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  • Theo

Birth, death, winter, and wild hogs

I'm writing this update to give our farm share owners some context on our delivery chaos of the last few weeks. When you sign the paperwork to participate in Helios Farms, you are buying shares of the livestock here (these are your animals), and hiring us to board them, birth them, feed them, heal them when they have issues, harvest foods they produce for you, and bring the foods to you. We appreciate all of you as our collective "boss" participating in the farm life. At the same time, farming in the winter, with our current setup, has a lot of room for improvement.

Elsa had been out on "pasture" until about two weeks before her due date to calve when I moved her into the barn. I put "pasture" in quotes because its really a "sacrifice area" we chose to let cows stay outside this winter, where they will churn the soil into muck and add fertility to the soil so we can build a better pasture there later. Very little to eat from the ground in that "pasture", so we feed them enough hay and keep minerals in front of them while they brave the elements because we have very limited barn space. Some cows are better at keeping themselves strong than others. Elsa seemed well, but a couple days after she went into the barn, she couldn't get up.

We treated her for milk fever and we tried different ways to lift her in her stall, even though we didn't have the right equipment. She was shifting her weight from side to side and scooting around the stall. At one point she got jammed under a stall panel, so I had to move it to try to get her more centered in the stall. With the panel out of the way, she later scooted herself outside the barn into a muddy area where we couldn't get any equipment because of the rain and muck. Cows weigh about 600-1000lbs, so you don't just put them on a board and drag them around with a rope. One of our investors ordered a lift we could use to pick her up, which is critical to treating a "down cow", but we would have to get the backhoe near her, and the backhoe does not travel well through mud.

Sparing some of the details, I ended up pulling her calf after manually dilating her cervix, per the vet's recommendation, on New Year's Eve. I found out that manually dilating a cow's cervix is like stretching a 1" fan belt in your car's engine until it is about 6" in diameter by reaching through a tube with one hand and using your index and second finger to expand the belt. Somehow, I was able to get the opening large enough and get the hooves into the opening and we succeeded at pulling the little lucky bull calf out alive and well at about 9:30PM, just in time for a New Year's celebration, right? Lucky was brought in to spend the night in the bathtub in the warm house, and Elsa was wrapped in her hay, tarps, and sleeping bag. But then at about midnight, when I checked on Elsa, her entire uterus had prolapsed (was outside her body turned inside out).

So I started the year, from midnight to about 3am pushing a 50lb organ back inside Elsa through the same tube that I had just expanded the 1" fan belt. I was able to succeed only after I layed down , belly down in the mud. It was dark, wet, and cold....an interesting way to start the New Year. Somehow, I was able to get it all back in.

We received the cow lift the next day and Elsa was still alive, eating, drinking, pooping, and peeing. A break in the weather allowed us to get her moved to a more comfortable spot. We worked on treating her, and she was able to nurse her calf "Lucky". She is pictured above laying with Lucky. She got some quality time with him and provided him with important nourishment, but she never was able to get back up. She continued to weaken over time and then finally gave up and quit trying. With so many strikes against her, it was never a likely recovery, but we gave it our all. Lucky benefitted from her presence during that time. I put her down on January 11th.

The night before, we were milking Fran and left her eating in the stanchion while we took a break for dinner (we can see the cows in the stanchion from the dining table and often leave them there munching, which they enjoy and are fine with, in general). At one point she began struggling so we ran out to find that she was bloating very rapidly. We have successfully treated serious bloat before, so we scrambled to pull together what we needed for that protocol. The drastic treatment for bloat includes sticking a needle or knife into the rumen to relieve the pressure if the cow is seriously distressed. Fran fell to the ground before we could get ready and was about to stop breathing due to the pressure on her lungs, so I used my pocketknife to relieve the pressure. She was up a few minutes later, and we were able to get the milk-detergent-olive oil mixture we use to destabilize the foam in the rumen that causes the bloat.

It all seemed to work well, she deflated, and she was back in the barn later that evening and would be recoverable from my perspective. But her rumen never started working the next day, she spiraled downhill and ended up dying in front of me while I was attempting additional treatment. Her death was inexplicable until we performed an autopsy and realized that her rapid bloating, and possibly the fall to the ground, had ruptured her rumen in large areas other than where I had stuck her to relieve the pressure. There was no way she could have recovered from that bloat event in the stanchion.

Fran died on January 11th. While Kira was determining the cause of her death, I walked over and put Elsa down, as she hadn't lifted her head all day. We were able to save meat from Fran's body, something we are fortunately able to do. But losing two cows in one day was beyond heartbreaking.

In the three years we have been on this property, we have increased the cattle population, beef and dairy cows, from 4 to more than 40 head. So we are successfully growing the herd. We had 10 dairy calves this past year and lost only one to scours (we were not well prepared with the right treatments for our first case of scours). We have 9 healthy calves in the barn, including six heifers that will help shape the future of our dairy herd. All the birthing was simple and very beautiful, save Elsa's. Losses we experience, Elsa and Fran, are painful, but when we remember to lift our eyes from the mud and look around us, these losses are certainly outweighed by the gains we have made on the farm. We are moving forward one day at a time toward our vision.

A down cow, ultimately put down, and a shocking and inexplicable death of another cow from bloat, drain energy in more ways than one, and during that time other farm activities had to be delayed. The daily chores in the winter rains and cold temperatures are challenging. Pigs get fed and watered twice a day. Chickens too. Feed gets mixed, moved, ordered. Hay is shuttled to paddocks. Everything we do here involves heavy lifting and carrying the additional mental weight from the loss of cow friends makes the mud a more difficult slog for every chore.

During the time we were working with Elsa and the loss of Fran, the hogs conditions turned very muddy. We had a late farrowing this year, and the farrowing barn is planned but not complete, so the sows are in shelters with their piglets in the field. The heavy rains made poor conditions grow worse and they were in an area that was difficult to access. Feeding had become very difficult. As all the crises with cows settled, we looked toward moving the pigs to clean ground with easier access.

Mavis and her 12 piglets were the first we had to move. Mavis's appearance had changed since she farrowed in September. She had gone from a rolly-polly sow to looking like a wild hog. Her ears were very large and she was long and lean. Her behavior was different as well, but I figured she would settle in and revert to a rotund sow once she was bred again.

We set up a new area for her and her piglets, but they wouldn't leave their muddy home (trained to the electric fence that was no longer there), so it took us a few days to catch piglets (some about 50lbs now) and carry them a few hundred yards to the new area. Mavis was guarding them and acting more aggressive than I like to see in a sow, but not threatening. She was our best mother to date, birthing 12 and keeping all of them alive. She seemed like she would count them when they were out foraging to make sure they were all OK. This is far more attentiveness than I've seen in the other sows. However with our attention turned elsewhere on the farm, some of her pigs had come up with injuries and were dragging or limping as their living conditions worsened with the rains.

Nine of Mavis's pigs we carried to new ground and a new shelter, and three had to be sent to a separate shelter for some treatment. In the end, Mavis was alone in her old shelter. The following day, she broke out and was running around the property below the house. We figured we would get her in the right place soon enough and we moved her shelter and began the process of moving all the other sows' shelters to the new ground.

Later that evening, Mavis showed up next to the new paddock where we had moved her 9 piglets, but she wasn't really interested in joining them. She jumped on me and knocked me over when I offered to put her in with them. This was an act of agression that instantly promotes a sow from breeder to meat hog. She jumped on me again, then she ran over and jumped on LD, confirming her promotion. Kira was nearby helping with the hog move, and we all realized that something had gone seriously wrong with Mavis, a 500lb hog on a rampage, and we were all in danger. We dropped what we were doing got in trucks and tractors, and headed for the house. Unbelievably, Mavis followed us to the house and actually chased us up onto the porch as we ran inside and slammed the front door.

The daylight was ending, with all the hog moving taking up the day, and we still had cows to milk. Guns were loaded and we watched Mavis dash around outside. We waited for her to go away and resolved to harvest Mavis in the morning. Once she was gone, we patrolled the grounds around the house and Mavis was nowhere to be found. Darkness had fallen, so surely Mavis was back near a shelter bedding down like a hog would do, and that is the last we would see of her until morning. I told LD that if she showed up during milking, that would be highly anomalous behavior for a hog. I haven't seen hogs move from their shelters after dark.

I walked to the barn to get the first cow with my headlamp lighting the way. I was confident that no hog would come jumping me in the dark, but LD noticed me heading toward the barn and followed quickly with his gun.

Frida was the first cow to milk that night. We walked her to the dairy shed: a cow with an armed escort. As we were getting her set up in the stanchion, Kira yelled out that she heard the sow coming up the road. LD yelled "Mavis is here" and within seconds, Mavis was right there with her face in the closed gate of the dairy shed. She was actually hunting us down in the dark. This was unbelievable. She was completely out of control and completely wild.

One shot from LD scared the you-know-what out of Frida, messed up the stanchion, and ended our tense drama with Mavis. We bled her out where she fell and Kira and LD went about skinning Mavis and getting the meat into the freezer for sausage. Kira noticed that even her anatomy and muscle positioning had changed to a more wild type. We had noticed changes to her appearance, but were really unprepared for the behavior that we experienced that night with Mavis. It was very much a scene out of a B movie, sans the scary music. Next time, we'll have to add the scary music. Oh wait, there won't be a next time, right?

The foods from Helios Farms come to you currently through the work of a very small team. Kira, Sonja, Sandy, LD, Nicole, and I are the management, production, and delivery workforce. We get help from dedicated farm share owners and partners in Portland and Corvallis as well as all the drop point hosts. But the stress that comes along with certain events, added to the rains, snows, and mud of winter can create delays and cancellations. When our communication is poor or deliveries are delayed, there is usually a reason. Lately there has been way too much as you can see by the length of this post. Geesh.

The events I described here are downers, but they are far from a full description of what has happened. There are so many improvements and successes happening on the farm at the same time. Two or three steps forward for every step backward. Those of you who know us closely know that this is our mission and it is getting better with each day, even though it's often hard to see that through the fog and darkness of winter. Your foods will be at the drop point, maybe with a delay, maybe some winter irregularities, but we'll get them to you because all of us must assume control of our food supply by rebuilding the local farm.

Good news: Milk production is up and increasing. We had to skip Portland this week, but this next week we'll be on schedule (see the delivery update blog entry). Let's see if we can hit a steady delivery schedule moving forward now.

The Jersey cows and calves are all in the barn with a song in their hearts and no room in their rumens. The hogs are on good ground, for now, soon to be mud again. The chickens are starting to lay again, and Spring is just around the corner.