7,000 mink pelts, worth $100,000, are the year's harvest of one modern fur-growing establishment
ROYD E. BEAMISH
I STOOD on a December afternoon in a small wooden hut. through whose one small window the bright winter sun gave but faint illumination. On wooden racks about the room, hundreds of mink pelts, turned neatly inside out, hung in orderly arrangement, and the atmosphere was sharp with the raw, penetrating smell of freshly pelted furs.
A man in overalls sat at a bench, knife in hand, working with sure unhurried movements as he stripped the pelts from the last few mink that had formed a glossy black mound on the bench beside him. More than $5,(XX) worth of furs were on the rack by the time his operations had been completed.
It might have been a trapjxir's cabin anywhere in Northern Canada, after a season of exceptional bounty.
But the illusion of a trapper's cabin was soon shattered by the man on my right. Attired in a dark business suit, grey topcoat, hat and gloves, his manner betokening the successful businessman, he made the scene incongruous by his very presence. His words did the rest.
“We’ll make it the even seven thousand this year,” he said to the worker in overalls. “That means about four more days pelting, dwsn’t it?”
Seven thousand mink jx-lts! More than $1(X).(XX) worth of fur! The glamour of the North fell away from the cabin and revealed it for what it was—-the pelting house of the Imperial Mink Farm, said to be the largest farm of its kind in the world, located less than two miles from the city limits of Fort William, where 3(X) mink a day are prepared for
market during the pelting season. Here, as in 8.000 similar fox and mink establishments across Canada, the fur trade has become, indeed, Big Business.
They call them fur farms-, these establishments where fur-bearing animals, once caught only by trap and snare, are bred to provide a symbol of luxury for the women of the world, and the simile is an apt one. For, like the modern farmer, the fur breeder has enlisted the aid of science and commerce in his work—the former to improve his product, the latter to provide its market. Like the farmer, too, he can depend upon a certain “yield” per acre of ground, and he can forecast to a nicety the probable extent of his year’s “crop” months ahead of time. He can specialize in one particular fur as a farmer can grow one crop, or he can diversify his interests through “mixed farming.” But, regardless of what course he adopts, the breeder has advanced to the stage where his product of furs has become the nation’s new harvest, through which 40 per cent of the Dominion’s fur wealth is realized each year.
The richness ot that harvest is astonishing to one who has not kept in touch with the amazing growth of fur farming in Canada. In 1937 it topped the six million dollar mark, and this year it will be even higher. It gave employment to more than 2,(XX) men (not including the owners of small farms, who operate them unassisted) with a payroll of more than a million dollars. And, at the last “census” there were 7,(XX) fox farms and nearly l.(X)0 mink farms, housing stock valued at ten millions of dollars.
Their growth over the last twenty years is equally
amazing, for in 1920, when the first census was taken, pelts from fur farms represented a scant 3 per cent of the year’s total fur production. In 1927 fur farms were producing 6 per cent of the total, and the following year saw a jump to 11 jx;r cent. In the past ten years that percentage has been almost quadrupled.
Fox farming leads the field by a big majority, as it has since fur farming began, but booming down the back stretch at the moment is the mink farmer, threatening to offer stiff competition in a very few years. Ten years ago there were fifteen times as many foxes on Canadian fur farms as there were mink; today the ratio is only four to one, with 155.000 foxes reported, as compared to 44,000 mink.
Breeding by Bookkeeping
QUARTER of those 44,000 silky-coated little animals are concentrated on a single farm, the Imperial Mink Farm, to whose pelting house we have just been introduced. Started as a hobby in 1933 by E. E. Johnson, a Fort William timber operator who was looking for diversion, the farm has developed into an undertaking which employs twenty-five men the year round, with the current year’s crop of pelts estimated in the neighborhood of 7,000. It is the largest mink farm in North America at least, and prominent fur dealers say it is the largest in the world.
Sixty rows of sturdily constructed wooden pens, with thirty pens in each row, house most of the 10,000 mink which were listed on the Johnson farm census this year, but in spite of the size of the undertaking, the farm is operated with a precision that overlooks not the smallest detail.
Any other method of management would, in fact, be impossible. With more than a million pounds of food consumed each year, some two thousand matings to be supervised each breeding season, six or seven thousand pelts to be prepared for market every autumn, and a complete regrading of every mink on the ranch to be carried out once a year, accuracy is the first essential in management.
This is particularly so in view of the selective breeding which is carried out to improve the coats of each succeeding generation. Female mink deficient in any particular quality are always mated to males in which the necessary quality is predominant, so that the resulting offspring show a better balance and a higher grade of coat.
To R. H. Beattie, superintendent of the ranch, falls the task of recording this wealth of detail, and his system of bookkeeping, which keeps track of every mink from birth until death, is both amazing in its scope and unswerving in its accuracy.
Twelve years experience in the fur business and a close study of modern methods of fur raising, backed by nine years as an accountant in a Dundee jute factory, have given Bob Beattie not only a comprehensive knowledge of fur farming, but a patience and skill with figures to record the necessary information and interpret it to the benefit of his farm.
One mink looks very much like another to the novice, and even the experienced mink breeder would have difficulty in identifying each individual animal on a ranch of ten thousand, but the records look after that end of it.
The system is simplicity itself. Each of the 1,800 breeding pens and the 4,000 pelting pens is numbered permanently, and each mink bought or born on the ranch is also given a number. A metal tag bearing the mink’s number is attached to its cage, and should the mink be moved to another pen, the metal tag goes right along with it.
In the office, each mink is allotted a filing card bearing its own number and the number of the pen it is occupying at the time. When the mink is moved, the change is recorded on the card. Thus the whereabouts of each individual mink can be learned at a glance.
Such information, however, while helpful, is by no means complete, and the card goes further toward supplying data on the animal in question, for each mink, in addition to its registration number, is given an identification number which tells at a glance its origin, age and grade.
Continued on page 23
Continued from page 10
The original stock on the Johnson farm came from four sources—Quebec, Labrador, Yukon and Alaska—and so each mink is tagged with the letter Q, L, Y or A, depending on which family it belongs to. Occasionally throughout the record book are seen numbers beginning with the letters “QY” or some other combination of the four, which means that the mink in question was the result of crossbreeding. These are comparatively few, however, for experience has shown the ranch officials that the four strains do not mingle well.
Following the capital letter identifying the strain of the animal is a small letter which tells the year of its birth. Mink marked “a” were born in 1934, “b” in 1935. “c” in 1936 and “d” in 1937. The mother’s registration number completes identification.
Such a record card might carry the following entry:
Pen: 2264 Mink No. 6247 Key No. Yc—1883
From this card the owner would know that the mink in question was of Yukon stock, born in 1936, that its mother’s number was 1883 and that it was located in pen 2264. If the breeder were anxious to identify brothers and sisters of the animal for breeding purposes, reference to the breeding chart for 1936 would show how many kits had been born to mink number 1883 in that year and what their registration numbers were.
The information contained on these cards really holds the key to successful operation of the farm, for it makes possible a rigid selectivity for breeding, by means of which the Johnson farm has been enabled to improve the coat and grade of its animals each year.
“We have stepped up the average quality of our pelts from ten to twenty-five per cent each year,” Mr. Johnson explained as we made our way around the ranch on our first visit. “This year sixty per cent of our pelts will grade ‘extra dark, silky’ or better.”
To accomplish this consistent improvement. experienced mink graders are brought to the farm every year from New York. They make a complete tour of the pens, checking every mink, and recording its grade. Grade numbers range all the way from 1-plus to 1, 2, 3. 4 and 5.
A 1-plus mink is known as “extra extra dark.” No. 1 mink are “extra dark.” No. 2 are dark. No. 3 are dark brown. No. 4 are brown and No. 5 are pale. Fours and fives
are culled from the stock immediately and are never used for breeding. This year the Johnson farm had not a single mink that graded below No. 3.
The task of identifying and grading ten thousand mink is a big one, but feeding them is a job that assumes rather terrifying proportions. Mink are not easy to raise under any circumstances, and unless their diet is nutritious and perfectly balanced they will not thrive. As a result, much thought and study goes into the preparation of their food, which must be prepared in quantities requiring almost machinelike precision for satisfactory results.
"DIVE thousand pounds of food is
consumed by Mr. Johnson’s animals every day, and it must be freshly prepared for every feeding. Made up of a wide variety of food materials, the rations contain every vitamin and all basic elements in exact proportion, but those vitamins do not get there by accident.
Milk, eggs, vegetables, tomatoes, fish, liver, heart, meat, lungs, tripe, brains, blood, bone, cereals and kelp all play a part in providing nourishment for the mink. Even cod-liver oil is included to give the little animals their "sunshine vitamin” in the winter months.
The mink’s diet is planned to conform as much as possible to the sort of food he would eat in his natural habitat, and so fish becomes a major item. Sixty-five per cent of the average mink’s food allowance is generally made up of fish in some form.
On a ranch of 10,000 mink, the item reaches staggering proportions. Three hundred and sixty tons of herring were purchased from Indians in the district last year, and 450 tons will be consumed in the coming year. Fish is purchased in bulk when the herring run is on, and an entire section of the farm’s huge cold storage plant is required to keep them over the year.
Meat accounts for another 25 per cent of the diet, plus 9 per cent vegetables and cereals, with the addition of one per cent bone meal. Kelp, a seaweed product, is added for its iodine content, and cod-liver oil is included during the winter. Powdered milk and fluid milk are included in the 9 per cent devoted to cereals and vegetables.
After all ingredients have been mixed, the milk is added to bring the food to its proper consistency, and this is a more important matter than would seem at first glance. In the pelting pens, which are simply wire enclosures, the food is placed
on top of the netting which forms the roof of the pxm. The mesh of the wire is small, and if the food mixture is thick enough it will not fall through. The mink simply ¡xjkes its nose through the mesh and nibbles off small hits at a time. If the ftxxi is too thick it cannot be drawn through the wire, and if it is too thin it will run through of its own accord and be wasted. Trial and error have determined the proper consistency.
Cod-liver oil is fed only between December and April, for its consumption has a tendency to give a yellow tinge to the mink’s fur, and this would affect the price received for pelts. Hence it is not added to the diet until pelting is over for the year, and it is withdrawn in the spring so that the animals will have seven or eight months in which their coats can regain normal coloring.
The balanced ration has a double purjxise. The first objective is to get all the animals “in good coat” SÍ) that their pelts will bring the highest prices in their respective grades, while the second is to aid in the production of sound, healthy kittens. The litters of improperly nourished adult mink will reflect their parents’ shortcomings, and good health is a prime requisite to strong, sturdy offspring.
rT'HE breeding season occurs in late winter or early spring, but preparations have been made long before that time. Selective breeding principles are followed rigidly, and this involves patient study of each mink’s record card before the matings are arranged. Each male is graderl to stud three females, and the four are placed in a four-compartment breeding jx*n.
A separate breeding chart is kept for each row of pens, with one assistant in charge of two or more rows. The assistant keeps a record of each mating, and the probable date of whelping is calculated from this record. The mink’s period of gestation is between forty-five and fiftyfive days
The mink in breeding pens live a life of comparative luxury. The pens are substantially constructed of wood and wire netting, raised several feet from the ground. They measure about five feet square, and each is divided into four compartments. Nesting boxes are attached to the sides of the pen proper, and these are filled with fresh straw at intervals. A feed trough is provided in each runway, and drinking vessels are also attached to each compartment of the pen.
An average litter of mink numbers about five or six kits, but may range anywhere from one to ten. In handling large numbers of mink on a modern farm, the average over-all is close to four kits from
each mating. At the Johnson ranch, 1,964 female mink were bred last year, producing 7,021 kits, for an average of 3.6 per mink.
Three pxr cent of the young die in the nest, and a mortality of 2 per cent can be expected before the young have reached the adult stage, so that breeders estimate a loss of 5 per cent of their new stock annually.
This high death rate is one of the principal hazards in mink raising, for while it is difficult to get below the 5 per cent average, the slightest inefficiency in care or feeding can quite easily double the toll.
The twenty-five assistants who are employed all year round are kept busy enough in spiring and summer in the rearing and feeding of the valuable little animals and in nursing them through their difficult early days; but in the fall their duties are increased threefold, for then the pxlting season begins.
Mink pxlts reach the prime stage some time between October 1 and December 1 as a rule, and when coats are prime the business of taking pxlts must get under way without any delay in order to have as many as possible ready for the first fur market.
After having decided on the number of mink to be pxlted during the season, the superintendent must check through his records to select the animals to be killed. All culls are singled out first, and from the females the weakest are eliminated, while the best are retained for breeding the following year. Males are dealt with in a slightly different manner. As only one male is kept for each three females, the superintendent simpfly selects the best specimens for breeding and the remainder are automatically ticketed for pelting.
The culling process means a loss of revenue, for the greater the percentage of culled px'lts in a season's take, the lower will be the average price per skin; but the difference is made up in pelting males. Owing to the large number available for pelting, many choice pelts are found among them, and these tend to raise the price level enough more than to offset any loss through culling.
Farm Pelts Are Best
' I 'HE combination of selective breeding and careful culling has had a visible effect on market prices obtained for mink from fur farms, as in almost every case a farm-bred mink pxlt will bring a higher pince than one trapped in its natural state. Last year the average price p>er pielt received for all mink—farm or trappied— was $11. while the average price for mink from farms was $16. This year the average price for mink pielts is $16. but mink farm pielts are averaging almost $20.
The keen eye of Bob Beattie sets the date for pielting at the Johnson farm. From
mid-September he piatrols the mink piens incessantly, regarding each animal with an expxrienced eye as the coats rapidly reach perfection in color and quality.
“They’re prime,” he announces eventually, and the pelting season has officially begun.
The animals which have been selected for killing have been segregated into the 4,000 pelting piens long before the actual pelting begins, where they have been fed a special diet, prepared to give their coats the lustre and silkiness so much desired by furriers.
The pxlting pxns are much less elaborate in their construction than the breeding pens, consisting merely of a metal frame around which wire netting has been placed on four sides. At one end, near the top, a small hole about three inches in diameter offers the only means of exit, and back of this is hung the wooden nesting box, its entrance directly in front of the opxning in the wire.
When the occupant of a cage is to be pxlted, an assistant shakes the nesting box to drive the mink into the p>en and then removes the box. The mink seeks to escapx through the hole, and as his head appxars in the opxning, the assistant seizes the animal by the neck.
A pair of heavy leather mitts are the assistant’s only armor, and if he does not catch the animal in just the right spxit, he receives a bite for his carelessness. The mitts are good protection, but the mink’s sharp tiny teeth pierce the leather often enough to inflict not a few painful punctures on the men’s hands and wrists. When p>elting is over for the year, every employee has his hands dotted with little scars.
The wounds heal quickly enough and the attendants become so accustomed to the bites they scarcely notice them, but the mitts take most pxinishment. Two weeks is the average period of usefulness of a pair of mitts, and some are tom to shreds before that time.
Three hundred mink are pxlted each day at the Johnson ranch, with the pielting season lasting from two weeks to a month, depending on the number to be skinned. This year, with 7.000 to be prepared for market, pielting operations occupied nearly four weeks.
The animals are skinned as quickly as they are killed, the valuable pielt being removed in a single piece by turning it inside out as it is stripped from the mink. They are stored in cold storage rooms on the ranch until all have been pelted, following which they are scraped and made ready for market.
Somewhere in Canada, mink or fox, marten, fisher, muskrat or beaver are probably being pelted today, for the harvest is on from Coast to Coast at just this season of the year. It’s a $6,000.000 harvest—Canada’s new cash crop!