Monday, February 8, 2016

Poor Subway

It seems that Big Ag has decided to empty both barrels of its self-righteous shotgun of inaccuracy at Subway after the sandwich chain announced plans to stop buying meat from animals that have been given antibiotics. Memes with titles like "Subway wants this calf to die" have been popping up on Facebook, and the trade-centered blogs have been calling for boycotts.

While I haven't seen the actual protocol (it doesn't seem to have been published on the web yet), I have seen the company's statements about it and how it will be implemented.

The most vocal groups -- beef and pork producers -- have 10 years before the ban kicks in. That's right, foodies. From now until 2025, the roast beef and bacon on your Subway sandwich can be produced exactly as it is today.

The level of wailing from the industry belies its true concern. Given 10 years, CAFO operators certain could develop internal protocols and practices that could eliminate the need for 99 percent of the antibiotics currently used in beef and pork production -- if they wanted to badly enough. But they would rather put their energy and money into an "education" campaign to try to get consumers to lose interest in antibiotic-free meats than change how they do things.

I am not against the use of antibiotics in food animal production. Antibiotics are as important in animal health as they are in human medicine, and there is no reason to ban them altogether. But on the typical confinement farm, they are generally used to treat or prevent diseases that could be prevented by improving animal husbandry.

And, despite recent regulations to the contrary, they are sometimes used for no reason other than the reduce the amount of feed that an animal needs to produce a pound of meat. This improvement in feed efficiency is seen when very low doses of antibiotics are added to feed. The doses are so low, in fact, that they provide no therapeutic or prophylactic effect.

What this sub-therapeutic dosing does do, however, is allow pathogens to develop resistance to the drugs by exposing them to levels of the drug that will kill off only the most susceptible bacteria, leaving those with some degree of resistance to procreate. Eventually, the antibiotics used to promote improved feed efficiency in animals will no longer have any therapeutic value in the species it has been fed to, but it will still improve feed efficiency. This use of antibiotics has profound implications for both human and animal health, and forms the root of most consumer concerns about the overuse of antibiotics in food animals.

What Big Ag seems intent on doing right now is trying to fight Subway's decision as a way of stopping a rising tide of restaurant chains that have or are considering implementing a similar protocol as a means of -- as they see it -- keeping up with the Jonses. Consumer advocates would say these chains are responding to legitimate consumer demand for antibiotic free meats. Faced with an environment where the facts and public sentiment are opposed to their position, Big Ag is pulling out the pictures of sick calves and saying that Subway's protocol requires them to euthanize them.

Actually, what Subway's protocol would do -- ten years from now -- is require them to find another outlet for the meat from that calf after it's treated and recovered. It would also require them to stop adding antibiotics to animals' feed and water as a means of disease prevention or treatment if they want to sell the meat to Subway.

What they are really rallying for isn't animal welfare. It's the ability to maintain an undifferentiated chain of commodity meat products that may or may not have been produced using medicated feeds. The main beneficiaries of this commodity chain are the packers and distributors, because they don't need to keep track of where an animal came from or where it's going. Savvy farmers and feedlot operators should see this as an opportunity to develop a value-added chain that makes their products stand out from the commodity lines. And Subway has given them 10 years to set it up!

But instead, farmers are heeding the clarion call from the people who buy from them to rally for the status quo -- to let the packers and distributors keep setting prices and policies.

I don't have any experience raising large numbers of cattle or hogs. But I have raised and marketed 1,500 lambs a year. Some of them got sick and needed treatment with antibiotics. The worst year, that involved four lambs, or about 2 tenths of a percent of the flock. Clean bedding, good ventilation, clean water, plenty of space, and reasonable group size will go a very long way towards reducing endemic disease, even in confinement operations. This is all very do-able. Farmers just have to be willing to throw off the yoke of big ag and start doing things for themselves. Show them a successful model, and big ag will be knocking at the door in 2025, looking to buy it out.

Maple-mustard barbecue chicken

2 leg quarters or breasts (for the love of God, leave the skin on!)

1/2 c ketchup
1/2 c dark maple syrup
1 T spicy mustard (Cheshire Garden works great; Grey Poupon is a distant second choice)
1/2 t oregano
1/2 t basil
pinch ground cloves

Tobasco or sriracha sauce can be added if a spicy glaze is desired.

Prepare your grill. If you're using charcoal, keep the fire on one side of the grill.

When the grill is hot, start your chicken. skin-side down, over indirect heat. Cook 20 minutes, or until juices start to run from the cut side of the chicken. Turn and cook the same amount of time on the other side.

Turn again. Slather the cut side of the chicken with the sauce. Move the chicken closer to the heat source, cover the grill, and cook for 10 minutes or until sauce adheres well. Flip and repeat.

Kara kara pork tenderloin medallions

1 pork tenderloin, approximately 1 lb
1 small onion
2 cloves of garlic
1 kara kara orange (a blood orange would also work)
white pepper, medium grind
salt to taste
olive oil or butter

Peel and slice onion into very thin rings -- they should be no more than 1/8 inch thick. Set aside.
Peel and crush garlic. Add to onions.
Thoroughly wash and zest the orange.
Juice the orange.
Slice the pork tenderloin slightly on the diagonal, about 3/8 to 1/2 inch thick.

Heat a medium skillet over a high flame. Add olive oil or butter -- just enough to glaze the bottom of the pan. When the oil is shimmering, add the pork, onions, and garlic. Keep everything moving. Turn the medallions, stir the onions and garlic. Add white pepper and salt to taste.

When the pork is cooked through, remove it to a serving plate and allow it to rest while you make the sauce.

Add the orange zest and orange juice to the pan. Deglaze and reduce. Spoon over medallions and serve.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Quiche Cheshire

Quiche Lorraine is a savory egg tart that was developed in the French province of Lorraine. A true peasant food, it celebrates the seasonal bounty of eggs and the return of fresh vegetables in the spring.

Quiche Cheshire follows in its footsteps with ingredients and flavors grown right here in the Monadnock region using delicious pasture-raised eggs and early spring vegetables along with some earthy bacon or ham and delicious cheese
Makes one 9-inch quiche, serves 6 to 8.

Six eggs
½  pound bacon or ¼ pound ham
1 cup whole milk
One large onion or one bunch scallions or two or three shallots
1/2 cup shredded cheddar or swiss cheese
Three cups of chopped spinach

A dash of salt

One pie crust -- use your favorite recipe or a use a frozen crust from the store. For bonus points, make your pastry with local flour and local lard

preheat oven to 350 degrees

Pre-bake pie crust for 10 to 15 minutes at 350, until it’s just starting to brown. Poke a few holes in the bottom of the crust or use weights to keep the bottom of the crust flat.

Dice onions or shallots or chop scallions medium fine (about ¼ inch)
Remove stems from spinach (save them for stock) and chop into thin strips (chiffonade)
In a large skillet, fry bacon to a crisp, remove and drain on paper towel or paper grocery bag. Reserve fat. Let bacon cool and crumble or chop into small pieces. If using ham, dice finely and set aside.

Sauté onion, scallions, or shallots in the bacon fat (or olive oil or butter) with a dash of salt. Add crumbled bacon or diced ham. When the onions are nearly translucent, add spinach and quickly stir until wilted. Spread the mixture in the bottom of the pre-baked pie crust.

Sprinkle shredded cheese evenly over the layer of meat and vegetables.

In a medium mixing bowl or using an electric mixer, beat the eggs and milk until thoroughly combined and smooth. Pour over meat and vegetables in the pie crust.

Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the top of the quiche is golden brown and the egg mixture is thoroughly cooked in the middle.

Hints and variations

Serve with lightly steamed asparagus or a green salad.

Variations could include using leftover chicken in place of the ham or bacon. Replace the spinach with chard or baby kale. Add other vegetables as the season progresses, such as broccoli, sliced tomatoes, and green peppers.

Quiche freezes well, and it’s not a lot of extra work to make a double recipe.

Delicious any time of the day -- breakfast, lunch, or supper

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Two-Day pulled pork

Bill's Two-Day pulled pork

Pulled pork is one of the categories of barbecue foods that people get very competitive about. There are tons of different ways to prepare the meat, lots of different sauces, and lots of different general philosophies that are embedded in the approaches that people take.

So I’m going to be upfront about my philosophy: use good pork, cook it a long time, and use just enough sauce to enhance the natural flavor of the meat. Make this a dish that is about the pork, not about the sauce.

I’ve tried lots of different ways to cook the pork: in a slow cooker with apple cider, onions, and garlic; in a Dutch oven with vinegar or wine. I’ve used butts, shoulders, and country style ribs (basically a shoulder chop).

I’ve also tried a lot of different sauce recipes. Hot and spicy, sweet and sticky, vinegar tangy, apple infused, and tomato soupy.

But this low and slow method on a smoker has given me the best results, and the combination of maple and balsamic vinegar is my favorite sauce. I know not everyone has a smoker. With a little fussing around, you could do this on a charcoal grill over indirect heat, or even on a gas grill with a smoke box. The key is to not rush it -- keep the heat low for the whole time.

It will take as long as it takes. There is no short cut that won’t compromise flavor. I’ve broken it up into two days to allow the smoking of the pork to take a full day, so that no one will be tempted to rush it to get it on the table at dinner time.

Day one: smoking the pork and the garlic 

For the pork, I used a picnic shoulder -- about 8 pounds, bone-in and skin on

Prepare smoker for a long day. Put the picnic shoulder on the rack skin side down. Temp should be about 225° and it may take as much as 13 hours to reach the internal temperature of 195° that’s needed for the meat to pull properly.

While the pork is smoking, put a few heads of garlic, skin and all, in the smoker for a couple of hours to roast the cloves and add a bit more smoky flavor.

Smoking technique

I like using cherry because it creates a very nice bark that seals in moisture. I use a charcoal fire with cherry logs for smoke, and I keep the smoke flowing the whole time. Some say the first six hours is enough, but as long as I’m tending the fire I’d just as soon keep putting smoking wood on it. Have plenty of charcoal on hand before you start this project. I used at least 10 pounds of charcoal and eight good sized chunks of cherry for my picnic shoulder.

When the pork reaches an internal temperature of 195 (and even 200 might be better), remove it from the smoker. Let it cool for a while, then place it in the fridge overnight. It’s possible to pull the pork while it’s still warm using two forks, but I prefer to cool it off overnight and pull it with my hands the next day.

Day two: pulling and saucing

Get the sauce started.

Peel the skin off the picnic shoulder and scoop out some of the fat under the skin. This is one of the many reasons not to cook at too high a heat: you don't want the fat to render out. If you're using a butt or other skinless cut, you'll need to use a different source of lard or a different fat to sauté the vegetables and aromatic herbs.

lard from under the skin (you can also use butter or olive oil) 
1 ½ cup minced onion 
1 cup minced sweet pepper 
5 cloves smoked garlic, smashed into a paste 
1 teaspoon salt 
1 teaspoon thyme 
1 Tablespoon rosemary 
1 Tablespoon black pepper 
1 teaspoon hot pepper flakes 
¾ cup dark maple syrup (cooking syrup or the old grade B) 
¾ cup ketchup 
½ cup balsamic vinegar 
¼ cup apple cider vinegar 
1 cup stock (chicken, beef, pork, vegetable, or whatever mixed stock you have on hand) 

Combine syrup, ketchup, and vinegars in a mixing bowl. Hint -- measure and mix ketchup and maple syrup together in a 2-cup measure, then use the vinegars and stock to rinse it out. 

Heat a saucepan over medium fire. Drop the fat from the skin in the pan and remove any cracklins that render out. Add enough lard to cover the bottom of the pan. Or use a similar amount of butter or olive oil.

Add onions, peppers, and garlic to hot fat and stir. Add salt and herbs. Cook the mixture, stirring occasionally, until onions are translucent.

Add liquids and stir until the mixture returns to a boil. Lower heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes to an hour, until the liquid thickens slightly.
Pull the pork However you do it, now is the time. Remove bones, gristle, and excess fat and shred the rest. Add the pulled pork to a large crock pot set on low. Pour the sauce over the meat and stir to combine.

Continue cooking in the crock pot for two to four hours. More time in the slow cooker means more time for the flavors to combine.

Serve it
Arrange a bed of fresh greens on the plates and add the very hot pulled pork on top of the greens. It should be hot enough to slightly wilt the greens directly under the meat. It’s also really good a brioche bun. Serves a small army once, or a couple of people for a long time. Freeze in meal-sized portions.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Another spasm of self-rightousness

More than 1,000 people have gotten sick over the last couple of months from eating eggs from two factory farm operations in Iowa. The foodies are falling all over themselves calling on Americans to abandon the factory-produced egg in favor of the local, free-range, pastued, organic (or whatever) egg. But let's be honest about this. We have no system to replace those 380 million eggs that have been recalled, and that represents a tiny, tiny fraction of the number of eggs needed in this country today.

In a utiopian world, we would all have access to good eggs. The chickens would be kept on clean pasture, scratching, making dustbaths and eating bugs, grass, and weeds and a diet of healthy whole grains. I have raised that kind of egg, and currently work on a farm that does it on a small commercial scale. I eat three such eggs every morning, and I love them.

But here are some questions that I'd like to pose to Joel Salatin and Michael Pollan. If we are going to do this egg thing right -- and I think we all pretty much agree on what right means -- where is the land and labor going to come from? The beauty of CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) is that they are extremely efficient in terms of their use of land and labor. We can all agree that they do so at a trendous cost, much of which is externalized, but even setting aside the price of the end product, let's simply look at the numbers.

At the farm where I work, we produce about 200 eggs per day. During the period of time covered by the recall -- about 60 days -- we would have produced 12,000 eggs, or about .000003 of the eggs produced by the two farms covered by the recall. To replace just those eggs, our operation would have to be replicated about 32,000 times.

Here's how we do it. The hens are housed in a portable coop known as an egg mobile. It's an old, old design, popularized by Salatin and a few others. We use portable electrified netting to control the hens' ranging, and to provide protection from land-based predators. Once or twice a week, the whole setup is moved to a fresh piece of ground. Eggs are collected from nesting boxes three or four times a day. Every time they are fed, they are given fresh water. Hens are fed a hand-mixed ration that is carried to them in buckets every day. It's a wonderful system that produces great eggs.

Over the course of New Hampshire's six month growing season, when the chickens are out in the eggmobile, it requires about 10 to 15 person-hours of labor per week, plus another hour or so a day of cleaning and packing eggs. For the sake of ease, let's call it 15 hours a week. It also requires about seven acres of land each growing season.

Scale those requirements up to replace the eggs that have been recalled, and you need a land base of 224,000 acres and 480,000 person-hours of labor every week -- 12,000 full-time workers. To replace a fraction of one percent of the eggs used in this nation every week.

If we assume that labor costs $12 per hour and land costs $10,000 an acre and is amortized over 15 years, just the land and labor overhead -- not the chicken feed, the cost of the fence, the eggmobiles, the tractors to pull them, the energizers to power the fence, the hens themselves, property taxes, health insurance for those 12,000 workers, or (heaven forbid) profit -- would cost $3.88 per dozen eggs. The figure Michael Pollan offered to pay in a recent interview with the New York Times -- $8 per dozen -- might actually be a little low. Probably more like $10.

I can hear Joel Salatin now, saying that I've overestimated labor and that eggmobiles don't require exclusive use of the land -- you can run them behind cattle, sheep, goats, on hay ground, etc. I'll concede his second point. However, I'd also point out that my estimate of labor is based on having observed the system first hand in two different settings -- one in which I was a manager and one in which I was an employee, and I think it is correct. And if anything, I have underestimated the number of workers who would be required, because each operation would not require a full-time person, and the hours are not amenible to a normal work schedule. In other words, it's likely that what would actually be needed is something like 36,000 people who are willing to work 12 to 15 hours per week, or who, like me, have other duties to fill in around the egg production operation.

It is possible that if some the operations were near one another, they could realize some economies of scale by setting up an assembly line to clean and pack eggs cooperatively. But any economy of scale in that portion of the supply chain would more than be swallowed up by additional costs of distribution: it costs a hell of a lot more to get small batches of eggs from a bunch of different sources to market than it does to get one large batch there.

The very nature of producing a good egg means not producing very many of them. An eggmobile can house only so many chickens. Nearly every organization that has looked the welfare needs of poultry agrees that behavioral changes make flocks of more than 500 birds inhumane de facto. I would argue that the threshold is a bit lower than that. Imagine being at the bottom of a pecking order of 300. I remember it pretty vividly from junior high. But the difference is that hens don't give atomic wedgies. They kill, slowly.

So in our utopian egg production world, there would be a need for millions of small egg producers, all doing things right, and producing a very expenise source of protein. In the end, there is still a risk for salmonella contamination. We are all assuming that the risk is lower, but we don't really know that. I suspect that if this business model was brought to scale, we would start to see at least some of the same problems creep in. Even chickens out in the fresh air and sunshine can get salmonella. Sure, they're less likely to transmit it to their flockmates than hens caged cheek to jowl, but they do all roost together in the eggmobile at night, so there is a real transmission risk. One thing we know about salmonella -- it's very good at getting transmitted from bird to bird.

And I really have a problem with the elitism that's inherent in taking a stand that this is the only right way to produce food. What do you say to the family that simply can't afford $10 a dozen for eggs? Get better jobs? Sucks to be you? Pollan seems to think that everyone is spending $6 a cup on Starbucks and could simply redirect that money to better food, but I am here to tell you that is not the case. Sure, there are cases where folks make bad choices about how to spend their money. We've all seen the food stamp folks who buy Pepsi and sugar coated cocoa-bomb breakfast cereal rather than a bag or two of leafy greens. I would argue that if the only option they have is $10 per dozen eggs, they will buy more Pepsi and sugar coated cocoa bombs.

And, even if we could fix the problem of how expensive it is, we still have the problem of who's going to produce it and where.

There has to be a middle way. Denmark has zero salmonella in its egg supply. It has acheived this through government monitoring and depopulation of infected flocks. The program adds about one cent to the cost of a dozen eggs. I don't know, but I assume that like in most European nations, Denmark's food prices are much higher than ours to start with, but I seriously doubt that they are $10 per dozen eggs. What is different in Denmark (and most of Europe and the rest of the world, for that matter) is that farmers are used to government inpsection and intervention at the farm level. Our collegues overseas were not only astonished at the opposition to premise identification that arose here a few years ago -- they were astonished that no such system was in place.

While I agree that cheap food is killing us, I think that we also have to admit that expensive food is not the only answer. And we also have to admit that it isn't just cheap food that's killing us -- it is also our reluctance to allow officials onto farms to conduct the sort of independent oversight and farmer education that is needed to ensure good, safe food is leaving the farm gate.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Juggling as a metaphor for life?

This morning while I was waiting for the milking pipeline to sanitize, I picked up a dairy trade magazine to read while I sipped my tea. This one featured a report on a conference, where the keynote address was delivered by a motivational speaker cum juggler. The photo showed him riding a unicycle while juggling a cane knife, a double-bit axe and some other sharp thing that I couldn't identify.

It was actually a pretty apt metaphor for the commercial dairy business today. Today's dairy farmer has lots of ways to get in trouble. If, and only if, he does everything exactly right and at exactly the right time, he might just avoid catching the cane knife by the blade or having the double bit axe split his skull while he's falling off the unicycle.

But to take the metaphor one step further, even the expert can't stay on the unicycle forever. The very best he can hope for is to safely catch (or drop) the sharp things while dismounting. It says a great deal about the dairy industry that such a performance would be considered motivational.

Another part of this man's talk included this pearl of wisdom: "When the ball is in your hand, throw it." He meant that you have to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves, not dilly-dally and figure you'll get around to it. In that sense, he's got a good point. But when put in practice by a person unskilled in the art of juggling, it generally leads to a lot of balls flying in random directions, bouncing off the walls and ceiling, and falling on the thrower's head.

We see this all the time in business correspondence via e-mail. Send an e-mail that asks three questions. With a certain type of person, you'll get a reply very quickly but the reply won't answer any more than one question, and frequently not even that. But it is out of the recipient's in box, and therefore no longer a problem on her end. The ball has been caught and thrown. The only thing more frustrating is to wait for a day or two and get the same sort of response.

Juggling is a fact of life these days. We all do it, and we all know what it means to have too many balls in the air. Very few of us lead the sort of lives where we can start a project, work on it until it is finished, setting aside all distractions, and then move on to the next one. But we have to realize that juggling is at its core an unsustainable and temporary practice. The greatest jugglers on earth drop things from time to time, and they all have to stop to eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom, if nothing else.

Learning how to juggle better is definitely an important life skill, but I think we need to start thinking about learning how not to juggle. How to give our undivided attention to that which needs it. Hold onto the ball at least long enough to figure out where to throw it, and how hard.

The next important life skill would be learning how not to need to juggle. Perhaps that is something akin to what the Buddhists would call enlightenment.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Guard dogs under threat

Sensing mounting pressure to restrict or eliminate the use of livestock guardian dogs on federal grazing allotments, the American Sheep Industry has proposed a set of guidelines and best management practices for their use.

Perhaps the most high-profile case was that of a mountain biker in Colorado who was taking part in a race that went through a grazing area where sheep were protected by dogs. She had mechanical problems, was delayed, and ended up coming upon the flock of grazing sheep at dusk. She rode through the flock screaming, and was mauled by a guard dog. She and her husband attempted to sue the owner in civil court, but discovered that there was a law specifically protecting livestock guard dog owners against such suits.

However, they were able to pressure the local prosecutor into pursuing a criminal complaint against the sheep producer for owning vicious dogs. He lost and was convicted.

While I can understand and appreciate that the ASI is trying to take a pro-active stand, I believe that its proposal will do more harm than good. You can read it for yourself here. ASI is seeking input, and I believe that every sheep producer who uses livestock guardian dogs should read the document carefully and comment extensively.

Here is my commentary on the draft.

Hello Ms. Jensen,

Thank you for taking the time to read and review comments on this topic. I am a sheep producer in New England in an area where the primary threats to my sheep are Eastern coyotes (which are much more like red wolves than Western coyotes, and indeed may be hybrids) and stray domestic dogs. We also have some smaller amounts of depredation by eagles and owls.

I've raised my own sheep for 20 years, and have also worked as a hired shepherd on vegetation management projects. I've worked with livestock guardian dogs for 10 of those years, and my experience encompasses about 30 individual dogs between the dogs that I have owned personally and the dogs that I have used and cared for as part of my employment. I currently own three guard dogs.

The first question posed on the website is whether I agree that these guidelines are needed. I would answer that they are not needed, and in fact could do more harm than good. Plaintiffs attorneys will seize on them and will probably nearly always be able to find one or more areas where they could argue that a producer is not in compliance. For instance, is a dog that runs along a fence barking behaving aggressively? Some would say it is, even though there is no danger to those on the other side of the fence. Moreover, if these guidelines are adopted by the industry, all producers will be expected to adhere to them, whether they make sense on a particular operation or not.

All that said, I am not familiar with the challenges being faced by western producers on grazing allotments. If they believe these guidelines will help them, then perhaps they could be crafted and presented as best management practices for livestock guard dogs used on federal grazing allotments, and have a preamble that specifically states that these guidelines do not apply to all situations, that many sheep operations will deviate from them, and that any deviation does not necessarily constitute negligence.

Here are some other global concerns about the document:

You'll notice that I have rejected the term Livestock Protection Dog that the ASI has started to use for these animals. I gather that there is some pejorative connotation associated with the term "guard dog," but that is what I have called them for the last 10 years, and it is what every producer I know of who uses them calls them. Trying to change that smacks of phoney PR and will be seen as such as we all stumble over our tongues trying to appease some suburban sensibility.

I am also concerned that the document refers to "herding dogs" but makes no mention of the distinctive concerns and requirements of that very different type of sheepdog. By including herding dogs in the title of the document, it would appear that ASI is suggesting that a Border collie and a Maremma should be managed according to the same standards and practices. This is certainly not the case. The term "herding dogs" should be removed from the document wherever it is used.

In general, I believe that these guidelines place too many obligations on the sheep producer, and not enough on the others who seek to share federal lands. Event organizers should be required to notify producers if there is going to be a large contingent of mountain bikers, ATV riders, hikers, etc., moving through an allotment, and a system should be created to let the producer know when all is clear.

And here is a listing of point-by point comments:

Guideline: Food and water available at all times
Comment: This can be construed to mean that if a guard dog does not have 24/7 access to food, the owner is negligent, even if the dog is fed daily and is in good body condition. Massachusetts Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Police (who are deputized as State Police Troopers, carry sidearms, and have arrest powers) have claimed that a similar rule meant that Border collies awaiting trial runs had to have a bowl of food in their crates at all times. This is not healthy, good practice, or even sensible. If nutrition is a concern, then the standard should be body condition scoring by a qualified veterinarian.

Guideline: Sexually intact males will not be used on federal land.
Comment: This is a bad guideline for at several reasons. First is effectiveness. Canid predators are much more respectful of the territories of mated pairs than they are of unmated groups or single canines. There are going to be situations where an entire dog is needed to ensure safety of sheep against wolves in particular.

Second, it flows from the assumption that entire dogs are more aggressive than neutered dogs or bitches. While this may be generally true, it does not warrant a blanket exclusion of entire males from the range.

Third, working dogs are proven in the field. If only cut dogs are allowed to prove themselves, the future generations of guard dogs will be denied the genetic material we want and need.

Fouth, research is showing that the early spaying and neutering of dogs -- especially large breed dogs -- can be a contributing factor in the development of musculo-skeletal disorders such as hip dysplasia. Many veterinarians are now recommending that sexual altering of dogs be delayed until they are fully grown, which in the case of most guard dog breeds would mean nearly three years of age. Given that most guard dogs have a useful life of less than 10 years, this guideline would prohibit dogs from working on federal land for about a third of their lives.

Guideline: Owners should spay females unless they are used for breeding purposes.
Comment: The same objections as above. I realize that the word "should" is used, but as soon as you say something "should" be done, the assumption is that failure to do so is negligent.

Guideline: Shearing/clipping should be done to prevent matted coats and to prevent overheating in the summer.
Comment: a healthy coat will actually prevent overheating by keeping the sun off the dog's skin.

Guideline: Sheep producers should not breed guard dogs ...
Comment: Who should then? People who trot them around breed rings? There is no substitute for breeding working dogs from working stock, and if we want sheep dogs to work for sheep producers, then sheep producers must breed them.

Guideline: Dogs that show aggression towards people or other restrained (leashed) dogs will not be allowed to work ...
Comment: This is one that plaintiff's attorneys will have a field day with. "Aggressive behavior" can mean as little as barking or charging with the hackles up, even where no harm is done. All that would be needed is for one incident to be documented and the owner would be considered negligent.

Guideline: Dogs that cannot be controlled by voice commands will not be allowed to work on federal land.
Comment: Again, what constitutes control, and how much control do we really want on these dogs? They are independent thinkers who have been bred for centuries to read, react to, and mitigate threats to grazing livestock. Do we suddenly want to start breeding them away from that and towards obedience to human command? I think not. And make no mistake, we will not breed dogs that obey without losing some or all of the independence that makes them effective.

Guideline: Dogs tied up when herder is not present
Comment: I have grazed federal land for vegetation management. I used guard dogs and portable electrified netting. There were no herders present, nor could the wages of one be justified. The potential always exists for conflict between the public and guard dogs. People cross fences, fences fail, guard dogs scare a pet dog. If I had been required to tie up my guard dogs in these circumstances, I might as well not have had them on the projects.

Guideline: discussion of breed traits
Comment: I have worked with five different breeds and crosses of them. I have seen more variability among individuals than among breeds. There is no need to get into the myths and generalities of the working styles of various breeds, particularly if the breed traits are going to be used as a weapon against particular breeds and crosses. We live in a world where dogs can be put to death for no reason other than that someone thinks they look like a pit bull.

Thank you again for your time and consideration.


Bill Fosher
Edgefield Farm
Westmoreland, NH

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Saving hypothermic lambs

By Bill Fosher
Copyright 2010

In winter lambing flocks, hypothermia and starvation of newborn lambs can account for nearly all of the pre-weaning death loss of lambs. It’s a serious problem that can often be avoided, if not eliminated entirely via management of the ewe flock and its environment.

However, even under the best management in the best environment, there will still be some cases of hypothermia and starvation in most winter lambing flocks. It’s important for shepherds to know how to recognize, treat, and, most importantly, learn from each case.

In most cases, the problems that lead to hypothermia are difficult to fix during lambing. They go back months to the level of nutrition in early gestation, or to barn design, or the availability of bedding. That’s why it’s important to keep records about the causes of any hypothermia cases – once lambing is over, it’s easy to put those problems out of your mind and forget to fix them for next time. Make a habit of reviewing your lambing records well before the next breeding season so that you have time to make any changes or cull any ewes to reduce problems in the next lambing.

In the meantime, you need to try to save as many cold lambs as possible. Here’s a step-by step guide to the process. The goal of this guide is to help you make sound decisions about how to treat a lamb when you’re tired, busy, and probably a little upset. All the steps are aimed at getting the lamb back with its mother as soon as possible, and are based on the assumption that the mother has adequate milk to sustain the lamb. If that is not the case, the lamb will need to be raised as an orphan.

Ideally, if a lamb needs to be removed from its mother, the dam should be left penned by herself where she cannot try to claim other lambs. If a ewe has more than one lamb, consider removing not just the chilled lamb, but all of them. The process of warming a lamb can take several hours, and during that time, a ewe may forget about one of her lambs. She will not forget about all of them. However, you must return the non-chilled lamb or lambs to the dam to suckle regularly – probably every 20 minutes to half hour.

The warming box that I refer to here is a contraption that can be as simple or complicated as you want it to be as long as it provides a constant, gentle heat to the lamb. I have rigged up hair dryers blowing into dog crates, and one pasture lambing operation that I have heard of uses insulated coolers with hot water bottles. The main thing is that you don’t want to heat the lamb directly; just keep it in a very warm environment. Heating a lamb too fast is just as lethal as leaving it cold.

Step 1. Evaluate
Determine lamb’s age: is it more or less than five hours old?
Determine lamb’s body temperature
Determine lamb’s general condition: able to stand, suck and swallow? Unable to swallow? Unable to stand?

Step 2. Act

If the lamb’s temperature is over 99 degrees F., regardless of age
Collect milk or colostrum from the mother if possible to use in feeding the lamb
feed by stomach tube
return to mother.

For lambs with temperatures lower than 99 degrees F.

More than five hours old, unable to hold up head or swallow
Give IP injection of glucose
Move to warming box
Collect milk or colostrum from the mother if possible to use in feeding the lamb
Check temperature every 20 minutes until it reaches 99 degrees F.
Feed by stomach tube
Return to mother

More than five hours old, able to hold head up and swallow
Move to warming box
Collect milk or colostrum from the mother if possible to use in feeding the lamb
Check temperature every 20 minutes until it reaches 99 degrees F.
Feed by stomach tube
Return to mother

Less than five hours old, able to hold up head and swallow
Move to warming box
Collect colostrum from the mother if possible to use in feeding the lamb
Check temperature every 20 minutes until it reaches 99 degrees F.
Feed by stomach tube
Return to mother

Step 3. Follow up
If any lamb remains weak, it may need to be kept in draft-free, gently heated environment and fed by stomach tube regularly until it is strong enough to return to its mother. If at all possible, use milk or colostrum from the lamb’s own mother for all feedings, as this will increase the likelihood that the lamb will be accepted when returned to her.

Submerge the lamb in warm water.
Warm a lamb with low blood sugar.
Overheat a lamb

Step 4. Find the cause
Hypothermia and starvation cause a great deal of death loss and their treatment greatly increases labor requirements at lambing time. Shepherds should set a goal both for economic and animal welfare reasons to reduce hypothermia and starvation as much as possible. Each case should be noted in the lambing records of the dam, and the shepherd should attempt to pin down the cause of each case. After the crush of lambing is over, these records can be reviewed to look for patterns that might suggest management changes or culling of individual ewes.

Well-fed and -conditioned ewes can deliver and keep lambs fed and warm under fairly extreme temperatures, provided that they sheltered from wind, drafts, and moisture. Temperature alone should not a cause of lamb hypothermia-starvation in shed lambed ewes unless the air temperature is below 0 degrees F.

Some management-related causes of hypothermia-starvation in shed-lambed ewes would include:
-- poor maternal nutrition in early gestation when placental development takes place, leading to low birth weights and low milk production.
-- poor maternal nutrition in late gestation, reducing fetal development and resulting in low birth weight and weakness in newborn lambs
-- inadequate bedding; ewes lambing on wet or frozen pen floors
-- drafts at floor level
-- overcrowding of ewes leading to mismothering, grannying, or lost and wandering lambs.
-- inadequate pen construction allowing lambs to wander away from their mothers.

Some disease-related causes of hypothermia-starvation would include:
-- Ovine progressive pneumonia, which can cause reduced (or absent) colostrum.
-- Any of the several abortion diseases, leading to weak newborn lambs.
-- Mastitis, causing the ewe to refuse to allow the lambs to suckle, or past mastitis causing one or both sides of the bag to fail completely or partially.

If causes related to management and disease are ruled out, the most common cause of hypothermia and starvation in lambs is maternal inattention. Good mothering ability includes the skill of keeping track of your lambs and not allowing them to starve. In some rare cases, teat size and placement on the ewe can also be a factor. Be particularly attentive for ewes with excessively large or low teats. Sometimes there can be plenty of milk that the lambs simply can’t get to.

With attention to detail, hypothermia and starvation can be reduced to very low rates even in flocks that lamb in the dead of winter in very cold climates. In most sheep production systems, the majority of the cost of producing a finished market lamb is already spent when the lamb is born (in the form of feed and keep for the breeding flock), so saving chilled lambs is an important way to protect your investment. Preventing it from happening in the first place is even more important.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Up from the ashes?

A follow up to my earlier post regarding the Eagle-Times of Claremont, NH

It would appear that publisher Harvey Hill has agreed to take a $4 million hit and allow a bid for the paper from Sample News Group in Pennsylvania to be approved by a bankruptcy court. The family-owned chain issued a statement that it hopes to have the paper back up and running by the end of the month.

Newspaper accounts make it appear that Hill is the paper's main unsecured creditor, and it appears that the sale has been approved.

If this all goes ahead as it appears to be headed, this would be an amazing outcome. The Sample News Group is taking a huge risk buying a small local newspaper -- although arguably at a huge discount -- and Hill is personally providing the lion's share of that discount by waiving his personal claim to what the paper owed him. Both are to be applauded.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Agribusiness monopolies to be scrutinized -- about time!

Dairy farms are getting hammered. Earlier this year, milk prices dipped to their lowest level since 1975 -- and we're not talking adjusted for inflation here. There's been a modest recovery recently, but the price is still hovering just over $11 per hundredweight, and it costs the average New England farm about $17 to produce it.

By way of conversion, there are about 12 gallons in a hundredweight of milk. So farmers are being paid about 92 cents per gallon and it costs about $1.42 to produce it. For several months this spring, the price was $9 per hundredweight, or just 75 cents per gallon.

There are very few ways that the cost of production can be reduced. The cost of fuel, fertilizer, imported feed, labor, taxes, insurance, and land are pretty much beyond the control of the farmer. Although he can choose to manage differently to avoid buying so much of some of those items, if you're going to produce milk on a commercial scale in the Northeast, you will have to buy or lease some of each of those items.

What this means in very real terms for dairy farmers is that they have exactly three choices. They can live off their equity -- which means emptying savings accounts, retirement plans, selling land and cattle; they can borrow against their equity, which means mortgaging land, buildings, and cattle in hopes that they'll be able to pay off the debt in better times ahead; or they can go out of business while they still have a little bit of equity left. Remember that when a business runs out of cash, it is done, and farms are businesses.

In past times of low milk prices, production in high cost areas like New England has declined, and it has shifted to low-cost areas like the Central Valley of California. When prices dipped a little bit, the small farms of the Northeast would sell cows, and the big farms (and we're talking tens of thousands of cows big) would add cows. But milking more cows when the price of milk is less than the cost of production -- even where the cost of production is very low -- is not a reasonable way forward.

Meanwhile, Dean Foods, a publicly traded milk company that controls about 70 percent of the milk market in the Northeast, recently reported a 69 percent increase in quarterly earnings and stated that the primary reason for its increase in profitability was the low farm gate price of milk. In other words, it was paying less for the material it sells, so it was making more money.

Now, I don't know how Dean Foods executives are compensated, but I'm sniffing the same sort of quarterly earnings race that brought down the banking industry. How much sense does it make for a company like Dean Foods to kill its suppliers in order to make a profit this quarter? Dean Foods is obviously playing the same game that Wall Street did -- counting on the fact that the US taxpayer is not going to allow the dairy industry to fail.

Fortunately, it looks like the USDA and Justice Department are going to get ahead of the curve and start looking at monopolistic practices in three ag industries: seed sales, beef packing, and dairy distribution. Perhaps this time, an ounce of prevention will save the taxpayers from a billion pounds of cure. Let's just hope that there are dairy farms left by the time they get it done.

Here's a story about it from National Public Radio.

Friday, July 10, 2009

RIP, Eagle-Times

Another dinosaur has found its way to the tar pits. The Claremont, NH, Eagle-Times abruptly ceased publication today, giving less than 24 hours notice to its 120 employees. The publisher said the company will file for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy protection. For those unfamiliar, Chapter 7 is the "gone and never coming back" version. The company's assets will be liquidated, and the proceeds divvied up among the creditors.

Claremont is a scrappy (some would say to strike out the initial "s") little city of about 15,000 souls, still reeling from the mass exodus of its economic mainstay, the machine tool industry, nearly a quarter century ago. It now finds itself without a daily newspaper covering its goings-on. The two nearest surviving dailies -- The Valley News based in Lebanon and the Keene Sentinel -- have never made much of an effort to cover the news there, and given the current state of newspaper finances, I suspect they aren't about to start.

It's a sad day. The Eagle-Times was the smallest daily newspaper in New Hampshire, and its demise doesn't bode well for the future of other small New England papers and the communities they serve.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Welcome, Luna

The Edgefield Farm Defense Force has a new cadet. Luna is a six-month old Maremma bitch who already knows that she is supposed to care for sheep. Here she is in a photograph taken just a day after she arrived on my place last week.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The joy of lambing

A week ago the first lambs of the year greeted me when I checked on the flock down by the Connecticut River. This is always a great time for me, and this particular ewe is a really good one.

When I arrived, she was lying down, facing away from me, her two new lambs right by her nose. Her head was up, her eyes were closed, and she was chewing her cud. I could see that the lambs were also full and dozing contentedly. A happy and proud mother. I felt unmitigated joy at the scene.

When she became aware of my presence she did something that moved my joy to yet another level. She stood quickly, but without alarming her lambs, turned toward me, and took one step foward and dropped her head into a defensive posture -- think of an offensive lineman in American football. Her lambs were now under her belly, still dozing, but if anyone was going to take those lambs, they were going to have to take her first.

Competence is such a wonderful thing to observe. Those lambs will survive because their mother knows what to do. In 15 seconds, I knew all was well, and I knew that any ewe lambs from this ewe were keepers.

Better still, they were both ewe lambs. If they have inherited half of their mother's competence, they'll just keep on making my job easier and easier for years into the future.

Monday, March 9, 2009

I can't tell you why.

People who live in soft places like LA or North Carolina sometimes ask why anyone lives in New Hampshire, where the summers are hot and humid and the winters are cold and bleak. Normally I just smile and say, "Why not?"

Every place on earth has its meteorological crosses to bear, after all. LA is a desert, and after three years of drought in California the vast efforts at irrigation and drinking water collection that prop people up are starting to collapse. North Carolina gets a lot more hurricanes than New England, and its summers are longer, hotter, and more humid than ours.

But today, as I prepare to head out the door, slog through four to seven inches of wet, sticky snow that has fallen on top of several inches of mud produced by two days of rapid thaws, I can sort of see their point. Today is not a weather day that will get lots of attention from the national media. This is the sort of weather that is really just an inconvenience to those who live in populated areas where all the roads are paved. It'll snow, it'll melt. But in the parts of New Hampshire where we still rely heavily on dirt roads, this time of year is the worst.

Mud season can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Four wheel drive and all wheel drive are helpful, to be sure, but they will not save you from being slung about by ruts, and there are times when what you really need are tracks to stay atop the road surface. Anything with wheels is doomed. Chains slip off the wheels and do no good anyway.

Adding a half foot of what we call "sugar snow," the slick, wet snot that falls this time of year, to the mix only makes it more challenging. Walking is complicated by the fact that just when you think your foot has found purchase on the earth under the snow, the mud under your foot slides, and you end up doing a sort of camel walk. Place one foot down, put your weight on it. Pull the other foot out of the mud and bring it forward. Repeat.

The cold of winter is bracing, and enjoyable to me. The crazy fecundity of springtime is wonderful. The warmth and bounty of summer fills me with joy. And of course, our fall foliage is world famous with its cool nights and brisk days. But mud season just plain sucks. Its the one part of New Hampshire's climate for which I can find no redeeming value.

But there's no denying it. I must head out into this mix of stinking mud and snotty wet snow and face my day. It'll be one of limited productivity outside, but perhaps it'll be a good day to catch up on some desk work in the afternoon.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Jack Kennedy understood ...

"The farmer is the only man in our economy who buys everything at retail, sells everything at wholesale and pays the freight both ways."

Quoted in The Progressive Farmer March 2008 issue.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Eat red meat and save the planet? Really?

That meat production has a large carbon footprint is an article of faith among folks who keep track of these things. The problem is that the people who keep track of these things often don't know shit from shinola about farming in general, or meat production in particular.

The website of Science News recently ran a report on the effects of human diets on greenhouse gas emissions. In a nutshell, Ulf Sonesson of the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology told the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting that beef is a powerful greenhouse gas emitter, and that pork and poultry are less so, and that vegetable based proteins, such as soy, are the best for the climate.

Sonesson looks at the beef industry from a pretty standard set of assumptions: the cattle that produce our beef are fed large amounts of corn in centralized feedlots, where the feed is trucked in, large amounts of methane are produced, cattle are trucked out to slaughter, beef is frozen, trucked around the country, and stored in large industrial freezers. All of these steps of transportation, feeding, and storage require the burning of energy, which emit greenhouse gasses. The production of the corn that feeds the cattle in the feedlots also emits greenhouse gasses.

These are all very valid points, and, unfortunately, are true for the vast majority of beef that's produced in the US.

It appears that Sonneson makes some further assumptions about the production of beef, however, that are simply untrue. Primarily, that every part of the beef production cycle is like the feedlot. It's not.

The beef industry has two very distinct components: the cow-calf operations and the feeding operations. The cow-calf operations are almost entirely grass based, using pasture and range as their main source of nutrition for the cattle. Ranchers and farmers who run these operations have herds of cows that deliver calves every year, and it is these calves (minus replacement heifers) that go on to the feedlots after they are weaned. There are also several types of operations that specialize in taking calves from relatively light weaning weights to the sizes that feedlots typically take in; many of these are also grass based operations.

What difference does that make? Tons. Millions of tons, and perhaps billions, actually. Every acre of managed pasture and range absorbs greenhouse gasses. Grass based farming increases the organic matter in the soil, and this organic matter is largely carbon. The carbon comes from decaying plants, which obtained carbon by taking it out of the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide, one of the most powerful greenhouse gasses. The management of cattle on pasture or range requires very little in the way of fossil fuel input. Pasture and range is generally not treated with chemical fertilizer. Low-horsepower vehicles (actual horses, in many cases) are used to check and round up cattle. Perhaps most importantly, the soil is not tilled.

When soil is exposed to the air, as it is when it is tilled for the production of grains and oilseeds, it loses carbon into the atmosphere. Native prairie soils are black; this is carbon -- those decomposing plants again. In places where prairies have been put to the plow, the soil turns brown, or a sickly anemic gray as carbon is released. Compared to the amount of carbon lost through oxidization, the emissions of tractors used to do the plowing is almost trivial.

The models that condemn beef production as an emitter of greenhouse gasses -- as far as I can tell -- do not give beef credit for the millions and millions of acres of carbon sequestering grasslands that underpin the admittedly wretched feedlot business.

While swine and poultry are much better converters of grains and oilseeds into human food than beef cattle (cattle are ruminants and not ideally suited to processing high levels of starch), they do not have any grassland components to their industry. They are essentially all feedlot, all the time, as the models incorrectly assume the beef industry is.

The normally thoughtful Epicurious ran a blog posting this week under the heading "Eat Soy, Save the Planet" based on the Science News article. The author admits to having her tongue in her cheek when she wrote it, but it is the take-away message that so many of these analyses seem to promote. I was heartened that my comment there was not a voice in the wilderness on this issue.

Soy as a source of human protein is also not without its environmental costs. Deforestation of the Amazon basin for soy production is a huge source of carbon emission. Every acre of land that produces soy is tilled, and loses carbon to oxidation. Most commercial soy production relies heavily on chemical fertilization, herbicide application, and is causing the loss of topsoil at a rate that is several orders of magnitude higher than that of the grass-based component of beef production.

As interesting as it would be to look at the carbon footprint of the beef industry as it actually is, it would be even more interesting to look at the carbon footprint of grass-fed beef that is processed and consumed within a 100-mile radius of where it is grown. I suspect that it would be a winner.

And lamb? Lamb is seldom even discussed in these analyses, because it represents such a tiny slice of our diet. But grass-fed lamb would require even less carbon than grass-fed beef, as the carcasses would require less energy to chill, and the production generally requires less machinery. In my own farming operation, I know that I am increasing organic matter in the soils that I graze -- I have soil tests to prove it. Organic matter is mostly carbon, mostly from carbon dioxide taken from the atmosphere by plants. I wouldn't be surprised if an analysis of my operation showed that I am either carbon neutral, or perhaps have some carbon credits to sell.

Pastured poultry still requires some grain, and most pastured pork does as well. For the very reasons that poultry and pork are better at converting grain into meat than ruminants, they are worse at converting grasses and forbs: they don't have a rumen to break the cellulose down. While local, pasture-raised pork and poultry are wonderful, I suspect they are less carbon-friendly than red meat produced from locally-raised grass fed ruminants.

I'm hopeful that we can start to see some more nuanced carbon-footprint analyses of human diets that flow from an actual understanding of how food is produced, not from faulty assumptions. It's time for science to start catching up with reality, and perhaps offering some models for how farmers can reduce the carbon footprints of their operations.

Monday, January 26, 2009

No, I'm not lambing right now

Every now and then, as I stumble through my life, I get something right. Usually not on purpose: usually I am forced into a situation where the only remaining choice is the right one.

Such is the case with the fact that I don't lamb in January and February, as so many sheep farmers in New England do.

Many of my fellow shepherds are lambing now. Some in drafty old converted dairy barns, some in sheds built more or less for the purpose. All of them are freezing as temperatures for the past few weeks have dropped below zero F more nights than not.

Lambing in the winter is a challenge. It is fun, in its own strange way -- primarily, I think, because every lamb that survives past the critical 48-hour mark is a victory. Every ewe that delivers a lamb is handled: the new lambs are collected and the family is placed in an individual pen known as a jug for a day or two while they bond. Many lambs need to be dried off quickly, as the birth fluids can pull heat from the lamb faster than its metabolism can replace it.

If maternal nutrition is anything short of excellent, the lambs will be born weak, or fade quickly after birth. The environment must be kept fresh and dry, or you risk pneumonia in both the ewes and the lambs. Providing high-quality feed and dry bedding is incredibly expensive in New England. (Straw, commonly used for bedding for sheep, actually costs more than good quality hay here, and hay is more expensive in New England than anywhere else in the US that I have heard of.) And then, in the spring while all those fat lambs are gamboling on pasture with their dozing mothers nearby, it's time to muck out the barn (unless you were doing it weekly or so all winter. Manure must be handled, composted, spread.

In 2005 I supervised two lambings. The first was a shed lambing of 450 ewes commencing Jan. 23 and ending March 1. The second was a pasture lambing of 300 ewes commencing April 20 and ending May 22.

The winter lambing flock was brought into the shed in mid-December, shorn, and bedded on straw. They were fed round bales of high-quality balage, and a mixture of whole shelled corn and roasted whole soybeans, along with a mineral mix.

The spring lambing flock was wintered outside, fed round bales of decent quality (but not fancy) balage, and no grain.

During the pre-lambing period, I had one assistant working with me. We would spend most of the morning feeding the ewes in the shed. Chores to feed and bed the winter-lambing ewes in the shed took about seven person-hours a day for 450 ewes, which works out to about one person-minute per sheep per day.

Meanwhile the spring lambing flock needed to be checked daily, its guard dog fed, and once every five days or so, it needed new bales. The daily routine took about 30 minutes, and the weekly bale feeding took about an hour, for an average of about 40 person-minutes per day, or .13 person-minutes per ewe per day.

That's right. It took nearly 10 times as much labor to care for the shed-lambing flock as it did the pasture lambing flock.

Once lambing started in the shed, we had three full-time shepherds, plus an intern or a part-time employee working. An average lambing day required about 36 person-hours in the shed, or nearly five person-minutes per ewe per day. The spring lambing flock continues to require .13 person minutes per ewe per day, or about three percent of the labor required for the winter lambing flock.

Hay and grain consumption in the shed rose as the ewes went into high production and the lambs started to eat their creep grain. At the peak, I was putting out 1,200 pounds of grain per day in the shed. The spring lambers were still fat and sassy without any grain.

When the winter lambing ended and weather outside began to warm up, we started to turn the ewes and lambs out of the shed so that we could start to remove the bedded pack. One of the shepherds went off the payroll, and one became essentially a machine operator for four to six hours a day, digging out and stacking the winter's manure.

That left me, more or less on my own, tending to 300 ewes lambing on pasture. I was working about 10 hours a day. So about two person-minutes per day per ewe for lambing time.

When all was said and done, those 450 ewes weaned 810 lambs, and the 300 we lambed outside weaned 535 -- roughly the same number of lambs per ewe (1.8). Each of those 810 lambs from the winter had more than 3 hours of labor in it, while the lambs born out on pasture had less than 45 minutes. Winter lambing was more than three times as labor intensive as pasture lambing per weaned lamb.

The winter lambing flock also required much more machine and petroleum input, as well as more purchased feed -- roughly double the pasture lambing flock. The bottom line was that I had a cost of production of a January-born lamb of about $105 at weaning, and about $75 in a pasture-born lamb. The cost of production was 40 percent higher overall for a lamb born in the winter as one born in the spring.

Since I left that farm, winter lambing has not been an option. I don't have a barn, and lambs born in the snow when it's -10 F have little chance of survival. I've also made a strategic business decision that I don't want to hire shepherds -- even at lambing time. That means spring lambing on pasture with ewes that can birth, mother, and raise their own lambs with little or no help from me.

Spring lambing is not without its problems. I have a group of lambs right now that still need to gain some weight before they are marketable, and it's really hard to get growth on lambs at this time of year; they burn up a lot of calories just keeping warm. I need more pasture land per ewe than most winter-lambing flocks, because lambs are often marketed before they place much demand on pasture. But on balance, I think I'd rather be in here by the wood stove when it's 20 below zero and blowing, than doing a nighttime barn check and trying to warm a frozen lamb.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Sympathy for the Devil?

Yesterday, just for the briefest of moments, I felt sorry for George W. Bush.

I mean, I know he brought it all on himself, and I know he thinks history will absolve him. But imagine what it must be like to sit on the dais in front of hundreds of thousands of people live and in person, plus millions more watching on television, listening on the radio, or viewing live streams on the Internet, while your successor says, very politely, we reject you, Mr. Bush, and everything you stand for. What you have done for the past eight years represents all that is wrong with this country, and today we start to fix that. And the crowd goes wild.

And he slinks back to Crawford with this tail between his legs like the beaten cur that he is, relegated to the dung heap of history -- where, I remind myself, he deserves a particularly gooey, stinky spot -- so alone. I've even heard that his wife has taken a separate home in Dallas.

Let me make this clear: I am not saying that I think Dubya was a person of good will who was honestly doing what he thought was best for the country. I think he was a knuckle-dragging, slack-jawed moron powered by hate, fear, and all that is dark in the human soul. He was being manipulated by kingmakers who wanted to turn the US into a near dictatorship while avoiding all accountability.

And, what's worse, I think he liked it and generally agreed with the goals of fascists like Dick Cheney and Karl Rove, who, if given their head, would have instituted policies that would have made Franco's Guardia Civil look like a neighborhood watch program.

But just for a second there, I thought, wow. What must it be like to have so many people dislike you so intensely? To reject what you have done in their names so completely, and to adore a man who is so clearly the anti-you while decorum requires that you stand there and behave yourself?

I guess that's proof positive of my bleeding heart. I can even feel sympathy for the monster as I rejoice in its demise.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Today it ends. Today it begins.

Our national nightmare ends today. That which began a little over eight years ago when five members of the US Supreme Court conducted a bloodless coup and placed in power a little man from Texas ends today in front of throngs of people on the National Mall. A democratically elected President will replace a man who lied to us, who showed contempt for the institutions he was pledged to defend, and who just plain screwed up at every turn. A man who tried to turn us against each other -- remember the TIPS program? -- who tried to take Orwell's game and go pro with it. A man so crooked and dishonest he made Richard M. Nixon look like a freakin' boy scout.

Two good things that have come from these last eight years: first no longer can anyone say without fear of contradiction that New Hampshire produced the worst president that ever occupied the White House (Franklin Pierce). And second, there seems to be a national consensus that we can, should, and indeed must do better. Starting today.

Actually, it started a couple of years ago at the local level. Here in New Hampshire we shed some entrenched Republicans at the Congressional level and elected a Democratic governor. We finished the job last November. If you had told me 15 years ago -- hell, even five years ago -- that New Hampshire voters would vote for a black man for president, elect a Democratic Congressional delegation, a return a Democratic governor to office, and elect solid Democratic majorities in both houses of the state Legislature, I would have thought you were smoking something. But it happened.

And last week, we saw perhaps the strongest evidence of the change that is to come. Compare the answer of Dubya's attorney general, Michael Mukasey, to that of Obama nominee Eric Holder when asked, essentially, the same question: Is waterboarding torture?

"I don't know what's involved in waterboarding," [Mukasey] told Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), arguing he first needed to be "read into" the administration's program. Mukasey pledged to study the matter and said he would order a "review" after being confirmed.
(From the Huffington Post.)

ERIC HOLDER: I agree with you, Mr. Chairman, waterboarding is torture.

That review that Mukasey promised never happened, but in light of Holder's statement it seems that there's perhaps not really that much of a need for a review.

Let's hope that this sort of willingness to call a spade a spade and to right the wrongs of the last eight years permeates the rest of the administration. Let's hope that the era of politics where voters made decisions based on narrowly defined self-interest, fear, and manipulation of hot-button issues is over, and that we are going to live in a society in which people look after one another, rather than spy on one another.

See ya round, Dubya. Texas is a big place with lots of brush of brush to clear. Don't let the door hit you on the way out.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Canadians! Be proud, eh?

What other culture could combine ice hockey and Morris dancing?

It's the Village Green Morris Men of Winnipeg dancing to the tune of Stompin' Tom Connor's song Hockey Game.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Referendum voting dates set

Sheep producers will be able to vote on the referendum regarding the continuation of the sheep checkoff, or production tax, at local Farm Service Agency offices between Feb. 2 and Feb. 27.

Those who don't know where I stand, here's the link to the previous item on this blog about it.

Here's the USDA press release.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

US sheep producers: you have a chance to right a wrong

Sometime in the next few months, sheep producers across the US will have the opportunity to end the regressive sheep production tax that was imposed on us in 2002 under the checkoff program.

I am not opposed to taxation. I am opposed to foolish programs, and that's exactly what the American Lamb Board has set up with the money that is collected on every sheep that is slaughtered in the US or imported from overseas.

The checkoff program was created to increase demand for American Lamb, generically. What an odd thing, considering that we can't fill the demand for lamb with our current levels of production. But producers lined up in 2005 with visions of "Got Milk" dancing in their heads and voted (quite narrowly) to impose the tax on themselves.

You've got three years of receipts now since your last chance to review this. Has the program worked? Has it improved your bottom line? Do you see any more American lamb in the local supermarket? By any objective measure, unless you are working for the ALB or one of the ad agencies it hired, the answer is no. There is less American lamb being produced today than there was in 2005. Tax an activity and the activity will tend to decline, don't you know.

What the American sheep industry needs is not promotion, but infrastructure. We need kill plants. We need distribution channels. We need storage. We need production planners. We need shepherds. We need knowledge. The production tax addresses none of these issues, even tangentially.

How many shoppers or food service buyers are looking at the lamb on offer and making a decision about whether to buy American lamb or New Zealand product? None. Usually the NZ product is all that's available. Because in NZ, they have kill plants, distribution channels, storage, production planners, shepherds, and knowledge. They can put the product in front of the chefs and shoppers year-round. We can argue about quality, and we should, but telling people that they shouldn't buy lamb from NZ because it's low quality and then having nothing to offer them to replace it isn't a great strategy.

Even if the American Lamb Board's generic promotion campaign was wildly successful and American Lamb became a brand that consumers recognized and demanded, it still does most small producers no good. Our customers already want American Lamb -- it's what we produce. We are essentially being asked to subsidize the branding of the commodity market, which tends to drag down the image to the lowest common denominator. And folks, let's be honest. There is some right horrible American lamb out there.

In order for the referendum to pass, it must pass two thresholds. First, it must gain a majority of the votes of sheep operations. Second, it must pass based on the volume of sheep represented by the operations. If it only had to pass one way or the other, the big producers would decide the question. But it must past both ways. That means your vote counts equally whether you have two sheep or 10,000.

Inertia is a powerful force. Unless we work hard and make sure that everyone who is eligible knows the issues and votes, the production tax will stay in place. You can also expect a strong pro-tax campaign from the ALB, the American Sheep Industry Association, and the state sheep associations, which will have money and organization behind them. I hope that sheep producers reading this blog will be active, and not just vote against the tax but also talk to their sheep-producing friends and neighbors to bring this chapter to an end.

Thanks for your consideration.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

'Tain't season

'Tain't foliage season anymore.
'Tain't deer season anymore (closed at sundown).
'Tain't snow machine season yet.

'Tain't light very long in a day, and 'taint easy to get your work done. And the weather, well, 'tain't pretty, and sure as shootin' 'tain't settled.

Single digits either side of zero tonight. High temps in the teens tomorrow with high winds. By Wednesday, up into the 50's with rain showers, and back into the single digits on Thursday night.

If it weren't for breeding season, this would be the worst part of the year.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Roll with me, Henry

Etta James and the Peaches' record Roll with Me, Henry was banned because it was so dirty. Well, there are a bunch of sheep on top of Cass Hill in Westmoreland singing that nasty song these days.

My new Ile de France ram, Henry, had four of them bred before he was even back to their pasture with them, and five more this morning. Henry has yellow raddle paint on his brisket so he leaves a mark on every ewe he serves.

Come April 23, we should start to see the results of Henry's efforts. I can't wait -- there's nothing like wobbly new lambs on green grass. Sure it was cold and slushy this morning, but Henry's planting the seeds of spring.

I shouldn't focus only on Henry. I have three new rams working with three different groups of ewes, but for some reason I am most excited about Henry's progeny.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Where good lambs go ...

Foreword: This essay was originally published in the Spring 2008 edition of Vermont's Local Banquet, a quarterly magazine celebrating local, sustainable food and farming. I republish it here in keeping with the season. Since it was first published, a few things have changed. Adams Farm, the slaughterhouse that I had used for years, has re-opened with a new plant and more capacity. The group of producers that I am working with has developed a few good business models and is moving closer to making some decisions about whether to move forward with another slaughterhouse, and a private concern is reportedly getting close to starting renovations on a plant that has been closed for nearly 20 years. Slaughter capacity is still tight in this part of New England, but not nearly as bad as it was in 2006 and 2007, and the trajectory is going in the right direction.

In good weather, the drive between southwestern New Hampshire and the Capital District of New York state can be breathtakingly beautiful: there’s the view from Hogback Mountain, the wind farm in Searsburg, the Bennington obelisk. But at 4 a.m. during a December snow storm, while pulling a trailer loaded with lambs over a foggy two-lane road, the drive is tedious at best and can be downright hairy.

I am a sheep producer in Westmoreland, N.H., just over the Connecticut River from Putney. When I started calling around last August for a slaughterhouse in which my lambs could be processed, the nearest USDA-approved facility that could give me a December appointment was in Altamont, N.Y., about three hours from my farm. On the phone, they told me my lambs had to be delivered at 7 a.m. on the appointed date, and if I didn’t show up on time, I’d be out of luck. I signed on, knowing that the drive would be long, but I had no other choice.
Such has been the nature of things for folks involved in the direct marketing of local meat since two of the largest slaughterhouses that serve this area burned down within six months of one another in 2006: Fresh Farms Beef in Rutland burned in July, and Adams Farm in Athol, Mass., burned in December. No people or animals were harmed in either fire, but at Adams at least one steer that was awaiting slaughter was shooed out of the burning building and never seen again. And 13 of my lamb carcasses were in the cooler awaiting cutting and wrapping when the place went up. Adams Farm is rebuilding, but permitting, financing, and insurance hassles have postponed work and the hope is now that it will re-open this fall. There is no indication that Fresh Farms Beef will rebuild.

So when we farmers started raising our animals last spring, we knew that finding slaughter capacity later in the year was going to be difficult. All the remaining slaughterhouses within a reasonable distance were putting their existing customers’ needs first, and rightly so. Thinking that five months would be plenty of lead time, I started to make calls in August. One place told me they weren’t accepting any new business, period. Another told me they were already booking dates from May 2008 on. I had been using Adams Farm exclusively to process my lambs for the past seven years, and had a good rapport with the folks there. At these other places, I was just another guy with 40 or 50 lambs to process in December. I represented work that they didn’t have time or the physical space to handle.

Not so long ago, New England had lots of little local slaughterhouses that handled the sort of business that my farm provides. Local butchers were known and respected members of the community. New Hampshire poet Maxine Kumin describes Amos, one such local butcher, in her 1992 poem, “Taking the Lambs to Market”:

a decent man who blurs the line of sight
between our conscience and our appetite.

That line of sight has been so thoroughly blurred by agribusinesses, with their massive feedlots and associated meat packers, that unless you buy your meat directly from the farmer who grows it, you probably wouldn’t know that there’s a crisis in slaughter capacity around here. Slaughterhouses are generally not featured prominently in the Chamber of Commerce’s listings of local attractions, but they are as crucial to a local food supply as farm machinery dealers, large animal veterinarians, and backyard mechanics – all of whom are getting thinner on the ground every year.

This winter’s recall of 71,500 tons of beef from an industrial-scale California slaughterhouse – the largest food recall in history – points to the importance of having relatively small, community-based facilities where there’s regular contact between the management of the plant and the farmers who raise the animals that they process. One USDA inspector who had gone from working at a mega-slaughterhouse to a local plant in Washington state told a farmer friend of mine about the difference between the two: at the factory plant, he had 40 seconds to inspect each animal, pre- and post-slaughter; at the local plant he has 40 minutes.

If the inspector has to move at that sort of outrageous pace at the industrial-scale plant, so do all the workers. Speed leads to mistakes, and when the inspector is that pressed for time, it can lead to those mistakes being missed. We consumers then pay the price in the form or E. coli outbreaks, worker injuries, inhumane treatment of animals, and the slaughter of animals that have not been properly cleared for use in the human food chain. Local slaughterhouses are subject to something even more powerful than USDA inspection: the opinions of the farmers and meat customers who want things done right and will call them on shortcomings.

Within a month of the fire at Adams Farm, a group of farmers in the Brattleboro area began meeting to determine how to expand slaughter capacity in the region. At this writing, more than 400 producers from Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New York have responded to a questionnaire about the need for slaughter services. Many have identified the lack of slaughter capacity as the main factor limiting an increase in their production.

That’s certainly the case for me. I currently produce about 135 lambs for market each year. I could easily triple that with the land I currently have access to. But if I were to increase my production, the lack of local slaughtering capacity would mean that the majority of my lambs would have to be sold at a commodity auction, where the highest bidder would purchase them for a much lower price than my direct customers pay. Selling to direct customers means I can stay in business; selling to auction threatens my livelihood.

But hauling lambs six hours round-trip to the slaughterhouse a few times a year also threatens my business: I lost money on every lamb I direct marketed in 2007, in large part because of the fuel costs associated with hauling my lambs and meat to and from upstate New York three times. My customers were understanding when I increased my prices last year, but I didn’t feel I could ask them to cover the entire cost of what I hope will be a single-year problem. It has been heartening to attend meetings with fellow producers and even members of the Localvore community who not only get that there’s a problem, but who actively want to do something about it. It’s pretty easy to get a group of farmers to complain about something; getting them to agree on a problem and the best path to a solution can be a little like herding cats. But it seems the cats may want to be herded in this case. It’s frustrating to look at a project planning chart and see that the very best we can hope for is a plant that might open in 2009 or 2010 if everything goes well.

As I write this, the results of those producer surveys are being tabulated. Within a few weeks we should have a pretty good handle on exactly how much demand there is for a local slaughterhouse or even a meat processing plant (which takes meat from slaughterhouses and turns it into retail cuts). That’s the first step. Next step will be figuring out how to site, staff, and run the place, and how to raise the capital needed for such a project.

In the meantime, bear with your local farmers as we try to deal with this critical piece of the local food infrastructure. We’re working to fix it, and, with a little luck, make it better than it was before 2006.

I’m hoping that more folks will be able to put my lamb in their freezers, that I’ll be able to price my products fairly, and perhaps make a living at this sheep business. And maybe the next time I drive over Hogback, I’ll be able to enjoy the view.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Good Lord, have mercy on our souls

This is too much. People killed a human being trying to get at the cheap plastic crap in Wal*Mart on Long Island. They couldn't wait until 5:02 a.m. No. They had to be the first ones at the friggin' trough.

There's a 34-year-old man dead in Long Island. Shoppers trampled him to death. They knocked him down, ran over him and pounded him to death with their feet.

I hope the blood stains don't wash out of their sneakers anytime soon.

'Tis the friggin' season to be jolly.

Remember this: There is nothing in any Wal*Mart worth killing for. And if you work at one of these hell holes, remember this: there is even less in Wal*Mart worth dying for. If they rush the door, let them stampede. Just get out of the way.

On behalf of my fellow humans, I apologize. I am ashamed.