Momma cows move back to our leased farm

I haven’t been at my desk enough lately to publish this post. On August 4th we had all hands on deck to sort all of our cattle and move the moms and babies back to our leased farm. Luckily we had cousin Cody visiting for a couple of weeks so we of course put him to work.

Cody and Miguel sorting cattle in the corral
Cody and Miguel sorting cattle in the corral

Here we have some of our cows remaining in the corral. Miguel and Cody are working them so we get a subset into the crowd pen. Then we’ll work them through the crowd pen, through the corral, and through the head gate where we will sort them into two categories. Staying and Going.

The cows that are staying will be directed out into the pasture. The cows that are going will be directed back into the open barnyard where they get to mill around and play until it’s time to load. All in all it’s a fairly easy job, especially with Cody here to help. My job is to work the head gate and send the cows whichever direction they are going as they come out.

This is done simply by opening or closing a gate that leads to the pasture. If the gate is open, I stand close to the cow and they turn away from me as they come out of the head gate and “escape” into the pasture. No problem. If we want them to instead stay in the barnyard, the gate is closed and the cow simply exits the head gate and walks wherever they want to. I don’t do anything with them except stay out of the way.

Easy. Yeah right. #84, one of our purchased cows, was supposed to stay so the gate to the pasture was wide open. Except he came out and decided he didn’t want to “escape.” He wanted to go back into the barn yard. I stepped between him and the barnyard and shooed him back toward the 16 foot opening. He darted forward and tried harder to get into the barnyard. Not so fast Buddy, I’ve done this a million times. I darted forward as well, staying near his head so he’ll turn and go where I want him. We both reach the hinge post of the gate at the same time. At this point he cannot go forward anymore, so of course instead of going through the huge opening, he went through me instead, in the process bucking and kicking me mainly in the leg, but also in the wedding tackle. I went head over heels backwards, through the gravel, while he ran off to be where he was. It was a bad enough spill that rather than laughing immediately, Miguel asked if I was ok first. Then he laughed. He asked if I wanted to go get the cow and get revenge. I was thinking about it already but I said “No, I’m gonna eat him. That’s revenge enough.” #84 was marked as “Crazy” in the cattle book, which means as soon as he’s finished, he is first onto the truck.

When this story was being told later, SWMBO asked if Cody has learned any new words (cursing). He said, “No, he stuck to the classics.” I laughed about that for days.

We loaded about four loads of cows on our 16 foot trailer. Cody was a big help, of course. You can see him through the head gate in the picture above. 

The cows love the other farm. They have free range and shade all over the place. The farm had been left fallow for a few months so the grass had recovered nicely. They should be able to stay there till early November. We dropped off 30 cows, calves, and Boyd our bull. Everyone made it there safely, except for me. I had a big bruise from the kick. Oh well, another day of farming.

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Dan is a dad, a husband, a business owner, a pilot, a sailor, a scuba diver, a machinist, a gunsmith, a welder, a woodworker, a day laborer, a teacher, a mentor and a writer. The short form of all the previous is he's a farmer.

We killed a cow, by accident! Part 2 #37

So our patient is in the head gate in record time. I have all the gear I need to go to work and I shaved down an area to work on and I”m injecting Lidocain. The cow looks fine and this should only take a few minutes and we’ll be done. He breathing is a bit labored (that’s why bloat kills them, they can’t breathe) but give me 10 minutes and this will all be over.

Then our patient decides he doesn’t like being in the headgate and start bucking and thrashing. I’m holding a needle in my hand so I immediately pull back so nobody gets jabbed. Thrashing about isn’t abnormal and usually it’s just a test to see if this thing really holds. Once they figure out it does, they usually settle right down and stand still. 99% of the time things are very calm. This is just that few seconds of the 1%. No big deal. A few thrashes and the cow slumps. I hear a huuugh of a big exhale and look at his head. His mouth is open, tongue hanging out, and there is no intake of breath. I’m not sure what foul language I used, but as my nephew said later, “I stuck to the classics.”

This cow had just stopped breathing and was laying, effectively dead, in the head gate. His heart didn’t know it yet, and his brain didn’t know it yet, but in the next 45 seconds he’d be dead and there was nothing I could do at that point.

I grew up watching M.A.S.H.  I always remember Hawkeye Pearce as being funny, drunk, and basically against doing anything until the patient needed attention NOW. Then he jumped in and did what no one else could with blinding speed and intense focus. I was always in awe of his (and any surgeons) knowledge and ability. I knew I’d never be a surgeon, and never in his situations as depicted on the small screen.

Except here I was standing there with a cow that had seconds to live suddenly. I called Vicente back over and had him start handing me things that I needed (kind of like Margaret Houlihan). I assembled a scalpel quickly, then made my incision in a quick second. By that point Vicente was handing me a trocar. I inserted it, made sure it was in correctly, and pulled the plug to release the air and take the pressure off of the cows diaphragm. Once that was clearing correctly, I released the head gate to get the pressure off of the cow’s head, relaxing the airway. Then I waited. It felt like an hour but it could only have been a few seconds.

ONE. BIG. BREATH…..

And nothing…..

Then one big breath again, and another. And another.

A quick thank you to the man upstairs and then it was back to attending to our cow. His eyes were unfocused and he was drooling at this point. The gas from the bloat was long gone and he was breathing if not normal, at least normal enough. I stayed with him for a good 5 minutes just making sure he came back around. At this point he was laying in the head gate, on the ground, and had no interest in getting up. He was reactive to stimulus but not your normal cow, confused and groggy but alert. Eventually I went and got him a bucket of water which he looked at but didn’t want.

#37 after dying and then coming back to life from bloat
Our patient #37, after his warm reboot and before we could get his leg out

Vicente suggested we open the escape chute which basically swings open the entire side of the head gate. Even with that open he still laid there about 20 minutes just collecting his thoughts. It was obvious he had had a warm reboot and all the operating systems were still coming online. He looked around at everything as if for the first time. Eventually he stood up and walked out of the head gate. He still looked around as if everything was new but he walked back to the rest of the herd and resumed the rest of his day. He’s now fine and back to normal.

So what happened? Bloat puts pressure on the diaphragm of the cow, making it harder and harder for the lungs to inflate until eventually the cow can no longer breathe and passes out. Death quickly follows. When the cow thrashed in the head gate, one of his legs kicked open a bar and was hung outside of the gate (see picture above). It was on the opposite side of where I was so I didn’t see it. This elevated his rear end, putting additional pressure on his diaphragm. As that pressure took effect (loss of consciousness), his front end dropped while his head was still elevated, making things worse.

It only takes a few seconds for all this lack of breathing to cause loss of consciousness. In a person if this happened, I’d pick him/her up and relieve the pressure, or push the leg back in. When it’s a 1000 pound cow, you can’t just move them around like you want. Afterwards it took us a good 5 minutes to get his leg back in, with Vicente and I both working at it. All we could do in our situation was relieve the bloat and drop his head to clear the airway, which is what we did. We couldn’t have stopped the thrashing and it was just bad luck that his leg popped out.

I did feel a bit like Hawkeye Pearce after it was all over though, minus the drinking of course. It was too hot for that.

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Dan is a dad, a husband, a business owner, a pilot, a sailor, a scuba diver, a machinist, a gunsmith, a welder, a woodworker, a day laborer, a teacher, a mentor and a writer. The short form of all the previous is he's a farmer.

We killed a cow, by accident! Part 1

Last week I was in the office trying to get some work done when Vicente texted me and said we had a cow that was beginning to bloat. This isn’t common, but it isn’t unusual either. Kind of like getting a cold. It’s not any fun, but it’s not any reason to freak out.

Usually we have this issue a few times during the summer but we’d already had a case of bloat a few days before and here we go with another one. Oh well, these things happen I guess.

I keep a separate bag setup just for bloat. Despite my previous statement that it’s not an big deal, it is the leading cause of death in adult cattle and it needs to be dealt with pretty much right away or the cow will die. The site I linked to indicates that the treatment is a tube to the stomach along with some surfactant. Over the years I’ve found that this treatment rarely works, and it’s a pain in the rear for the farmer/vet and the cow. Plus it takes forever. A trocar, which they say is a terrible idea, is what we use routinely. I’ve yet to have a problem with one and it allows for the cow to go back to pasture and still have the benefits of the trocar for several days to two weeks, before it falls out on its own. We order trocars about a dozen at a time and they last us for several years.

So when Vicente texted that we had a cow bloating, I immediately replied OTW which for you folks that don’t text routinely means on the way. I hopped up and grabbed my bloat medical bag and walked down to the barn yard. A quick Gator ride over to the cows revealed a cow that was showing bloat on his belly, but otherwise appeared fine. Alert, no foam or drool from his mouth. No signs of distress. Just a cow that looked like he ate a watermelon whole and was pretending he didn’t. I rode back and started setting up a temporary corral while Vicente took the tractor back. He then helped me finish. I explained to Vicente that we’d take both Gators and use them to walk this cow down the paddock he was in, through the temporary corral, and into the barnyard where he would go into the permanent corral.

I went to close all the barnyard gates (it’s not always as smooth as I just said, sometimes they escape) and get my Gator. I came back to find the cow already in the permanent corral, waiting on me. Score one for Vicente, he’d already gotten the cow single handed and was done. Sweet!

So into the chute and into the headgate our patient goes. Once inside, it’s time to go to work. The normal procedure is to shave an area about 2″x5″ on the left side. I then inject Lidocain to numb the skin and make an incision about 3″ long. This incision goes through the skin and tissue until the rumen is revealed below.

Inserting and sewing up a trocar
Inserting a trocar. This is a different cow that was done last year.

Once that is exposed, you manually insert the trocar which quite literally screws in. Once it’s in and secure, you pull a center plug on the trocar and if it’s done correctly, you are rewarded with a big hiss of gas and a cow that deflates like a basketball. (Pro tip – If for some reason you happen to be standing there with us when we do one of these procedures, pay attention to the farmer. You’ll note that he stands upwind and out of the way. That’s experience showing folks.)

Once that is done, all we do is monitor the cow for a few minutes to see if everything appears normal. If so, he/she is returned to the pasture and we clean all the gear up. From first call to done and back in the office usually takes about an hour. Maybe less if we have extra help.

This day we were at the 20 minute mark and I was starting to shave. That means we’d probably be done in another 10 minutes. I said to myself, “Self, we are getting really good at this.”

Little did I know this one wouldn’t be routine. But that part of the story will have to wait till tomorrow.

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Dan is a dad, a husband, a business owner, a pilot, a sailor, a scuba diver, a machinist, a gunsmith, a welder, a woodworker, a day laborer, a teacher, a mentor and a writer. The short form of all the previous is he's a farmer.

A fundamental change in how we do things here

It’s been quiet on the blog the past few weeks. That’s because we’ve been doing some soul searching and deciding what it is we do around here, and how we want to do it going forward. We’ve now decided, and have started taking action so it’s time to talk about it. As always, I try to be open and honest about what we do and why with everyone so here you go.

For those of you who’ve been on a tour, you know that we handle a tremendous amount of produce here every day. On average, we handle about 20,000 pounds of produce daily. That’s 7 million pounds of produce annually!

The produce has to be picked up at the farmers market, hauled back here, sorted, cleaned, and fed. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Christmas. Easter. Rain. Shine.

We routinely employ two people full time, plus various people part time, just to handle all of the produce. Most of the produce goes to feed our pigs, about 85% of it. The rest is used for compost. Produce was never our business plan, it is something that we accidentally started and have continued since 2014 because there was a need, and because it produced such a dramatically different product. But there is not, and never was, a business case for produce fed pork. We only charge the same price as pastured pork which is about 1/100th of the work involved.

If I look at the sales on our farm so far this past year, I can break down the major categories. Beef, chicken, dairy, pork.

Beef accounts for a little better than 29% of our sales.
Pork accounts for 25% of our sales.
Chicken at 17%
Dairy at 14%.

These four categories account for 85% of our total sales. However, pork, and the produce that we handle for it, account for 90% of our labor. 25% of the sales, 90% of the labor. We know we have a problem.

Part of the problem is that we are overstocked on hogs. Several years back, we had an order from a wholesale customer who went out of business before we could deliver the order. This left us with 135 pigs on the ground going into the winter of 2015/2016. By winter of 2016/2017 we’d whittled that number down to 95. We did this by selling some wholesale, doing lots of samples for wholesale customers (read: Give it away), continuing to move pork through our store, bringing in new pork products (hot dogs anyone?) etc. Basically we did everything we could to move pork, in every market. But we’ve been unable to reduce our numbers enough to get back where we needed to be, with enough hogs to supply our store.

I was unaware of any market where a small producer like myself could take hogs and just sell them live, so we were left with Craigslist and our retail store. This has been inefficient, time consuming, and frustrating. I don’t enjoy dealing with Craigslist people and pigs. For some reason I don’t understand, they are a bad combination. They routinely don’t meet their commitments and it’s hit and miss on whether they show up. They are sketchy at best and infuriating at worst. I don’t look forward to selling hogs.

It takes us about 8 months to produce a market weight hog. It takes us about 40 hogs per year to supply the store and what wholesale business we do, which isn’t much. For those of you who are good at math, it’s obvious it doesn’t take 95 hogs to supply 40 in a year, especially when I can produce new hogs in just over 1/2 of a year.

Fortunately I’ve learned there actually is (and was) a market in NC where I can take hogs and sell them as I do cows, goats, sheep, or anything else that farmers raise. This has always been one big downside to dealing with hogs, one I’ve heard other farmers complain about. No sale barn.

But no more. Thanks to Barrett at Dean Street Processing, who clued me in, I now know where to take my extra hogs so I can finally have the number I want to have, not the number that I happen to have.

We’ve worked exceptionally hard to develop our relationships with our produce farmers. We’ve worked hard on our wholesale relationships. We’ve worked hard to move more hogs through retail and wholesale. But as of Monday morning this week, we’ve begun to simply sell off our hogs  to the wholesale hog market and reduce our head count to a manageable number which will be about 40 hogs total.

Truck and trailer loaded with hogs
Our big trailer, loaded with hogs for the market

However taking our hogs to market is a huge blow to our farm as we are selling hogs for literally pennies on the dollar. These are hogs that we’ve raised and fed for over a year and a half in most cases. We have a lot of sweat and effort in making these the best hogs there are, period. But sometimes you have to make the hard decisions, take your lumps, and move on.

Hogs in the trailer, ready to go to market.
Hogs in the trailer, ready to go to market.

Monday I took 19 hogs to the market. They weighed 7030 pounds all combined. That’s an average of 370 pounds each. These are huge hogs. Beyond what is efficient. Beyond what is practical. Beyond what will bring any kind of decent money at the market. But these are also pigs that eat some serious food. Kinda like:

Next Monday we will take another trailer load of hogs, with probably another 7000 pounds of pork moving out of here with one final load maybe later in the week. That should pull about 16,000 pounds of pigs off of our farm in a little over two weeks. That’s a significant reduction in head count and an even bigger reduction in pounds. Our plan for the future is to grow our hogs to about 250 pounds maximum, with a range of hogs from 15 pounds all the way through to market weight.

If you take the 95 hogs we had and assume an average weight of 300 pounds that means we had 28,500 pounds of hogs here to feed every day.

If we get to 40 hogs, with an average weight of 140 pounds, that means that we have 5,600 pounds of hogs to feed every day. This means an 80% reduction in our pig operation if you go by weight vs. head count. I don’t care what you are measuring, 80% is significant. However, cutting our numbers to an appropriate level and moving forward will allow us to do a few things.

  1. We will be cutting off some of our farmers at the farmers market. It’s not fun, and they won’t be happy because we are a service to them, but it will allow us to start making one trip per day instead of as many as four some days.
  2. We will be able to get our time back for actual farm work. We are so busy running up and down the road, loading and unloading trucks, that we don’t have time to do the things that need to be done around here. I have items on the to do list that have been there for over a year that we simply never have time to address. That list is going to start shrinking.
  3. This place smells like a pig farm. It’s not the pigs fault. We have too many pigs, on land that has had pigs for too long. We have nine pig paddocks on this farm in total. The best we’ve done to let a paddock rest in the past few years is have only seven in use at once and that was only for a week or so. With 40 pigs, we will have only four in use at once, with five resting and recovering. This will effectively eliminate the smell we (and you) have lived with the past few years.
  4. When pigs stay on land too long, they begin to erode the soil. We work so hard to build our pasture soil, and then right beside it we have pigs wallowing in the mud. While we’ll still allow them to have some mud, we will do it in a way that builds soil instead of eroding it. This means the entire farm will be building soil, not just parts of it. This better fits in with what we want to be doing with our farm.
  5. We will concentrate our pig operation away from the store and the house. By having our pigs located on the edge of our property, we combine the operation and move any now much smaller effects away from the store and our home.
  6. We’ve seen that events are a popular thing to have at our farm. We get requests to host weddings, have beer tastings, food truck rodeos, host farm organization events, etc. It’s fairly common that someone either suggests, or actually inquires directly about hosting an event. I pretty much turn them all down. The farm isn’t up to the standard I feel comfortable with to charge someone for an event and the pigs and produce are a large part of why. We can do a lot of good for the community and for our operation by having more events. We are going to do more once we get things in order this fall.
  7. We get a ton of new customers here, but the percentage that stay as repeat customers is fairly small. This is normal in our industry as people drift back to Harris Teeter but I think we can do better. Making a visit to our farm more pleasant will help bring people back. It’s always cheaper to bring a customer back than it is to bring in a new one.
  8. Lastly, and most importantly. I am going to see my kids more. I sold my company in 2015 because I wanted to spend more time with my kids. While 2017 has been a year of doing more with them than 2015-2016, 100% more than 1 is only 2. I was barely seeing them before and I’m only slightly better now. I routinely leave before they get up, stay gone all day, and see them at night. I may as well work a day job if I’m gone that much. Daddy, build me a bird house? Daddy, fix my bicycle? Forget it. I’m too busy. I’m awful proud of how these kids work on the farm, what they learn, and how we interact. But it’s too little and soon it’ll be too late. I’m going to spend more time with the kids and start doing some of the projects they want to do. That’s what this was all about when we started it. It’s time to refocus on what matters.

So in summary, we WILL have pork in the store. We will also have beef, hopefully even a little more of it as we’ll have more time to focus on the cows. We will also have more time to focus on the store itself as it really has become the heart of what we do here. We will hopefully be more of what you like about our farm, with less of what you don’t. In the meantime, if you see me heading down the road with the big trailer loaded with pigs, you know what I’m up to.

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Dan is a dad, a husband, a business owner, a pilot, a sailor, a scuba diver, a machinist, a gunsmith, a welder, a woodworker, a day laborer, a teacher, a mentor and a writer. The short form of all the previous is he's a farmer.

We still have some ribeyes in the freezer

Ribeye steaks, ready for sale
Ribeye steaks, ready for sale

Lucy informed me yesterday afternoon that we still have some ribeyes left from the cow I picked up this week. This is quite unusual as the ribeyes are usually presold before they even show up. But taking two cows in one month allowed us to have some extra beef. If only I had two cows to take every month! Oh well, the difficulties of being a small farm.

I don’t know how many we have left, or how long they’ll last today, so I’d get by here if you want some. We also have filet mignon, NY strip, sirloin, all the steaks. Plus of course roasts, pork chops, bacon, chicken, lamb. You know, all the goodies we keep here for our munching pleasure.

The girls are working and they quietly asked me for a slow day so they can work on their arts and crafts projects. So of course I’m honoring that by inviting everyone here to keep them busy all day! Never ask the boss for slow day, jeesh! What were these girls thinking?

Dan Moore on EmailDan Moore on FacebookDan Moore on GoogleDan Moore on Twitter
Dan is a dad, a husband, a business owner, a pilot, a sailor, a scuba diver, a machinist, a gunsmith, a welder, a woodworker, a day laborer, a teacher, a mentor and a writer. The short form of all the previous is he's a farmer.

I’m going to go get beef, for real this time

This time it’s not “going to be ready.” It’s actually ready. I’ll be leaving here shortly to drive the two hours to get our beef from the processor and put it safely away in our freezers when I get home. That means all the hard to find cuts will be back in stock for tomorrow’s normal hours of 2-6.

Dan Moore on EmailDan Moore on FacebookDan Moore on GoogleDan Moore on Twitter
Dan is a dad, a husband, a business owner, a pilot, a sailor, a scuba diver, a machinist, a gunsmith, a welder, a woodworker, a day laborer, a teacher, a mentor and a writer. The short form of all the previous is he's a farmer.

Summer is almost over

Chicken wearing a life preserver

It is August. And September is right around the corner. Better make sure you get all your summer fun in before it’s too late.

Of course, we are looking forward to fall. We have some events planned that should be fun. Some for new customers, and some for old customers. We will have more details as we progress. Till then, better squeeze all the days on the lake that you can.

Dan Moore on EmailDan Moore on FacebookDan Moore on GoogleDan Moore on Twitter
Dan is a dad, a husband, a business owner, a pilot, a sailor, a scuba diver, a machinist, a gunsmith, a welder, a woodworker, a day laborer, a teacher, a mentor and a writer. The short form of all the previous is he's a farmer.

7125 Old Stage Road Raleigh NC