Three little pigs who weren't. Pt. 1

I had been feeling down & not really in the mood to write for a few weeks. In large part, it was because it felt like we were having some pretty awful luck with our animals. And that just takes the wind out of your sails, and any creative urge drained away. 

Not too long after I wrote the post about settling in our little piglets, I had taken the youngest & gentlest of the pigs, Tocino, to the Boy's school along with one of our chickens for a story time show & tell. ("What does Tocino mean in Spanish kids? That's right - Bacon!!") 

The first graders all paraded out to the school yard where we set up a smallish pen, and gave them an introduction to some of the basics of keeping animals, how we protect them, why we enjoy them, and then finished off by telling one of my favorite stories, The Old Woman & Her Pig

A few days later, the pigs vanished. 

As they get older, they get trained to the electric fence - a few shocks on the snout, and you wouldn't go near that thing either. In reality, it's not much of a barrier, but pigs are smart, and given the choice, they'll stay inside it just fine. This lets me expand their pen to a larger and larger run, and gives them plenty of room to roam and root, and enjoy. The three little pigs, Rocky, Tocino & The Spare, all seemed content and happy in the space, and all was well. 

Then one evening, they got spooked. Hard. Bad enough to rush and burst through the fence despite the electric shock, and to completely disappear into the woods. I was out meeting a colleague for an early dinner, and my Bride and the kids did an initial search, walking the woods, hoping for some sign of the little guys. Nothing.

By the time I got home, it was late, and full dark. I walked the woods, but couldn't see a thing. The next morning, and the morning after that, I was up in the pre-dawn twilights, fending off ticks and walking the woods in widening circles, rattling a bucket full of peanuts, hoping to see some sign of them. 

A pig will range about a 1/4 mile a day, if not bothered. And usually you might find sign of them rooting or bedding down. They're not exactly tidy creatures, and can make quite a mess when they're snuffling through the underbrush for food. But I didn't see a thing. These little guys were gone. I was pretty sure coyotes would get them - or had already. We have plenty around here, and the pigs were relatively tiny still - less than 15 weeks old. After a few days, I had to give up hope. The kids (and I) got another lesson about life on a farm, however small. 

Transient

A couple of weeks later, I came home to hear from the Critter that a chicken had died. It was one of our younger ones (~ 16 months). No real indication as to why - but that's often the case with chickens. They're not meant for long lives to begin with, and a hen that's more than 3 is in her golden years. The corpse was stretched out in the pen, and the other chickens were avoiding it. No sign of predators. It was just that chicken's day to die. 

The Critter takes care of the chickens - feeds & waters them, and collects the eggs to sell. But it's still somehow my job to take care of the dead ones, when they occur. I walked out, collected the carcass and disposed of it in the woods.

A day or two more went by, and I started to smell something obnoxious. It was stronger outside on the back patio. It took me two days to figure it out. Turns out, a few peanuts had been left in the bottom of the pig bucket, which was sitting up next to the back porch. A rat had gotten into the bucket and couldn't get back out. The rat had at least had a final meal, which I assume it enjoyed. But then the rains came, and it's carcass was swollen and smelling by the time I found it. 

The Boy said "Yes. I saw that a few days ago."

Really? For future reference, there are things you need to tell your father, kid. "I saw a dead animal on the back porch" is on that list. 

Then our dog, Maggie, pulled up lame, and had to be taken to the vet. That's a longer story, but I was beginning to think that - were I a suspicious fellow - all these animals dropping around us would have to have been some kind of sign. 

When the pigs disappeared, I sent out word to our local town chicken-raisers email group.  (What, you don't have one of those?)  And I called our town police department to let them know. Just in case anyone called in a sighting of little curled tails fleeing down the trail. 

"Sure, Mr. Grady. You bet we'll keep an eye out. But you know, there are a lot of coyotes in Carlisle..." 

There was no word, and no sighting over the weeks that passed. And while I occasionally looked into the woods along the side of the road as I drove by, hoping to see some little spotted piglets, I was pretty sure that the they had already made some pack of predators a perfect late spring meal. 

Little did I know. 

...

This year's bacon seedlings

Even though last year's pigs were such good fun to raise, I wasn't sure if I was going to take it on again this year.  

All animals are a responsibility. We already have 20-something chickens (only one hen died over the winter - a practical miracle in our flock. But I do tend to lose count. 23? 24?)  Plus the dog. And the two kids, of course, who are increasingly needy. (They want to be fed every single day. Sheesh).  There's plenty going on around here. 

But I found after a while that I missed my morning summer routine. Unlike the chickens (or the kids), the pigs were always grateful when I went out before work to say hello, and make sure they had an extra scoop of peanuts. And then there's all that beautiful pork in my freezer. 

So I decided to get a couple more this year. 

Transient

This is the momma pig and a few from her litter, out at the farm in central Mass. where I got my piglets last year. The farmer is a really good guy, and was glad to reserve a few beautiful little piglets from February litter for us. The Gloucester Old Spot is a heritage breed - gentle & easy going. It makes a great ham, and puts on a good layer of fat. It's more or less a well-rounded pig for a smallholder farm.  Considering I have exactly one season's experience with this, it's the perfect pig for us. 

I picked up three this year. Two we'll raise at our house again, using the same diet we did last year - a mix of hog/sow feeder grain (you can buy it in bulk from your local Agway or Tractor Supply Co.) and peanuts in the shell.  The theory being that peanuts are a pretty good protein & fat stand-in for the rich acorn diet that creates those beautiful Iberico hams from the oaky grassland of northern spain. 

Transient

The third one will go just down the road to be raised with a few other pigs at the fantastic, Sweet Autumn Farm. We're good friends with the farmers, Leslie & Katherine, who raise all their animals & veg certified organic - the pigs on mostly grain, vegetable scraps and whey. But no peanuts.  Last year, they raised another group of pigs - a red Duroc cross. Durocs are a long, low pig. Long pigs make for long bellies. Long bellies make for extra bacon. But they're not quite as sweet as our Gloucesters, and we're in it for those fantastic prosciutto hams, and thick layer of fat. 

This year, if we coordinate everything correctly, we'll take all our pigs to slaughter together, and we'll be able to do a slightly more scientific  comparison of our peanut-raised pigs with a non-peanut fed, and see if it really made a difference. I was so happy with the way they turned out last year, that I've already determined I'll be raising them more or less the same. But it'll be nice to have a control to compare it to. 

Transient

Our three this year are a male and two girls. Last year's pigs - Chorizo (male) and Honeydew (female) were named by my daughter and I. So this year it was the Boy's turn to name one, and the other keeper would be named by my Bride. 

The boy is the one in the middle above, with the most spots. The Boy picked 'Rocky'. Which, in addition to being a perfect name for a pig, proves that we're giving our 6 year old the right kind of movie education. 

We haven't decided which of the girls we're keeping. One of them is definitely the calmer of the two, and the Critter says that one of them likes her already. But I can't really tell which is which yet. Whichever we keep, its name will be 'Tocino' (which is a kind of sweet-cured Filipino bacon

I just call the third one 'the Spare'. 

We got them settled into their little pen above last night. They were exhausted from the drive down, and exploring their new home. I created a smaller enclosure within the larger pig pen, which is electrified fencing. These little guys are at least a week or two younger than the ones we got last year, so they're really small. The Critter and I sat with them for a half hour or so, just to make sure they were settled in, and then we went in to eat a joint of neck from last year's pigs that I had smoked for ten hours. to form a beautiful bark.  I think this one was Honeydew. She was delicious.

Transient

Maybe I was a little too gleeful with my pulled pork sandwich the night before. When I went out to check the little guys in the morning at 6:15, they were gone. 

Holy shit.

Gone. 

I walked around the woods for twenty minutes, with slim hope to find the tiny little boogers. They're small. The leaf litter and fallen trees gave plenty of room for them to hide. And I wasn't really certain how long they had been gone - but there was no sign of them. And they wouldn't make much of a meal for a coyote or two. All I could think was that 1) I was an idiot to think the fencing that I had was sufficient. The little piglets are just so small at this stage that they can slip out of it. 2) it wasn't even the money I was kicking myself for - it was the lost morning ritual for this summer. There wouldn't be a day that I got up that I didn't look out at the barn and miss the few minutes of quiet friendship and care that I shared with the pigs each day. 

I had more or less given up, and was walking back up to the house. And there they were. 

Transient

They had had a good root through the leaves - I found their trace afterwards. They had clearly been out for a few hours this morning. They were a few hundred feet from their pen, but only about 100 feet from the stone wall at the edge of our lawn.  They had made themselves a little nest in a hollow in the leaf litter and stretched out in a pile to catch up on some sleep. 

Honestly, if I hadn't just happened to walk that direction, I would have completely missed them. 

I grabbed my phone out of my pocket and called the house. "Send the girl out!" 

Between us (and my Bride joined a few minutes later in her pajamas), we managed to get them corralled into their temporary pen, looking a trifle guilty, but not really any worse for their little adventure. 

Transient

My farming learning curve is pretty steep. But I do learn. I will be creating a more piglet-proof pen this evening.  

And more memories, no doubt, for the kids  - who will be able to tell their own children someday: "Oh yeah? You think you have it tough with your Google-bike and your robot toothbrush?  Your grandfather used to make me go wrangle the pigs back into their pen before school in the morning." 

Sheesh.

Mondays. 

My cold frame & I shake our metaphorical fist at The Winter That Will Not End

It's the middle of March, and here in Massachusetts, we've seen a few handful of welcome but rare days peak out at 50 degrees.  Mostly. we're still struggling to stay consistently above freezing.

It means there's still plenty of that gross, brownish-grey piles of snow piled everywhere, a generous blanket of snow & ice covering most of the lawn, and my maple taps are performing rather poorly (they need warm days and cold nights). And my garden beds are sitting there, blanketed in white and pretty forlorn, despite the first shipments of seeds showing up from my mail order catalogs.  I'll detail my garden plans in another post, when I don't feel like Spring is quite so far away. 

However, after walking back and forth to check in on the chickens a few times, I took a peek into the cold frame that I built last year

Transient

I built it out of reclaimed wooden-framed windows, on the end of one of the raised beds to allow the soil to warm up quicker. And to hopefully give me a place to start a few early crops. It had been covered by snow for weeks and months, but the few recent sunny days had left it clear. 

And unlike the rest of my garden or beds, I could see the soil underneath it, teasing me with what Spring might look like. 

I lifted open the top windows (they're all hinged at the top) to take my first peek inside. 

Transient

The soil is cold and damp. But holy shit!  Look you guys. That's some green stuff growing in there.

OK. So they're weeds. And they look pretty spindly & pathetic. But clearly there is hope for warmer days ahead, despite the weatherman doing his best to convince me that a new glacier is has probably formed just outside of Boston.  

That's good enough for me.  I ran back inside and ripped open one of the boxes from Territorial Seed that had been sitting tucked forlorn next to my desk for several weeks. I rooted around the rustling, promising packs filled with so much hope & seeds of vegetables I shall one day harvest in a distant, summery dream. I found a pack of arugula seeds, and a pack of early spinach seeds. Both amongst the earliest crops I always hope to gather from a spring garden.

I scooted back out across the ice, and raised the windows of the cold frame again. With a trowel that hasn't been touched in months, I cleared the remnants of last winter's greens, dug four neat little furrows on each side, and dropped the seeds into the soil, before scooping the loose soil back down lightly, and closed the windows again to keep the cold frame snug. 

There's no doubt that I should really wait at least another week (or probably two) before I bother planting even this - putting my hands down into the soil left my fingertips more than moderately chilled.  But the two packs of seeds cost me about three bucks, so worst case, I'm not out a lot of money, and I might get a few extra salads a little earlier than I would have otherwise for my gamble. And the little glimmer of hope I got out of seeing a few green weedy shoots promising how vibrant my garden might be?  

That's without price.