Tag Archives: broilers

Thanksgiving Turkeys

The turkeys head off for processing. This is the only time they've been caged.

This morning I gathered up 40 Buff Orpington broiler chickens that have lived on pasture in 2 of our chicken scooters for the last 11 weeks.  It took the Buff Orpingtons almost twice as long to reach market weight as the Cornish X batch we processed 5 weeks ago, and they aren’t as heavy still.  Advantages in their favor:  they ate less feed than the Cornish, ate more grass, were more active, and stayed cleaner.  The Cornish have the double breast that most customers expect and taste great.  We’ll  see how the Buffs taste soon.  I’m interested to see, because to my knowledge I’ve never eaten a chicken that wasn’t a Cornish, White Rock, or a cross thereof.

The turkeys have free ranged all over our property gathering most of their own feed.  We put a little broiler ration and scratch grains in a bin to encourage them to roost in the poultry shed at night (they have to be bribed not to roost in the barn rafters), but other than that little bit of feed they’ve done well at fending for themselves eating grass, acorns, grasshoppers, berries, seeds, and “their” heirloom garden tomatoes.  They’ve swung on our front porch swing and chased the dog.  They’ve discovered that they cannot swim and that they can perch on one of the goats.  Undoubtably a finer life than 99.9% of all American turkeys.

The turkeys were harder to pack off emotionally.  We’ve had them since the 1st of July, and they kinda grow on you.  They’re not real smart, but they do follow you around while you’re doing chores or anything else they find interesting and keep you entertained with their antics.  This year we’ve raised 11 of the heritage breed turkeys to a “light” market weight.  I say “light” market weight because July to November is not quite enough time to grow them out completely.  We’ll see how much they weigh tomorrow afternoon.

You see only 5 turkeys in the picture because the other 6 have received “pardons” this year.  We’ve sold 3 of them and are eating 2 with our families at Thanksgiving, but the other 6 will be breeders for us in the spring.  We kept one tom and two hens of 2 rare heritage breeds – the Black, or Black Spanish, and the Chocolate.  We processed four Bourbon Reds (3 toms and 1 hen) and one Chocolate tom.

We’ll let you know how they are on the table.

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Lindsey’s Fall “Break”

 

The foliage along Dry Creek is beginning to change colors.

 

Lindsey has had the last 11 days off of work, so on her fall “break” she became my willing helper!  I’ve saved up 2 large tasks that needed two people to complete – cleaning out the barn and setting up the greenhouse.  The greenhouse will be covered in its entirety in a separate post once it’s finished, so stay tuned.

I must apologize for not writing as often as I should.  If excuses are necessary, then mine are:
1.  we’ve had visitors, farmsitters, and went to a wedding.
2.  it hasn’t rained in many moons, so my indoor time has been greatly diminished.
3.  it really does take a lot of work to get this place up and running, and sometimes after completing the physical work the last thing I want to do is rehash it.

The wedding was my brother’s.  It took place in Breckenridge, Colorado, which meant vacation time!  Lindsey’s parents were kind enough to farmsit for us while we went to the wedding.  They took care of all of the animals and gardens while Lindsey and I celebrated with Billy and Keri.  Breckenridge was beautiful in the fall and the weekend was almost perfect.  The wedding was perfect.  The Razorbacks blew the lead they had over then-#1 Alabama, and that was the only perfect weekend foil.

 

Lindsey and I keep Billy's dog Maddie company during the rehearsal.

 

 

Ten Mile Station, site of Billy and Keri's wedding. Isn't it gorgeous?

 

 

Aspens in fall colors provide a backdrop for the wedding.

 

Back in Kentucky the trees are changing colors, too.  Some of them, like the maples and pears, are changing colors because it’s October and that’s what they do.  Others of them, like the cypresses and pines, are changing colors because it’s been so dry here that they are starting to yellow and brown.  Needles are drying up and falling off.  Our brainstormed U-Pick-‘Em Christmas tree idea is starting to lose inventory before December even gets close.  The pasture crackles underfoot.  We need rain badly.  Hopefully it will rain before winter.

If we do get winter storms, we now have a place that can shelter the animals!  Lindsey and I spent 3 days clearing out the barn from top to bottom, eliminating many years of junk, debris, and manure.  Now we’ve got some stalls for the goats in case we get wet windy weather in the winter.

I don’t know exactly when our barn was built.  The previous owner of the property said the 1920’s or 1930’s.  I know that it was standing for sure in 1947, because there is a whole family’s worth of initials from the original family to have owned the property carved into one of the planks and it’s dated “1947.”  My father-in-law’s a detective.  I listen and learn.  The barn is 2 stories with a drive-through lane through the middle of the ground floor.  On one side of the drive through lane are 2 stalls, a large storage area, and a staircase to the hayloft on the second floor.  On the other side of the driving lane is a single stall and an even larger storage area.  On that side there is also a small storage area above the stall.

We found all manner of stuff in the barn.  Greenhouse panels (yay!).  Ancient corn cobs and tobacco leaves (expected).  Large piles of rusty barbed wire (boo!).  Manure, hay, tobacco plates, tobacco sticks, trellises, lumber, scrap metal, an antenna, plastic mulching sheets, planters, draft horse collars.  We learned that baling twine never disintegrates and that it’s best not to think about how old that cloud of manure dust may be.

In any case, most of the barn is in good shape.  Two of the three stalls are usable right now if we needed to put the goats in there during a severe winter storm.  The other stall needs a new floor and a new floor beam.  That’s a project for another day, but other than that and some rotted floorboards in the hayloft the barn is in surprisingly good structural shape.

Almost everything we found got saved or recycled.  We did dump one load at the landfill, unfortunately, but that couldn’t be helped.  One load of trash that we couldn’t think of a use of from at least 64 years of inhabitation isn’t too terrible, I guess.  We paid $13 to dump the load of trash and got $37.50 for the aluminum and scrap metal, so all in all we have a clean barn and enough money to see a couple of movies.  That’s right, big city friends, I said a couple of movies.  For both of us.  Life’s cheaper at the Green River Theater.

Enjoy a few pictures of the barn cleanin’:

 

Lindsey sweeps out one of the barn's stalls.

 

 

No, I'm not robbing the barn. The hankerchief was necessary to keep manure dust out of my mouth.

 

 

Shoveling ancient hay and manure from the barn's hayloft.

 

 

The floor in the barn loft could use some work, but at least it's visible now. It was buried under corn cobs and tobacco leaves.

 

 

Any guesses as to what these might be? The one on the left is ceramic. The right one is metallic.

 

 

One of the stalls has a floor that has seen better days. A future project...

 

 

The big pile of junk in the barn. Most will be re-used in Lifestyles Lane, some had to go to the scrap metal place. A little went to the dump, unfortunately.

 

 

The turkeys enjoyed perching on all of the new stuff coming out of the barn and generally getting in the way as much as possible.

 

The turkeys enjoyed sitting on all of the new perches we were providing them as we cleaned the barn.  Being old heritage breeds, they are quite good flyers and are capable of roosting in the trees and on top of the barn when they want to.  Their favorite nighttime roost is the tailgate of the trailer, but I make them go in the poultry house.  We have enough coyotes around here at night without putting sleepy turkey on their menu.

 

Everything's a turkey perch. Fence. Trash. Front porch swing. Truck. Tree. Cold frame. Dog. Chicken tractor....

 

The turkeys are getting pretty big now.  Big enough that they’ve decided that they can chase Scooter, our 45-lb dog, around with impunity.  One hen in particular seems to enjoy tormenting him, but the whole flock will join her.  He will mostly stand his ground with the one hen, but as soon as multiple turkeys enter the fray, he takes off running and the turkeys take off chasing him.  Bailey, our older dog who is roughly twice Scooter’s size, occasionally comes to his rescue and chases the turkeys away.  Mostly she seems to enjoy watching the turkeys do to Scooter what Scooter does to her most of the time.  I’m not sure what brought this on.  Scootie’s new favorite thing is finding the turkey feathers on the ground and running all over the place with the feathers in his mouth.  Maybe the turkeys think he’s stealing them.

 

Scooter's latest fascination is turkey feathers. He loves to collect them and run all over the place with them in his mouth.

 

Besides the barn, our farm is starting to appear more legit.  We’ve made some money lately selling rabbits.  The goats are rotating through the pasture.  The junk, debris, and construction materials have been removed from the fields.  Neighbor David has harvested his corn from the fields he leases from us.  In exchange he’s cut and baled the hay in the front pasture.  All in all, the farm is looking much better than when we arrived in June.

 

Neighbor David's hay bales decorate the front field.

 

In other news on the bird front, the Cornish X White Rock broilers have a date with the processor on Tuesday morning.  This time, in an effort to be as local as possible, we are using the processor 8 minutes away from us for the first time.  We’ll see how he does!  I can tell you that we won’t be having any underweight chickens this time.  Check out these fatties in the video below:

The guineas have also been growing, although we’re just using them for tick management around the house and barn area.  Some of them have fallen prey to a couple of critters, but the remaining ones sure do a great job clearing out ticks and grasshoppers!

Speaking of predators, the coyotes have been coming close at night.  The other night they were right outside the goats’ paddock.  I could hear the coyotes making a racket and I could hear our livestock guardian dog Maggie growling.  Usually she barks a lot at night as she patrols, but this was deep-throated, threatening growling.  The coyotes eventually took off, so Maggie did her job in the first challenge of her authority.  Way to go, girl!

 

Maggie's mug. This is what coyotes see when they sniff around the goats at night.

 

 

Lindsey feeds Maggie while Bailey investigates the possibility of pilfering her food.

 

 

Maggie's goat herd is rotating through the pastures, hopefully focusing on the many weeds that choke out our grasses and legumes at the moment.

 

Our last project over Lindsey’s “break” has been building the greenhouse.  We’ve had our first frosts already, so we need to get our sensitive San Antonio plants inside the shelter of the greenhouse soon.  It should be ready inside of a week now, and we’ll have a post dedicated to it once the structure is completed.

 

We had our first hard frost on October 2nd. The goats didn't seem to mind, but the basil sure did.

 

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The Good Life Goat Herd

"The Herd"

Today I went to see about some Kiko goats to add to the two Boers that I got from my mother- and father-in-law and Lindsey for my birthday.  Both the Boers and the Kikos are supposed to be excellent meat goats.  The Boer breed was developed in the drier climate of southern Africa while the Kikos were developed in the wetter climate of New Zealand.  I’ve read some things that suggest that the Boers do better in the US when they’re west of I-35 and the Kikos do better east of I-35 because of the climate.  West of I-35 is more similar to South Africa while east of I-35 the climate is more similar to New Zealand.  I like characteristics of both breeds and being a scientist at heart, I want to experiment and see which breed is going to work better for us here in central Kentucky.  We’ll determine which breed works best by breeding these does and looking at the weights of the kids they wean, by seeing how often we have to worm them, and by observing how their hooves grow and how often we have to trim them.

As you can probably tell from the intro picture, I did indeed buy some goats today!  Marty and Janet at Red Brush Farms were extremely nice and helpful.  I encourage anyone interested in Kiko goats to give them a call.  They had high quality goats, were very knowledgeable, and incredibly generous.  I went to their place with a very limited amount of money to spend and came home with more than I ever thought I would due to their kindness and desire to see their animals cared for well.

In the picture above, you can see Roja and Nadine (the Boers) on the left and the Kikos on the right.  In between the two groups is Maggie, the Great Pyrenees livestock guardian dog that Marty and Janet sent along with the goats.  Here are some closer shots of the individuals and their names (some of which we kept or used the name of the dam of the goat we bought):

"Maggie"

Maggie is 7 years old and an experienced LGD.  She’s already adopted our two Boer kids into “her” herd and is keeping a watchful eye on everything in her new surroundings.  She’s been introduced to Bailey and Scooter through the fence, and seems to be fine with them so far.  We’ll be careful with the introductions, though.  Maggie’s much bigger than Bailey and little Scootie.  I’ve been watching the herd out in the pasture, and Maggie will snooze while the goats graze around her.  If they move off more than about 20 feet from her she gets up and goes over to lie down closer to them.  Everything I’ve read suggests that the LGDs do this during the day and are very active patrollers at night.  That’s good, because this is what we hear at night: click me! So Maggie’s job is to keep those coyotes away.

"Miss Priss"

This is Miss Priss.  She’s 4 years old and 100% New Zealand Kiko.  According to Marty and Janet she had a single kid her first pregnancy and 3 sets of twins.  She’s also had good hooves and very good scores on parasite tests.  She’s now the matriarch of our herd.

"Fancy"

This is Miss Fancy’s #351, which we’ve shortened to Fancy for brevity.  She’s a 100% AP Kiko yearling and her dam has been a consistent top performer at Red Brush Farms.  She seems very alert and watchful.

"Ebony"

This is Ebony’s #76, or now “Ebony.”  She’s a striking solid black doeling who is the offspring of one of Red Brush Farm’s foundation does.  Marty and Janet said that she weighed 51.9 pounds at 90 days old, so good growth rate is hopefully in those genes.  Ebony is initially the friendliest of the new Kikos, or at least the most curious.  She’s the only one who approaches me when I’ve gone in to check on them – which I’ve probably done too much.  I have a habit of just going in with the goats and sitting for a while so they get used to me.  All 6 goats are pretty flighty right now.

"Ivory"

Finally, after Ebony we have Ivory.  Very imaginative, we know.  She is a 100% New Zealand Kiko and like Ebony had a 90-day weight of 51.9 pounds.  Both Ebony and Ivory were twins (but not to each other).  She’s got a piece of wood taped to her horns right now because she kept getting them caught in the fence at Red Brush Farm.  Hopefully we can cure of that and get the wood off of her so she doesn’t look quite so ridiculous.  🙂

Livestock crate for the truck.

Marty and Janet were so kind to me!  They also threw in this livestock carrier for the back of the pickup in the deal.  It’s much nicer and more functional than the dog crates I’ve been using to haul everything around and will come in useful over and over again for us.  The carrier is chain link with a gate on one end.

Very good day all in all after a rough start – we lost 7 broiler chicks in one of the tractors this morning.  We got over 5″ of rain last night (our rain gauge only goes up to 5″, so it could’ve been more), and in one chicken tractor the chicks slept out in the open rather than going underneath the tarp portion.  When I went out this morning there were 10 chicks that were apparently dead, but 3 of them were breathing a little bit and after being dried off with a towel and placed back into the brooder under the heat lamp they recovered and seem to be doing fine right now.

All the other animals weathered the storm well.  The turkeys do seem perturbed about the ankle-deep water in places, though.

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Fall Approacheth

My family poses on (and around, for Grandma Bailey) one of the hay bales in the ridgetop field.

Fall is coming very quickly, especially for those of us who are used to South Texas.  In South Texas fall is more of an idea than an actual season.  No trees change color, there’s no falling leaves, and we really never have a frost until maybe January, if then.  Here it’s Labor Day and we haven’t used the air conditioner in about a week, the smaller shrubs and trees are starting to change colors faintly, and I can definitely see my breath in the mornings.  In our rural neighborhood the second or third haying is being finished, the corn mazes are springing up, and pumpkins are starting to appear at roadside stands.  Alas, the squash bugs got our pumpkins.

This weekend we took advantage of the wonderful 70-degree weather and went hiking around our property.  We always discover new things and enjoy passing by some of our favorite spots, such as the cave and the Crazy Plant.

Scooter "El Conquistador Timido" examines the entrance to the small cave we've found. Neither Scooter nor Lindsey will go in it.

Lindsey poses next to the Crazy Plant. This unidentified monster has the biggest leaves I've ever seen on a plant this far north of the tropics. Anyone care to ID it?

Bailey and Scooter love to go on the hikes.  Sometimes the turkeys try to follow, too, but they get tired quickly.  🙂  They just like to follow me wherever I go.  It’ll make the week before Thanksgiving logistically simpler if they keep doing that.  Today I was sitting in the porch swing shelling some of the black beans we’ve grown and the turkeys decided to come sit on the porch with me.  A couple of them even decided to sit on the other bench.  They’re funny, I tell you.

The turkeys hold court on the front porch while I was shelling black beans. The turkeys are always doing something amusing.

We also got the fall veggies planted today after a trip to Louisville to buy a suit for my brother’s wedding.  Hopefully we can just cover them during the tricky cold nights and have a good harvest through late November.  Today Swiss chard, spinach, parsnips, carrots, lettuces (Romaine and Simpson’s), snap peas, and onions went into the ground.  I’m trying an experiment, so I just basically swept the squash vine remains into a corner to compost in place and then prepped the soil before I mixed all the seeds together and scattered them.  I’ve seen some permaculture videos about doing that and it seems to work out well for them, so I thought I’d try it.  I’ll keep you posted on how it works out.

As noted yesterday, the final batch of broilers for the year was put out on pasture this weekend and they are doing well.  I just wanted to report on the first couple of tractor moves because I’ve never seen anyone else discuss this point before.  In any case, there is a definite learning curve for the little chicks the first couple of times the tractor is moved in the morning.  I can understand.  If my house started to move one length over, I would be freaked out too.  The little chicks don’t know what to do the first few times this happens.  They learn to walk along with it pretty quickly, but the first couple of moves always happen in 1″ or 2″ increments with multiple stops when loud squawking alerts me to the fact that some chick has a leg (or wing, or neck) stuck underneath the tractor somewhere.  Right now we’re still in the learning curve for this batch – today moving each tractor took 4 or 5 minutes.  Usually it’s less than 10 seconds.  The White Rocks from last batch learned quickly, though, and I’m confident that these chicks are bright enough to figure this out soon.

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The Cluck Stops Here

The sign greeting customers at SS Enterprises.

Today was our first poultry processing day.  #1 lesson learned?  Eight weeks is not enough time to grow birds out unless you’re raising Cornish X.

Our first processing day was a emotional minefield – excitement, sadness, pride, regret, sorrow, and gratitude all flowed through my system from 6 am while Lindsey and I were loading the broilers until 8 pm when we sat down to our chicken dinner.

Eventually we want to keep the processing on farm.  We believe that’s more sustainable and better for the birds.  Heifer Project International has even built a mobile processing unit that they sold to a university in Kentucky for $1 that we can use if we take a certification course and build the platform and hookups for it.  That may be in our future.  But for now, we’re taking our birds to the processor.

We called and got an appointment at SS Enterprises, a certified organic processor geared towards the small producer.  Our methods are definitely “beyond organic” even though we don’t care about label, so having a processor that cares about the organic process makes a difference to us.

Even though we are not labeled organic by the government, we are definitely Beyond Organic and it's nice to have a processor who believes in organics. And, yes, Kentucky's Secretary of Agriculture is named Richie Farmer.

There are only 2 USDA-approved poultry processors in the state of Kentucky.  SS is in Bowling Green almost 2 hours away.  The other happens to be 8 miles from our farm!  This time we used SS in Bowling Green because I didn’t find out about the other processor until after I’d made the appointment.  We’ll use the other processor for the next batch and compare the service and results to see which one we want to use, but I can tell you the 8-miles-away factor will be tough to beat.

I think the people at SS Enterprises share some of my political views.

However, the owners of SS Enterprises gave it a good shot.  They were extremely friendly and easy to work with.  I felt welcomed and at home from the first minute I drove up.  They introduced me to their staff and the USDA inspector, treated my birds with compassion and care, and walked me through the whole procedure of processing.  And they didn’t laugh at our small birds.

That’s right.  SMALL birds.

Other farmers who are pasturing poultry are mostly doing Cornish X broilers.  As I’ve blogged before, Cornish X have an extremely fast growth rate but that growth rate comes with trade-offs in terms of health issues and how well the birds are able to utilize fresh pasture.  We used White Rocks this time (which are the unlisted part of the Cornish X – it should read Cornish X White Rock).  The Salatins and others finish Cornish X at 6 weeks old and about 4 pounds in weight.  Nature’s Harmony finishes Naked Necks at 12 weeks, so I figured that White Rocks would be somewhere in between and probably closer to the Cornish X because of their role in the cross.   Hence we shot for 8 weeks for this first batch.

I thought wrong.  Our biggest birds dressed out at 1.5 pounds and the batch averaged 1.25 pounds.  Essentially, we have quail.

Lesson:  Right now we can’t hit an 8 week target date.
Adjustment:  Experiment with the cost of raising birds to 12 weeks and with a group of Cornish X.

Both experiments are going on with our second and third batches.  We’ve got a group of 50 Buff Orpingtons that we’ll raise out to 12 weeks and a group of Cornish X (they were the “free bonus chicks”) that we’ll raise to 6-8 weeks.  That should give us some real data from our land and our conditions to evaluate and allow us to make a good decision.  We would like to raise heritage breeds, but they’ve got to be profitable to be sustainable.  Birds that take 12 weeks to get to 4 pounds cost roughly twice as much to produce as birds that reach 4 pounds in 6 weeks.  So to be profitable with heritage birds we’ve got to have customers who are willing to pay more in exchange for the better taste of the older birds.  Any takers?

So, back off of the tangent, at the end of the day we did have 22 chickens cleanly processed and packaged.

Pastured chicken arranged in the freezer for storage.

These are too small to really sell profitably, so they will be for the two of us plus any family or guests who visit.  My father-in-law put it best, “At least you get to eat your mistakes as you learn from them.”  And I can now vouch – pastured poultry tastes WAY better than supermarket chicken.

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New Chicks!

Dawn breaks over Chicken Gizzard Ridge. Viewed from our back door.

The picture above is what I get to see every morning as I start my chores and whatever other tasks I have assigned myself for the day.  On this day, the Liberty post office called and that means only one thing – new chicks have arrived!  I snapped this picture on my way to the brooders to turn on the clamp lights that we use to warm our chicks’ brood chambers.  I turn them on before I head off to the post office so that they’ll be nice and toasty for the chicks by the time we return.

The first batch of 25 White Rock chicks is heading to the processor on Monday.  I know that under ideal conditions we would have new chicks ready for pasture rather than the brooder at this point, but I wanted us to raise one batch of chicks from start to finish before we ordered more so that we could reflect on things (ISA students and personnel should try to refrain from screaming at my use of the r-word) and make any necessary changes before we got another batch started.  We learned a few things during the first batch, especially regarding my design of the chicken scooter, and have revamped things a little for this new group.  Additionally, we’ll be raising 75 chickens in 3 different tractors this time rather than 1 group of 25.

We ordered this batch of chicks from Mt. Healthy hatchery in Cincinnati.  We used McMurray hatchery last time, and the chicks they sent worked well.  We decided to try Mt. Healthy as well because Cincinnati is far closer to us than McMurray is and closer means less stress on the chicks during shipping.  Mt. Healthy doesn’t have the heritage breeds of turkeys, ducks, and geese that we want to raise, so McMurray will still get our business until we can “grow our own,” and they may get our business still with the chickens.  We’ll have to compare once both batches of chicks have been raised.  McMurray may be a tough act to follow, however.  We lost the “free rare exotic” chick that they sent us with our order of Black Australorps and White Rocks, but we haven’t lost ANY of the Black Australorps and the only 2 White Rocks we’ve lost were due to a marauding cat rather than any issue of health and vigor with the chicks.

I ordered 50 Buff Orpington chicks deliberately.  They are supposed to be a good meat breed and very calm and quiet for chickens.  The White Rocks have grown wonderfully, but are quite feisty with each other.  The Buffs are also a very pretty color – see the pictures below.  Mt. Healthy was offering 25 free chicks “hatchery choice” along with our order of 50 chicks, so I took them up on it figuring we had the tractor space and the feed anyway.  The website said that the free chicks would not be Cornish X, but when the box came it definitely said “Cornish” on it and the chicks look a lot more like Cornish X than Dark Cornish so I think they had some extra of those this week.

As I’ve stated in the “Livestocking Plans – Chickens” post, we don’t want to raise Cornish X even though they are the premier meat bird around today in terms of rapid growth, feed conversion ratio, and price.  We don’t feel they are meant for pasture life, and we want a breed that will run around and forage more than Cornish X do.  So initially I was pretty disappointed when I saw the box labeled “Cornish.”  As I thought about it more, though, this will be a good opportunity to take some data and we can compare the Cornish X to another breed on our pastures under our management at the exact same time.  Back to science for me!  My favorite part was when Lindsey said the exact same thing when she came home and saw them.

Both the Buff Orpingtons and the Cornish X chicks had 1 DOA, unfortunately.  The rest of the chicks appear to be settling in well.  Check out the photos below.  As you can see, we went the cheaper route with the bedding this time and utilized the chippings and shreddings from all of the brush that I’ve cleared over the last few weeks – thank you to Phillip and Eldon Beachy for repairing the chipper!  This bedding is coarser than the store-bought wood shavings but should hold more waste per unit because of the higher C to N ratio.  We’ll see!  It is definitely free and local, however.

A group of Cornish Cross chicks. They were the "Free Bonus 25 Chicks."

A cohort of 50 Buff Orpington chicks.

The Buff Orpingtons again. I think these chicks are the best color!

Buff Orpington chicks from their point of view.

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Rabbit Moving Day


The migration formation of the rabbit scooters, each scooter containing 2-5 rabbits.

We got the rabbits put into their scooters for pasturing yesterday.  Almost all of the males went into the tractors grouped by size.  The only exceptions are the males that we are saving for breeding stock.  The females stayed in the hutches for now.  We’ll select breeding stock from them as well, and the remaining rabbits will be sold for food or pets.  Most of the females were separated so that only 1 or 2 is in each pen.  All of the rabbits are maturing and beginning to fight a little bit, so hopefully this will minimize the fighting.

Lindsey makes fun of me for putting the pens into the formation depicted above, but there are good reasons for doing so and all of the animals in movable scooters will be in this type of formation.  Here’s why:
1.  It puts the pens close together without the sides rubbing (means repairs don’t have to happen as often).
2.  The pens are as close as possible to each other while still leaving space to maneuver around them.  This means that you can service each cage efficiently in a small area without tripping over them.
3.  If there is a slope to the land that the pens are on, staggering the scooters like this keeps poopy runoff from inundating the downhill pens during rainstorms.
4.  You can run the pens without leaving “space” between the sides so that all of the pasture gets the nitrogen deposits left by the animals.  If you put the cages in a straight line side-by-side, you have to leave room to walk between them in order to service the cages.  This means there is grass that doesn’t get eaten and pasture that doesn’t get manure.  Soon, you have a striped field.

The bunnies we’re pasturing right now are crosses between Flemish Giant bucks and various does (mostly Californian and New Zealand types).  Here’s the rabbits inside one of the scooters:

The inside of a loaded rabbit scooter. The 2x2s at the bottom run parallel to the way the scooter is pulled so that the grass stands up for the rabbits.

As you can see, the rabbits have plenty of room.  Additionally, since they eat a TON of grass, we’re moving them 3 times per day.  Though that seems like a lot, it’s really only 1 extra trip out to the area because the other animals necessitate trips out to the pasture in the morning and evening.  So I just go out there once more before lunch and move the rabbit scooters one length to fresh grass.  This seems to be worth the trouble, because they reduced their pellet consumption by at least half yesterday and today so far.  I’ll get solid before and after numbers for comparison and share them once they’ve been on pasture for a while longer, but that amounts to a $12 savings per week if that trend continues.

Why pasture rabbits at all?  The USDA already says that “domestic rabbit is the most nutritious meat available” and that rabbit has the highest percentage of protein and the lowest percentages of fat and calories when compared to veal, chicken, turkey, lamb, beef, and pork (USDA Circular 549).  This table comes from that circular:

SPECIES CALORIES PER POUND % PROTEIN % FAT
RABBIT 795 20.8 10.2
CHICKEN 810 20.0 11.0
VEAL 840 19.1 12.0
TURKEY 1190 20.0 20.1
LAMB 1420 15.7 27.7
BEEF 1440 16.3 28.0
PORK 2050 11.9 45.0

So if rabbit is this healthy to begin with, why pasture them?  Well, we believe that the compounds found in fresh green plants add vitamins and minerals (CLAs, carotenes, etc) that simply can’t be created in the meat any other way.  There are lots of studies that have been done on beef and poultry to verify the added health benefits.  I’d be really interested in seeing actual data comparing pastured rabbit to conventional rabbit, but I haven’t seen any such study anywhere.  As a science teacher, I would make the hypothesis that if pasturing beef and poultry increases the nutritional level of the meat, then pasturing rabbits would also increase the nutritional level of the rabbit meat.

There are other producers in Virginia and Tennessee that I know of who offer “pastured” rabbit.  However, they bring the pasture to the rabbit in the form of green-chopped materials.  I feel that this is more labor than moving a few rabbit pens.  Plus, having the rabbit scooters means that the fertility from the rabbit manure is placed directly on the soil without me having to haul it or compost it.  Second, and more importantly for us, the rabbit scooters allow the rabbit to act more like a rabbit, hopping around on the pasture, eating a variety of fresh grasses that change three times per day, and selecting what grasses they eat themselves.  So hopefully this system will work out.  If anyone reading this knows of advantages rabbit hutches have over the scooters (other than reduced labor for the keeper), please contribute a comment and let us know!

Other news from the poultry department (the USDA considers rabbit as “poultry” for regulatory purposes) is that the turkeys are starting to really act like turkeys.  They range far more widely than the chickens or the guinea fowl and eat lots of grass, seed heads, and insects of all kinds.  Watching them try to catch grasshoppers is extremely entertaining.  They are gobbling a lot more often now, and are losing most of the feathers on their heads and necks.

The turkeys are growing quickly and spend the day free-ranging. They explore the farm and "gobble" up lots of grass and insects.

The laying hens are doing a great job making compost for us underneath the rabbit hutches that are still occupied.  They are great labor-savers.  All I do is throw down some wood chips or straw on top of the rabbit manure and the chickens go to town on it, scratching through it looking for grubs, worms, and fly larvae.  In a couple days, I throw down some more carbon and they repeat.  Once it builds up in volume, I’ll haul it off to the gardens.

The broilers are in their last week on pasture. Next week is taste testing!

The broilers are almost ready for processing.  They go on Monday morning at 7:30.  Shhh – they don’t know this.  They are pretty large.  I got a little scale yesterday, so once it quits raining and the birds and rabbits dry off I’m going to go weigh some so we have an idea of how much chicken and rabbit we have in terms of poundage so that we can price things accurately.  I want to make sure we set a price that covers our expenses and pays us a decent wage per hour from the start so that we don’t have to have a price hike too soon and chase away our hard-earned customers.

Have a good day!

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News from the Chicken Dept

Several developments have happened so far this week in the poultry department.

First, the Black Australorp laying hens have discovered the wonderful world of rabbit manure!  We put the chickens near the rabbits deliberately so that we could add carbon (wood chips, straw, whatever) to the rabbit manure and the chicken could scratch through it looking for fly larvae and such, thus making compost for us and eliminating the flies from the rabbit area while getting cheap protein for the laying hens.  Sounds great in theory, right?  What we’ve been lacking so far is chicken cooperation.  All of the poultry has been free-ranging for the last week or so, and the chickens have steadfastly refused to venture underneath the rabbit pens.

Until today!

The laying hens finally discovered all of the goodies hiding in the rabbit manure.

Here the ladies are scratching through the manure and grabbing up all of the fly larvae.

Over in the Meat Chicken Division, we built Chicken Scooter 2.0 and moved the broilers into it to test out the new design and so I could modify Chicken Scooter 1.0 and add the new features.  In the second generation, I made a feeder out of PVC pipe and attached it to the frame.  No more taking the feed trough out in order to move the pen every day!  The major design changes were to the ends of the scooter.  Each end is now fully formed by plywood.  At other farms that use this type of method, the weather tends to come from only one direction.  We’re in a valley with hills on the eastern, western, and northern sides.  That makes our winds swirl around and the wind and rain can come from either east or west, hence the plywood on both sides.  The most convenient new feature though is the door is now right above the feeder on the covered end of the scooter.  For Chicken Scooter 1.0, I wasn’t thinking about efficiency as much as I should have and made a design where I had to crawl into the scooter to grab the food trough on the far end, where I had to put it so it wouldn’t get wet.  While I was doing that, some of the chickens invariably escaped and I would have to round them up and return them to the scooter.  All this work because my brain wasn’t on the first time.  Hopefully, lesson learned.  Here’s some pictures of the newest chicken scooter.  As you can see, the design is still the same size and almost everything is the same, save the ends and the door!

As you can see, the designs are identical except for the ends.

Here is the major change. A door on the same end as the feed trough, and the feed trough screwed to the frame.

Finally, the broilers now have a date with the processor.  Eventually we want to do this step here at the ranch for many reasons (less stress on the birds, no gas used driving them to Bowling Green, $2.85 less expense per bird), but until we figure out all of the legal mumbo jumbo surrounding turning animals into food we are going to have to allow someone else to process our birds.  We chose SS Enterprises (http://aboutssenterprises.com) because they are relatively close to us, are family-owned and operated, and certified organic.  So on August 23rd at 7:30 am, the broilers and I will be pulling into Bowling Green.  Sometime after that, I will be leaving Bowling Green will several ice chests.  Any readers in the area, we will have chicken for sale!

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Livestocking Plans – Chickens


Chickens

Well we are now 23 days out from populating the ranch ourselves, and for a long time my thoughts have kept returning to the question of what livestock and breeds will occupy the land with us.  I’ve been trying to think of everything from a land stewardship and ecological point of view; trying to picture all of the different tasks we want our animals to accomplish for Good Life Ranch and how those pieces fit together in the manner we want them to.  That means that we want the outputs or “wastes” of one system to provide the inputs of another.  I’ll try to discuss this aspect in each post and provide a summary in the final post on the livestock breeds.

Here’s my thoughts so far, which I’m sure will change as we get to the land and encounter all of the opportunities and challenges that it has to offer.

Chickens

Of course, all of our animals will provide manure to fertilize the soil.  However, the chickens will probably be the first animals on the farm and will provide the initial source of nitrogen to rejuvenate the pastures.  Our pastures have not been utilized by domestic animals for a long time, if ever.  For the last 10 years about half the fields have been hayed each year with no grazing and the other half of the fields have been used for corn by an Amish farmer whose property adjoins ours on the east.  Since there hasn’t been any grazing going on in most of the fields, they haven’t been fertilized in any way for a number of years.  The fields that have been used to grow corn have been spread with manure every year, but luckily no chemical fertilizers have been utilized.  We’ll use some form of chicken tractor or prairie schooner to help protect the chickens from the numerous predators (our property at least has mink, hawks, and bobcats on it, maybe some other critters as well) and to help the chickens put their manure where we need it most.  Since we don’t have fences yet either, chickens will be the easiest animal to keep on the property as well and the tractors or schooners will help keep them off the highway.

We plan on having broilers and a laying flock.  We’ll start with the broilers and a few laying hens for our own use and add a larger laying flock after we acquire some of the ruminants for the layers to follow around the pastures.  We want to get a nice dual purpose breed for several reasons.  First and foremost is that we want to be completely sustainable.  That means we want to hatch out our chickens on the ranch and not have to order them from distant hatcheries.  Second, and more importantly, I don’t agree with the policy many hatcheries have of killing the male chicks of the laying breeds.  I understand that the male chicks are not profitable for the hatchery, or at least are more profitable as fertilizer or chicken meal, but one of the main reasons we want to embark on this venture is animal welfare and my value system cannot support the mass slaughter of male chicks.  Of course, we may have to order from a hatchery initially to get started, but we will at least check around locally and see if anybody has a good flock that we could use to get started.  Anyway, I want to get a dual purpose breed where the females we hatch out can join our laying flock and later become stewing birds and the males that hatch can become pastured broilers, fryers, or roasters.

Here are the breeds I’ve looked at and some thoughts about each.  Except where noted, we will probably try out several different birds in an effort to see which breed performs best in our particular location.  There are many other breeds out there, and I’ve by no means found them all!  This list is just of ones I specifically do or do not want to try.

Cornish X – I looked at this breed initially.  It’s what the Salatins raise and it’s by far the cheapest option, both in terms of the price of chicks and in terms of growing out, as they have the best feed conversion ratio.  However, the early maturation doesn’t allow the flavor of the chicken to develop.  This bird may be single-handedly responsible for everything tasting like chicken.  They also are developed for confinement, not for the pasture and do not seem to have some of the foraging instincts that other breeds do.  They may drop dead from developmental issues caused by their incredible growth rates if you don’t process them in time.  For these reasons, we will not be raising Cornish X.

Black Australorp – above average layers and supposedly can grow fairly quickly as well.  They are a calm bird and are well-adapted to free-ranging.  This breed would allow us to utilize both the males and the females.  They are a brown egg layer.  Downside is that the dark feathers can leave the processed birds less than appealing to some customers.  They are on the Recovering list of the American Livestock Breed Conservancy (ALBC).

Delaware – this breed began as a broiler cross, but was true-breeding and a good layer as well.  It’s light in color, very hardy, early maturing, lay brown eggs at a good clip, and free range well.  The ALBC lists the Delaware as a Threatened breed, and the Delaware is listed on Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste.

Orpington – specifically the Buff variety because of their lighter feathers to make things easier in processing them.  They are supposed to be good cold weather layers and above average layers in general.  They are also early-maturing and can grow to a good size for meat.  Adaptable to free-ranging.  Listed as a Recovering breed by the ALBC.

Araucana/Ameraucana – these probably won’t form a big part of our flock, but I just like ‘em.  They will play a role in our Lifestyles Lane experience.  These birds originated in South America and are often called Easter Eggers because of their blue- or green-tinted eggs.  They free-range well and will help make the South American portions of Lifestyles Lane more authentic, but will probably not factor into any commercial egg or broiler production for us.  The ALBC lists these breeds under their “study” category.

Rhode Island Red – obviously, a red-feathered bird.  That may make a difference to customers at processing time, but they are very good brown egg layers, very hardy in all weather, and not broody.  They are active free-rangers and can reach 6-7 pounds, so the males may make passable broilers on pasture.  Some strains of this breed have been industrialized, but we’d be after the more traditional lines.  The non-industrial lines of this breed are listed as Recovering by the ALBC and are on Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste.

White Rock (Plymouth) – the unlisted part of the Cornish X.  White rocks have white feathers that come off cleanly at processing time, grow rapidly and have a pretty quiet disposition.  Some strains are pretty much confinement only birds, but other strains are starting to be developed for pasturing.  They are supposedly pretty strong layers of brown eggs as well.  A common breed that isn’t in any danger of decline.

Other breeds we may eventually investigate as broilers only include the K22 Red Broilers and the Freedom Rangers.  I’d rather go with one or more of the dual purpose breeds above, though, for the sake of simplicity and in the interest of breeding our own flock and not having to reinvest in chicks each year.  That saves us about $1-$2 per finished chicken, which is a rather high percentage of the total cost of production.

The chickens, no matter what breed or mix of breeds we end up utilizing, will provide fertility to our soils through their droppings, scratch through the manure of the ruminants that we will add to our enterprise eventually and eliminate or reduce the fly problem that many ranches experience.  In addition, they will take care of windfall fruit around our fruit trees and in our food forest (more about that in an upcoming post) and dispose of garden and kitchen scraps.  By products from chicken processing (blood, feathers, entrails, etc) will be composted and then used to fertilize our food forest, gardens, and pastures.  The only inputs into this system should be a one-time investment in chicks, incubators, and brooding equipment as well as a recurring cost in chicken feed.  Outputs include meat in the form of broilers, fryers, roasters, and stewing birds, eggs, manure, and organic materials for composting.

Coming up next – turkeys, ducks, geese, and guineas!

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