Before we even started homesteading, I had a handwoven basketful of homesteader skills already under my hand-tooled leather belt. Not only did I make soap, but I made it out of tallow and lard that I rendered myself, and I made jams, sauces, and marinades out of the fruits and vegetables I grew myself. Long before we bought the farm, we even cultured an enthusiasm for fermentation (see what I did there?), from sauerkraut to mustard to salsa to kombucha.
I often tell people that I feel like I was born in the wrong century, but grateful for the option to wear pants nonetheless.
These are the skills that people ask questions about during happy hour, and friends not infrequently tell us, “Your’e amazing/fascinating/impressive because of all of the things you know how to do. I would really love to learn how to do ____ someday.”
(a. We’re not amazing, fascinating, or impressive. We’re actually pretty boring. We’re just driven by a combination of curiosity and urgent necessity. b. Anyone can do it, most of it isn’t hard, and there’s probably a YouTube video that will tell you how to do it. If you own a stove and want to learn how to can your own jam, there is absolutely nothing stopping you.)
But there are other homesteading skills that no one envies, and most friends would prefer that we did not bring up over cocktails. Some of these skills are too mundane (want to know how to tie a baling knot, anyone?), too niche (let me know if you want to chat about methods of building a well-located hugelkultur guild), or too icky.
You knew this was coming.
In just the past 3 months, I had to learn how to tag a pig’s ear (not nearly as bad as I expected), give a pig an injection (so much worse than I expected), and do a necropsy on a dead chicken. These are the skills that no one ever says “I really wish I knew how to ____.”
Ear tagging is pretty straightforward. There are tools designed specifically for this application. They are very similar in appearance and design to a paper hole punch, and the end result is a plastic tag that is securely fastened onto the animal’s newly pierced ear. I did it while the pigs were eating dinner, and while they each squealed in disapproval during the piercing part, they quickly resumed eating and seemed to forget about the new quarter inch hole in their ear immediately.
I thought that giving a pig a shot would be basically the same process. After all, the needle is a much smaller gauge than an ear punch, so I expected that I’d be able to slip it into the fat of their necks while they were eating and they’d be none the wiser. This was a bad assumption. That needle barely punctured the epidermis before the pig bolted away, squealing and spooked. I called in reinforcements. Josh and I made a plan that he would catch the pigs, tackle them to the ground, and hold them still while I gave the injection. We tried again.
Here’s the thing about catching a pig: there’s very little to hold onto. They are round and extraordinarily dense, so even if you can grab a hind leg, a 50 lb piglet can thrash you a bit while it struggles to get away. In the end we administered the selenium injection to 3 of our 5 pigs, and Josh was head-butted twice, slightly concussed, and covered in manure when it was over. We decided to go back for the other 2 pigs at a later date, but we haven’t yet talked ourselves into trying again.
And the necropsy. Well, meat chickens have a pretty high mortality rate. In past years, we had good survival rates for our meat chickens, so we thought we just had this chicken farming thing nailed and everyone else was doing something wrong. But this year was a different story. Our meat chicks started out strong: they were the healthiest liveliest chicks we’ve had. They thrived. And after feeding them for weeks, when they were almost big enough to butcher, they started dying. We ended up losing 15%, which is statistically on par for this type of animal, but it was much higher mortality than we’d ever experienced before. We weren’t sure what was killing these chickens, so at the encouragement of a farm mentor, I pulled on my big girl pants and cut apart one of the recently dead chickens to figure out what went wrong.
You might wonder why butchering a chicken to eat is any different than cutting apart a recently dead chicken, and in many ways it’s not different at all. But there is a definite ick factor, because you don’t know what you’re going to find. Will something gross squirt out at me? (Probably.) Will the organs look diseased? (There’s a good chance.) I did it. I got squirted. The organs looked bad. But I figured out what caused the death, and I’m now a better and more knowledgable farmer because of it.
In our near-term future, we will need to learn to castrate piglets, and if we get sheep next year, then we’ll have to learn to trim hooves, which I understand smells dreadfully cheesy. At times the list of “icky” homesteading skills seems to outnumber the list of fun skills, but unfortunately, the icky ones are often the ones you can’t avoid.