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Piglet Creep Feeder

Our American Guinea Hogs are 4 weeks old this week. They are trying to eat more solid food with some success. Much of their efforts are hampered by the sow and boar in the same pen. It’s much easier to have them all in the same pen, but it creates too much competition for solid food for them to thrive. The solution is to create a creep feeder.

I took a 36″ by 16′ hog panel and cut it into three sections. I wanted a triangle so that the larger hogs could not push it and make a piglet sandwich. It ended up working well, although the hogs still push it a little bit and I have to hold it in place.

After the first feeding, I cut an additional vertical bar out from one section on each side so that they didn’t have to crawl in and out. I don’t have pictures of that yet.

The creep feeder works well at keeping the hogs out.

I place the food dish, filled with milk or water and an all stock type feed that I buy from Xcel Feeds in western Washington called “Premium Blend”.

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chicken tractor chickens farming meat birds poultry round bales soil

Tractoring Chickens Will Harm Your Pasture…

You see it advocated by nearly every regenerative farmer or back to the land hippie. Pasture your chickens. Make a chicken tractor and move your chickens. Put those meat birds out on the pasture. If you do this, you may mine the biomass out of your soil and destroy the future prosperity of your pastures.

We’ve all seen the coop and run setup. The chickens are left to the same space without getting moved around and, over time, they eat everything, and nothing grows. The ground is as hard as cement. The chickens then get moved, and the ground will stay bare and hard for a long period of time after they are gone.

The reason this occurs is that the microbes in the soil require a carbon to nitrogen ratio of around 25:1 to break down material into the soil. If you have too much carbon, the microbes will scavenge nitrogen from the surrounding soil areas and compete with the plants for nitrogen. If you have too much nitrogen, the microbes will scavenge the biomass out of your soil and use that — this is mining the future potential of your soil.

If having too much carbon is not good, and too much nitrogen is not good – how do we fix the problem? The better problem to have is too much carbon. Too much nitrogen is harmful long term because it takes a significant amount of time to build and restore biomass. Biomass provides the ability to withstand drought, retain water and nutrients, and maintain the overall health of the soil. Too much carbon will be undesirable near term, but beneficial long term, as it is processed into the soil as biomass and the nitrogen supply will be replenished by the lifecycle of the microbial activity in the soil.

We tractor our chickens around our pasture. We move our layer hens weekly using poultry netting. When we have meat birds, we move them daily or twice daily, using a Salatin style chicken tractor. We solve the problem of too much nitrogen by unrolling round bales over the tracks from the chicken tractor and then letting the cows into that section of pasture for a day or two. This adds sufficient carbon to the soil so that there is an excess and we don’t lose biomass out of the pasture from the great excess of nitrogen that the chicken manure creates. We also make sure to add lots of wood chips to any areas where the laying hens will be for an extended period of time.

If you tractor your chickens and don’t see your pastures improving after a year or two, you may be mining your biomass and killing your soil.

The featured image at the top of this post shows a section of pasture where a chicken tractor had been moved through, with 2 moves each day, with 50 cornish cross birds in the tractor. The picture is 30 days after the chickens were removed from the pasture. Within 1 week after removing the chickens, a round bale was unrolled on the area to leave dry hay 1-2″ thick. It’s incredible how quickly the hay has decomposed and the grass has started sprouting up — especially considering the extreme drought that we’ve had in western Washington this year.

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cattle cattle management drought farming hay

Feeding stock through a drought…

During La Nina years, there is a high probability of a drought. This will contribute to higher feed costs, lower forage availability, and potential herd reductions. Fortunately, we are just coming out of a La Nina which should bring much needed relief to the drought in the western United States.

If we find ourselves in a continued La Nina weather pattern, it would benefit all graziers, ranchers, and forage growers to stock up on as much hay as possible, and consider immediate herd reductions to prevent future losses or damage to grazing lands.

Chances of a continued La Nina hover around 50-55%, according to climate.gov, with a 67% chance of a neutral weather pattern, and an 8% chance of an El Nino.

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farming

Advantages of the American Guinea Hog (AGH)

The American Guinea Hog (AGH) is a great choice for a small farm or homestead looking to add hogs to their land. The AGH is easy to work with, fattens easily on forage or hay, can be very friendly and easy to manage, will not sunburn, and doesn’t get overly large.

This hog is considered a pasture pig – they consume forage from pasture and woods and have lower requirements for grain or other inputs. If moved around a pasture with electric netting or hot wire, they can consume a significant amount of their calorie requirements from pasture. We feed our AGH table scraps, eggs from the chickens, and any carcasses we have. We will supplement with X-cel Premium Blend grain mix, if necessary to make sure they have enough to eat..

The Guinea hog is also a “lard pig”. They put on fat quickly and efficiently. If you don’t watch their consumption, they may get overly fat and not be able to reproduce. They also take longer to grow to butcher size, depending on how large you want them to be. Boars can reach 300lbs with sows reaching 250, although they make take 18+ months to get there. Most will butcher at 10 months at a more reasonable 200lbs.

The AGH can be very friendly. Our hogs are like dogs – they will roll over and ask for a belly scratch. They also allow us to pet and scratch them at will – even during meal times as they jockey for the best scraps among each other. If you’re looking for your own hogs – be sure to visit the breeder and make sure they prioritize these traits. I’ve heard stories of people buying “unregistered” guinea hogs and having very poor experiences.

The Guinea hog does not sun burn. With their dark skin, they have a greater tolerance to the sun and summer. While they still require shade and a wallow, they are not quite as sensitive as pink pigs.

Last and not least, there is a great group of people in the American Guinea Hog Association. The members are very eager to help new AGH owners and provide support to make sure everyone is as successful as they want to be.

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compost farming hay soil

Compost Volcano

Creating healthy compost can be a challenge. Too much nitrogen, too little carbon, and too little oxygen are the most common problems. These problems all lead to a smelly anaerobic compost that is rotting (bacteria and moisture), rather than quickly breaking down using oxygen and moisture – aerobic composting.

Other problems with anaerobic composting are that it takes much longer, it gives off methane gas, and does not reach the high temperatures necessary to kill seeds, weeds, and pathogens.

We maintain a large compost pile that gets refreshed daily with a wheel barrow load or two of manure, mixed with hay and some hog fuel (rough wood chips). Every week or two it gets turned with the tractor and then covered with a thin layer of hog fuel. We also bury carcasses and offal in this pile, as well as anything else we need to get rid of. This morning, it was giving off steam like a volcano, showing that it was aerobic and progressing nicely.

Compost Volcano

We’ve found that the layer of hog fuel helps retain moisture, adds sufficient carbon material, and makes it look more presentable.

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farming hay measuring soil

Pasture Health

If you don’t measure it, you will be hard pressed to verify that you have improved it.

One of the most basic tenets of improving anything is measuring the thing — recording changes over time. This also applies to pasture health. Last year I began taking a picture of one part of my pasture every month, near the first of the month. While it will generally show variations in forage over the seasons, it will eventually illustrate improvements over the years with regenerative management.

Please note that the timestamp on the camera is incorrect until November, 2021. The camera is an inexpensive eastern model that limits my ability to manage it.

Unfortunately, I missed July, 2020. The difference between June and August is significant.

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construction farming greenhouse

Greenhouse Construction

Over the past few weekends we have been working on construction of a 12’x30′ greenhouse that we bought from Steve’s Greenhouses in Castle Rock a few years ago. With everything happening in the world, we figured it was past time to get it setup and use it.

Here are a few photographs that illustrate the construction.

The next step will be to build some raised bed type planter boxes along the side walls and fill them with some high quality soil that we’ve been composting from horse manure, wood chips, hay, and cow manure.

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chicken tractor chickens construction farming meat birds poultry

Pastured Poultry

We just finished building a “Joel Salatin” style chicken tractor to tractor our meat birds around the pasture. We’ve built and tried a lot of different chicken tractors, but this one is sanctioned by the master of pastured poultry profits, so it should be great!

I tried to match the original design fairly exactly. I did use 2×4 lumber for the base with some re-enforcements to ensure it will be solid.

We’ll start using this on Wednesday with a batch of meat birds.

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farming hay

Haying the Field

There are a lot of different opinions on how to supplement hay to cattle when on pasture. The majority opinion appears to be to put out just enough hay to keep the cows from breaking out of the pasture and finding their own elsewhere. Also, most would use a hay ring or indoor feeder to keep the hay as long as possible to reduce hay costs.

An alternative, as illustrated by Greg Judy, is to hay the field, not just the cattle — and not in the traditional sense.  By hay the field, we mean to put out a lot more hay than necessary to add boost the productivity of future forage growth.  This is what we are doing here at Red Alpha Farms.  We’re putting out a significant amount of hay that the cattle can further enrich with nutrients as they eat and loaf around.  We’ve been doing this with a couple of cows and horses for nearly a year now, but more recently it has increased significantly with the increase in our cattle herd.

After years of no maintenance, we began mowing the field in January of 2019. We mowed 4 times over 2019 and that has nearly eliminated weeds, significantly increased the amount of biomass in the soil, and has turned the soil from clay and read to dark and rich. Before this year, you could count the number of mole hills in the field without taking off your shoes. Now, it would be a difficult task to attempt. Moles thrive in areas with good soil that has lots of bugs – we just didn’t have good enough soil before to support moles.