One farmer's misadventures in livestock agriculture might be a word to the wise: Be careful what you yearn for.
Country people have big hearts. A large portion love animals and want to try their hand at livestock agriculture and raising pigs, guinea fowl and a myriad of other animals that typically call a farm home. And some among the country — sharpies, I believe they're called — seldom miss an opportunity to save themselves a little work under the guise of doing a good turn for a neighbor in need.
That lesson came home to roost at our truckpatch in southeastern Pennsylvania one recent summer. A little after sunrise, our three dogs started barking their car-in-the-driveway warning. Curious about all the fuss, I ambled out the backdoor with my first cup of coffee in hand — and bumped into our township manager.
Our daughter, Ruth, was engaged to his nephew, so "Uncle Danny" was hardly a stranger to us. Still, it was more than a little strange to see him skulking about the front of our little red barn at such an early hour, especially with two large cardboard boxes.
"Morning, Dan," I mumbled, taking a sip of coffee. "What’s in the boxes?"
"Uh, guinea hens," came the hesitant reply. Eyeing the distance to his pickup truck, Dan looked like he half expected me to run back into the house to fetch the shotgun.
"Ruthie said you’d been talking about getting some," he quickly added.
You bet! Guineas have been on my must-have list ever since I learned that ticks are among their favorite foods. Guineas can’t seem to eat enough ticks, which also happen to be one of the best crops we grow here, along with poison ivy, stones and Canadian thistle.
Just the thought of having a non-chemical insecticide that ticks will never become resistant to made my day. Guineas also produce eggs, tasty dark meat and are constantly on guard for intruders, making them perfect in my mind. I said so and all nervousness vanished from Dan’s face.
"These are your hens — if you want them," he said. They belonged to his mother. She and Dan have kept guineas for decades. Grandma Carol recently bought a new bunch of keets, so some of the old hens had to go. Dan was going to dispose of them at the livestock auction an hour's drive away when Ruth casually mentioned that we’d been talking about getting guineas for years.
Of course, we’ve talked about raising a lot of different critters — sheep, meat goats, pheasants, peacocks, turkeys, geese and ducks — since we bought our place in 1984. The reason we don’t have any large animals is because I grew up in Ohio taking care of five saddle/pleasure horses that were seldom saddled and never gave anyone much pleasure.
I couldn't thank Dan and Grandma Carol enough for the guineas, though. Dan handed me a box, leaped back in his pickup and flew down the driveway. Then, like a child sneaking a peek under the wrapping of a Christmas present, I pulled up on one of the folded flaps on the box.
Boom! A ball of gray feathers exploded in my face. Angry wings beat my ears. Banshee screams filled the air. A full-grown guinea shot past my face and flew into the neighboring woods, never to be seen again.
Stunned, I slammed the box shut. There were more guineas inside, but how many? Dan didn't exactly say, did he? No wonder he disappeared so quickly.
More carefully this time, I peeked inside the box and counted one, two white, horned heads with blood-red wattles. That meant three full-grown birds had been shut up in this box at least overnight, since it is a five-hour drive to Grandma Carol’s house in the north-central part of the state. The second box held two equally perturbed birds.
What was I going to do with four guinea hens who wanted to get far away as quickly as possible? I couldn't just turn them loose. They'd be at the road, across the creek and in the woods on South Mountain in 10 seconds, flat.
Fortunately, the chicken coop at the far end of our little barn was empty. Our flock of Silver-laced Wyandotte laying hens — a gift from another friend when she moved to Kansas — had gone on to their final reward last fall. I carried the boxes inside, closed the door and turned the guineas loose. Ignoring the low-slung chicken roosts, they headed straight for the rafters.
That would do, for now, but I couldn’t keep the guineas cooped up inside forever. They needed to be outside. Trouble was, unlike chickens, these critters can fly. The 5-foot fence around our chicken yard wouldn’t hold them for a second. Sooner, rather than later, I had to figure out some way to keep the guineas inside the fence, at least until they got used to the fact that this was their new home.
The Mother of Intervention
I could probably find exactly what I needed at Home Depot or Lowe's — and drop a few hundred bucks in the process. Martha Stewart would be proud. But they were chickens, darn it. Bug-eating, egg-laying African chickens.
Then it hit me — blueberry netting! The lightweight, plastic netting we use to protect our 300 blueberry bushes from birds comes in rolls 14 feet wide and 500 feet long. Two short pieces of netting lapped over each other would more than cover the top of the chicken yard, so the guineas would stay confined while having room to move in the fresh air and sunshine. In 20 minutes, I fastened the netting to the top of the chicken yard fence with a heavy-duty staple gun and some old drip irrigation tape as a batten.
Then I opened the door to the chicken yard. The guineas took off for the sky. The force of their wings lifted the netting a few feet, then they plopped back to the ground. After a few tries, they gave up and started getting used to their new environment. We’re now approaching our third generation of guineas. Free-roaming now that they feel at home, the birds own the place, constantly patrolling near and far. They tolerate our human activity, including the time I fired a 12-gauge shotgun over their heads to dispatch a marauding groundhog. The birds never uttered a squawk.
And Then There Were Pigs
We live in a rural-agricultural (R-A) zoning district, the purpose of which "is to encourage the continuation of farming, a rural-farm setting, forested areas, limited development, and an attractive rural residential living environment for single family homes on relatively large lots," according to the township zoning ordinance.
Sounds simple enough, but there are 17 "permitted-by-right uses" under R-A zoning (ranging from agriculture, animal husbandry, bomb or fallout shelter, to a wildlife sanctuary), 28 "special exception uses" and 25 "accessory uses" broken down into 69 categories. Even the number of household pets is detailed.
The zoning ordinance regulates the location of shelters, manure storage and the spreading of manure. (You can’t put it on lawns.) Even though common sense would say that pretty much anything goes in a rural-agricultural zoning district, it doesn’t work that way. Consider that the definition of "agriculture" specifically does not include “animal husbandry.” Agriculture includes only "the raising and keeping of field crops for any commercial purpose." If you live in the country, these distinctions matter, so it’s important to know them.
As I read our ordinances, I saw that "animal husbandry" is defined as "the raising and keeping of livestock or poultry for any commercial purpose." It went on, "The keeping of livestock or poultry as farm pets or for domestic purposes . . . and the raising of garbage-fed pigs . . . shall not be construed as animal husbandry."
Garbage-fed pigs. What a great idea. We just had to get some pigs. Thinking ahead, I even bought a bunch of 16-foot hog panels while I had the use of a trailer. We got busy in the truckpatch, and the panels sat against the barn all summer. Then one mid-September day, the phone rang. It was our friend Nate Thomas, a young mechanical engineer-turned farmer. "I'll be there tomorrow about 9 o’clock with your three feeder pigs," he said.
My pigs? I had actually ordered pigs. I also had lost track of time and still hadn’t built a pigpen. But I had decided where to house them – in the far end of the high tunnel greenhouse where our heirloom tomatoes were nearing an end. I got the idea after reading about farmers in the Midwest who were raising pigs inside hoop houses with deep straw bedding.
Next morning, I fastened the last panel onto metal T-posts with baling wire just as Nate's stake-body truck rattled up beside the greenhouse. He handed each piglet down to me, and I lifted them over panels and plopped them into the pen. They went right for the waterer — a 55-gallon plastic barrel cut in half with a metal nipple on one side — and the piles of garden scraps. The guineas added the pigpen to their daily patrols, glad for the company.
Instantly, the pigs started packing on the pounds. Then came Indian summer and a solid week of 90-degree heat. The pigs got so hot their tails uncurled. I could almost hear the bacon sizzling inside the hoop house. I tried to create a better shelter for them, but after a hasty framework of pipes and plywood collapsed on me and the pigs, I tied an old blue tarp inside the greenhouse frame with baling twine. The pigs settled down in the shade and kept right on growing.
The Livestock Agriculture Endgame
Eventually, Thanksgiving grew near. Thin ice covered the top of the water barrel each morning. The pigs now weighed about 225 pounds each. I didn't want to take them into winter, chopping ice and lugging feed through the snow, so I called our regular butcher.
"We'll be closed for everything but deer through December," she said. "Let’s see . . . I can take your pigs on January 10."
No, no, that would never do. Desperate, I began calling all the other butchers in the phone book. The story was always the same, nothing but deer until the new year.
Then one old butcher remembered Aaron Waters, an independent meat cutter who used to go out to farms and bring animals in for butchering. Maybe Waters still did that sort of thing. He gave me Waters' number. As I dialed the phone I said a little prayer.
"How does Black Friday work for you?" Waters asked. Black Friday, that legendary shopping day after Thanksgiving, worked perfectly for me. Any day, as long as it was soon, would work perfectly for me. Those pigs were turning into elephants.
As bargain-hunters invaded the malls, Waters and his son stepped into the pen carrying a .22-caliber rifle and a razor-sharp knife. There was never a squeal. Ten minutes later, the pigs lay still in the back of Waters' pickup.
We had a freezer full of pork, but I certainly learned my lesson. From now on, I’m going to be a lot more careful about what I ask for. No, sir. No emus, no ostrich, no pygmy goats or doll-face sheep. And I’m for sure not going to say a word to anyone about this growing interest I have in raising buffalo.
When he's not corralling critters, George DeVault raises vegetables and blueberries on his organic farm in southeastern Pennsylvania.