Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Our first Berkshire litter

Well we are celebrating the arrival of our first Berkshire piglets!


We originally began with a pair of Berkshires from different bloodlines with the intension of them being our breeding pair. This didn’t go to plan. So over 2 years on we finally have our first pure Berkshire litter.

We will be keeping a grower for ourselves; so will keep you up to date with progress.


So why Berkshires?

We have been asked this many times.  We are believers in maintaining heritage breeds, which unfortunately often means rare breeds, where possible and there are many others we have or would consider for their various traits.

We chose the Berkshire as a rare and heritage breed for a few reasons;

Berkshires are one of the oldest recognised breeds of pigs. First acknowledged over 300 years ago in Berkshire (now part of Oxfordshire, due to border movements) in England. Berkshires are black with white ‘points’ (feet, tail) and nose with pink skin.

Whilst they are considered an early maturing breed, they are also ‘slow growing’. Meaning they were not suited to mass production methods. And as a result have been listed as ‘rare’ in many parts of the world in recent years. They are however suited to free range or smallholding methods, partially due to this and their quiet nature and don’t sun burn (as many breeds do) and love to graze on grass.

Culinary wise Berkshires are sort after and considered the ‘wagu of pork’ due to their marbled meat; the breaks down in the cooking process, enhancing the flavour and tenderness. And is apparently the only pork eaten by the Japanese Emperor (or so I have read), where the breed is known as Kurobuta (or Black pig).

We had previously paid to rear a Berkshire from a local free range piggery, so were confident with the product and availability for sourcing livestock.



Raising Poddy Calves

Now we are by no means an authority or experts upon this subject. This is our experience, though input is welcome.  

Ruby 4 days old (on arrival)
I guess the most frequent question we get about our poddies is ‘what are they for?’ or “will you be able to eat them?’ And given we raise our cattle for the freezer these are valid questions. If you are considering poddies, then you have to consider the intension for your animals. As hand raising them you are bound to become attached… I would challenge anyone not to be.

So if you are planning on raising an ‘lawn mower’ or pet then poddies are ideal. The other thing to consider is, it is a commitment. Someone has to feed them at consistent, regular intervals. So think about your plans for the coming months.
Bart 4 days old (on arrival)

Background (for those who didn’t know)

We purchased our two poddies from the local abattoir; we registered our interest with them, leaving our details. And when they had some, they gave us a call- which was only about a week.
Poddies themselves are young orphaned or sometimes just rejected calves that require hand feeding or surrogate/foster mother. (a cow that had an unsuccessful birth). In our case we were the mother.  Poddies (apparently) are often dairy varieties, we ours are considered a meat breed.
Young calves need shelter, warmth (as it was winter ours slept in our shed for the first few weeks) milk & access to clean water.
Ours were raised on milk replacement that we bought from the local produce store. And initially fed using baby bottles with larger wholes cut out of the teats; these did not last long. And quickly required upgrading.

Though I had enquired at the time of purchasing the powder, these were not initially offered. There are an array of products out there. From teats to adapt to pop (soft drink) bottles, to purpose designed milk feeders- hand held to fence mounted.

We tried a few options, though the calves seemed to prefer the teat placed on pop bottles. Which was fine, only as they got older and more impatient they would pull the teats off.

The main flaw with this product, was the assumption that we had a fair supply of pop bottles- as they would deteriorate with use. Not something we generally purchase a great amount of.

These were also of useful as we tried to wean them off milk and onto solid feed. As we could make the opening larger- allowing for ‘cow shakes’ to pass through- though these proved more problematic to clean.

We also attempted to use the teat (alone) in a bucket of ‘cow porridge’ with mixed success.  and also as the teat themselves could be taken off and used to encourage the cows into the buckets. Where the bottle feeders could not do this.

OK so once you have your feeding apparatus and your feed, there’s the issue with actually feeding them.

This was not initially easy. On our first day, we persevered for over an hour, wondering whether the milk was too hot (and eventually too cold). Though the next morning the male was exceptionally keen, assisting with the feeding method. In his eagerness, he instinctively forced his head between my legs (so that I was straddling him), so I placed the teat near my inner knee to which he took it instantly.

Now we had two poddies. Initially feeds were possible on my own, as we crated them over night (as they were sleeping in the shed). So I was grateful that we were both there for the afternoons, as one-to-one was required.

As they got older and more accustomed to the routine I managed both simultaneously on my own… just having to contend with them competition for food… as they grew older (bigger/heavier) I even resorted to wearing steel toe caps; not cause they wanted to hurt me, just they were getting rather heavy to step on my toes as they were feeding!

Now young calves can suffer from a few things. The most discussed is ‘scours’. Gratefully were not afflicted by this problem. Though we were concerned, as most new parents tend to be- so read up on the problem a lot! And even purchased a preventative additive for their feed. This actually appeared to be more of a fibre based product, can’t really say whether it helped or not.  Eventually we worked out that scours actually is almost black in colour and smells fowl, the yellow wet poop we were looking at was just your normal ‘baby poop’ that all species reared on a liquid diet seem to experience. Our elderly neighbours (ex-dairy farmers and current cattle rearers, with extensively more experience than we have) did tell us to mix their milk powder with red squash/cordial. I researched this and there is some scientific evidence to show that red fruit based cordials (minimum 30% fruit juice) have shown to be effective in reducing scours and other stomach/indigestive infections in both animals and humans- though I’m not advising this to be your only cause of treatment… but surely it couldn’t hurt to try (if it was a problem).

The other issue is how much to feed? We followed the instructions on the bag. As we both work fulltime, 3 feeds a day was not a practical option. So we opted for 2, there was an alternative, more concentrated option that required just one. But we both felt this didn’t seem right. So we settled on a morning and evening feed. I cannot stress how important routine is to these little ones, and if your late, they tell you!

So two feeds consisted of an amount per litre and as they aged the amount changed, again read the instructions, as each brand will be different.

The main debate, other than how often to feed, is how much. Now both what I have read, and advise, from the old hands differs. There are those that sweat you should only feed as per the instructions, as the young calves can suffer from bloat and this can kill them. But then there are other who argue that you should continue to feed them, if they want it. As in nature they would have consistent access.

Now both of ours would continue to drink, if we allowed it. But we generally stuck to a set amount… however as time went on, this amount may have varied to that of the instructions. Mostly because the female would finish SO much faster than the male, and then we would have to entertain her or fend her off. So we tried warm water, diluted milk, and as they got older dipping the saliva covered teat in crumble, so they became accustomed to the taste and texture.

It was once they got older we had more of an issue- weaning. As we needed to reduce their levels of feed, to encourage them to eat solids and not rely on their milk… this had mixed success. Some days went well, and we thought we were making good progress… others not so well; resulting in bruises and one, or both of us being covered in ‘calf porridge’ or milk… or worse.

When it came to converting to solids. We had been asked a few times, whether the young calves had access to older cows. And until they were 3 months old, not really- she could see them, but they only caught glimpses of her when we let them out in the house yard, if she was in the adjoining part of the paddock- which generally she wasn’t. Apparently calves will copy the older girls and begin to eat grass etc. To be honest ours were doing this, to some degree and were trying to eat most things… even the side of the house. Our main concern with introducing them to our cow, was the lack of provisions in the paddock. Again lesson learned. As this was something we had yet to construct, or the gates to get them in there. As these were still on the ‘to do list’ (the ever expanding ‘to do list’) and we had not anticipated the quick availability of the calves, or the continued rain (though it was dry season). Let alone the other jobs that just seem to pop up and get in the way- like leaking tanks, as without a water supply we would all be in trouble.

Anyway, their dependence upon milk was a battle of the wills, and my only advice would be perseverance and constancy is key. Those days, when you just didn’t have time to battle with them with the porridge or milk shake, so would be easier and quicker to just allow them to have a bottle. Or the days when you felt terrible because they refused to feed, so had had little or none, so would give in and let them have a small amount, set us back days… even weeks!

 We read that dry foo d should be available from weeks 1-2, so diligently purchased calf crumble… something we tried in vain to encourage them to eat. Even the ‘porridge’ approach was not overly successful.

Though they did have access for fresh hay and now they are happily ‘out’ in the paddock- out when we are there anyway. They are becoming less and less reliant on the milk and we have been able to dramatically reduce their quantities. And any concerns I had with them being ‘bullied’ by our older girl were definitely uncalled for. She has been more than patient with them.

One other ‘issue’ we have had to deal with, from having a young male is castration. A few people have asked if we intended to breed them. And whilst they are both gorgeous animals and am sure any offspring would have been just as wonderful. We realistically do not have enough land to home 2 adults and their young… Let alone a bull. Bulls tend to be more aggressive than steers (castrated males). So given we’re on a small property and regularly interact with them. And would prefer he stay in our paddock (no roaming for females) we made the decision to castrate.

Now once that decision is made then there’s the decision of how best to do it. This in itself is better done early on. I have heard stories of farmers castrating fully grown bulls, but it is accepted that the younger they are the better, for their recovery.( Although there are arguments that the meat production, coverage and lean mass of bulls is better over steers.)There are a few methods, cutting or surgical castration, the ‘ring’/elastrator or alternatively bloodless castrators

So cutting/ surgical castration sounds self-explanatory. We have followed this method for piglets in the past, though we are not keen on ‘nutting’ them either.  There is a risk of infection with an open wound, which given we are in the tropics could be an issue. Furthermore Bart is a lot larger and stronger than a piglet!

The bloodless castrators are a specific type of pliers that crushes the cords and blood vessels. These are supposedly difficult to use and incorrect use could result in having to cut him anyway.

So we decided on the elastrator; this involved using a different specific set of pliers to apply an elastic ring at the top of the scrotum- making sure both testicles are inside. Might sound obvious but this is something I got wrong on the first attempt. Fortunately unlike the bloodless castrator I could have another attempt, by removing the band- which in fairness was quite difficult and then had to massage the balls down, once they were definitely in there I guided them through and then rolled the band off the pliers. Apparently they have a tendency to suck them up into their body- am sure there are many men out there who could sympathize.

This method can be used on other animals such as goats too. Unfortunately due to the biological design on the boars testicles, this is not suitable for pigs.

So far so good as far as the band goes. Apparently it takes up to a month, but the balls should just drop off. We have a tetanus to give him (just in case) and will spray the area with antiseptic spray as often as he will let us. To be honest he’s not really keen on anyone going near that area at the moment (not that we blame him) and I’m not too keen to get kicked either!

So many ask, was it worth it? To be honest we have enjoyed the experience. And both Bart and Ruby are lovely animals with their own personalities. And we both know how they were reared and that we have saved them from a certain death at only a few days. Financially; with the market as it is, it is possible to pick up weaners for less than what we have already spent (feed, equipment, etc.)  So I guess I will answer this once they reach their destiny, as that maybe the deciding factor…