Stocking Up

I find it very interesting meeting and talking to pig farmers.  They all seem to have their own ideas on how a pig should be kept, and I guess the inherent resilience of a pig, in some pretty tough conditions makes it easier for them to justify it.  I even managed to visit a very old pig shed, which is no longer in use, that reminded me of the movie Snatch, and another farmer whose pigs were just about angry enough to have a place in Brick Top’s pig farm.  He generously offered to sell me his most viscous sow, I very politely declined.  In fact as I was leaving, I had to ask myself why I had even bought any weaners off of him, some deals you just don’t back out of.

This all came about, as I was contemplating the future, and income.  The fact is that pigs are supposed to provide me with income, and in a rush of blood to the brain I decided I needed more pigs.  Which of course I do, and after a quick scan on trade-me I found a local pig farmer.  Local is really a relative term, in this case local means anywhere north of Auckland.  So I found this guy who lives just over an hour away, and told him I would take 5 of his weaners which were out of a Large White sow, and a Duroc boar.  I had heard good things about the large whites, but remained sceptical because they are a commercial breed, and have been bred to perform on a diet of commercial pig feed, which is not what my pigs are getting.

I turn up, and the farmer has the weaners separated, and there is this huge brown and black spotted sow chewing at the gate trying to get through.  I asked “is this the mother?”
“Yeh, that’s her, she’s a bit grumpy” he said.
“I thought she was a Large White” I queried.
“Well obviously she’s not a purebred” the farmer replied.  Indeed, she is not a purebred.  I was then regaled with the tale of how he attempted to clean out her stall, while she was in the pen,  it ended with her biting his leg, and him fending her off with a shovel.  Ever since then, he hasn’t been able to trust her, and is trying to sell her.  I think his sales pitch needs some work.

The reason I originally chose to breed Large Black pigs, was because most resources recommend them as doing well on low quality feed, as well as a very quite temperament.  In the field so far, I think this is the right decision, while it’s hard to draw any conclusions about the performance of my 5 mongrel pigs of non purebred lineage, they are underperforming the Large Blacks and I regret buying them.  However 5 weaners is not make or break investment, and the learning experience is a bonus.  Not all the Large Black’s are performing equally, and in a month or so I will decide which I will keep for breeding, meanwhile I also need to source another breeder so I can mix bloodlines.

I am hoping to make an income without spending it all on imported feed, which is actually the new trend, when it comes to farming.  I was inundated with pig food in the beginning.  The neighbouring dairy farmers came over to introduce themselves, and offer me their waste milk.  Everyone in the area seemed to know we were going to be keeping pigs, from the moment we arrived.  It’s actually a great community, and everyone is very friendly.  So to begin with we had more milk then the pigs could drink, then I found someone selling reject kiwifruit for 10c/kg so I picked up 350kgs, in addition to this I have a system with Wardys Fruit Emporium, who swaps me clean empty buckets, for buckets filled with all the trimmings from his veges.  The feast came to an end when the dairy farmers stopped milking for the winter, and the possums ate all the kiwifruit.  Wardy still gives me a couple of buckets every few days.

Generally speaking the pigs are doing fine on pasture.  I did notice growth slowed right down, once we stopped getting milk, but that was expected.  Most of the Large Blacks are doing well, with full bellies and a layer of fat, though a couple are not doing so well, and the mongrels have me a bit concerned, with the exception of one mongrel who looks like a kunekune.  I’ll give them all some parasite control soon.  I couldn’t believe it, the only parasite control I can get, has to be a bloody injection.  Not a simple intra muscular injection either, but subcutaneous.  You have to pinch the skin, get the needle into that fold of skin, and inject there.  Pigs hate that kind of shit.  I think I need some ear muffs.  There are some organic ways of doing it, but because the pigs have come from an ideal breeding ground for parasites I’ll hit them all with some Ivermectin first.  I have also given them a multimineral salt lick, and it looks like something is gnawing at it, whether its my pigs or not remains to be discovered.  Time will tell, but for now things seem to be going according to plan.

Another source of income we are looking at, is beef, and for reasons that are becoming less clear we have decided to go with Wagyu beef.  For those who don’t know, Wagyu is a Japanese breed of cow, originally bred as a cart animal, with a very quite temperament.  Today though they are bred for their super marbled beef, if you were to go to a very high end resort where you could spend $100 on a steak, you would expect to find Wagyu or Kobe beef on the menu.  I’ve never tasted it, but when we do finally butcher one, I’ll be sure to let you know.  Originally I looked at Wagyu because the price of an animal is about quadruple the price of an Angus.  For me, if I only have enough land to sell 10 cows per year, then I’d rather sell those that are worth the most per head.

I found the history fascinating and was lucky enough to spend some time with some breeders on Salvation Rd, who run a business called Heaven and Earth.  The one offputting factor with Wagyu is the time involved, in NZ you can expect to take between 18-24 months getting a steer to market, with the Wagyu however you can double that timeframe.  You can send them earlier, but the real value comes from the marbling of the meat, which gets literally off the charts (the old scores used to stop at 5, Wagyu goes 6,7 +)  To get the high marbling requires an older animal, this is the same for most meats.  They had recently killed a 5 year old bull, and you wouldn’t expect that to be anything special, but apparently the knife would just slide through it.

The fact that these cows take twice as long to get to market, changes the financial equation, it’s still slightly better then an average beefie, but a lot worse then it looked at first glance.  I’m only going to get 4 in-calf cows, not exactly betting the farm, and at worst in 4 years I’ll still be able to have my own opinion on the taste of Wagyu beef.

Things are going well on the farm, we have cleaned the house, cleaned and stained the deck, put in new fencing, added more gravel to the driveway, made a start on a vege garden, and done some work on the kitchens.  Still heaps to do though, more fences to go in, I have about 100 fruit trees coming in a couple of weeks (what was I thinking in February when I ordered them?) so I have a lot of holes to dig.  In a couple of months I hope things will settle down a bit, but as Schopenhauer advised “keep busy.”


Gypsy Day

Farming contracts in New Zealand traditionally finish on 31 May, and start 1 June, this is especially true with dairy farming.  Given that most farms have ‘free’ accommodation on farm, the logistics of finishing work one day, packing up, leaving and turning up keen and ready for your first day at a new job the next morning can be challenging, to say the least.  In the farming industry we call this Gypsy Day.

We had the advantage of not having any job to turn up to, but we still managed to have a chaotic time.  Our reason for leaving was that the owner of the farm we were on, had sold.  Everything had been planned, booked, and about as organised as you could reasonably expect, right up until 27 May, when the buyer very kindly informed us that settlement date was 29 May.  This was due to the fact that lawyers wont work weekends or public holidays, so even though we were contractually employed until 31 May we had no legal right to be on the farm after 29 May.  All our big plans of an organised withdrawal was about to become a total rout.  So much cleaning and packing, so little time.  We got there in the end, though it was dark on Friday before we finally pulled out, exhausted but pleased with the fact that everything was left spotless for the buyer.

We spent the night at my mothers, for a last goodbye, then a stop over in Havelock for the same with friends.  We were so wired by the time we actually left that I think everyone was awake by 4am just itching to hit the road.  Sadly the ferry wasn’t leaving until 10.45am so we had long wait.  Getting off the ferry was a great feeling, finally the waiting was over and we were on our way.  Maki took Noah and Heidi on a direct route while Luca and I, with two cats and 6 chickens made a detour to pick up 10 piglets.  After loading up on who knows how many energy drinks, by midnight I had no intention of stopping, while Maki sensibly spent the better part of the night in a hotel.  Luca and I arrived at about 5am having driven over 1,000km’s towing a well loaded trailer.

A couple of hours much needed sleep, then it’s time to put up the fencing and unload the pigs.  They look really calm in a stupid kind of way while they are sleeping, but the moment I picked up the first one, it let out an ear-splitting scream that I think you have to experience to understand.  Thankfully by this stage Maki had arrived and we could have a laugh about it together.  So I’m feeling pretty buggered by this stage but I still have nine of these piglets to offload by hand.  Optimistically I took the biggest one next, who had luxury of sleeping through the night as opposed to driving.  More screaming, then a thrashing heave, and the pig was gone, ran off a few meters and then kind of stood there looking about as stunned as me.  Meanwhile the first pig, which should have been happily chowing down on some food I had kindly left him, decided this was chance, bolted through the fence and joined his mate in relative freedom.  I don’t know if you have tried to herd pigs before, I haven’t, and so this is training day.  You can’t herd them, they don’t even seem to notice you unless you are about 2 meters away, then they just run in a random direction until they feel safe at which point they wait until you get close for a rinse and repeat.  Well I had Maki and the kids all helping, and even though I was feeling shattered I couldn’t just give up.  Eventually I snuck close enough to dive tackle one, screams and all.  Maki managed to get a hand on another and together we brought it down.  We ended up putting then in an old pigsty where I let them learn about electric fences.  Today they are out in a paddock behind a single wire happy and content.

Finally it was time to offload the chickens, by which point I was happy to just release them and let them find their own way around, which they did.  In a surprisingly short time they had dropped a number of sticky ‘gifts’ on the porch.  When I unloaded their pen I was happy to see that we could have scrambled eggs, sadly they were raw.  This may have had something to do with the fact that unloading the pen consisted of heaving it of the back of the ute.

We made it, covered a fair fraction of State Highway 1, but arrived on June 1 keen and ready for work.

Making God Laugh

“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans”

Russian Proverb

I have just returned from an exciting but exhausting trip ‘up north’.  A lot of driving, getting things organised, meeting the neighbours and finding my way around the farm.  February is an ideal time to see the place at the end of summer, there has been average rainfall this year and the place is dry, but not unduly so, fruit is ripening on the trees and things are looking full of potential.

It was a good opportunity to get a better grasp of the scale of the work that is ahead of us.  Getting everything tidy is looking quite daunting, but by prioritising and breaking everything down into small tasks we’ll get things looking good in no time at all.

First order of business is the water, most of the area relies on rainwater tanks for drinking, and dams for stockwater.  There are very few permanent streams or rivers in the Hokianga due to the nature of the topography.  When you install rainwater tanks, make sure you have a leaf diverter as well.  This allows the first flow of water from the roof to be diverted away from tank, otherwise leaves and dust from the roof get into your drinking water.  Its a bit of bugger that no one thought to install one on our farm, and getting that sorted will be the main priority.  The stock water is also an issue, poorly constructed dams which have either silted up, or blown out the spillway.  When constructing a dam you should avoid having the overflow water running near the embankment.  It’s best to add in a ditch on contour leading the overflow water away from the dam structure and then constructing a perfectly level spillway of compacted earth.  This is critical to maintaining the integrity of a dam.  I can’t wait to get up there get it sorted.  Unless your a chemist water is pretty boring, but you can’t get by without it, and having good systems in place is pretty important.

I am more excited about getting some pigs and not just because I love bacon!  We are going to need some income, and I am counting on pigs to get the money flowing in.  I’m no expert here, but I want to try something that was common practice a hundred or so years ago and in NZ at least is making something of a comeback.  Free range pigs.  Sure people have been keeping one or two pigs in a stall around the barnyard for many years but most of the pork eaten was of the truly free range variety.  The pigs would be fed just enough corn, milk or other scraps to keep them tame and manageable but the bulk of their diet came from foraging.  It’s rare to see much rooting from wild pigs during the summer while the ground is hard, they still come out into the paddocks making up the majority of their diet by grazing pasture.  Combine these with a bit of electric fencing, strategic introduction of crops and pasture, sounds good to me.  NZ still imports a  lot of pork, at the same time there is pressure on producers to treat pigs more humanely, so free range pigs from the past are looking as though they should make a strong return.

I also have similar plans for chickens, we can sell eggs without hassles from anyone, if we have less then a hundred hens, and they also are surprisingly good at feeding themselves, if they have enough space.  The key is to be able to shift them around, while giving them a comfortable place to lay.  The idea I like best is a mobile chicken wagon, which you shift at least 100m while the chickens are asleep.  This stops the chickens getting so comfortable with their surroundings that they look for a better place to nest, I have been told that shifting the wagon during the day doesn’t work because if you shift it more then a few meters the chickens wont find it.

Of course we want some beef as well, and I have heard good things about Wagyu beef, I was looking for low input, high output systems and the wagyu sounded good, we will be investing in breeding stock.  Per head the returns are about as good as it gets, and at this stage space is going to be a limiting factor so Wagyu just makes sense.

There is a random scattering of fruit trees on farm, and I am excited about adding to it.  Already we have grapefruit, lemons, peaches, apples, plums(?), pears, grapes, almonds and olives which is very cool.  I also noticed a straggly banana circle planted in shady hollow which desperately needs to go somewhere warmer.  I think its a bit sad that people can spend so much on landscaping and not even add any fruit or berries (so a big thanks to whoever planted all those trees), my pet peve is cherry blossom trees, why not just plant cherry trees?  My goal is to grow enough of our own fruit that we can stop buying it, the kids eat so much which is great but can be expensive.

I also need to get a veggie garden set up, and come up with a new strategy for combating my nemesis the Stink Bug.  There are over 80 species of stink bug, but they have two things in common; they are invasive and stinky.  They eat anything and multiply overnight.  They have destroyed my tomatoes for the last three years, not many people have much trouble with them, so hopefully a change of location is all I need.

I imagine it will be a lot of work getting everything established, but once things are up and running it shouldn’t be too hard.  Lots of time for planning, we don’t shift until June, I can hardly wait.

Briefly about Hokianga

From Wikipedia:- The original name still used by local Maori is Te Kohanga o Te Tai Tokerau (“the nest of the northern people”) or Te Puna o Te Ao Marama (“the wellspring of moonlight”). The full name of the Harbour is Te Hokianga-nui-a-Kupe – “the place of Kupe’s great return”.

You can read the whole lot there, but I found the Maori history interesting.  Kupe was according to Maori lore the first Maori explorer to discover New Zealand, and he settled in Hokianga before leaving on his return journey to Hawaiki swearing this would be the place of his return and he left several artifacts including the bailer for his canoe (hopefully he had a spare).  Later Kupe’s grandson Nukutawhiti returned to settle Hokianga.

Hokianga today still has one of the highest proportions of Maori population in New Zealand.  It has a sub-tropical climate, which made it ideal for the crops the early Maori settlers brought over with them.  Northland itself had by far, the highest population density of Maori for this very reason.

European settlers noted the vast ancient forests of the Hokianga area, and this combined with the natural harbour led to the rapid deforestation of the hills, followed in short order by massive erosion, dumping huge amounts of sediment into the harbour.  What topsoil remained was converted to pasture and a booming dairy industry developed there (followed by a bust).

Today the main industries are forestry, agriculture and tourism.

One other interesting aspect of Hokianga history still shaping the area today was the Hokianga fire of November 1987.  Prior to the centralization of local government enabled by information technology, local government was actually local for many towns in New Zealand, and legal documents were stored locally on paper.   When the fire raged through the small township of Rawene, the Hokianga District Council building was burnt to the ground, along with all the paper records.  Things like building permits and land use permits were gone.  Not ones to miss an opportunity the locals seized the day and buildings were going up everywhere.  Clearly they had a defensible argument, “this house has always been here, the records were lost in the fire.”  No doubt some of the houses built, were in full accordance with the building code, unfortunately many were not.  Whatever benefits were gained from the cheap housing, have now become eclipsed by a seriously depressed property market.  Banks can no longer lend against these buildings, and not many people have the money or motivation to do the required remediation work.  The fire has reached legendary status amongst the real estate industry, the answer to any question about the soundness or legality of a building invariably starts with “there was this fire in Hokianga……”

Moving On

After ten years dairy farming, it’s time for us to move on.  The farm we have been sharemilking on for the past five years has been sold, our contract expires and the farm changes hands on the same day, 1 June.  We have had a good run, the owners have been happy with what we have achieved in terms of milk production and we ourselves have come close to our own goals in terms of how much money we wanted to save.

Our main goal has always been to own our own farm.  Nothing too extravagant, enough for a few animals, an orchard and room for the kids to roam around.  Finding something we like, on our budget was never going to be easy, some compromises on quality and location have had to be made.

After a month of negotiations we have finally settled on 38 hectares in the Hokianga area.  It has a house on it with four bedrooms, 1 bathroom and 2 kitchens (don’t ask, I don’t know).  Nine hectares are in QEII covenant native bush, there are kiwi in the area, and the intention behind the covenant is as a home for kiwi.  The covenant means it must remain fenced off from stock, and pretty much left alone forever.  The house is in need of some repairs, not because it is that old, but because it has been poorly built and poorly maintained according to the builders report, this and the poor presentation of the property in all respects helped us get it for a good price.  We are happy with the place, though it needs a lot of work to get it looking good.

We are planning to raise a few beef animals, some pigs and some chickens.  Hopefully we can do well enough to earn our income from the farm, as well as growing a lot of our food to keep our expenses down.

Dairy farming has been good for us, and it is a good career to be in, but it is difficult, demanding and dirty work.  The early mornings, long days are enough to put a lot of people off, though I am most looking forward to not thinking about the cows all day every day, have they got enough to eat, what paddock are they going to next, is it going to rain, is it going to flood etc.  It will be nice to do something more rewarding.

The next time I go up there I will take some more photos to share.