I had a new litter of pigs born last week. It’s always
exciting to have some new little ones running around the farm. The last couple
of weeks prior to delivery were nerve wracking. I calculated the due date
wrong, so I spent about ten days expecting the litter at any moment. That’s
what I get for using my memory and my fingers to calculate the due date instead
of actually looking at the calendar. I even wound up being surprised when the
litter did come because I looked at the calendar, then did the math wrong.
Sometimes you can’t win for losing.
New litters are always a little sad for me. I don’t use
farrowing crates for my sows. The good part of that is that the sow is free to
get up, move around, and otherwise live her life in the way a pig should. The
bad part is that I always lose a couple of pigs that could be saved by the
crate. It is frustrating, but it’s the choice I have made.
At any rate, the litter is fine now. The sow (a first-time
mother) has figured out how to be careful laying down, and the piglets have
figured out how to stay clear. They are full of vigor now; they dash from place
to place instead of just walking. Baby Tamworth pigs tend to be very reactive,
so there is always a sprint to safety whenever I approach the piglets. This
bunch is inquisitive, too. Once they figure out that I’m not going to bother
them, the little pigs will come up and check out my boots if I stand still.
It is enjoyable to watch the sow and piglets move around the
pasture. They make a little parade, with mama up front and the little ones
trailing along after her. The sow is much tamer than the babies. Since I bring
feed to her every day, she is always ready to come up and greet me. The sow
approaches and the babies follow (at least, to a point).
The sex ratio on this litter is weird. I have four boars
(boys) and only two gilts. I’m not sure how that worked out. It does make it a
lot easier to decide which gilts to keep, though. I only have to pick one of
two instead of one from five or six. I don’t have to pick any of the boars.
They will all be sold, either as boars or as pork.
August in Texas…what a month. Spring was rainy, and the
early summer was cool by Texas standards. Now it’s August. It is hitting 100
most every afternoon. The awful heat affects everything on the farm, whether
animal, plant, or farmer. Right now, I structure my days to avoid the heat and
hang on until cooler weather comes.
The late winter and spring were much wetter than usual. I
made a beautiful crop of annual forages, mostly sudangrass and pearl millet. We
watched a King Kong movie and joked about how the sudangrass field might be
hiding a giant monster ape. The cows got twice the grazing time out of the
annuals as I expected. I entered August with the Bermuda grass knee-deep in
places. I will be able to keep the cows on the Bermuda until at least the
beginning of September. By that time, I hope the sudangrass will have regrown.
It is not growing back at the same rate it grew at first, but it is growing. I
could use some rain to perk it up.
Garden plants have the same pattern as the forages. Things
grew like crazy early, the corn got eight or nine feet tall, and the pumpkins
ran vines all over the place. Some of the pumpkin vines had leaves that poked
up waist-high, which is impressive for a vine growing along the ground.
Everything was thick and lush and green. Then came August. The corn is turning
brown, and the pumpkin vines are dying back. The sweet potatoes wilt every
The only plant that is doing well in the heat is the okra.
The problem with that is….okra. I like okra best when it’s fried so long that
it no longer tastes like okra. Extra crispy fried okra is good, but I can’t eat
fried food at every meal. Why did I plant the stuff? My wife and two of my sons
like pickled okra. The bad news is that they like store-bought pickled okra. My
home-made pickles aren’t cutting it for them. But, hey, at least something is
growing in the heat.
My pasture grass is not growing in the heat. The Bermuda is
still green in the places where it got so tall. I can see that the part closest
to the ground is no longer green. That means the roots are going dormant. Once
the cows have harvested the tops, the Bermuda won’t grow any more this year. I
also have a lot of acres still ungrazed covered with old-world bluestem (OWB).
The OWB has faded fast in the last few weeks. OWB hates hot, dry weather. It
will green up if we get some rain, though. The bluestem is what I will use as
forage later in the fall when the Bermuda and the annuals are all eaten up. The
forage quality is low, but it will fill bellies.
The animals are faring a little better. The cows lay up in
the shade during the hottest parts of the day. If I go out in the afternoon, I
can always find them under the trees in their pasture. In some fields, they
have another option as well: going amphibious. Here is a photo of one of the
cows cooling off. My stock ponds are not sparkling clear swimming pools, but
they do the trick for a hot cow.
The pigs are following the same pattern as the cows. They
have a shady barn to rest in during the day. I make sure to wet down the barn
floor every couple of days so they can get a little more cooling as well. The
soil on my place is not much better than sand, so it is hard to make a good hog
wallow. It won’t hold water for any length of time in this heat. Wetting it
down gives the pigs some relief, and they will be able to make it through. At
least I don’t have to worry about how to keep my upcoming litter of piglets
warm. August will take care of that for me.
Schedules also change during this heat. The cows graze
morning and evening. The pigs only come out at night right now. I am working
the same hours. My garden is in two sections. One section has morning shade,
and the other has evening shade. I can usually work in the shady patch, and I
try my best to avoid working in the extreme heat of the afternoons. I also
watch myself for signs of heat stress. The first one for me is always a feeling
of exertion. When doing an easy job like walking fence starts to make me get
out of breath, I know it’s time to go inside. A refreshing drink and some air
conditioning are the best things to recover and cool off. That’s the pattern
for August. The only real break that we might get this month is a hurricane. I
know those awful storms are hard on folks who live on the coast, and I don’t
wish them ill. For me, hurricanes bring rain, clouds, and a break from the
My favorite activity in the August heat is dreaming about
the fall. I will start overseeding pastures with cool-season crops sometime in
September. I need to get my seeds ordered and ready to go. I will try to time
the planting to coincide with significant rain. In good years, the rain brings
the cool-season plants up and going in mid-September, then extra rain to
carries the farm through to the spring. Some years we don’t get it, and the
seeds wait. The worst year there we got just enough rain in September to bring
up the plants. The rain stopped and the mercury hit 100 for about a week in
October. The little plants burned up, and I wound up spending money on hay for
the winter anyway.
A poet said that April is the cruelest month, but that’s not
true in Texas. April brings bluebonnets and rain and San Jacinto Day. August is
the cruelest month in Texas with monotonous heat and no rainfall.
Of course, the whole point of having pigs is pork. You can do more delicious things with a pig than just about any other animal. I’ve been following the recipes in “Dry-Curing Pork” by Hector Kent. It’s a nice introduction to making traditional hams and sausages. The first few recipes build on each other, getting slightly more ambitious as you work through the book. Jambons de Camont is a French method for curing a whole ham, but it breaks the ham down into smaller pieces for a quicker and easier cure.
This one starts with a whole, fresh ham. Here is the ham with skin still on it.
The recipe starts with skinning the ham. This is the ham skinned about halfway. I froze the skin so I can make cracklings some other time.
Whole hams take a long time to cure and dry. Jambons de camont uses a shortcut….the leg is broken down into smaller muscles that will cure faster. Looking at the ham from the top, you can see the seams that mark the individual muscles. A boning knife is used to slip between the seams and cut the pieces free. The first cut is below, with part of the muscle pulled up.
Here is the entire ham broken down. These pieces weigh between two and four pounds. That’s a lot easier to work with than a thirty pound chunk of hog. You can just barely see the white salt crystals sprinkled over them. The salt is 3% of the weight of each piece. There is also a little bit (0.25%) of insta-cure #1 in the mix. These went into the fridge for a few days to absorb the salt and cure.
Once the meat had cured, it went into elastic net bags for cold smoking. The net bags are long enough to hold several pieces with knots in between. I have a vertical offset smoker that makes a good cold smoker as well. The pan in the lower left corner is full of oak sawdust. It sits on a hot plate and smolders, but the plate doesn’t get the box too hot. Cold smoking requires the cooker to stay below 90 degrees. That’s not hard to do on cool days. I don’t think I can manage this in the summer….the black smoker probably gets up around 150 on the inside just from sitting in the Texas sun. I kept the jambons in the smoker to dry as well, sitting over a pan of water for humidity. It’s cool enough that they have dried at a slow, even rate. (Drying with too much heat or too little humidity leads to uneven drying….crusty outside and wet, gummy inside.)
A 30% reduction in weight is the target. The smaller muscles hit the target first, in about two weeks. Here they are, ready to slice. Six weeks in, the biggest piece is still not quite dried down.
Here is the finished product. These are salty, chewy, and slightly smoky. Not bad for a first effort, and a recipe I’ll certainly try again.
I was expecting a litter of pigs a couple of weeks ago, but nope. One of the tough parts of farming is that sometimes you don’t know if an effort has failed for weeks or months (in this case, three months, three weeks, and three days). I’m evaluating when I want to have another litter. I have interest from a 4-H member in buying some pigs for stock shows in the spring of 2020. To make that work, there is a fairly small window for the pigs to be born. Had I gotten a litter in October, I would be right on track for the show pigs. As it is, I either need to hold off on breeding for a few months or give up on the show pigs. I’m also looking for some feeder pigs…that would make up for this missed litter, and keep me from needing to rush into a new litter.
One of the perils of free-ranging hogs in Texas is unwanted porcine visitors. In a state with somewhere between one and four million wild hogs, it’s inevitable that they’ll want to provide company to my bunch sooner or later.
We’ve had a sounder running around the neighborhood since the spring. The first time I saw them, half hidden in tall grass, I thought it was a bunch of puppies. They were only about eight inches tall, all black, with long tails wagging. At first, I couldn’t figure out why someone had dumped a bunch of lab puppies in my yard. Then I wondered why the puppies all seemed to have their noses buried in the dirt. Then I realized I was looking at about a dozen little feral pigs.
They showed up here and there through the summer. Each time I saw them, the pigs were bigger, but fewer. We went into the fall with just four, but they were pretty big, as wild pigs go. They mostly stayed along a creek across the street road from my pigs, and they weren’t much more than a curiosity to me. (Except for what they did to my sweet corn, but that’s a different issue)
Then it happened.
I went out to check my pigs, made a quick count, and realized I had an unwanted guest. There was a feral boar that was visiting my young gilts. He was quite enamored with my girls, and paid me no attention. I made short work of him. Sadly, he was inedible….mature boars are so loaded with hormones that their meat is awful. His BO was overpowering even from eight or ten feet away. Problem solved.
Or not….there were three feral pigs hanging out the next day, including another boar. A neighbor took the two sows the next week, leaving just the single boar. I kept trying to get rid of him for the next few days, and he kept one step ahead of me. I finally caught up to him, though, and I’m back down to just my domestic pigs. I suspect that I’ll have one more reminder of the wild pigs in February, though……
My pigs are purebred Tamworths. Tams are a rare breed, listed as “watch” by The Livestock Conservancy. Watch status is given to somewhat rare breeds that have between 1,000 and 2,500 individuals registered annually, and a total population of less than 10,000 worldwide. Tams are holding on, but they aren’t really a part of the modern pork industry.
The breed originated in Ireland as a land-race, or a native breed that just sort of evolved to fit the local conditions. In 1812, the local Irish pigs impressed Sir Robert Peel (future Prime Minister of Great Britain), who had them imported to his estate in England. He called them “Irish Graziers” and was struck by their ability to grow on pasture rather than richer feed. He imported some of the Irish pigs to his estate near Tamworth, England, and crossed them with the local pigs. The resulting pigs were long, lean, and did very well rustling their own grub.
Up until about 1950, pig breeds were classified as “bacon hogs” or “lard hogs.” Most remaining breeds in America started as lard hogs….pigs bred to get very big and very fat in a very big hurry. When lard was both a key cooking ingredient and a vital industrial lubricant, fat pigs were very desirable. Lard hogs were created to turn corn into grease as quickly as possible. Bacon pigs were bred differently, mainly to make bacon (duh) as cheaply as possible. Bacon breeds tend to be long, slower growing, and produce lots of babies.
The only remaining bacon breeds in America are the Yorkshire, which has been bred to emphasize babies over bacon, and the Tamworth. I love Tams because they excel at getting out into a pasture and rustle their own grub. Compared to other breeds I have had, Tamworths will eat about 50% less purchased feed and make up the difference by finding good stuff in the pasture. They remain pretty true to type, and haven’t changed a great deal in the last century.
The fact that Tamworths haven’t changed a lot from the range pigs of the 19th century also means that they are still bacon pigs…long, slow growing, and producers of the finest bacon I have ever had.
And isn’t great bacon one of the most important reasons to pick a pig breed?
It’s a slow time on the farm right now. I’m waiting for things to happen, and all I can really do is wait.
I’m waiting for feeder pigs to finish out for butchering. They have free choice access to whole corn and green pasture so they can eat and grow; I just need to wait a couple of months for the growth to happen.
I’m waiting on a sow to farrow (farmer-speak for “have babies”). No way to hurry that….they’ll come when they are ready, about October 24th. Mama is getting bigger, slowly, as the babies develop. Just gotta wait for that to happen, too.
I’m waiting to sell my cows. They didn’t breed this summer, so it’s time for this bunch to move out and another bunch to move in. They are posted at craigslist right now, and I’m waiting for calls. That one can be sped up a bit….if they don’t sell quickly enough, I can always haul them to the sale barn. I’ve got a couple of buyers who have expressed an interest, though, so I’m going to wait at least another week…..
I’m also waiting to plant fall/winter forage. I plan on planting turnips, clover, triticale, and probably some other stuff….but not yet. It’s still too warm for most of that to come up. Besides that, I’m waiting for rain. I want to have a better idea of whether the fall and winter will be wet before I spend a bunch of money on seeds.
There are probably a couple of things I’m waiting on that I don’t remember right now. That’s life on the farm…always waiting on something to happen.
I have four spring piglets that are now hundred pound hogs. In a couple of months they will be ready for the freezer. Three are spoken for, but the fourth is available….I’ll sell either half or all if anyone is interested.
Hit me up at email@example.com if you are interested.
“Shoot” isn’t exactly what I said, but this is a family blog.
Besides the pigs, I have six heifers that I wanted to get bred this summer. I went through a round of hormone therapy to synchronize the breeding season, I brought in an artificial technician to breed them to a fancy, important, high-powered bull. I ran them through the chute and drew blood to see how well my efforts succeeded.
0-for-6. Zero of my six heifers bred on the first artificial service. Running the numbers, I could have bought a bull for what I spent on AI….and he would have had a higher success rate with almost zero effort on my part.