Category Archives: Poultry

From Farm to Table

Full disclosure… some parts of this post may be difficult to read.  Discretion is advised. This post is an effort to educate and inform about how our meat is raised and processed and how that differs from industrial practices.

Processing day is the hardest on the farmer.  It’s a great day in that it’s the day you get to provide your customers with the naturally-grown meat that they have been patiently waiting on for months.  It’s a great day in that we get paid for our hard work and effort producing all the wonderful food.  But it’s a terrible day in that the farmer has to load up the animals he has carefully tended for their entire lives and take them to be killed.

That’s a very hard thing to do.  These animals are food animals.  That’s the only reason they exist.  Without farmers, there would not be enough food to furnish all people on earth with food.  Farmers actually produce a surplus of food in relation to the caloric needs of the 7+ billion people on the planet.  The reason starvation exists in some areas is a function of distribution, equity, and social justice, not a shortage in the food supply.  Moreover, at Good Life Ranch we raise heritage livestock breeds.  These breeds were the ones bred to survive in the time before antibiotics, wormers, and grain feeding regimens.  As such, they perform better under natural management conditions than the modern breeds that have been developed with these modern crutches to help prop them up.  But in a twist that is hard for some people to understand, to preserve these breeds we have to create a demand for their products.  We have to create a market for the healthier meats our great-grandparents used to eat.  If there is no market for their meat, these heritage breeds will disappear forever.

The disappearance of heritage livestock breeds would be an unmitigated disaster.  Their genomes are a repository for traits that are diluted or entirely absent in the industry-standard modern breeds.  These new breeds are so specialized that their narrowed gene pools may offer little in the way of genetic diversity to withstand new epidemics, the failure of antibiotics, or the shift in climate now occurring worldwide.  Heritage breeds, taken in total, offer a far wider range of genetic variation to withstand our changing world.

As an example, we raised the modern Cornish x White Rock broiler chickens for a time – the same birds that are the only ones available if you buy your meat from a grocery store, a restaurant, or even the vast majority of small organic farms.  They grow fast, they’re ready for processing in 6 weeks, they are efficient in terms of feed, and they are resistant to the crowding and filth found in industrial poultry houses.  So what’s the problem with them?  They don’t do well outside when they have to act like chickens.  This hybrid breed has lost its ability to thrive under natural conditions.  They die in the cold.  They die in the rain.  They die in the heat.  They can’t walk well.  They aren’t fast enough to catch bugs, and the ones they can catch aren’t sufficient to sustain their rapid growth rates.  In short, if a farmer wants to rotate birds around pasture outdoors without using small pens crowded with 100 birds this is NOT the breed for you.

We now raise slower-growing, more flavorful, hardier heritage breeds.  But it is hard to sell them, even though customers say that they want them.  They don’t look like grocery store birds.  They have a narrower breast, larger legs and thighs, and yellow fat from the grasses, seeds, and insects that they have foraged.  They are more expensive to produce, since they live more than twice as long, and therefore they have to be more expensive.  Also, we have found that most customers have never acquired the cooking skills to make use of them.  Many customers do not know how to break down a whole chicken to cook it or how to cook leaner meats more slowly to render the unsaturated fats and release the superior flavor.  Education is needed.  We must relearn the skills of the older generations.

We just dropped a pair of steers off at the processor’s last week, so let me walk you through what happens during all steps of the process.  I’ll use beef as our example, since that is what we are helping customers with right now.

First, at Good Life Ranch purebred Red Poll cattle are raised on grass alone for 30 months.  The herd gets a fresh allotment of pasture every day to move away from manure and to allow the recovery of the grass sward.  They have water and free-choice access to mineral salt.  They quickly learn that their farmer coming means a shift to fresh grass and become very calm very quickly.  Cows are very easy to teach a routine.  The older cattle teach the younger ones, and our entire herd knows the drill now.  They know what area I am taking them to next and wait patiently for me to open it up to them.  They live together as a herd and are never alone.  Even our bulls are never kept alone.  They have a bull herd during the non-breeding season and then rotate with the cows during the summer and fall.

Our beef animals are born on pasture during the warmth of late spring and grow up alongside their mothers, older siblings, and even grandmothers and great-grandmothers living a cow’s dream life for 2.5 years.  This is in contrast to most beef animals, which are processed much earlier.  The reason for this is simple physiology.  If a farmer (or, usually, a feedlot) puts a beef animal on a diet full of grain, that animal can be force-fattened while it is young.  Fat and marbling can be gained simply by overfeeding the animal.  This leads to all sorts of health problems for the beef animal, and it must be processed while it is very young before its rumen and liver fail from processing such an unnaturally high-calorie grain diet.  With a grass-only beef like ours, the farmer must allow time for the animal to complete the growth of its skeletal and muscular systems.  In other words, once the animal has reached its adult frame size fat will be added naturally.  But not sooner.  Part of the reputation grass-fed beef has for being “too lean” or for having “off-flavors” comes from farmers who are still slaughtering their beef at an age that is too young for the animal to be ready to eat.  It hasn’t marbled, it hasn’t fattened, it hasn’t developed flavor yet.

Before we take a large animal to the processor, we have to walk through the butchering instructions with our customers.  We have make sure that the customers understand where all the cuts of meat come from.  It’s really enlightening for some people when they learn how few quality steaks actually come from a single beef, for instance.  They quickly gain an appreciation for why steaks are so much more expensive than ground meat.  The customers also have to understand that the more meat they get back as steaks and roasts, the less ground beef there will be.  We also try to convince our customers to learn how to cook the offerings that most people do not want, in order to make better use of the whole animal.  These are useful, healthy, but underutilized items like soup bones, heart, liver, oxtail, shanks, and head.

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A sample cut sheet from one of the processors we use

Once we have the processing instructions, we load the steer into the trailer.  This is done as calmly as possible because stress hormones actually toughen the meat and impart off-flavors.  We create a chute with corral panels, put some nice hay into the trailer to tempt the steers to enter on their own, and then shut the door once they are busy munching.  Then we take them on the short drive to the processor’s.  Both processors we use are 10-20 minutes away, so it’s a short drive.  Usually the steers are still eating the hay when we arrive.

At the processor’s the cattle are walked off of the trailer.  They are kept calm and where they can see each other.  They are herd animals; they have grown up together all of their lives; they don’t like to be separated.  We deliberately work with processors that treat our animals as humanely as possible.  This is a bad day, to be sure.  But we want the kill to be swift, painless, and humane.  We won’t use a processor who bungles this part.  We know of some who use cattle prods, crowding, yell, scream, and basically terrify the animals into position.  We refuse to work with them.  Our cattle have never had a bad day up until now, and we make sure our processors understand that and eliminate the suffering.  I watch.  It happens very fast and, while I cannot say for certain, there does not seem to be any pain involved.  It is as different from what happens in the videos of industrial slaughterhouses as I can make it.  Watch videos from slaughterhouses released by whistle-blowers, PETA, and others and you will immediately see the difference.

Afterwards, the beef is skinned and the innards are removed.  The hide goes to become leather and the innards are composted or incinerated.  We prefer the processor who composts the innards because then that material can be reused to add fertility to the land.

The beef is then halved lengthwise and the 2 halves are hung in a cooling room for around 2 weeks.  The timeframe can be longer or shorter, depending upon the fat covering on the animal, but 2 weeks is about standard.  This hanging processes ages the meat and adds flavor and tenderness.  It is at this point that the carcass can be graded as well.  Grades are assigned based on the fat content and marbling of the meat.

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Good Life Ranch grass-only beef in the cooling room

The photo above shows one half of one of the steers we took in hanging in the cooling room.  I apologize for not being able to fit the entire length of the animal in one shot, but the room was small and iPhone cameras are what they are.

You’ll notice that the beef is lean, but still has a nice covering of fat.  The fat coverage was nicer than the other beeves in the cooling room, none of which were grass-finished.  It is also yellowish.  That yellow color comes from the carotenes in the plants that the animal has been eating its entire life and is the source of the grass-fed flavor and healthier fat profile (omega-3 to omega-6 ratio) of a grass-only animal.  All the other beeves in the room other than our 2 had solid white fat, which means it is more saturated and heavier in omega-6’s.  Those animals had eaten more grain than grass.  There wasn’t a lot of difference in the amounts of fat between the different animals, only in the color and texture.  The difference in texture was unbelievable to me.  I apologize for not taking a picture of a grain-finished beef for comparison.  I just didn’t think about it at the time.

After the hanging process has tenderized and added flavor to the meat, the butcher makes the cuts of meat that the customer has ordered.  He (or she) quarters the animal, trims and cuts the steaks and roasts, and then grinds the burger.  The photo below shows the portions of the animal from which the various cuts of beef come, or the options the customer and processor have for each area of the animal, depending upon which perspective you are coming.  The processing sheet above reflects these options, although each processor is likely to have created their own sheet and have their own options.

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Beef Made Easy – image from America’s Beef Producers

The meat is then packaged in vacuum bags (some processors use paper if the customer prefers, but the vacuum bags keep freezer burn at bay better) and flash frozen.  It is then ready for the customers to pick up.  They then pay the processor his fees, which for both the processors we use are very reasonable.  The beef will be labeled “Not for Sale” if it was processed under custom inspection, meaning that the customer cannot resell the meat to someone else.  Meat processed by Good Life Ranch for resale at farmers’ markets and The Market on Main in Somerset, KY will have undergone USDA inspection and will be marked as such.

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Packaged beef ready for use. This is ground beef and a chuck roast.

We have found the Red Poll beef to live up to its billing as flavorful and tender.  The first steaks we tried were New York strips, and they were so tender I barely had to use the knife.  It is simply phenomenal.

As you can see, it takes a lot to get beef, or any other meat, from the farm to your plate.  It is our hope at Good Life Ranch to serve customers who want to understand the whole process; who want to eat better quality food; who want to support local farmers; who want to ensure the survival of heritage breeds of livestock and food plants; and who want to make sure that the meat they eat is raised with the upmost in care and compassion.

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Early Winter

It’s been raining for 4 days straight, so I’ve finally found some time to blog.  I may have to cut this short if it keeps raining and try to teach the chickens how to swim.  Sorry for the long absence, but I’ve been teaching Spanish at the high school lately (yikes!) and with the daylight getting shorter each day I just haven’t found the time to put pencil to paper.  Er, fingers to keyboard.

Since the last blog, we’ve mostly put the gardens to bed.  There are still some greens and peas hanging on, but everything else has been chopped and mulched with leaves from the surrounding trees.  I’ve been working really hard on the gardens this summer and fall.  Next year should be our most ambitious gardens yet!  Lindsey’s dad Ronnie wants to help out with the gardens and essentially combine our labor on the gardens here to produce veggies for both of our families.  I’ve prepped the 2 raised bed gardens that we’ve used the whole time we’ve been here, the 3 Sisters garden that we made two years ago, and the new “straw garden” I made last fall and put to its first use this year.  I’ve also “broken ground” on two new gardens that we’ll use for the first time this coming spring.  One will be another standard garden and the other will be a trellis garden for growing vertically-oriented crops like cucumbers, Malabar spinach, peas and beans, and small squashes.  All of our gardens are created by first closely mowing all of the vegetation.  Then we lay down cardboard sheet mulch to block any regrowth (thanks to Jake and Ronnie’s move we’ve had access to a lot of cardboard).  After that I throw on layers of manure and old hay and straw and let that mix compost in place all winter.  Then in the spring, the garden is ready to go!  Plant, mulch, harvest!  All told, next year we should have almost 12,000 ft² of garden space in production next year!

The Food Forest in the backyard is moving along nicely as well.  This year we managed to get almost of the trees planted!  Our ultimate goal here is to teach people that a phenomenal amount of food can be produced in a regular suburban-sized back yard.  When we moved here there were a few raspberries planted in the backyard, but that was it.  Last year we planted grapevines and built an herb spiral with our interns Cameron and Alexa.  This year we got 5 apple trees in the ground (Gala, Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, MacIntosh, and Arkansas Black), 2 plums, 2 sweet cherries, several blueberry bushes, 3 pawpaws, a mulberry, 2 hardy almonds, 2 brown turkey figs, 2 mayhaws, and 2 golden chain trees.  Most of the trees look like sticks right now, although the ones we planted in the spring put on some good growth.  These will be the canopy layer of our Food Forest and we wanted to get them growing as soon as possible since it will take several years for us to begin to see the literal fruits of our labor.  Next year the goal for the Food Forest will be to begin the establishment of the understory plants to grow underneath the trees.  These shorter plants will provide some food, but will also accumulate nutrients, block the grass, and generate mulching material on site.  Right now all the mulch comes from old chicken and rabbit bedding.  These plants will include comfrey, horseradish, rhubarb, Jerusalem artichokes, sea buckthorns, nasturtiums, daffodils, and other shorter plants.  Once the trees get larger, we’ll add some more vining plants for another layer in the forest.

We also got a corral built around the winter quarters for the cattle and goats.  Now the animals should be secure behind a solid physical barrier.  We’ve been using just electric fencing and that isn’t a great winter solution because it doesn’t work very well in the winter.  We can’t keep the batteries charged well in the cold and snow shorts the fence out on occasion.  But now we shouldn’t have to worry about escapes due to faulty fencing.  We’ll be down to just human error now.  No place else for me to hide!

We are continuing to learn about pigs.  I really like them!  They eat a lot, but they are very useful and I can see them improving our woodlots paddock by paddock.  Now if their jaws could just get strong enough to actually crack all of the black walnuts they have access to we could cut the feed bill down significantly!

Finally, we’ve adopted a cow for the short term.  One of our Amish neighbors needed his cow bred, so we traded out our bull Russell’s stud services for some hay.  I didn’t ask Russell for his permission, but I can attest to the fact that he did not mind a bit.  I like this deal a lot.  Our bull knocks up someone else’s heifer and we get a half a winter’s worth of hay from it.  Only with cows…

 

Beginning our Forage Forest

So I don’t know how many readers have actually been able to visit GLR yet, but for those who haven’t gotten the chance…

… It’s a bit hilly, hillbilly.

We have 3 fields/pastures totaling around 40 acres that are relatively flat, but the aren’t all connected.  Plus, we’d like to be able to utilized more of the property for food production.  So here’s the plan, which is now underway.  Barely.

The green highlighted area above the pasture and below the old-growth forest is the area that will become the forage forest.

In the Google Earth snapshot above, the green area represents what will become the forage forest.  It’s an area that was once clear-cut and turned into pasture but over the last 15 years or so has grown up with all manner of brush – young cedars, oaks, poplars, hickories, and some brambles and berries.  When we first moved here I thought we would clear out all of that secondary growth and turn that portion of the hillside below the old-growth forest at the top of the ridge back into pasture for our ruminants.

The problem with that idea is the slope of the land:

Here’s a view of the typical slope we are talking about. It seems much steeper when you’re on site.

I understand that the previous farmers on this property had turned this portion of the farm into pasture, but I also have eyes and can see that all of the topsoil on this slope is not there anymore.  It’s probably been washed down into the creek and off to the Green River.  That slope is just not conducive to short grass.  It needs things with deep roots to hold the topsoil in place.

Those of you who know me know that I like to think about things for long periods of time before taking action.  I’ve been pondering that steep hillside for 3 years now.  I’ve thought… pasture, orchard, grapes(!), water slide into the creek, leave it alone, etc.  Then I came across a book that I think all landowners should read – J Russell Smith’s Tree Crops.  It was written in 1929 and it’s still revolutionary and ahead of its time today.  It has inspired what our hillside will become – a forage forest using native trees to hold the topsoil, provide forage and shelter for our livestock, and provide a microclimate under the canopy into which we can sow annual and perennial ground-level crops.

Here’s the idea:

  1. We utilize the pigs and goats this fall to eat down some of the brush (especially the briars and brambles) and root up the thin soil a bit to help loosen the grip the bunchgrass has on the hillside.  This part is starting to happen as we speak.
  2. This winter, when there’s more room to move around after the leaves are off and the goats and pigs have thinned things out a bit, I will go in there and selectively remove trees.  Most of the cedars will go away to be used as fence posts or be turned into other useful things.  Lindsey likes them to keep moths out of her sweaters.  The best oaks, hickories, and berry patches will stay and the rest of them thinned to give the best trees room and light to grow even better.
  3. After the thinning, we will plant some native forage-producing trees in the gaps created by the thinning process and (for the shade-loving trees) under the canopies of the existing nut trees.  These forage trees will include things like honey locusts, mayhaws, pawpaws, persimmons, crabapples, and mulberries to complement the oaks and hickories.
  4. Underneath the canopy (after the pigs have tilled the soil a little for us) we’ll plant a mix of perennials and annuals that we hope will become a permanent feature of the forest.  We’ll have to manage it carefully for the first five years, but we hope to establish clovers, orchardgrass, alfalfa, Jerusalem artichokes, squashes, berry bushes, turnips, rape, peas, sunflowers, and other little treats in the understory of the forest.
  5. Over time, these planted trees and the existing trees will begin to produce forage that the goats and pigs can self-harvest.  Our plan is to combine the understory plants and the fruit- and nut-fall from the trees and actually not have to feed anything other than what the livestock can gather in the forage forest.

The hard work will come in when we plant the trees.  Kentucky’s Dept of Forestry at least makes it easy to acquire them.  You can order bundles of 100 bare root trees for around $40 from them.  Anybody wanna come help dig this winter?  The hardest part (for me anyway) will be the patience needed to wait for the trees to grow.

So when this forage forest kicks into full production (in like 10 years, *sigh*) our pigs’ year will look like this:

January-February: piglets born, everybody’s in the warm barn, adult pigs eating walnuts saved from October harvest and our extra corn
March:  pigs go into the cattle/goat hayfeeding area to churn compost for us, pigs feeding on the compost and our extra corn
April-May: pigs go onto pasture and start heading towards the forage forest, feeding on grasses & clovers on spring pasture
May-June: pigs go into the forage forest where mayhaws and mulberries are ripe and falling to the ground for them
July-August: mulberries continue to fall, blackberries ripen, ground cover crops plentiful
September: ground cover crops are still going, nut fall is starting, crabapples and pawpaws are dropping off the trees
October: nut fall is in full swing, pigs feast and fatten on hickories, acorns, and hazelnuts
November-December: persimmons and honey locusts drop their bounties, pigs are finished.  Pork is harvested, breeders return to barn.

So that’s the plan – to create a forage forest that produces our pork without any off-farm feed inputs.  With good management, I believe we can also harvest extra fruits and nuts from the forest and run our goats and poultry through the forage forest occasionally as well.  The best part of all of this is that, in addition to producing all of those wonderful products, this plan will actually stabilize that hillside, prevent erosion, shelter our animals, create a corridor to move the cattle through to the back pasture, and provide valuable timber towards retirement time for Lindsey and I.

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2012’s First Internship Session

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For the last 3 weeks we’ve had the pleasure of having 5 interns from the International School of the Americas helping us out on the farm.  Allison Vigil, Jacob Klein, Rachel Seidner, Riley Francis, and Sam Abney have been absolutely wonderful.  They accomplished more than any other group of interns so far – and every group we’ve had has been outstanding!

Some of the things they accomplished while they were here:

  • completed the halfway done Haitian dwelling (separate post coming soon)
  • started and finished an urban slum for Lifestyles Lane (separate post coming soon)
  • planted our 3 Sisters Garden
  • planted our popcorn and sweet potato garden
  • worked with our pigs and got them loaded up to go to the processor’s
  • put the broilers and replacement layers out to pasture
  • raised the rabbits
  • taught the turkeys how to free-range boomerang (come back to roost at night)
  • caught all the goats, weighed the kids, trimmed all the hooves, and herbally wormed the adults
  • rotationally grazed the cattle (and goats)
  • hauled tons and tons of water
  • moved all the rabbit hutches into the shelter of the barn

These guys and girls were absolutely tremendous.  Their major accomplishments will be detailed in subsequent posts, but their presence will be greatly missed.

For more pictures, check out the whole album on Facebook:
http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.374729892592146.88189.102369686494836&type=1 

 

Sales and Availability Update

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Gloucester Old Spot/Duroc hybrid barrow. 

Just wanted to let everyone know about our sales and available meat products for the 2012 season.

Pork
Our first run of hogs have all been sold.  Thank you to Melane, Doug, Chastity, Rob, Kelly, and Bryan!  We have some interest in hogs ready for slaughter in the fall.  If you are interested, please shoot me an email or comment on this post and I will add your name to the list.

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This little Kiko buck is growing fast!

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We have sold our first goats – thanks Jennifer, Rachel, and Nick! – and we have two more available for 2012.  They are available for both breeding and eating.  Again, send me an email or comment below if you would like a goat so that we can work with you on the size you would like for eating or the characteristics you are looking for in a breeding buck.  If you are looking for a breeding buck, please contact us quickly, as the bucklings will be wethered when they reach 2 months of age.

Turkeys
The hens have hatched out 17 poults so far with 3 more hens still sitting on their eggs.  They will be ready for Thanksgiving and are really excellent!  Supermarket birds aren’t even close!  A $25 deposit will reserve a bird for your holiday meal and the first people to reserve get the first choice as to the size of bird they would like.  Please contact us to reserve your turkey.

Rabbit
Our first two litters have sold, but we definitely have more on the way.  Rabbits are $5 each if you would like to process them yourself and $10 each if you would like us to do it for you.

Chicken
Chicken can be ready for you from 6 to 12 weeks after you order it, depending upon whether you would like the Cornish x White Rock hybrids or the older, tastier heritage breed birds.  Contact us and we can have a custom-sized order ready for you!

Eggs
Eggs are pretty much always available.  They are $3.25 per dozen – $3.00 if you bring us an egg carton. Our chickens are completely free-ranging during the day and return to a predator-proof coop at night for protection.

Thanks to all of our great customers and we would love to welcome some new ones!

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Thanksgiving Turkeys and Feedback

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Thanksgiving dinner was wonderful here at GLR.

Our turkey was moist, succulent, and delicious.  The breast meat was plentiful and flavorful and the dark meat was the darkest I’ve ever seen.  Lindsey remarked that it looked more like duck.  Much darker than last year’s bird, and I’m wondering if that is due to individual variation or because this year’s turkey was several months older than the ones we butchered last year.

Lindsey prepped our bird with a butter and sage rub underneath the skin.  The cavity of the bird was stuffed with onions, lemon, orange, sage, and garlic.  We cooked it in a GE self-contained poultry roaster at 375° for about 2.5 hours.  The roaster had to have a brick added to the top because it is not designed for free-range birds with actual legs and thighs but Butterball turkeys that are all breast meat.

If you bought or helped to eat a turkey from GLR this year, we’d love to hear your feedback!  Please tell us a little about how you cooked it as well as your impressions of the taste and texture.

Thank you for your continued support!  We are very thankful for our wonderful customers!

Thanksgiving Turkeys Have All Found New Homes!

The turkeys enjoying fresh pasture grasses and clovers.

I’m happy to announce that all available Thanksgiving turkeys have been sold for 2011!

Thank you to all those who purchased one (or two or five…) of our turkeys:
Randy and Pam, Scott, Anna, Stephanie, Whitney, Joshua and Melina, Nate, Barbara, Constanze, Samuel, Brian, and Nancy.

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Turkey Tragedy

And all that remains is a pile of feathers.

5 weeks ago our beloved heritage turkey hens left home to sit on the nests they had secreted in the pastures and bushes around the property.  We wanted to experiment and see if our hens could follow their instincts to hatch, sit, brood, and raise their chicks themselves without our having to coop them up and deprive them of their normal and natural foraging and freedom.  That choice, however, did not turn out well.

From time to time over the last few weeks we would spot a hen turkey here or there as they left the nest occasionally to get water or food.  I began to worry when, over the last few days, we didn’t spot any of our hens at all nor did they return with their broods.

So yesterday the Sunday Search and Rescue Party (me and Scooter) walked every inch of the areas that the turkeys access to try to determine the status of our hens.  To condense several hours of bushwhacking into one sentence, we found destroyed nests and a couple sad piles of feathers that confirmed the deaths of half of our hens.  It looks like a bobcat got one hen and the other was possibly a coyote.  We don’t hold out much hope for the others since we didn’t hear any hens or poults returning our calls or coming to investigate.  Our hens are very friendly and usually come running when we call them or get into their field of vision.

So it was another rough day on the ranch.  We definitely need some fences to help deter the predator population around here.

The nests that I’ve found yesterday as well as earlier nests the hens had made contained from 12 eggs up to 38 eggs per nest.  If the hens had successfully raised half of the eggs laid into healthy marketable poults, then we had a real chance of having our first profitable enterprise here on the ranch.  The loss of these hens not only is sad on its own merit, but is a financial loss as well.  We had invested $50 of food, water, and electricity (for brooding them as poults) into each hen.  So the ranch suffers a $200 loss on the hens, plus the cost to procure and raise replacements (another $200) on the turkey operation.  If half of the over 100 eggs in the nest had returned to us as poults, we could have sold them for $10 each immediately.  That’s $500 guaranteed, because we actually had 6 people on a waiting list for poults.  We also could have raised them as Thanksgiving turkeys we sell for $75 each – at a profit of $20 per bird gives us $1000.

So with a successful nesting season we had a real chance of going “right side up” on our turkeys this year.  As is, even though we have poults we are raising for Thanksgiving, we won’t have enough to create a positive margin yet this year.  It will take at least one more year on the turkeys.  That’s the financial bottom line.

The emotional bottom line is that it’s very hard to take care of something every day for 352 days, have them follow you around as you work, and have them swing in your porch swing, only to find them dead in the pasture once they are finally trying to pay back your investment in care.

Farming is tough.

Dodging Raindrops

Lately it seems the skies always look like this.

Supposedly April showers bring May flowers.  They did.

What do May showers bring?

I need to know because it has been raining for what seems like weeks on end.  The county farm data bank says that in an “average year” (what’s that?) the county has gotten 22.76″ of rain by this date.  So far on our ranch we have gotten 35.48″, or over a foot more than average.  It rained another half-inch last night during our latest round of severe weather.  So in a word, our spring has been soggy.  As I’m writing this it just started raining again.  Really hard.  So by the time I’m done with this sentence those precipitation numbers will be outdated.

Most of the garden plants seem to enjoy it so far.  The lettuces and broccoli and onions are all growing well.  All the greens are going like gangbusters.  The spinach showed its strength.  The garlic seems less thrilled, though.  The tomato plants have been repeatedly snapped in high winds even in their cages (no, we don’t have free-range tomatoes).  The corn has yet to come up because it was so recently planted, but I’m hoping that it won’t rot in the sodden ground before it has a chance to sprout.

Our philosophy about heritage varieties of animals and plants also extends to corn.  Some people in the local and sustainable food movement have unfairly painted corn in pretty bad light.  After all, who’s making the decisions here – a plant or the humans who propagate it?  Corn is an amazing plant with a lot to like.  First, it’s native to the Americas.  It was bred and developed by the indigenous peoples here.  It is a tough plant that will grow almost anywhere there is a modicum of water and fertility.  It stores almost indefinitely.  And it has been grown and adapted to so many varied locales that there is an incredible variety from which to choose.  In other words, farmers don’t have to grow #2 field corn for the commodities market.  In fact, if you want to eat it you shouldn’t grow that type of corn at all.

We got some old-school varieties of corn from neighbors and seed cooperatives to plant on about 1/4 acre.  I baled hay for our neighbor Joshua a while back in exchange for him tilling up the area where we had the goats deposit all their winter manure for us to plant.  He did a great job with the tilling and then Lindsey and I leveled it with shovels and rakes.  Finally, the weather cleared for 2 consecutive days and it dried out enough for me to plant it yesterday.  Texas Honey June, Blue Jade, Golden Bantam, Floriani Red Flint, Bloody Butcher, Reid’s Yellow Dent, and Daymon Morgan’s Kentucky Butcher corn all went into the ground.  Those links are not necessarily the sources for our seed, but they were the best pictures I could find of the varieties we planted.  The Texas Honey June, Blue Jade, and Golden Bantam are all sweet corns that we can eat or freeze.  We’ll plant more of those varieties every two weeks or so to make sure we’ve got fresh sweet corn all summer long.  The other corns are for drying.  The Floriani Red Flint supposedly makes the world’s best polenta.  Since polenta is basically fancy grits, I can get on board with that.  The butcher corns are for flour and decoration, and the Reid’s Yellow Dent will provide some winter food for our poultry.

I know 1/4 acre doesn’t sound like much, but that’s about the limit of what I think we can care for doing everything by hand.

In other news, the rabbits, turkeys, and chickens are growing quickly.  We’ve sold quite a few of the Black Australorps and Kentucky Redneck chickens to people who wanted to start their own flocks.  The rest we’ll grow out as meat birds or add to our layer flock in the Yolkswagen.  The rabbit does we have are really bad mothers, but hopefully in a few generations we can breed for good mothering instincts.  So far out of 4 litters we have only 10 bunnies to show for it.  The rest have been rejected or killed by their own mothers.

Guinea keets are hatching in the incubator as we speak.  This is especially good news because another rogue cat has been systematically eliminating the guineas one by one.  We’re down to 4 adult birds and 1 juvenile from the 18 we had 2 weeks ago.  Those last ones are cooped up at the moment to eliminate the food source and encourage the cat to move on.  This is a sneaky cat.  Usually I see them hanging around, but this one is either very wary or has some sort of cloaking capability.

Our Black Spanish hens have not returned yet.  If they were nesting, their poults should have hatched out last weekend.  Then I imagine they keep them in the nest until the poults are capable of following the hen around.  Every day I look forward to seeing them, and every day my heart sinks just a little bit when they don’t return.  Yesterday one of the chocolate hens that has been going off by herself a lot during the day didn’t come back to the turkey roost at dusk, so now we might have another month-plus wait while she sits on her nest.  Natural farming is stressful!  I want to let the animals nest on their own and raise their own young, but it’s so hard to sit and wait and hope that they are able to hatch out their eggs and brood their poults before a predator finds them.  We have so much financially and emotionally invested in them at this point that it would be heartbreaking to have them not return.

The last bit of news is in the Lifestyles Lane department.  We should get a good start this summer with all the helpers coming out to the ranch and we plan on completely 2 of the more intricate structures this summer.  Hopefully more, but 2 is the definite attainable goal.  Our friends Adele and Bonnie are visiting, my brother and his friends are coming out, and we have 9 interns coming to the farm in June, July, and August to help build the structures and learn about sustainable farming.  We will begin introducing them to you as they arrive on the ranch in mid-June, but we are getting excited for their arrival.

The Yolkswagon

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Our Eggmobile is finally complete!

The Eggmobile was invented by Joel Salatin from Polyface Farm to move chickens around the pasture behind cattle in the pasture rotation.  The cattle (or sheep, goats, etc) consume the grass, leaving it short for the chickens.  The ruminants are moved along and then, just like in nature, the birds follow behind the grazing animals.  The chickens visit a section of pasture 3 days after the ruminants do because if you wait 4 days then the fly larvae that are laid in the fresh manure have already become flies.  On day 3 the larvae are nice and plump, so the chickens destroy the cow patties looking for the larvae.  This helps in 2 ways: first, it spreads the manure piles (read: fertility) around and second, it keeps bothersome fly populations low.  As a side benefit the farmer can collect and sell tasty eggs from his pasture sanitation program rather than paying money to purchase insecticidal sprays and fly medications.

My dad won the naming contest before we even announced it, and our new Eggmobile is called the Yolkswagon.  We’ll have to put a logo on it or something.  Maybe one of our summer interns will be artistically adept (more on them later).

The Yolkswagon is 8′ wide and 24′ long and will accommodate up to 250 chickens at night.  During the day, of course, the chickens will be out foraging in the pasture.

Like everything else so far, we built this on the cheap using mostly things we had lying around the farm.  The bottom frame is 2″ x 3″ steel tubing that the previous owners left us.  The steel tubes are bolted together to form a homemade trailer.  Over this framework we attached a layer of 2″ x 4″ wire fencing.  Then we put a layer of chicken wire over that to form a floor that the chickens can walk on but that will also allow their droppings to fall through to the pasture below.

We used some lumber left in the barn to frame out a basic box on top of the steel framework.  There are some diagonal braces for extra support.  Plywood is attached to the framework to form the sides.  The roof is a white PVC product that will keep the rain out and let the light in.

The Yolkswagon has 4 doors cut into the plywood sides.  One door is large and on the front panel.  This door is for the humans to access the Yolkswagon to add feed and water as well as for cleaning purposes, when necessary.  There is a door on the rear panel for the chickens to come and go.  And there is one door on each side to allow us to access the nestboxes daily to collect the eggs.

We put the chickens up in the Yolkswagon for the night so they could begin to get used to their new digs.  Then we started to tow the Eggmobile to the back forty because we wanted them to be far away from their normal area so they couldn’t wander back.  We want the Yolkswagon to be their home, not the poultry house, the backyard, or the gardens.  This is when we found out about my construction mistake.

I had put 13″ flat-free wheelbarrow tires on the trailer.  This was not smart.  I should have gone with the larger tires and an axle, but I was trying to do this cheaply and I thought that pulling the trailer around the pasture at a couple miles per hour a hundred feet at a time would be fine on those smaller tires.  I kept testing the Yolkswagon out as we worked on it by hooking it up to the truck and pulling it around a little, and everything worked fine.

But when we had loaded the chickens up and were moving the Yolkswagon to the back pasture the 13″ tire came right off its wheel.  Luckily Lindsey has some things that she has to go to E-town to get tomorrow, so I know what I’m adding to the list: larger tires!

Oh well.  The wheels will be back on the wagon tomorrow!

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