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Berkshire Pork

First Time Raising Pigs

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It was around 1978 and I was living in a tiny log house in a forest near Goodfare.  My cousin asked if I could look after a couple of pigs while he took a month off traveling.  “Sure!” was my inexperienced response.  It would be my first encounter with live pigs.  There was an old log barn and if I nailed some planks over the open door, they could stay in there!  My cousin brought the two pigs over and they settled in quite nicely into their new home.

Every morning I would bring their food and water and was quite enjoying their company.  One day, returning from a town trip, I grabbed my guitar before I went to check the pigs. I started wandering down the path, strumming a “G chord” but as I got closer I could here there was something wrong.  The pigs were very distressed, racing in circles.  I stopped my strumming but it was too late.  They bolted through the planks I’d nailed across the door, busting them and headed straight through the forest. It was days before they returned.  I gave up playing guitar for a while.

Why Berkshire?

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Years later when I became a little more serious about raising pigs I started out with pink pigs.  They were a cross of several modern breeds and although they had a good life on the farm, I was often disappointed with their mothering skills.  They had been bred for pork production and not for instincts.  All of our pigs give birth outside so the ability to prepare for birthing and then take care of the piglets is an important skill to have.  Then I discovered Berkshires.

Unlike the modern breeds, Berkshires have been around for a long time. Discovered 300 years ago near Reading, England, their excellent carcass quality made them an early favorite with the upper class of English farmers. For years the Royal Family kept a large Berkshire herd at Windsor Castle.

Farrowing – The Birthing Process

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When I purchased my first few Berkshire sows and their time came for farrowing (birthing), I was really impressed with the preparations they would make, packing mouthfuls of straw into their farrowing huts and then arranging it to make their perfect nest.  Some would choose to farrow outside and tear apart the straw bale to create just the nest they wanted. Somehow they knew if the weather would be cold and fluff up the straw for the babies to burrow into.

Sometimes sows would farrow in a shelter which was also used by other sows.  The other pigs would respect the birthing sow and leave to give her privacy.  I admired that.

The Diet

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Although our pigs are on pasture and have access to either fresh grass or dried hay, they do require grain in order to grow.  Wheat, peas, barley and oats are the grains we use to raise our pigs.  All feed we purchase or raise is certified organic and I always try and buy as local as possible.  Preference is given to the smaller organic farms.

In addition to grain, the pigs are supplemented with organic flax along with the vitamins and minerals needed to have a balanced diet.   We’ve even made pancakes from the pig food although I found the added calcium to be a little gritty.

Wallowing

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With the hot temperatures of summer comes the need for pigs to cool down.  Commercially they would have mists of water or no choice at all.  What they naturally like to do is have mud bathes.  Not only is the mud cooling it is also good for their skin.  Hot summer days would find us filling up their wallows with water since they enjoy it so much.

Animals that Like to Have Fun!

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It was 1980 when I shot my TV.  No need for television when a farm filled with animals provides so much entertainment.  Pigs are the best.

With family, friends and space, the pigs are constantly finding ways to entertain themselves. Even in winter. Here’s a clip from “Farm News – November 2013”.

They like to follow their same trails through the snow and especially enjoy following the new tracks made by the tractor which packs the snow down in even rows with nice edges, much like humans walking on shoveled sidewalks.   Those parallel tractor tracks can get boring after awhile so in random spots they make a new trail through the snow to cross from one tractor track to the other.  The result?  A new game much like “fox and hound” where they chase each other along the track then make a sharp 90 degree to the next track or try and head them off at the next crossing.

Another favourite pastime is gathering mouthfuls of straw. Expectant mothers do this in preparation for birthing. Others like to add to their bedding. Some just see how much they can fit in their mouths. Sledding? The plastic toboggans the pigs drink from will often get pulled around the pasture. They’ll even try to bring them into their houses.  Yesterday I saw a pig carrying a snowball, much to the envy of the others. Another one stole an empty pail from my daughter.  “Catch me if you can!” it might have said.   It took about three minutes. Quite awhile considering the pig had the disadvantage of not being able to see with the pail in its mouth.

Interested in more “Farm News”?

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Of the one billion pigs raised in the world (half in China) I can’t help but wonder how many enjoy their quality of life.  Starting locally, I like to support organizations which work to increase their standard of living.

BCSPCA

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Global Animal Partnership

 

 

Free Range Chicken

Why Raise Chickens?

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The Jasper Park Lodge was a regular customer for our wild turkeys and one time phoned to ask “can you raise chickens?”

It just so happened that the previous year I had tried the outdoor method of raising chickens on pasture and produced some very tasty birds.  “Of course!” I answered using my small bit of experience to qualify my answer.

That spring I built 10 small 12 foot x 12 foot chicken shelters.  I customized the construction so that the daily chore of moving the chickens would become part of my teenage son’s summer job.  The resulting chickens were a hit with the Lodge but they wanted a specific size and the variety of sizes sent me looking for other markets.  That’s when First Nature Farms established itself at the Old Strathcona Farmers Market.

Free Range

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When the chickens would occasionally escape from their 12 x 12 foot chicken shelters I noticed their behavior would change.  Rather than being relatively laid back, they would start scratching at the ground and foraging, the behavior I was hoping to achieve by raising them out on pasture.  That’s when we decided to expand their freedom and move them to the big 4600 square foot pens.

Chicken Food

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Chickens require a high protein diet along with the shelter of warm, dry, draft-free housing to get a good start in life.  The birds get their good start dining on a diet of wheat, peas, soy and flax oil, (organic of course). Their first day also includes a treat of melon or apples which encourage them to start pecking to search for food.  A bit of apple cider vinegar in their water also helps them out.  At 3 to 4 weeks when the days are sunny and warm, they move outside where they supplement their diet with the many greens and grubs the pasture offers.

Antibiotics? GMOs? Animals by-products? Etc?

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Never!  Our First Nature Farms chickens are provided with a totally plant based diet made from organic grains and seeds and balanced with vitamins and minerals.  We always try to buy our grains as locally as possible and small organic farms are given preference. Organic certificates are required for every purchase

The combination of good food, fresh air, clean water, free range and sunshine keeps our birds health – naturally.

Where to Buy?

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First Nature Farms chicken is available only in the province of Alberta and can be found at the Old Strathcona Farmers Market in Edmonton and Homesteader Health
in Grande Prairie, Alberta. Bulk orders of 10 or more are possible in each location.
Contact us for more information.

Free Range Turkey

Story: minus 52.5 C

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About 20 some years ago we used to record temperature data for Agriculture Canada.  Every morning we would check to previous days high and low temperature.  One winter morning I witnessed the lowest temperature recorded since 1914.  It was -52.5 C.

At that time we had one turkey “Miss Turkey”.  When I saw her I was shocked.  Rather than seeking shelter on such a cold night, she had perched out in the open, on top of a fence post.  Her head was tucked under her wing and there she froze.  Or so I thought.  After a few moments of fond memories I went to touch her and her head poked up.  The temperature hadn’t bothered her at all.  I remember thinking “if a turkey can survive so well outside, I should consider raising them!”  Next year I raised 192.  The year after that 1400.  That was the year I was introduced to the Turkey Marketing Board but that’s another story.  We kept “Miss Turkey” as a pet for another 10 years.

Turkey Pens

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Around the same time as I decided I would become a professional turkey rancher I had to decide how I would raise them.  The result was a mobile shelter that measured 46 feet x 96 feet.  I was pretty proud of my engineering feat.   The shelters contained their turkey food feeders, numerous sources of water along with a covered building for protection and a place to perch and roost for the night.  The 4600 square foot structures along with their occupants could move onto fresh pasture in as little as 3 minutes.

The birds loved the move to their new pastures and would make a special “cluckle” sound that was very pleasant to listen to.  I recorded the sound and would play it back them just before Christmas.

Wild or Domestic?

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I started raising the Merriams wild turkey, a native to southern Alberta, B.C. and areas south.  I kept my own breeding stock and from the end of March until June I would be busy washing, weighing and incubating eggs.  Although very interesting it was quite time consuming.  The process resulted in a turkey that weighed an average of 9 pounds by Christmas.  The common question was “do you have anything larger?”

When the Turkey Marketing Board shut me down and told me I could raise no more than 299 birds, I switched from wild to domestic.

Turkey Feed

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Around the beginning of June is the time I like to start my turkey poults (chicks).  They require a high protein diet to get them off to a good start so I use a combination of wheat, peas, soy and flax oil along with a balance of vitamins and minerals for the first few weeks.  At around 4 weeks of age they are old enough to move to their outdoor pens where they can feast on all the greens and grubs they like.  Every few days the pens get moved to fresh pasture leaving behind the droppings as an organic fertilizer.

Twice a year the turkeys go to town.  For them it is a “once in a lifetime experience”, once at Thanksgiving or once at Christmas.

SPCA Certified

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Sales

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First Nature Farms organic, free range turkeys are available on order for the holiday seasons in Edmonton at the Old Strathcona Farmers Market and for pickup in Grande Prairie and Beaverlodge.

Galloway Beef

Home of Happy Cows

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Around 1977 when we first moved to Goodfare, we did not bring with us a whole lot of cattle experience.  “Greenhorns from the city” the neighbours thought we were but it didn’t slow us down from trying out some new ideas at raising cattle.  It did not take long for word to spread through the neighbourhood and soon we became known by the locals as “The Home of Happy Cows”!

We were honoured by the title and thought the cows would be too.  It wasn’t until much later the source of the rumor surfaced. The reason the neighbours thought our cows were so happy is that we’re  “probably feeding them bales of marijuana”!

Why Galloway?

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We’ve raised Angus cattle since the 1980’s and as I became interested in beef raised strictly on grass, the interest in Galloways increased.  Galloway is considered to be a very ancient breed originating in the Province of Galloway in Scotland.  The climate was harsh and the breed excelled at producing sweet, tender beef foraging only on grass.

Galloways come in many colors: Black, Speckled, Dun, Red, etc.  I started with the Black Galloway and have recently changed my bull to a Belted Galloway.  He is black at both ends with a white belt in the middle.  The neighbour kids suggested I call him “Oreo” and that has been his name ever since.  One advantage of the Belted Galloway that I never anticipated is that they are so unique in the area that all the neighbours know who they belong to, hence, no need to brand!

Why grass fed?

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Cattle raised on grass pastures spend their time in open fields rather than crowded feedlots.  Grass based diets involve less machinery than grain diets and have a much smaller environmental footprint.  Green pastures also are rich in biodiversity providing feed and homes for a wide diversity of species.

Munching on grass is also a natural thing to do.  The reduction of stress, the open ranges and nourishment provided by the pastures help the animal remain naturally healthy and content.

Healthy for us too!  Beef from grass-fed animals has lower levels of unhealthy fats and higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which are better for cardiovascular health. Grass-fed beef also has lower levels of dietary cholesterol and offers more vitamins A and E as well as antioxidants. Studies [PDF] found that meat from animals raised entirely on grass also had about twice the levels of conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA, isomers, which may have cancer fighting properties and lower the risk of diabetes and other health problems.

Natural Pasture, Organic of Course

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Summer grazing on First Nature Farms is about as natural as it can get.  Our 13 quarters (2080 acres) of grazing lease is mostly aspen forest with Beavertail Creek running diagonally through, providing all kinds of open meadows where the cattle like to spend their time.  Winter brings the animals closer to home and “bale season” begins.  All the hay we produce comes either from our own farm or the farms of our organic neighbours.

SPCA Certified

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Since 2006 we have been supporters of the BC SPCA program promoting the welfare of farm animals.

Availability?

Our beef is currently available by the cut at the Old Strathcona Farmers Market at the First Nature Farms booth in Edmonton.  Sides are also available but presently the waiting list is almost one year.

Contact us for details.

Bison

History

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In the mid eighties a bison rancher from around Chetwynd B.C. forgot to close the gate to his corrals.  His two bison bulls took advantage of the situation and with freedom in mind, went through the open gate, left the corrals and headed east on their hundred mile journey into Alberta.

Around the same time I used to drive to Beaverlodge to work every day.  One morning I was amazed to find two bison bulls grazing next to our farm! Not only were they still there when I drove home but they continued to stay for several weeks!

Their incredible size, majestic appearance and obvious appreciation of the area kept me thinking. “Perhaps one day I may consider raising a few”.  A trip to Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump confirmed that this was a wise thing to do.   In 1992 our first six bison heifers arrived. To this date I have never regretted the decision.

Bison are Fed Grass

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Bison are naturally meant to eat grass, summer and winter.  Grain can speed up the growing process and add additional fat but we choose the slower, more natural method.

What makes organic bison different from “natural”?

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The organic rules state that absolutely no pesticides can be used for the production of any organic feed. This means that even the soil cannot contain any residues (three year minimum).  We’ve been certified for 24 years.  With the recent approval of new varieties of alfalfa, genetically modified feeds are becoming a concern.  GMO’s are not allowed in organic production.

Insecticides are commonly applied to bison to reduce the incidence of parasites. I prefer pasture rotation and selective breeding to produce animals that are naturally resistant.  That’s how nature works, a good model to follow.

Feedlot confinement has unfortunately become a popular method of increasing growth rates.  The first thing a confined animal want to do is escape.  Our pastures offer ample space including trees to scratch on and willows to munch.  The bison are content.  There have been times when a tree fell on the fence and the bison have left.  They always come back home.

Are bison “wild”?

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Very much so.  Not enough time has passed since bison have been removed from the wild.  To keep the  stress level low I like to spend as much time with them as possible and have the bison associate my presence with something special.  It may be a new hay bale, an open gate to a new pasture or a sprinkling of oats.  At weaning time the bison calves (about 10 months old) a kept close to the house.  Every morning we walk through calling them “Moostoos! Tatonka! Astum!” meaning “Buffalo! Buffalo! Come Here” and give them a bit of oats.  Soon they learn to come when they are called.  This comes in really handy when they are in the pasture and I want to bring them in.  Others use trucks, ATVs, horses or dogs.  I just call them.

Our bison is currently available by the cut at both the Grande Prairie Farmers Market (The Butcher Shop) and the Old Strathcona Farmers Market at the First Nature Farms booth in Edmonton.  Sides are also available.  Contact us for details.