, younger than I am and wearing a hair net, asked, “Can I help ya’?’ with a smile.
I told her I’d spoken with Deb and came to watch them kill hogs.
“Ok,” she said. “Come on back,” and she led me through empty cutting rooms, all concrete floors with drains and a heavy track along the ceiling. Down the hall, a tall, thin woman wearing a fleece and ball cap was reviewing a clipboard stacked with paperwork. This was Deb.
Deb immediately showed me into the kill floor where they were still processing beef. Two men skinned a beef as it lay legs up on a trolly. Another man was removing the hide from a carcass now hanging from the twin-hooked gambrel. Then they gutted the carcass. Another man on a platform sawed a carcass in half vertically with a handheld bandsaw suspended from a cable. Someone else hosed down the halves. I watched them work for a minute, impressed by their efficiency.
“We have a lot of beef today. They’ll get to hogs in a while,” Deb said. “Do you want to see the rest?”
She showed me the freezers where they cool carcasses before cutting them, and then the freezers where they hold the processed meat for customers (I know why she wore a fleece). Then the smoking room where they smoke the hams and bacon, the wrapping area, and the cutting rooms. She explained their labeling and wrapping system and then showed me how they track the meat from kill through processing and showed me her best example of a farmer’s spreadsheet that indicated which animals went to which customers. Back down the hall to the kill floor, she introduced me to Greg, the other owner and her husband. Greg wore a bloody waterproof apron, and two knives in a plastic scabbard hung from a stainless steel chain around his waist. He worked the kill floor right alongside his employees.
“We actually have a load of sheep to do before we get to hogs,” he said. “You’re welcome to watch as long as you want.”
He guided me to a spot at the rail along “the pit”. The pole barn with the holding pens is adjacent to the processing building, but it’s about four feet lower than the processing building. The pit in the kill room is a depressed concrete bunker the same level as the holding pens. Animals walk a level path and stop in the pit because they can’t go any farther.
The slaughterman in the pit opened the door to the aisle outside and led two sheep in. The sheep looked around, not frightened, but trying to get a sense of where they were. The slaughterman hosed down their heads and then hit a switch, illuminating the lights on a red box mounted to the wall. He grabbed the stunner, a prod the size of a baseball bat, with a pair of V-prongs on the end. He touched the stunner to the back of a sheep’s head and the animal dropped without a sound. He quickly hung up the stunner, grabbed a knife from his scabbard, and slit the sheep’s throat so it could bleed into the drain on the floor.
Stunning, done properly, will induce “instantaneous, painless unconsciousness” according to Temple Grandin, in an explanation of stunning. The heart will continue to beat, just long enough to pump out blood that would otherwise taint the meat. The animal should feel nothing, not even the shock.
The slaughterman hooked the sheep’s rear hooves to a hoist to lift it out of the pit. He stunned and bled the next sheep quickly, without a sound. Another man was already hoisting the first sheep into the skinning cradle. The slaughterman led two more sheep in.
Eight men and one woman worked the kill floor. They were an even mix of Hispanic and white and a broad age range. They moved efficiently, but not with a rush. They smiled and joked with each other. Anyone who walked past me said hi. I watched the slaughterman kill and bleed two more sheep. I was surprised that I didn’t mind watching this. Animal stress stresses me the same way hearing a baby crying will stress most parents. I’ve been in a a building with five thousand laying hens from a big name organic co-op and I’ve been in a couple confinement hog operations. I remember more animal stress in those places than I saw in the kill pit.
Far from the negative image most slaughter houses get, Country Meat Cutters looked like a good environment for animals and employees. They had several more sheep to process before they got to hogs. I didn’t need to wait around. I had my answer. Now, you do too.
I’ve been clearing paths through the woods so I can fence off a few acres of oaks and hickories for finishing the hogs on tree nuts. I’ve cut legions of Boxelder and Buckthorn saplings and a couple inconveniently-located dead-fall trees so far. There’s plenty more to do. Part of the challenge is carrying tools into the woods. Taking everything I think I need becomes too much of a burden. Leaving out one critical item could leave me handicapped in the middle of the job. It’s the age-old infantryman’s conundrum come to the farm.
I’m a tool guy. I couldn’t make it though a day around here without my tools. Loosen, tighten, pound, pull, pry, clamp, cut, drill, drive: all the actions of building, maintaining, and repairing require the right tool for the task. I’m in regular conflict with myself over having the just-right tools wherever I need them versus the desire for simplicity whether it’s for carpentry, metal fabrication, mechanic work, or farm machines.
I deliberated a long time about getting a pole pruner attachment for my medium-duty string trimmer last year. I bought it to limb all the overgrown stuff around the yard and driveway, but I quickly discovered that the 12” chainsaw pruner on a trimmer beats a chainsaw for about 80% of my path cutting. I can cut Boxelder and Buckthorn saplings off at ground level without having to squat under them the way cutting with a chainsaw requires. The pruner attachment cuts more slowly, but the whole unit weights much less than the chainsaw so I can work longer. Thing is, I still need the chainsaw for bigger stuff. I carry both tools into the woods, leapfrogging between the small stuff and the larger trees. I don’t mind going in with two saws, it’s all the smaller items. I’m trying to simplify the smaller items that are easily lost—like screnches.
A scrench is a screwdriver/wrench combination tool used with chainsaws. The flat blade screwdriver end sets the chain tension on the bar and the wrench end tightens the nuts that keep the bar in place. The chainsaw and pole pruner attachment use the same scrench, but all the other adjustment on the trimmer require a torx bit, which is on the end of the trimmer’s special scrench instead of the usual flat blade. Carrying both annoyed me, and I don’t have a spare torx scrench if I lose this one, so I welded a spare torx bit on the side of a garage sale scrench.
It works so far. The ugly blaze orange paint? I hate that on tools, but I hate losing stuff even more. Anything with a respectable brown patina of age and use disappears when you set in down in the woods. Ask me how I know.
It’s not really a major weight saver, but it is simpler. Or did I just complicate a simple tool with something it didn’t need? Not sure yet, but now I have one scrench to screw them all.
Yesterday evening, Vice-Grips in each hand, I pulled the last electric fence wire tight around its porcelain insulator. Mosquitoes cycloned around me with a collective pitch eerily similar to my ears ringing. Sweat soaked through my leather work boots. It still feels like summer in many ways, but the late afternoon light shines more softly, and sunset comes surprisingly early.
The other sign summer has ended: I slugged down the last of my homemade eggnog before hitting the shower. Eggnog has become my new summer recovery drink.*
While reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Farmer Boy” to the kids last year, this passage hit me:
“In the middle of the morning, Mother blew the dinner horn. Almanzo knew what that meant. He stuck his pitchfork in the ground, and went running and skipping down across the meadows to the house. Mother met him on the back porch with the milk-pail, brimming full of cold egg-nog.
The egg-nog was made of milk and cream, with plenty of eggs and sugar. Its foamy top was feckled with spices, and pieces of ice floated in it….
The cold egg-nog slid smoothly down his throat, and it made him cool inside….
Father always maintained that a man could do more work in his twelve hours if he had a rest and all the egg-nog he could drink, morning and afternoon.”
I have to agree with Almanzo's father, a man who worked both hard and smart.
We think of eggnog as a winter drink, but it makes perfect sense for summer. Hens are light sensitive. When daylight exceeds twelve hours, the hens’ pineal gland sends a hormone through their bodies, stimulating the ovaries to lay more eggs. Our hens barely kept us in eggs during winter, but have provided a glut through summer. For foraging chickens like ours, summer eggs seem to taste better. Their feed is the same ration all year, but foraging hens eat plenty of greens, worms, and grubs throughout summer. Our hens even follow us to the garden, scratching for worms and grubs behind the tiller or a hoe. As a result, their eggs’ yolks are darker—the color of an August sunset. It’s totally subjective, but I think summer eggs have more flavor.
If I’m working hard, I need calories to keep going. Lots of them. And good ones. When I'm hot, I like fruit, juices, hard-boiled eggs, and yogurt. I drink homemade yogurt smoothies by the quart for the calories and protein content. Eggnog was a natural fit. I wouldn’t take it to the field where it could warm up, but it’s a great drink when I go to the house for a break.
Now, with hens laying fewer eggs and fall approaching, I have to say farewell to eggnog —until December.
* For the record, my new summer evening adult beverage is the Gin-Gin Mule with Death’s Door Gin. I’ve learned to drink at least a pint of water and eat a small snack first if I’ve been working. Otherwise, these are so dangerously smooth, drinking a couple after heavy physical exertion may impair your ability to operate pliers. You’ve probably never needed pliers to close the chicken coop at night--
My kids chant this in unison at the table through missing-front-teeth, first grade smiles. For all the benefits of cover crops, I hadn’t expected “breakfast ingredient” among them.
Under previous ownership, this farm suffered an endless rotation of corn-soybeans for decades. The soil was compacted, eroded, and so lifeless that the earthworms had long abandoned it for the suburbs. I read several cover crop guides over the winter, looking for the best combinations that would build soil, “fix” nitrogen by making it available to other plants, break up compaction, hold soil moisture, suppress weeds, and provide forage for the pigs. In the spring, I broadcast medium red clover, oats, and perennial ryegrass over most of the acreage and the remaining four acres in oats and forage peas. Unlike clover and ryegrass, which will overwinter and come back next spring, forage peas and oats only last one season. However, I’d read that forage peas establish quickly and provide excellent grazing for pigs at all stages of the peas’ growth cycle, so I wanted to try them.
Only a couple weeks after planting in late April, the peas and oats grew into a lush green mat. By June, they were knee high. Walking through the forage pea patches that hadn’t been grazed yet, my wife started picking and nibbling on the tender shoots at the ends of the plants. Our daughter, Hazel, immediately followed suit, but Hazel has been known to eat raw potatoes right out of the ground. When our veggie-skeptical son, Karsten, tried one and grabbed more, I snapped off a few dew-covered leaves for myself, surprised by their mild sweetness.
“These would be good in omelets,” Sarah said.
“Can we have forage peas in omelets tomorrow?” Hazel begged.
“If you pick them, I’m sure your dad will put them in your omelet,” Sarah replied.
When I started making breakfast the next morning, the kids pulled on their boots and dashed outside. They hadn’t rushed out the door that quickly since the barn cat had kittens. They started the forage-peas-with-melted-cheese chant as soon as they returned with their morning haul.
Forage pea shoots do taste great in omelets—especially with fresh tomato slices.
After that morning in late June, I made omelets with forage peas a few times a week until the pigs grazed the last part of the patch. Cover crops have been good for the soil and good for the pigs. Bonus: they are good for breakfast too.
Former Marine Infantry Officer. Iraq Vet. Interested in Regenerative Agriculture at any scale.
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