Category Archives: Poultry

Brooding, Hatching, Growing, and Missing

The strange and wonderful haircut of Naked Neck chicks.

Our Naked Neck chicks (aka Turkens, but preferably aka Kentucky Redneck chickens) are doing well in their brooder.  We started off with 52 of them 2 weeks ago and they’ve all made it so far and are growing quickly.  Another couple of feathers on them and they will be ready to graduate into a pair of chicken scooters for 9-10 weeks.  After that, they will either join our laying flock or become tablefare themselves.  At that point we’ll get a good idea of just how good these supposedly “dual-purpose” birds are.  The gene that gives them their naked neck also is supposed to promote larger breast size, which was the main problem with the other dual-purpose breeds we’ve tried.  The genes may be linked on the same chromosome or something, but we’re hoping that these birds, once dressed, will more closely resemble the chickens our customers are accustomed to  from the grocery store while being ultimately sustainable than a grocery store chicken.

The other dual purpose chicken we’re working with are the Black Australorps.  We started with 30 chicks from our incubator a month ago and all 30 have thrived in the brood house.  They’ve almost completely feathered out and are more than ready to join Thomas and Not Thomas (the slightly older Australorp chicks) in the chicken scooter.  Now the chicks and I are just waiting for a break in the rainy stormy weather to put them outside.  The chicks do fine in the rain once they learn to go underneath the tarped portion of the scooter, but it takes a while for them to learn that so it’s best to put the chicks out for the first time when they’ll have a couple nice fairweather days to learn some outdoor skills before bad weather comes.

The incubator is still full of 22 heritage turkey eggs and 20 guinea fowl eggs that are due to start hatching tomorrow through Tuesday.  We’ve gotten several orders from people interested in guinea fowl keets, so after this first batch hatches the incubator will get loaded up with an exclusive hatch of guinea eggs.  Now if we could just get people interested in Thanksgiving turkeys!

The ducks are enjoying their temporary grow-out enclosure complete with mini-pond.

The Magpie ducklings also got to go outside.  They’ve grown so quickly.  They already weigh a couple pounds each at just 5 weeks old!  As you can see above, I modified a chicken scooter to accommodate a small pond for the ducklings to play in and drink from until they get grown enough to go onto one of the real ponds.  We’re also waiting until we can afford to order the poultry netting and charger to go around the pond to protect the ducks from coyotes.  After they’ve got a little habitat set up around the pond, the ducks should need very little from us in terms of supplemental feed.  Our hope is that the ducks can be a self-sufficient holon from which we can gather eggs and harvest meat with few or no inputs other than the fencing and charger.

The tom turkeys are missing half their hens on this stormy morning.

The last bit of poultry-related news is that 2 of our hen turkeys did not come back to roost last night.  (Knock on wood) we haven’t lost any of the turkeys since mid-July other than the ones we processed, so we are thinking that we probably didn’t have 2 killed on one day by predators.  Our hope is that they have created a secret nest or two and chose yesterday to begin sitting on the eggs.  The rough part of this exercise is going to be having to wait 28 days (the incubation period for turkey eggs) to figure out whether the hens are sitting on a nest or got gotten.  After 9 months of having the turkeys follow me around every day, it’s a little sad when a couple of them go missing.  I’m honestly worried about the silly turkeys.  Lindsey and I looked around for them for half and hour last night to no avail.  Hopefully that means they coyotes can’t find them either.  Good luck momma turkeys!

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Early Spring Update

The year's first asparagus. 200 feet from plot to pot.

Ahh, early spring on the farm!  The cherry trees are full of blossoms, the grass is bright green and growing quickly, the garden is planted, and the chickens are brooding eggs for us.  It’s a great time to be working outside.

The rabbits have been breeding for a while.  Unfortunately, our rabbits are not very good mothers.  Two of them abandoned their litters right after birth and would not take care of them.  The other two rabbits that had litters were good mothers.  One had a small litter of 3 bunnies that have done well.  They are 3 weeks old now and busily hopping around their pen exploring.  The second mother was doing fantastic.  She had a litter of 8 bunnies and they all survived and were growing rapidly throughout the first week of their lives.  Then we had a big storm.  We got a couple inches of rain the night before last and all through yesterday.  We did not know that the roof of that rabbit’s cage would not hold up against the storm.  It started dripping water right through the back half of the roof where the rabbit had made her nest.  All the poor bunnies got soaked and too cold.  None of them made it.  Those discoveries are always hard, and the blow is especially severe when the bunnies came from our two best rabbits and were doing so well.  We even had them sold!  Setbacks, setbacks…

Thomas and Not Thomas enjoying their first romp on the new spring grass.

On a brighter note, all the Black Australorp chicks we hatched out are doing great!  The first two (the only two that hatched successfully from our frozen January egg clutch) got to go out onto pasture today in their very own chicken tractor.  They are enjoying exploring the outside world, catching their first bugs, and tasting their first grass.  They’ve got all their feathers now, so they should be fine unless we get a really cold snap come in.  If that happens they can go back into the brooder for the night.  The second clutch is so vibrant!  We had 30 successfully hatch, and all 30 of them are doing wonderfully!  The chicks we got from the hatchery last year had a few problems with weak chicks and chicks who developed pasty deposits around their anuses.  These home-hatched chicks have had NONE of those problems whatsoever.  It’s really remarkable.  Hopefully the last batch of chicks we just got in will be the last chickens we have to order and we’ll be able to hatch them all out on-farm from now on.

Speaking of which, we just picked up our (hopefully) last ever chicken and turkey order from the post office this morning.  52 Naked Neck chickens (we’re calling them Kentucky Redneck Chickens) and 48 Narragansett and Bourbon Red turkey poults have joined the Black Australorp chicks and Magpie ducklings in the broodhouse.  We had 2 of the turkey poults DOA, but so far everyone else seems healthy so hopefully they’ll prosper in their new locale.  The video below shows the new chicks, the old chicks, and some footage of the greenhouse and garden.

Lindsey’s family came in last week and they helped us transplant the seedlings we started in the greenhouse to the garden so now our garden is full of our cool-weather crops: broccoli, sweet peas, Amish snap peas, radishes, 3 kinds of carrots, turnips, 5 kinds of lettuce, spinach, chard, onions, mustard greens, and kale.  The little seedlings have adjusted well to the outdoors with a minimum of hardening off.  We’ve been picking salad greens for a while and are now waiting on our first peas and radishes to be ready.  Yesterday we got to eat the season’s first asparagus.  So good!  I don’t really like asparagus from the grocery store too much, but the fresh stuff is to die for!  The strawberry patch that we’ve worked so hard to revamp by removing the weeds and old plants, mulching, and fertilizing with rabbit manure has really taken off.  Lots of new leaves and plants loaded with blooms.  We are looking forward to a good crop of strawberries in another few weeks if we can fight off the birds and pick our fair share of them.

In other news, the Eggmobile we’ve been building for the chickens should be finished this weekend so check for a how-to post on that in the near future.

We also revamped the Good Life Ranch website to make it more informative and easier to navigate.  Check it out and let us know what you think!

Enjoy the update!  I’ve got to get back to work outside!

Chicks are here!

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Twenty-one days ago we placed some fertile Black Australorp eggs from our free range laying flock into our small incubator.  Since we are just starting out, we don’t have (yet) a big cabinet-style incubator that holds hundreds of eggs.  We have a small styrofoam incubator that holds about 40 chicken eggs at a time.  It worked well enough, but hopefully we can save enough money to be able to afford a larger used incubator in the future.

We set the incubator at 99.5°F, filled the troughs with water to keep the humidity up, and placed the eggs large end up in the slots on the automatic turning rack.  Then we waited 3 weeks, occasionally refilling the water troughs when they got low.

We had good timing!  My parents came to visit us late last week and got to see the majority of the chicks hatch out.  The main hatch was on Thursday night and Friday morning and the last chick hatched on Monday.  Overall we had 32 chicks hatch out of the 40 eggs, and 30 of the chicks survived to move into the brooder.  Unfortunately, 2 of the chicks hatched but then died in the incubator before they could dry off.

We’ll take that hatch rate!  We want to be completely sustainable agriculturally, and that means hatching, breeding, and raising all of our animals here on the farm rather than ordering them from distant hatcheries and breeders.  There are many good reasons to hatch out your own chicks.  First and foremost, for primarily laying breeds like the Black Australorps, males that hatch out at many of the nation’s hatcheries are simply ground alive and processed into animal feeds.  We want no part of that system.  Secondly, the chicks are healthier and stronger because they don’t have to go through the shipping process when they are a day old.  They are able to do this because they are able to live by absorbing the rest of the yolk during the first 3 days of their lives, but the shipping process must be stressful for them.  Finally, it saves money.  With shipping included, those 30 healthy chicks in our incubator would have cost us over $90 to order from a hatchery.  Plus, no we can get a better profit margin from them because 1) we didn’t incur the cost of purchasing and shipping the chicks and 2) we can sell chicks locally and directly or grow them out and add them to our laying flock.

We’ll end the post with a short video of a chick actually hatching out of the egg.  Enjoy!

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Pre-order Your Heritage Breed Thanksgiving Turkey

A Bourbon Red turkey relaxes on the fence enjoying the sunshine.

Spring is almost here!  That means that the turkeys are getting into the breeding mood and we should have lots of eggs soon from our small flock of heritage breed free-range turkeys.  Our turkeys free-range around our farm chowing down on grasses, seeds, and insects.  They fly very well and enjoy following us around as we do chores and take care of the other animals.  Their favorite afternoons are spent swinging on our front porch swing.  They truly are personable birds.  T’his year we are raising Black Spanish, Bourbon Red, Chocolate, and Narragansett turkeys.

Heritage breed turkeys were once common throughout the United States.  They are the quintessential American bird.  Unfortunately, with the rise of the factory-farmed industrial breeds like the Broad-Breasted Bronze and the Broad-Breasted White turkeys, the heritage breeds were almost lost.  Now these older breeds are developing quite a following based on their superior flavor, their ability to free-range, and their ability to be raised sustainably because they can both forage for their own food and breed naturally.

We need more people to help us preserve these heritage breeds that are so wonderful to raise and provide genetic diversity and safeguards to sustainable farmers.  We need to create a market for the heritage turkeys so that farmers like us can continue to raise them and the breeds won’t disappear forever.

How can you help save these breeds?  By eating them!

By eating heritage breed turkeys, you will ensure the breeds’ survival by encouraging small farmers to continue breeding and growing these wonderful birds.  If we all keep going to the supermarket and buying Broad-Breasted White turkeys (which can’t find their own food, fly, or breed naturally), then that will be all people will be able to raise.  The Broad-Breasted White turkey already has 95% or more of the American market.  If this trend continues, then other breeds may go the way of the Dodo bird.  That means less genetic diversity in our turkeys – one disease could wipe out great numbers of them.  Heritage birds not only taste better, but they provide genetic insurance against disaster!

From now until September 1st, Good Life Ranch is offering a special on a heritage breed free-range Thanksgiving turkey.  For $75 you can order your own heritage breed bird to be the centerpiece of your Thanksgiving meal.  This price includes free delivery to your door anywhere in Kentucky!  For the average 14-lb bird, you can save $23 on the normal price of $7 per pound and the normal price does not include delivery.  What a deal!

To order, please contact us by emailing geoff@goodliferanch.com or calling 606.787.4217.  We will then give you more information and answer any questions that you may have.  We will confirm your order by requesting a $25 deposit to hold your bird, with the remaining $50 due upon delivery.  Please don’t wait!  We only anticipate raising 50 turkeys this year and they are sure to go fast!

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The First GLR Chicks

Thomas, our first chick!

Today Lindsey came home to the sound of chirping.  The first chicks are hatching here at Good Life Ranch!  Three weeks ago we put 42 Black Australorp eggs in the styrofoam incubator, set the temperature at 99.5°F, kept the humidity up, and waited.  Every week I candled the eggs (shone a flashlight into them through a small hole to focus the beam) to see if there were veins and things developed to support the growing embryos.  Week one looked good, but on week two everything was too dark inside to tell so I was hoping that meant a large chick was absorbing all the light.

Hopefully the first one that hatched was a boy, because Lindsey has already named it Thomas.

He’s chirping away, encouraging the other chicks still in the eggs to come on out and play.  There are at least 5 other chicks who have broken through their eggshells, so the hatch rate may not be great but it’s better than nothing.

Don’t worry, little buddy!  We caught the mink!

But Then it Did Work

This particular chicken killer will trouble us no longer.  Which is good, because we’ve got eggs due to hatch today or tomorrow.  Hopefully the next mink to move into the territory will be content with the field mice, fish, and crawdads in the creeks rather than the chicken heads roosting in the poultry house.

 

 

It Did Not Work

The mink returned last night, dug underneath the chicken tractor “protecting” all of the Rhode Island Red 4-month-old chickens, and proceeded to kill every single one of them.  The mink ate the head off of one chicken and killed the rest for sport.  So in less than a week this mink has killed off an entire generation of laying chickens.

The Stakeouts

As detailed in Lindsey’s blog, there have been some stakeouts at Good Life Ranch this week due to an animal episode of Criminal Minds.

It all began with a missing chicken report.  We always count the chickens (after they’ve hatched, of course) every evening as they file into their coop.  This evening, there was one missing.  We noticed it but weren’t too concerned.  We had one chicken who occasionally enjoys camping out underneath the barn.

My concern grew the next morning when I discovered this:

For all of you out there who aren't chicken anatomists, this chicken is missing something relatively important.

A very sad sight.  My first thought was that a possum had managed to climb into the coop.  Opossums will kill birds and only eat the heads or the guts.  I know that once predators get an easy meal they will continue to return until they are driven off, killed, or the food source is made unaccessible.  I decided to first try to make the food source more accessible.

I used spare boards and gravel from the creeks to shore up all the weak areas around the bottom of the coop.  All in all I used 15 wheelbarrow loads of gravel around the bottom of the coop.  I was trying to eliminate any area where a critter could crawl into the coop.  I also set up a couple of our live traps inside the coop.  I thought I was fairly successful and went off to do other chores.

I thought wrong.  Next morning, two more beheaded chickens.  These two were dragged from the chickens’ “bay” all the way to the opposite side of the coop and lined up neatly.  Hmmmm….  Possums aren’t neat and tidy.  Raccoon?  Whatever it was, this critter was definitely hooked on GLR chicken.  We told you it was good.

I decided to stake out the coop that night.  I took a bench, a blanket, a flashlight, and the shotgun and sat up in the second story of the barn where I was hidden from the view of anything on the ground but had a perfect view of the coop for aerial surveillance.

I waited.

Nothing happened.

But the next morning, I found another beheaded chicken.

Grrrrr….

That night I changed stakeout tactics.  I made a blind inside the chicken coop with some of our straw bales, hid under the blanket, and waited as long as I could.  After 4 or 5 hours nothing had come by.  It was midnight.  I was freezing.  This is February, remember.  It is cold at night.  So I went inside to warm up and nap.  At 5 am I went out to check things out.

I found another beheaded chicken.

Dammit!

What is this thing?

The next night, I decided to be stubborn.  No matter how cold or tired I got, I was not going inside until I saw this predator.

I had my straw bale blind, the shotgun, the wool blanket, all my heavy clothes, water bottle, and the seat of the lawn mower to make it a little more comfortable.  We’ve stopped buying caffeinated stuff, but if we’d had some it would have been out there too.  I was determined to stay awake and see what this was.

At four in the morning, I saw this:

In a baby voice: Cutest little chicken beheader EVER!

I saw it for a total of 2 seconds.  It took me one second to identify it.  The second second was spent adjusting the barrel of the shotgun an inch or two to train it on the mink.  It saw the movement.  It fled.  It did not come back.

Pessimistic view:  The predator situation was not resolved.
Optimistic view:  No chickens died that night.
Realistic question:  I’m too tired to do this a fourth night in a row.  What can we do?

Then it hit me.

Why is my brain still operating inside the box?

We have livestock guardian dogs.  Chickens are livestock.  They are being preyed upon.  This needs to stop.  I have not been able to discourage the mink.  The livestock guardian dogs successfully discourage packs of coyotes.  The mink is alone and smaller than a coyote.  If I was a mink, I would not mess with a Great Pyrenees.  If I was a Great Pyrenees, I would not take any shit off of a mink.  This could work.  Maggie the guard dog could chase something off and feel good about herself.  Sgt Pepper the guard puppy could get some solo goat-guarding experience (He doesn’t even have his big boy teeth yet, but he weighs about 50 pounds and barks at the coyotes like a big boy already.  Besides, he and the goats are behind a sturdy cattle panel fence for the night anyway.).  The farmer could get some sleep.

A 90-pound Great Pyrenees ought to be intimidating.

Sgt. Pepper is serious for his first night on solo goat guarding duty.

So I put Maggie in the chicken coop to try to deter the mink.  Apparently, the mink did not enjoy encountering Maggie there protecting the chickens because it did not kill any chickens that night.

During the following day I put Maggie back out to frolic with her goats and returned her to the chicken coop the next night.  This morning, there were again no beheaded chickens.  Yay Maggie!

Tonight will be the big test.  For three nights in a row the chickens have been spared after the mink killed 5 of them in 4 nights.  Three nights ago the mink was frightened off by my presence.  The next two nights Maggie scared it off and protected the chickens.  Tonight Maggie is with the goats and I’m not sitting in the coop.  Hopefully the mink has been deterred.

Keep your fingers crossed.

2011 Stockin’ and Sellin’

The hillside woods all covered in the latest round of snow.

One nice part about winter planning is that there’s no rule that says it has to all be done indoors.  Today the dogs and I took advantage of the nice day with the beautiful new-fallen snow to do some thinkin’ walkin’ all around the hillsides.  While thinking about things we can add and do differently this year, we also found two new (but really old and decrepit) fencelines.  We discovered where the wild turkey flock on our land roosted the night before, and found lots of fresh coyote poo that Bailey and Scooter promptly rolled in.

We are planning on adding both some new Good Life Ranch products in 2011 as well as new market outlets.  Our CSA program so far is generating a little interest, but very no one has actually submitted the application yet so I’m not sure that a CSA is going to be viable for us right now.  In talking with our neighbors and other farmers in the area I’ve found that many of them have tried CSAs in the area before without success.  It seems like right now the members of our community aren’t willing to pay in advance for their food, so we’ve got some work to do to change the local food culture.  We will be selling at the Campbellsville Farmers’ Market this year.  Additionally, we are excited about one new development.  We have been approached by our neighbors Joshua and Melina about opening a community farm stand on our property that we and the several surrounding families could use to market and sell our meats and produce.  Lindsey and I are excited about that and are looking forward to the farm stand opening this spring!

We’ve also chosen some of our new offerings for 2011.  We will continue to offer rabbits and eggs as well as Bourbon Red, Black Spanish, and Chocolate turkeys and a full range of produce.  Here’s what we want to add in 2011:

Turkeys
In keeping with the heritage breed mindset we have at the Ranch, of course we are not adding Broad-breasted whites to our turkey family.  This year Royal Palms and Narragansetts will be added to the menu!  Royal Palms are small (potentially suitable for people with only 3-4 people to feed for Thanksgiving), but they are beautiful and superb foragers.  Once they have passed the brooder stage they may be able to pretty much feed themselves on insects, seeds, and grasses.

Royal Palm turkeys

The Narragansett is a larger breed than the Royal Palm and is roughly the same size as the Black, Bourbon Reds, and Chocolate turkeys that we are already raising.  They are nice calm birds with the same heritage breed foraging ability and superior taste as the other breeds, but it’s an opportunity for us to help protect and conserve another heritage breed of American livestock that is endangered by the industrial food chain.

Chickens
Our Black Australorp and old-style Rhode Island Red hens will continue to produce Good Life Ranch eggs in 2011.  But we want to find a breed that we can raise and utilize both genders of right here on the ranch.  We don’t like having to order the birds from distant hatcheries for several reasons.  It’s not local, it’s not sustainable, but more importantly the birds are often treated inhumanely.  Hatcheries grind the male chicks from laying breeds and the female chicks from broiler breeds into chicken meal.  We don’t want to support that system, hence we are looking for a breed that we can hatch out here on the farm and use the males as broilers and the females as layers.  So far we have two candidate breeds:

Naked Neck rooster

The handsome gentleman in the above photo is a Naked Neck chicken, also called a Turken because initially people thought they were a cross between a chicken and a turkey.  But it’s all chicken because chickens and turkeys can’t create viable offspring.  I personally don’t mind the featherless neck, but some people find it very off-putting.  What’s interesting is that the gene that causes a featherless neck also creates a mild increase in breast meat.  This makes the Naked Neck a candidate for growing broiler chickens.  It also creates a marketing opportunity.  Our co-conspirators Tim and Liz over at Nature’s Harmony Farm in Georgia grow these and call them Georgia Redneck Chickens.  I think a similar marketing strategy could work in rural Kentucky.  The experimental part of this will be if the broilers have a feed conversion rate that is profitable and if the hens lay well enough to make that end of the chicken business work.  Reports vary on the egg-laying ability of the Naked Neck, with some people finding that they lay very well and other people reporting that they laying rate is pretty low.  We will see.  They are very popular in France, Spain, and Germany as meat chickens, but not they are very rare here in the US.

Delaware hen and rooster

The Delaware is the other breed we will be evaluating this spring and summer for a dual-purpose meat-and-eggs breed.  They were developed in their namesake state during WWII for use a broiler chicken.  Delawares did dominate their local markets for a couple years, but their reign was short-lived with the arrival of the Cornish x White Rock corss in the 1950s.  Like the Naked Necks, we are going to have to evaluate both the meat and egg ends of the Delaware breed to see if they’ll work for us.

If either of these breeds can be profitable for both meat and eggs, then we can stop ordering chicks from hatcheries and start sustainably producing our own chicks right here on the farm.  Then we can wean our customers off of the expectation of Cornish x Rock body conformation and teach them what a “normal” chicken is supposed to look and taste like.  That’s the goal.

New Poultry
Chickens and turkeys won’t be the only poultry gracing the ranch this year.  We are also (hopefully – they are very hard to find) going to add heritage breeds of ducks and geese in 2011.

Magpie ducks

The duck breed we are hoping to add is the Magpie duck.  They are originally from Wales are are a good dual-purpose duck.  They dress out around 4 pounds and their (mostly) white feathers pick cleanly.  They also lay 150-200 eggs each per year.  They are critically rare and we look forward to protecting and promoting the breed.  Now we just have to convince the processor to take them…

Cotton Patch geese

Finally, the Cotton Patch goose will now call Good Life Ranch home.  They are extraordinarily rare with less than 100 breeding birds in the country.  They used to be all over the place on virtually every homestead in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama weeding the gardens and the cotton fields.  They are good flyers, their white feather pick cleanly, you can tell the gender by looking at them, and they are extremely non-aggressive for a goose.  We’ve got some feeler out looking for goslings or breeding pairs, and it looks like we might be able to add these lovely geese this year.

St. Croix Sheep

St. Croix sheep

Finally, we want to add sheep to the Ranch to take advantage of the grass, reduce mowing, improve the pastures, and produce meat for us.  This will likely be a late summer or early fall acquisition because we’ll have to erect the fences first and then save up more money, but hopefully it will get done this year because we really need some more grazing animals to make use of all the grass we are growing.  St. Croix sheep are heritage-breed hair sheep, so they don’t require shearing.  They are a medium-sized breed.  What’s really attractive is that the flock we are considering buying from has remained vibrant and healthy despite not having been wormed in over 20 years!  They are definitely the most parasite-resistant breed of sheep.

 

That’s the weekend update, thanks for reading!

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