Viewing entries tagged


To castrate or not...

IMG_2193 It’s been exciting times around the farm as we welcomed 37 new piglets in five days, though three litters were the result of unplanned teenage pregnancies… yes, that can happen on a free-range pig farm, especially when you don’t castrate. Let me tell you more about our decision to castrate after all…

As someone concerned about animal welfare, I took it as a given that we wouldn’t castrate, and that the only management strategy we would require for that decision would be to send boars to the abattoir no later than six months old, before they reached sexual maturity. The primary argument against castration is that it causes unnecessary trauma to the pig. The primary arguments in favour of castration are to prevent unwanted pregnancies in the herd, avoid boar taint in the meat, and control undesirable behaviours commonly manifest in boars (aggression against other boars, and occasionally people, though I think this is uncommon amongst well-treated pigs in free-range systems). To my knowledge, most free-range pig farmers do not, as a rule, castrate.

And so we didn’t castrate. What we observed in the paddocks was boars from tiny little piglets through to 60kg growers appearing to ‘play fight’ a fair bit, and to hassle the gilts regularly from a couple months old, including clumsy mating attempts from a young age. They tend to be dominant in the herd, making the gilts less likely to get their fair share of the feed, and if they come together with another young boar from a different family group in another paddock while we move stock, they fight fairly vigorously from about four or five months old. We’ve not had any seriously injured, but torn ears and skin abrasions are common consequences of such aggressive interactions, which also occur around feeding time (amongst gilts and sows too - not just the boars).

When we slaughtered our first pig, I lived in fear of boar taint, as we’d had trouble finding a butcher and had let the pigs grow on to nearly eight months, well past our planned six. The first loin chops had a very mild taint to them, but were still quite delicious. I cooked our Christmas roast for a huge extended family gathering on a bed of aromatics to try to ward it off, and was clearly successful given the reviews that day. The boars we’ve had slaughtered since have been free of taint until the last one, which had a mild case of it, as noted by The Hangry Bitch who came along to Eat Your Ethics during Harvest Week.

Boar taint is a funny thing - not everybody tastes it to the same degree, and allegedly some can’t taste it at all. It can definitely be managed to some extent in the cooking process, or by turning the meat into sausages or salami where lots of other flavours are at play. I am very sensitive to it, which is rather handy as a pig farmer - we taste some of each pig before we sell the meat. I’ve heard stories from other pig farmers of entire carcasses being pulled from sales due to taint - that’s a lot of lost money in expenses to raise and slaughter that pig with no profit in sight, and a very sad outcome to take a life and be unable to serve it at all. (And to confuse matters, it really is a matter of taste, some people like the flavour of boar taint, though few in Australia.)

And then came the pregnant gilts. We keep our pigs in family groups - pigs are very social animals, and have to adjust to new social orders when the groups are mixed. Plus if they’re kept as a litter their feed rations are collectively appropriate for their development stage, and we can easily manage those ready for the abattoir if they’re all in one paddock. Our reading and discussions with other producers had somehow never brought to light the fact that boars can reach sexual maturity as young as four months. The rounding bellies of a few gilts at six months, however, brought it clearly to light.

Not only were they younger than is ideal (younger gilts have smaller litters, and reportedly may not be as good at mothering as if they have their first litter a bit older), we don’t in-breed our pigs - the boar (Borg) and our breeding sows are from different lines. In-breeding is an old practice, and as one of our favourite books (Pig raising in Tasmania, 1966) says, if it’s successful, it’s line breeding, if not, it’s in-breeding! Still we choose to keep our lines separate, except in the case of wayward young boars.

And so we separated out the boars from the gilts, a practice we now do routinely when the pigs are around three months old. At first the boars suddenly fight more, even though they’ve been together. Something about the steadying influence of women, etc. ;-)

Given our experience with boar taint and unplanned pregnancies, we returned to the debate over whether to castrate. This time, of course, we had the benefit of having farmed pigs for over a year, rather than having our inner urban, leftist, idealist glasses on. Okay, I will never take those glasses off except for the inner urban bit, but a year and a half with pigs has taught me that they have an extremely high pain threshold (they’re quite hard on each other when it comes to scrambling for feed, as attested by the number of torn ears in the paddock, no matter how well fed the lovely blighters may be), and that castration would not be any more traumatic than being shoved down the social order by an older sibling when there’s delicious grain to be had.

And that’s the whole story, and why we do now routinely castrate the males. We still don’t vaccinate, and nor do we use sub-therapeutic antibiotics (there’s absolutely no need in a free-range system), and of course we don’t nose ring or dock their gorgeous, curly tails. The sows still farrow in a nice warm, safe stall with fresh straw and a heat lamp to attract the piglets away from cumbersome, dopy new mamas and their lethal squashing accidents, and piglets aren’t weaned until six to eight weeks.



And those barrows (the castrated boars) give a short squeal when they’re cut, antiseptic is applied, and they scamper off as though nothing has happened. I imagine they’re sore, it seems only logical that they would be (as were our cat and dog when they were fixed). But for that period of soreness, they in turn get to have an extra couple of months on the farm, and all within their family groups to the end, as we have been growing our pigs on to seven to eight months with good results.

For us, the trade off is worth it on many levels. Some may disagree with us, and some may think we’re crazy to even tell you the details of management decisions like these, which have real commercial as well as ethical consequences. But we signed up for a transparency model, so that’s what you’ll get, and if you don’t like what we’re doing, please say so, and if we can’t agree, there is surely another system out there that will work for you.


If you’re interested in following one of our pigs through his entire life, from birth to Christmas ham, through decisions like whether to castrate, vaccinate, when to rotate through the paddocks, what’s the right feed ratio, and what to do if he gets sick, you can each month with Radio National Bush Telegraph, as Cameron Wilson visits us and gets to know Wilbur 101. He’ll be putting up polls each month where you get to have a say about our management decisions - though we do reserve the right to make the final decision in line with our knowledge and philosophy of what’s best for the pig and the planet.


Oh, and if you really like what we’re doing and why we do it, you might like to support our Pozible project to do our own butchering right here on the farm! We’re 76% funded on day 14 of 40! Thank you to the wonderful, generous ethical omnivores who’ve already supported us! If we go over our target, we’ll be able to put a smokehouse in straight away - the possibilities are endless!



Eat Your Ethics at Jonai Farms!

We’ve said since we arrived to farm free-range pigs that we’re working on a transparency model, and we’ve been clear that anyone is welcome to visit and scrutinise our farming practices. Last Sunday we really put the model to the test by hosting our first Eat Your Ethics at Jonai Farms (as part of the wonderful Daylesford Macedon Produce Harvest Week Festival)- a real paddock to plate journey for our visitors as we took them on a farm tour, then onto the back patio for a butchering demonstration and barbecue of the chops and ribs they’d just seen me cut up. IMG_1956

In keeping with our general life philosophy, we were keen to do everything ourselves, from bread to boning, scones to slaw.


We greeted our ethical enthusiasts with platters of American-style scones - Jonai ham and cheese for the savoury palates, pumpkin scones for the sweet tooths, and plenty of plunger coffee, and a selection of black or garden-fresh mint tea. I explained the Jonai journey to be ethical farmers, and then we were off to meet the happy piggehs.


We stopped at the empty nursery paddock, where we diligently bring every sow the week before she’s due to farrow after losing one entire litter to foxes out in the back paddocks. We now have five gilts in there all due to farrow within the fortnight - a story I’ll post soon.


We walked our guests along the road we had built at the start of summer to ensure we have bog-free access to our growing herd, then showed them the five paddocks we’ve created out of one 8-acre paddock, plus the 9-acre paddock where Borg still reins supreme with his rotating bevy of beautiful Large Black sows. We’re now hard at work fencing to break that paddock into nine 1-acre paddocks for quicker rotation through winter, when the pigs turn the soil much more quickly.


The aim is to rotate the pigs more quickly to ensure they improve the land rather than degrading it, which can happen from too much rooting or hard pack in the feeding areas. As we move them out of a paddock, we’ll seed fodder crops behind them, reducing our feed inputs and diversifying the pigs’ diet even further when we restock those paddocks a few months later.


Back at the house it was time for the butchering demonstration. I’ve been apprenticing with our butcher Sal, who is generously teaching me the trade in preparation for setting up our own boning room here on the farm. Having now butchered  (or helped butcher) six pigs and one steer, I’m getting the hang of it, but with a huge respect for the skills of this trade!


I showed how to break half a carcass down into the forequarter, the barrel, and the hindquarter, then talked through the cuts, including a discussion of why muscle meat (the shoulder) is tougher but more flavourful, so very responsive to slow cooking for a fabulous result, whereas a rolled leg roast has less flavour, but is much more tender. I may have carried on too much about my preference for the shoulder, as we sold a lot of those at the end of the day, and not a single leg roast!

There were great questions and comments throughout the day, such as when one person watched me bone out the ribs and exclaimed, ‘so that’s all the ribs you get from one pig?’ That’s right - just 14 per side, or 28 ribs per pig, and the first four or five are typically left on the shoulder roasts. And if you have loin chops, you won’t be having the full length of those ribs, and nor will you be having traditional Australian-style bacon, which includes the loin.

Many people’s exposure to pork is predominantly bacon and ham, and plenty of others really only add ribs and chops to that repertoire. Many butchers will simply turn a lot of their shoulders into sausages to account for these preferences. While we love the sausages Sal’s been making for us (seriously, our bratwurst turned me back to sausages, and our new single estate pork and sage sausages with sage from our garden are delicious), we also want people to appreciate all the cuts, not just the primes.

In fact, next week’s Melbourne delivery will be mostly shoulder and leg roasts (and a few remaining packs of chops), as we’re not slaughtering any more pigs until we move the last of these roasts - the bacon disappeared first, ribs were next, and we’re down to our last two blocks of ham and three packs of sausages…

Most of us wouldn’t know what to do with a pig’s head, though many are comfortable with trotters and hocks. We’re lucky to have a great relationship with the wonderful Lake House here in Daylesford, who buys all our heads and trotters to make their sublime ‘Charcuterie’ entrée from our Black pigs - it includes a fromage de tête, a crumbed galette, rillettes, and a black pudding (that sadly isn’t from our pigs’ blood as we have yet to negotiate with the abattoir to secure it). We are delighted to be making full use of the pig (we’ll work on the rest of the offal with the abattoir down the track), and to have our ‘uncommonly delicious’ ethical rare breed pork on such a distinguished and delectable menu!


As the day drew to a close, everyone full of beautiful pork marinated in my secret American-style spicy bbq sauce, slaw made from kohlrabi, celeriac, fuji apples, red onion, chives and cabbage and dressed simply in olive oil, white wine vinegar, salt and pepper, roasted spaghetti squash direct from our garden, and my freshly made sourdough rolls, I think we all felt we’d eaten our ethics with gusto!

Special thanks to my dear mate Bronwyn who came up from Melbourne to help the day run smoothly with her tireless efforts!

Stuart’s generous parents then treated five tired but elated Jonai to a celebratory meal at the Lake House, where we not only got to taste the superior results of rare breed, ethical farming, combined with artistic cookery in the Charcuterie entrée, but an abundance of other beautiful dishes by the talented Lake House team in the warm, convivial setting Alla has created so well. Our brood were suitably impressed with this level of dining, just as the staff were suitably impressed with our brood’s sophisticated palates as they savoured everything from the fromage de tête to eel wrapped in pancetta, and of course left room for plenty of dessert!

We’re already looking forward to hosting the next Eat Your Ethics, and sharing our passion for ethical farming and the finer skills of butchering with more people who can keep spreading the word about how we might best inhabit the planet lightly and deliciously.

And if you want to support our efforts to shorten the supply chain and do on-farm butchery at Jonai Farms while being rewarded with plenty of uncommonly delicious ethical pork, check out our Pozible campaign to fund the project!



The First Pig

"I awake each morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savour the world. This makes it hard to plan my day." E. B. White

Here’s a little irony for you. The quote above (which also graces our homepage) is by E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web, a book about a spider who saves a pig, and about friendship and kindness and love. The little girl Fern, supported by Charlotte’s amazing web-spelling efforts, also spends a great deal of her time and energy saving Wilbur the pig from the usual farm pig’s fate to end up as bacon. And yet White’s sentiment in the quote above so helpfully captures the spirit of what we’re trying to do at Jonai Farms - raise happy pigs who only have ‘one bad day’, and then eat them.

Prudence enjoying the 9 acres she shares with Borg & Pinky Slash Black.

Sorry, Wilbur, but we savour while we save.

If that’s not disconcerting enough, of the pigs who will be slaughtered, we’ve taken to calling all the boys Wilbur, and all the girls Charlotte. Accuracy be damned. And so we found ourselves 15 months after arriving on the farm ready for our first slaughter.

Six months ago, I wrote about our first piglets and all the learning that got us to that point. Since that first, we’ve had another five litters born, though Big Mama’s entire second litter was taken by foxes in the night. She was the first we’d allowed to farrow out in the back paddocks, and it proved to be a huge mistake. The poor sow was distressed for a couple of days, and we were all deeply sad at the senseless loss of so many little piglets. As a result, all sows are brought back to the nursery paddock next to the house to farrow, where we can keep a closer watch while Danny Boy (our Red Heeler) patrols the perimeter.

Our first winter on the farm was an endless series of frosts and Stuart’s regular stress of getting bogged trying to haul feed to the pigs out in the back paddocks. A new road is going in next week to resolve that particular issue.

The orsmkids embracing winter on the farm.

We watched too much Portlandia, and Stuart grew a beard and took to milling some of the pig’s grain with an old grinder bought from another pig-farming friend.

Portlandia Farmer Stuart ;-)

We harvested our first full crop of Calabrian garlic, courtesy of the charming Stefano Manfredi on a visit to his charming Bells at Killcare in 2010.

Calabrian garlic

Holgate Brewery kept us in spent brewer’s grain as a proportion of the pigs’ diet - keep an eye out for Jonai Farms pork sausages on their menu soon…

Pilsner-fed pork (and that's not just us Jonai...)

And at last, spring came, the pigs were big enough, and it was time to test out our systems (and taste our pork!) before commencing sales next month.


Stuart took one of the Wilburs to Diamond Valley abattoir in Laverton, where he was satisfied with the professional and humane handling of the pig as he was escorted in. The pig didn’t appear stressed, and everything went smoothly. The next day, he picked up the carcass (split lengthways in half, cleaned and de-haired with the head removed - though we had requested the head back - we need to formalise arrangements with them if we want offal). He then collected me from work (I work five days a week - three in the city, two from home - a story I will tell soon about how many farms are surviving only by bringing in other income), and we arrived home around 6pm to commence butchering.



From paid labour to labour of love, I thought. :-)


The kids were excited, and remarkably philosophical about the first Jonai pig to end up on the butcher’s block. It’s obvious that our message has been absorbed intact - they are a lot more comfortable eating animals who have lived good lives than those who haven’t. We all found the butchering process fascinating.


At around 9pm, the pig was fully butchered into shoulder roasts, Boston butt and tenderloins (saved for sausages), belly for rillette, belly for bacon, loin rack roasts, leg roasts, hocks and trotters. We quickly cooked up the spare ribs with salt and pepper on the barbecue and served them with grilled polenta as a little tasty reward for our efforts, delighted to have our first sample of Jonai pork and to find it to be delicious!

spare ribs & grilled polenta

The next night I roasted one of the rack roasts, which you can see was luscious…

Loin rack roast

Next came jars of rillette for chrissy pressies for the fam...


A shoulder roast cooked on a bed of Jonai-garden-fresh leek, celery, fennel, garlic, and tarragon, plus cinnamon and star anise was the centrepiece of the extended family christmas lunch…

Roast shoulder on Jonai garden greens...

Finally it was time to make sausages, on the first free day since slaughter. Many hands made… if not light work… at least loads of fun with our assortment of grinders - the clear winner was actually the oldest of the three! Bratwurst, chorizo and Jonai garlic sausages have all since been enjoyed by many, and soon diners at Holgate will be enjoying these and other variants as well.

recipes & implementsMany hands

Old mincer chorizo links chopping garlic

Atticus mincing


bratwurst & cabbage

Our first bacon is too salty, and we let it dry out a bit much in the fridge, resulting in more of a pancetta. It’s been a welcome ingredient in such delights as my first ever pork pot pie (which also featured a luscious stock from the trotters - thanks @tomatom for the inspiration and recipe!), though less welcome to grace the plate with fried eggs. We’ll work on our recipe before moving into selling cured smallgoods in a few months.



And so we’ve done it. We’re truly eating paddock to plate - homegrown single estate sausages, if you will. And we’re ready to sell this wonderful pork to the public, starting in a fortnight. We’ll post a price list and details of how we’ll be selling (small, medium and large boxes of mixed cuts and sausages) in the next week.

Those who have expressed interest, I promise there is a newsletter coming soon as well! If you haven’t already expressed interest and would like to, you can do so by emailing

It’s a pleasure raising your pork, ethical omnivores! :-)


P.S. A big thank you to so many for the support and advice through our first butchering, but especially to the unwavering enthusiasm and recipes from @nopigtoobig, aka James Whetlor!



Pigs and chicks and cattle, oh my!

Yesterday I spent the better part of the day watching chicks hatch. My commitment, however, paled in comparison to Antigone's, who was awake and perched over the incubator at 5:45am, patiently watching the dear little beaks as they worked at the arduous task of birth from a hard shell. I never really thought about just how hard it is for birds to be born, and how different to a human birth, where the mama does the hard work while the bub copes with the big squeeze. Chicks are these tiny, weak, and fragile creatures, struggling to get a start on life in the open air. It was one of the most enthralling days I've had, perfectly rounded out sitting in the paddock in the evening with a glass of wine watching the pigs adjust after we separated Borg to keep him from impregnating Big Mama too soon.

What an enormous learning curve the first month of being 'real' farmers with livestock has been! We came here to be pig farmers, but ended up with cattle nearly a month before pigs, and here we are, finally on the land, experiencing our first time without chickens in over a decade! And then there's the dog...

So Danny Boy came first. Like many new farmers, we reckoned we needed a cattle dog if we were going to have stock. We may have been wrong. We've learned that Australian Cattle Dogs (the real name of Heelers) are so deeply bred to round up stock that it takes some concerted effort to teach them not to chase them unless you want them to. It took two steers jumping through the fences to teach us this lesson. A few days of taking Danny Boy on the lead amongst the cattle seems to have mostly taught him that they're not fair nipping game (thanks to @kristinmoore2 & @Colvinius for the tips!). We're still working on that in regards to the parade of children regularly gracing the farm, but he's learning...

The Lowlines were second. On a rainy, muddy day, we set out with the Volvo ('spot the rookies', I tweeted), picked up our hired livestock trailer, and brought the neat dozen home in two shifts, with the Volvo straining at the tonnage all the way, in trepidation lest we got bogged backing up to the boggy yards.

Alas, all went well and our boys are gaining rapidly. They're 4-7 months old, and will be with us for over a year, serving as excellent lawnmowers on our luscious grass before most are sold for beef locally and one for our own fodder for the year. In the meanwhile, I wake most mornings to a glorious sunrise while the 'cows are in the meadow, eating buttercups.'

Finding it a bit difficult to source heritage chooks nearby, we decided to go the route of fertile eggs. Stuart picked up a dozen Speckled Sussex and half a dozen Auracana eggs from a breeder in Woodend, who threw in a couple of bantam Auracanas as well. Those are the ones we're watching hatch at the moment, which is not only fascinating, but also no end of stress for those of us who are over endowed with empathy. It is excruciating to watch these tender new lives struggle to stand up on the first day, and losing one as it was hatching for reasons beyond us was very sad for everyone. I'm a little worried about one of the Sussex at the moment as well...

We had another dozen Plymouth Rock fertile eggs posted to us from Wallan, and much to our dismay received the carton with five breakages. As these breeds go for $45 a dozen, that's a pretty bad result, and we won't be doing mail order again. In fact, having watched these little daily miracles once, we'll let the hens do the work to hatch in future, and the incubator is now slated for cheese making.

But finally, the pigs. Oh, the glorious pigs!

Our six beautiful Large Blacks, a boar and five gilts, arrived late one night from the breeder in Bendigo, and hit the paddock eating. I could watch them for hours, whether they're sleeping in a porcine sardine arrangement (a phrase offered by the wonderful @th3littleredhen),

trotting across the paddock, ears flopping madly enough that I'm sure pigs do fly, or simply eating like pigs. We're learning their different grunts and squeals, and they're treating us like one of the family, eagerly stepping on our toes as we go in to feed them their morning and evening grains, often wet with whey from my cheese making or a tea of garlic, ginger and fennel for the colds two picked up in transit.

I had to go to Adelaide for an international education conference last week, and my waking thought was, 'oh, I hope I'm in time for sunrise and then I'll go see the pigs!' followed by 'oh, I'm in Adelaide, <sadface>'. Atticus, with the most finely tuned animal whisperer aura in the family, spends hours amongst the pigs, usually on all fours, mimicking their swinish habits.


As I'm writing this, our dairy farmer neighbour has just driven 20 Friesians over to agist on our side of the volcano. We struck this deal a week ago, cross-armed and broad stanced next to the tractor, when he delivered us a couple rounds of hay for pig bedding. It suits us all, as we need stock to eat more of the abundant feed in our paddocks and his animals need more feed. So now when I look up the hill past my darling black pigs, it's speckled with the rurally romantic view of gorgeous black and white dairy cows.

So is farming life all we thought it would be? Absolutely, and then some. It's a huge (and welcome) learning curve, and the reality of no travel for awhile is sinking in, but our only regret so far is that we didn't make this move sooner.

That's it for now, I've got chicks and pigs to watch...