Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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Maternal Instinct

We've had a second baby boom of sorts here at the farm lately. It's the time of year where we're happy to let the birds sit on eggs and hatch out their own broods. By this time of year, the incubator is silent, unless I'm hatching out a few quail or peafowl. We collect the turkey eggs all spring & early summer for two reasons- #1 if you take the eggs, the hens will lay more and #2 not all hens will sit the full 28 days necessary to hatch out the chicks (21 days for chickens, but the same two rules apply).

It's actually pretty unusual to have birds that hatch their own young. Mothering instinct has been bred out of virtually all livestock breeds these days. While it sounds unbelievable that animals don't know how to raise their own young, it's true, because the demands of modern agriculture often are at odds with nature's instinct. A broody hen will peck at you and draw blood to defend her clutch if she's ready to hatch a brood. This is a royal pain if you're a farmer making a living selling eggs. Likewise, if you're selling milk, you'll be taking the calf away from mama and bottle feeding it while milking the cow and selling the milk. You don't want the cow lowering her head and charging you to keep you away from her calf.  It's much easier if she doesn't mind that it is gone.  Both situations actively encourage breeding that protective mothering instinct out of the animals.

Fortunately, because heritage breeds of livestock have been largely left alone by modern agriculture, they retain that instinct. When my mom came to visit, she came in from the backyard and told me she'd found our “secret chicken”. It was one of our Golden Phoenix hens, tucked away in a patch of iris leaves, sitting on her nest. We've had these hens hatch chicks before, so we let her go to see what would happen. Last week, the chicks did hatch. Turns out she was sitting on a full dozen eggs, and of those, she successfully hatched out 11 chicks! That would be a great hatch rate even in the digitally controlled incubator. Of course, that is only the first half of the mothering equation. Next, mama bird has to protect her little chicken nuggets from cats and other hungry critters, show them how to forage, and protect them from the elements. If mama chicken still had 8 right now, I'd say it was a huge success. But, incredibly, she still has ALL 11, well over a week later! The chicks are hardier than the ones we have in the brooder pen, too...we've seen them soaking wet after a thunderstorm, which could be fatal, but they run around like nothing's wrong, with no heat lamp to huddle under. Chicks in the brooder are kept warm and given unlimited fresh food & water, but these little buggers out there are hardier, smarter, and I even think they grow more quickly. What a difference a parent makes!

It's magic to watch the hen at work, too. She makes sure to go slowly enough that the kids can keep up, and clucks softly to let them know where she is at all times. She'll fluff up her body and extend her wings just enough that the chicks can hide from the weather under her. It's simply amazing to watch 11 tiny birds disappear like that...mama doesn't seem big enough to protect them all, but she does somehow. And she is fierce about protecting her young. As the bringer of food, she doesn't mind me so much, but she keeps a watchful eye on everything else. Yesterday, I was doing chores, and the cows came out of the barn to see if they could get some delicious chicken food. Mama hen and her brood were in the same part of the barnyard. One of the yearling cows, Ling Ling, must have walked through the area where the chicks were, because the next thing I saw was mama hen attacking the cow much like a rooster would do. In this chicken vs. cow fight, there was a crystal-clear winner. Ling Ling ran for the barn while the hen stood her ground and collected her young. I laughed pretty hard!

But our Phoenix isn't the only one with a brood these days. Dan had found a Bourbon Red turkey hen had made a nest behind the shop amongst the machinery. I went to look for her after putting the horses in the barn Monday morning, but found only a few feathers and broken shells. I looked for the hen, but she was no where to be found. But as I was doing evening chores, I saw a lone turkey in that general area, near the creek. The grass is kind of high along the bank, but as I watched, I counted four little poults, foraging for bugs with mom. We're hoping she has as much maternal instinct as the Phoenix hen!

 Our Golden Phoenix hen, with 2-day-old chicks.

 
 

Lessons I learned from Rocky

On a farm like ours, animals come and go pretty regularly. That's what happens when you raise meat. Now I know tonight is a processing day, and that we'll butcher a dozen or so chickens, but the broilers are eating machines without much personality, not at all like the heritage breeds we raise for eggs. But there are always certain critters that find a way into your heart, and that's what made yesterday a bit sad here. Our Barred Rock rooster, Rocky, passed away. It was sad, but expected. Rocky was five years old, a very senior chicken. His legs were thick and scaly, he had lost most of his comb to frostbite over the winters, and his tail had turned from black and white bars to nearly all white. Over the past week or so, I'd noticed his legs seemed to be hurting him and he wasn't getting around very well, so I've been sort of mentally preparing for the end.

Rocky was the first rooster I ever really got to know. Roosters have a (generally) well-deserved reputation for being nasty creatures. They will jump up and spur you, even drawing blood through a pair of jeans. Your size doesn't intimidate them at all. When I first began coming to the farm with Dan, the layers had been sold off and not replaced, as the farm was on a temporary hiatus, so the coops were silent. When we got married in July of 2007, his parents bought us a few unusual wedding presents, ones that would help us to a fresh start here on the farm. One was a Dorset ram, and another was a starter flock of chickens. Betty & Dan went and picked out a nice assortment of started pullets, around 4 months old. (I would have gone too, but I still worked away back then.) They brought back a few Red Star hybrids, some Buff Orpington hens, a few Ameracaunas who lay the beautiful blue-green eggs, and some Barred Rocks. Of the 22 birds, all were hens except for one rooster. Although Betty has had enough bad experiences that she really does not like roosters, it was decided that one would be good. That rooster eventually became known as Rocky.

In the five years he ruled the layer flock, he never once challenged me, nor did he ever act aggressively towards anyone. I could turn my back on him in the coop while I collected eggs without fear. Now I have had many roosters come into my life after that, and there were plenty that got mean. Rocky taught me that I didn't need to put up with that, and the mean ones never stay long. Even with chickens, you can (and, I would argue, should) breed for temperament as well as production traits. It was a hugely important idea- breeding males shouldn't be crazy and mean. It's one that has largely been lost in modern agriculture. For instance,most dairies do not have a bull, all their cows are bred by artificial insemination. That way, anyone can breed to the most productive bloodlines. It doesn't matter that the bulls are extremely dangerous, as the farmers using the bloodlines never have to deal with the ornery beast. Another downside is that the breed becomes excessively inbred, losing its genetic diversity. In addition, I do think it matters how you treat the animals- if you approach the animal expecting it to hurt you and behave accordingly, I can't help but think that that expectation will affect the animal's behavior. Reassured that the rooster didn't have to be mean, I took the same approach of cautious trust with the other farm males. The ram, the boar, the mini stallion, and even our Dexter bull have all been known to eat treats out of my hand. I don't trust them all the time, because sometimes they do act up. But I've learned that if you get to know your animals, you can read their moods, and it's completely possible to interact with a big boy of whatever species without expecting (and getting!) the worst.

It was a good decision to get a roster with our starter flock, because although hens will produce eggs without a male around, the eggs will not be fertile. In the spring of 2008, we decided to try incubating and hatching our own eggs. Without Rocky, it wouldn't have been an option. I'll never forget the experience of the first time, the worry, hope and anticipation that we would be able to hatch our own little chicks. I didn't even live at the farm yet, but I rushed home from work on the expected day to see the eggs had started cracking from the inside. A few hours later, we would have peeps in the brooder pen under the soft glow of the heat lamp, and we would go to sleep the next few weeks hearing their chirps from the spare bedroom across the hallway. That was years ago (as well as thousands of chicks ago), but thinking about it always makes me smile.

To me, Rocky was a kind of living link to my pre-farm self. He and his hens were a real introduction to agriculture for me. And he was just a cool chicken. He defended his girls to the best of his ability from night time marauders, and greeted us with his crows each morning. The barnyard is a little quieter here without him, but I have kept one of his sons to replace him. In that way, I hope his docile genetics will always be a part of the farm. 

 
 

What IS That Sound??


This time of year, a strange sound comes from my large kitchen pantry.  A beep...beep...beep...beep sound.  One that always seems to make friends and family look around as if there is either something on fire or about to blow up.  But for me, it's one of the wonderful sounds of spring.  So what machine is lurking in the pantry, making ominous beeping noises?  It's the incubator!  

A few years ago, Dan & I invested in a large cabinet incubator.  It has three trays, each capable of holding 66 chicken, turkey, peafowl or duck eggs.  (Quail eggs, being much smaller, mean we can use smaller trays which hold many more.) We generally set one tray each week.  This works really well, as chicken eggs take 21 days to hatch, so we can have a continuous supply of adorable chicks all spring.  It is fully automated, with a digital thermostat for keeping a steady 100 degree temperature, a five gallon bucket that feeds into the machine's tray for steady humidity, and an automatic turner. This turner is necessary so that chicks do not develop lopsided and sickly.  A real mother hen shifts on her nest, turning the eggs during incubation, and this fills that function and saves me from turning them by hand multiple times each day.  The incubator beeps each time the trays turn, which happens every couple of hours.  After a day or two, it becomes a background noise to me, just like the roosters crowing, one that means everything is going just fine. (But a noise that sounds suspiciously like a fire alarm or bomb to visitors!)  

I'm excited to have chicks again.  As always, we'll be saving some of the laying breeds (our Barred Rocks and Delawares) and keeping some hen chicks to replenish our own laying flock.  Others we offer for sale to those looking to start their own flocks.  We're looking forward to adding turkey and, hopefully, quail eggs to the mix in the next few weeks, and peafowl eggs later in the spring, probably May sometime.  But most of all, I look forward to the day when I can pull out the hatching tray and pull out the first few downy chicks to move to the brooder pen.  Because even though I've pulled literally thousands of chicks out of the incubator so far, it's still exciting every time.  Seeing new life never gets old.

 
 

The Incubator

As a kid, my Easter mornings were pretty standard...a basket of chocolate bunnies and marshmallow peeps (and eating as many as possible before church!).  Now, my Easter mornings are far less sugary, but with lots of the same creatures.  Tiny, fuzzy baby bunnies in nests of their mother's fur.  And lots of peeps- soft, downy chicks making adorable, soft chirps.  I love getting up in the morning and opening the incubator to see dozens of tiny birds that didn't exist just the night before!

Dan and I began our hatching adventure several years ago with a small Styrofoam incubator that held 42 eggs.  You fill it and wait three weeks to see what hatches.  We liked hatching so much that we bought a commercial-sized one.  The large incubator that we use now has three racks, each capable of holding 66 chicken eggs (or less geese, or more quail...it all depends on the size of the egg).  It works great, since you can fill a rack each week with chicken eggs,  since a chicken takes 21 days to incubate and hatch, as the eggs are ready to hatch and moved to the hatching tray, you have a weekly hatching rotation that can go uninterrupted all spring.  This year, things have gotten far more complicated.  This is because we've been blessed with an amazing number of turkey eggs.  We didn't know what to expect, since this is a new venture for us, we were hoping to get 10-12 eggs from each of our first-year hens. So far, our seven girls have produced over 130 eggs total, and we're still collecting more each day!  It's many more turkeys than we plan on raising up, so we are able to sell the extras for some welcome spring income as well.  But what is making things complicated is that turkey eggs take longer to hatch.  Like ducks & geese, turkey eggs take 28 days.  This means a good part of our rack space is occupied for an extra week.   It's not a big deal, as long as you keep good records and know which eggs need to be moved to the hatching tray at the bottom of the incubator at what time.  (Moving to the hatcher is important, since it's hard for a chick to escape its shell if it's being held upright in the plastic racks, and also the trays turn.  You don't want to see a chick hatch on the trays because they tilt from side to side.  If a chick were to hatch there, it would fall from the rack into the hatching tray below or possibly get crushed by the turning mechanisms.  Not good.)  To maximize tray space, I have to keep good records of what is hatching when, and to avoid confusion, I'll mark the eggs with a Sharpie marker.  It doesn't hurt anything, and I know for sure that the turkey eggs in the tray with, for instance, a blue x on them are ready to hatch while the ones marked with an orange x need to stay a week longer.

 We haven't been hatching near the amount of chicks  we have in the past this spring because our turkey eggs take priority.  Turkeys will only lay eggs for a period of weeks in the spring.  Then they are done for the rest of the year.  Chickens lay eggs over most of the year, so I can always hatch them later.  It's been a bit frustrating, because I do have folks who want to buy chicks from us, but I just don't have quantities of 25 or 50 chickens of a particular breed to sell any given week right now.  One of the hardest things to get used to, for me, is the amount of patience and planning it takes to farm.  I imagine lots of the folks emailing me about chicks expect that I have large pens like they do at Tractor Supply or other stores, and they can come and pick out as many as they like, whenever it is convenient for them.  They don't realize that I have to plan weeks in advance, and that it depends on what is laying and how many eggs are collected.  But that is the way it works on a farm, nothing is instant.  Even plants can take much longer than many people realize- I bought asparagus crowns back in February, they arrived in the mail at the farm last week.  As soon as it dries out enough to work the soil, we'll plant them.  Then we wait.  The plants will establish themselves this year, and next spring we'll be able to have a small harvest, with larger harvests in subsequent years.  Still, it means I won't taste a single bite or make a single dollar selling asparagus until well over a year from when I paid for the plants.  Instant gratification just doesn't happen on a farm.  

The key is to find joy in whatever is happening, and be grateful whenever you have success.  And the incubator brings me great joy every time.  Yesterday morning, I had a dozen turkeys to remove from the incubator tray.  Turkeys are still new enough that even Dan gets a bit excited.  I also had chicken eggs to put in the hatcher over the weekend, and last night, after dinner, I heard loud peeps coming from the incubator.  I've noticed many times that the birds make the biggest noise just as they are making the final push out of the shell.  So I had to check on my babies.  I opened up the incubator to find a single wet, just-hatched chick.  Awww!  Dan asked what it was, and I replied that it was a Delaware.  "Wanna see?" I asked.  No, he's seen hundreds of Delaware chicks and thousands of baby birds hatched here.  I closed up the incubator to let the chick dry overnight while the rest hatched before moving them to the brooder pen this morning.  Dan asked me, as I snapped the incubator door latches shut, "You still get excited every single time, don't you?"

 I do.   

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Are You OK?

When an animal suddenly has a change in its behavior, it's always something to take note of.  Frequently, it's your first or only warning of sickness.  It also can indicate when things aren't right in the environment or that a baby is imminent.  A week or so ago I noticed one of my hen Bourbon Red turkeys looking kind of droopy, laying on the ground with her wings spread slightly.  I thought perhaps she had something, like baler twine, wrapped around her leg, so I walked over.  She let me pick her right up, but there was no sign of injury or anything amiss.  Still, turkeys don't normally allow humans to touch them, so I was concerned.  But when I turned back from the feed barrel with the scoop in hand, all turkeys were bright, alert, and ready to eat.  I couldn't tell which was "droopy hen".  I was a bit relieved, since appetite is usually the first thing to go when critters get sick.  The next day, the "droop" had spread.  Two hens were down.  Again, they would let me touch them without getting up and running away, but acted fine a few minutes later.  I mentioned it to Dan, and he replied that he too had seen this going on.  

As I did chores, I kept thinking about my hens.  What could be wrong?  Then I remembered a suspiciously similar story, involving the very same breed of turkey, in one of my favorite books- Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. She too, had seen this...just before the birds started to breed.  Her description of toms that strutted continually since fall mirrored my own Gobbles, who struts to impress the mail lady, feed buckets, and any & everything else.  The hens hadn't really shown any interest in this display, and now seemed more likely to show their own mating behavior when humans are around.  Guess both sexes have imprinted on us somewhat, since we've provided them with food and cared for them since hatching.  But spring is coming, the days are lengthening, and although I wasn't sure when turkeys would begin to lay eggs, the timing is definitely right.  So I stopped worrying and hoped for the best.  The turkeys have started to figure it out.  Gobbles is taking an interest in the ladies instead of whatever might be laying in the yard.  When one of the hens flew down from the roost in the pine tree into the chicken run, she and Gobbles seemed so frustrated that they were separated by the woven wire fence. It was as though they were star crossed lovebirds and he had eyes for no other hens, at least for a little while  They are making somewhat awkward attempts to breed, and I'm optimistic that we'll have fertile eggs this spring.  

This is hugely exciting, since we'll be hatching our own poults for the very first time.  99% of the turkeys raised in the US are the broad-breasted variety, which grow so much white meat that they physically can't even reproduce on their own.  They are more of a variety that a true breed, since they cannot mate naturally.  Each and every egg has to be artificially inseminated. So our biggest dilemma now is to decide if we'll take the eggs from the Bourbon Red hens to put in our incubator or let them try to sit on them naturally.  I'd like to perpetuate turkeys that have a good maternal instinct, which has been bred out of so much domestic poultry, but at the same time there is a possibility the hen will give up halfway through sitting and we won't have any babies.  Which might not be a huge deal to a hobby farmer or someone looking to raise their own food, but we've set our hearts on offering only heritage breed turkeys for sale here at the farm from now on.  Incubated eggs would still be 100% farm-raised and another thing we would be able to do sustainably.  It would cut out a cost (of purchasing poults), which is always a good thing for a business, and avoid the huge hassle it turned into when dealing with a certain mail order hatchery last year.  Most likely, in the end, we'll compromise and take most of the eggs at first, then leave some to the hens and see what happens.  Like the geese and peafowl, turkeys only lay enough eggs for one brood per season/year.  If you take a few eggs and put them in the incubator, the hen will lay a few more, until she thinks she has enough to make it worth her while to sit on.  Once she begins sitting ("going broody") she stops laying.  That's it.  No more eggs til next year.  So snatching a few at first actually has a reasonable chance of extending the laying season and the total number of eggs.

But it is the season to begin watching for eggs of all kinds, and I can't wait to turn on the incubator and start Hatching Season 2011.  Dan spotted a duck egg in the creek today, so the Pekins are beginning to lay.  But I'm hoping they pick a less waterlogged spot soon, so we can collect & hatch the eggs.  We didn't have ducklings last year because our male was killed by predators over the winter.  We got some new ducks late last year and should be good to go.  Duckings are so cute!  We've also had a nearly complete lack of chicken eggs as we got rid of our unproductive older hens before winter set in.   While I had replacement chicks in September, it takes about 6 months for a chicken to mature and begin laying, so I'm anxiously awaiting Barred Rock, Delaware & Ameracauna eggs to start soon.  The other hens we have are more showy and not known for laying as well through the winter. Those would be our Blue Cochins & Golden Phoenixes.  These birds will go broody and hatch their own chicks during the warmer months, which is fun, but we hatch out plenty in the early spring in the incubator.  The longer days are a signal to start laying and I've found a few Phoenix eggs in the past few days so we'll be setting soon. (Yes, I really can tell what breed of chicken laid the egg by the shape, size & color!)  So we'll be hearing the soft peep of downy chicks in another month or so, which is always amazing! 

 
 

Why So Much?

It's another beautiful fall day here.  As always, it's been yet another busy week on the farm.  I've got some fresh horseradish roots, dug from the herb garden today, that I'll be processing as soon as I'm done blogging.  Then tonight Dan and I will finish the sausage making process we started yesterday so we will have fresh hot and mild Italian sausage for sale on Saturday.  The roasts and pork chops were wrapped up last night.  It's been a busy week for meat, as we also sent 3 lambs for processing.  Our processor, Hirsch's Meats, cuts and wraps them for us, so it's a bit of a break in work compared to the other meats after the animals are loaded onto the trailer.  We're fully stocked on more lamb chops, ground lamb, and stew meat, plus we'll be offering small shoulder roasts as well this time.

The main job today, however, will be processing chicken.  We do this entirely by hand here at the farm.  We joke that my title in this department is "Head Chicken Plucker & Quality Control."   Dan does the knife work and I pull the feathers by hand after the birds are scalded in 160 degree water.  It's a labor intensive job.  Some day, we've talked about investing in a plucking machine that would speed up the process and allow us to sell more birds over the course of the year.  But today, our Friday night will be spend covered in wet, smelly feathers.  (Can you tell it's not my favorite job on the farm?)

We charge $2.25/lb for our birds.  Even at that price, they are definitely not our most profitable meat product.   We use the Cornish-Rock crosses, and can't breed them ourselves, so we purchase the chicks.  Unlike our beef and lamb, you need to supplement the pasture diet with quite a bit of high protein feed, which we purchase.  It may be surprising, but we could cut that feed bill significantly by feeding antibiotics to our birds for their entire lives. We pay MORE for feed without added medicine.   It comes as a surprise to some of our farm stand's visitors that we charge the price we do per pound for our chicken. Eye-rolling or an exasperated “Why so much?” aren't unheard of. When a grocery store can run a special for $.79 a pound, it might seem to some like price gouging. However, we make less money on chicken than any of our other meat products and most of the price is a reflection of what you aren't getting.

You aren't getting corporate America. Four big companies are responsible for 95% of the chicken produced in America today. Four. While they subcontract the daily dirty work to smaller farms, watch the movie  Food Inc. and you'll get an idea of what that is like...many of those family farms are going into debt to keep up with company regulations while the corporate CEO's make money hand over fist. The companies like to call it “vertical integration” and proclaim it as a model of efficiency. Other points of view compare it to indentured servitude. And that also doesn't take into consideration how your tax dollars subsidize cheap corn and oil, creating an artificially low price for a finished product like chicken.  

You aren't getting growth enhancing chemicals and harmful additives. Organic chicken feed isn't cheap. Apparently arsenic is. While arsenic is known as a deadly poison, our government allows big chicken plants to feed it to their birds. At low levels, it gives the meat a nicer, healthier appearance. (Ironic, huh?) While lots of packages of commercial chicken claim to be hormone-free, look at the fine print and you'll see the only reason why is because the FDA prohibits it.

You also aren't getting antibiotics from our birds. This is necessary at Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations since in close confinement conditions, a sick bird can spread its disease to literally hundreds of other birds before anyone can see symptoms. It spreads so fast because of the overcrowded conditions the birds live in- the axiom of CAFO's is that “room to turn around is room enough” for the animals. We prefer to give our birds room to run, scratch, peck and spread their wings. We also prefer to give our birds fresh air and sunlight. A commercially-raised bird literally never sees the light of the sun its entire life. Not once. This is also true for most so called “free range” birds- the doors to the outside runs are generally kept locked until the last 2 weeks or so of the birds' lives. By that time, they are slow and have difficulty moving around, not to mention no incentive to move very far from the feeders. Many of those runs are also small balconies, with no access to the soil, and only enough room for about 1/10th of the birds to be on them.  Big "organic" corporations have even been known to skirt the mandatory outside access part of federal law by finding a sympathetic vet to issue a written statement that outdoor access would be harmful to the health of the flock.  This allows them to keep the birds enclosed without losing USDA organic certification, and they can charge you accordingly.  Raising small flocks and moving them on the soil daily also eliminates the horrendous manure problem factory farms produce.  The runoff of this industrial bird sewage is known to kill every living thing in streams downhill from CAFOs.  We move our chickens around the garden areas, where the garden benefits from the bugs the chickens eat and the manageable quantities of manure which serve to enrich the soil, not destroy it. 

Tyson or Cargill don't care if they make $.05 profit on each bird they sell, they sell literally billions every year, so they can afford to sell cheap. If I'm only making a few cents more than the cost of feed, I wouldn't be selling chicken. I happen to believe my time is worth something too. Every day, we need to feed the birds, make sure they have fresh clean water and move the pen to fresh grass, making sure they have a healthy, sanitary environment. While not terribly time-consuming in terms of farm work, it still must be done every day, morning and evening without fail. That means every morning, regardless of where else you have to be or what else you have to do. What would you pay to be able to hit the snooze on the alarm just once all summer long? (or shut it off completely for just one day, Sundays included?) Another aspect is processing. We do it here, by hand. An afternoon and evening covered in wet chicken feathers and worse really isn't my idea of a fun Friday night. You're paying me for that time, too.

 So, the next time you see a price at your local farm stand that seems completely out of line with what a conventional store charges, don't be afraid to ask why. Your local farmer wants you to understand the true cost of your food.  We take questions like these as a learning opportunity, and a chance to talk about what we do. (Which we love and believe in or we wouldn't be doing it!)

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New Hens

On every farm, you have a division of labor according to each person's skills and comfort level.  While either Dan or I can care for any of the animals here, we each have our own chores we do daily.  We never sat down and formally figured this out, it came rather naturally over time.  For instance, Dan usually feeds the pigs.  Not that I can't, but most days it just makes sense because it involves frequent lifting/moving of feed sacks weighing 100 lbs.  I have trouble with 100-pounders and need to empty part of it into a bucket first, while Dan can carry two at a time.  While Dan is feeding the hogs, I'll take care of the chickens.  It's no less important, but the feed comes in 50 pound bags and chickens eat a lot less than hogs, so I don't even have to move those all that often.  As a result, I'm much more in tune with the birds.  I know which breeds are laying best, when we may need to fix a fence or put up a light, and when birds are missing and we need to set up traps for predators.

Fall is here, and the shorter days mean less eggs.  We'll fool mother nature somewhat by putting up a timed light to trick them into thinking the days are still long, but production will slow down.  It's also a good time to think about culling the less productive hens.  Commercial egg factories eliminate any hen going through her first molt, which happens when the hen is about 1.5 years old.  As they are small and wiry by then, they become the chicken in your soup or pot pie, or the "real meat" in your pet's food.  We aren't that draconian, but when they are no longer producing, we can't afford to be running a retirement home for washed up hens, so we take them to a local auction.  Some of our flock was getting as old a 3 years, and while we do hatch our own replacements, it's always wise to have some fresh bloodlines from time to time.  

Normally, I confer with Dan before making most any farm decision, but I decided that now was a great time to order female chicks to be replacement layers.  Why now? A hen doesn't begin to lay eggs until she's 5 or 6 months old, so chicks hatched now will start to lay in March sometime, which is when we begin to really need an increase in egg production.  So I decided what I wanted and called up the hatchery we deal with.  Next week, I'll be getting some little fuzzy chicks.  Some will be mostly coal black and will grow up to be my black and white speckled Barred Rocks.  Some will be yellow, and will grow up to be my favorite birds, Delawares, which are mostly white with a bit of black on their wings and tails.  I don't know what colors to expect the rest of the chicks to be, as they are Ameracaunas. They are known as the "Easter Egg chicken" since they lay blue-green eggs, which I just love.  They have fluffs of feathers that resemble a beard under the beak and on the sides of the face that look like earmuffs (called, not surprisingly, muffs and beard!)  They come in a rainbow of colors as well, I've had jet black girls, brown, white, and multi-hued Ameracaunas.  So I'll look forward to opening that box and meeting them!

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Turkeys Behaving Badly

If you've been to the farm recently, you've probably seen our flock of (very) free-range turkeys.  Most of them are Bourbon Reds, but we also have a few black-and-white Royal Palms too.   There is even a big white Broad Breasted turkey, due to a mix-up when we got the poults. (he was supposed to be a Palm, oops!)  While we've tried to pen them up, they jump and fly to roost in the pine trees above the run each night and unfailingly jump down on the free-range side of the fence each morning.  When I walk across the yard to get the paper or the mail each morning, I have a trail of turkeys crossing the road with me.  They were content to just roam the front yard until recently.  Now, I can't go outside without being swarmed by them.  They make friendly little turkey noises and strut in front of me, hoping to impress me enough for and extra helping of food.  I can deal with that, but we're about to clip wings 'cause my birdie buddies are spending too much time near the road.  I don't want any harm to come to them, and they simply don't herd well.  Not to mention I look like a fool, waving my arms, yelling "turkeys get away from the road!"

The other place they love to be is my front porch.  They actually jump up on to the back of the porch swing.  They will raise and lower their turkey tails in order to balance as the swing rocks, which has the unique result of actually pumping the swing, just as you did with your legs when you were a kid.  It would be a neat trick I would encourage but a) everywhere is an OK place to do your business if you're a bird (ewww!) and b) company does not like to be startled by a 15 lb bird jumping up behind them when you're trying to visit. So as you can imagine, I have lots of daily interactions with the turkeys.  I'm so glad that we'll be keeping some as a breeding flock, I would truly miss them if they all were processed for Thanksgiving dinners.  Bourbons & Palms are both considered endangered breeds of livestock, brought to the brink of extinction by the dominance of the Broad Breasted White and the consolidation of turkey raising, which now occurs almost exclusively in factory-farm conditions.  

Last week, I was taking a short break from the oppressive heat of the canning kitchen, relaxing on the cooler front porch with a nice glass of ice water.  Of course, a few of the turkey came up to see what I was doing.  As I was shooing one back to the yard (he was looking at my painted toenails as if it were a bull's-eye begging to be pecked), that really hit me.  These are ENDANGERED, and I have the good fortune to care for them.  Many, many people never get closer to an endangered creature than the glass enclosure of the zoo, yet here I am doing a small part to make sure that these lovely birds don't disappear from the earth forever.  It was a pretty cool moment.   But I still made the birds get back into the yard...endangered or not, I still am not a fan of poop on my porch!

 
 

Start of Chick Season

It's a bit later than past years, but this week we're dusting off the incubator and filling trays with fertile eggs.  We invested in a large incubator that lets us set about 60 eggs per week.  This year, we'll be hatching Barred Rocks, Buff Orpingtons, Delawares, Golden Phoenixes, and Blue Cochins.  There will probably be some crossbred chicks from the other breeds as well, but we don't keep aggressive roosters, so I don't have an Ameracauna or Polish rooster at the moment.  That may change as spring moves on, but for now we're not planning to offer them this year.  

I've missed hatching, so I'm happy to get this underway.  Even after hatching literally hundreds of peeps the past couple years, it's still exciting to get up in the morning and see small fluffy birds where eggs were the night before.  We set on Sundays, and the chicks will hatch about 21 days later.  We have three levels for trays in the incubator and a hatching box in the bottom, so once we start setting we will have 50+ chicks hatch every week. An 80% hatch rate is pretty good, although we've hatched 95% or better in some batches.  Some batches were below that too, which is why it's important to keep good records to find out what happened.   Once the eggs are set, it's pretty low maintenance; our incubator has a bucket on top for water to keep the humidity up that doesn't need filled often, and the trays turn every 4 hours, eliminating the need to do it by hand. A mother hen will rotate the eggs by shifting around on her nest, but a mechanical incubator just tilts the trays at an angle one way, then the other.  If you have an incubator that doesn't come with that feature, you need to turn the eggs over by hand every few hours (at least 3-4x per day) or the chicks will develop lopsided and stuck to the inside of the shell and won't hatch. The incubator beeps every time it shifts the trays, and after a week or so we don't even notice, it just becomes part of the normal noise of the house. (The incubator is inside, in a small heated space off of the kitchen.) However, guests notice the noise right away and tend to look at us slightly alarmed, since it does sound a bit like a smoke alarm or other such warning!

Dan and I started this project 2 years ago, the first batch was hatched in a small Styrofoam incubator in a spare bedroom in a trailer I rented at the time.  Most hobbies give the encouragement that you, too, can learn to do this, but we were a little apprehensive about incubating eggs.  The catalog we got our first incubator from also had a book called A Guide to Better Hatching.  The description said that hatching was possible now with this new book.  The book itself was no more reassuring...humidity too high? Nothing will hatch.  Too low? No hatch. Too warm? They might not hatch, or they might be deformed.  And so on...we were partly worried we'd never get it right, but tried to reassure ourselves that it couldn't be that hard, since after all, a chicken could do it!  I can still remember the excitement of looking through the small plexiglass window and seeing small cracks in the shells on day 21.  I must have called Dan three times between the time I got home from work and the time he came to my house with updates!  Having a large incubator, we set up brood pens with heat lamps out on the enclosed porch, but for a time the brooder was right in the house too.  I was a bit worried that Puff, my big fluffy house cat, would think the chicks were kitty play toys and bat them through the bars, but he's lazy and just thought that the heat lamp was set up for a nice warm kitty sleeping area near the pen.   While it will probably never be quite as exciting as the first time, it's still a joy to get up on a Sunday morning and hear soft peeping coming from the incubator while you put the coffee on!  Another sure sign of spring!

 
 

All About Eggs

The days are starting to lengthen noticeably.  I'm so glad to have the luxury of daylight after my 25 mile commute home when I change into my farm boots and begin my share of the evening chores.  I know the chickens can sense spring is coming too, since I'm getting more eggs every day now.

 A hen will only lay one egg per day, but her body tells her to knock that off as fall approaches and winter sets in, because that's no time to be raising babies!  Even though the mothering instinct and the will to sit on eggs for 3 weeks has been bred out of the majority of laying hens, their bodies still respect the natural rhythms of the seasons.  It's possible to trick the hens into thinking the dark days of winter have passed by putting a light on a timer in the hen house.  During the shortest days in December, we set it so that it the hens have light for 12 hours- 7 am to 7 pm.  (it helps me get the eggs collected when I'm running late as well!).  It does make a big difference, but even though the light is still on, I'm noticing an average increase in my eggs as the weeks creep toward spring.

We actually eat more eggs during the winter, for although the chickens are not laying as many as they do in the summer months, I'm not selling near as many since the stand is closed.  So it's egg salad to pack my lunch or a treat of deviled eggs with dinner. Having fresh eggs all the time, it's easy to forget what a treat they are compared to those white things in the supermarket.  

When I went to North Carolina over the holidays to visit with my family, my brother Cory was so excited to have "real eggs."  He wanted to know why brown eggs taste better, and what the difference was between brown & white.  I told him that the shell color is determined by the breed of hen it came from.  While the breed that holds up best in factory-farm type conditions lays a white egg, most barnyard breeds lay brown eggs.  Since barnyard birds usually get more exercise, sunlight, and good natural food like worms and grass, the eggs do taste stronger, but it's a flavor most folks appreciate.  Farm eggs are generally fresher as well, so that's why a common misconception is that brown eggs taste better. All my fresh eggs taste wonderful, and I have eggs that are dark brown, light brown, white, and even blue-green!  The last ones come from yet another breed of hen, but yes, they really are chicken eggs!

 

I love having "rainbow" eggs. 

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The Delaware Chicken Experiment Results

As promised, the results are in on our heritage chicken experiment!  Normally, our Cornish-Rock hybrid chickens are processed at 7 or 8 weeks of age, but our Delaware rooster was about 7 months old.  Because of this, we wanted a cooking method to keep the meat nice & tender, so grilling was out!  Dan had been looking to try poaching a chicken, so we decided that a big pot of water could only help keep our bird from getting tough. The water came to a boil, and in went our chicken along with a variety of garden vegetables and homegrown herbs.  After chores were finished we settled down to a feast.  I'm always excited when most or all of the food on the table is produced right here at the farm.  In this case, the only non-farm products were the salt & pepper, the butter for the sweet corn, and the sour cream used on the potatoes.  Not 100% farm raised, but pretty darn close!  So we dig in to the chicken, and I noticed that the dark meat was super tough, but with an awesome chicken flavor.  The legs were even tougher than expected, but these guys were truly free range, running all over the garden and backyard for months.  Note to self: if we do this again, a smaller pen may be in order!  However, dipped in my homemade Lemon-Sage Wine Mustard, it was still great.  Then we tried the breat meat, and the texture was totally different.  I have never tasted such tender, flavorful meat.  Growing up on store bought and fast food chicken, I never really understood what real chicken flavor was, and although our broilers do taste like real chicken, the Delaware did even more so.  My father-in-law always said that his stewing hens (old layers no longer profitable to keep on the farm)  got their flavor from "years of contented living under their wings".  My Delaware must have had a content life because he was full of that flavor too! It was a great chicken dinner, complete with potatoes, the absolute last of this year's fresh sweet corn, along with some zucchini, cabbage and green beans.  I was stuffed and wanted nothing more than a nap, but it was off to the local county Extension Office as I'm serving on the Board of Directors (as well as the secretary of the group) and it was meeting night.

 

The final verdict on my experiment was this:  while he was delicious, he was also a little too tough to market for more than stew or dumplings for the most part.  Unfortunately, it's not going to be economically possible for us to offer them for sale.  This year we raised over 200 meat chickens, but had no more than 90 at any given the due to the (much) shorter time frame of raising the hybrids. I don't think we would have had the space for that many Delawares for that many months.  Also, a longer life span means more total feed for each bird, and just to cover our costs of feed alone would make for one pricey chicken.  But we are still looking to support heritage breeds.  We plan on raising turkeys again next year, and I am very interested in the Burbon Red and Dan would like to try the Royal Palm variety.  So perhaps that will be next year's adventure.

 
 

Experimental Chickens

Today was another day of processing chickens.  While it's not my favorite job, I feel ok about it as our chickens, living a life on grass and in the sun, have a far more comfortable existence than those in factory farms.  I feel better about selling & eating it too, as store bought chicken is injected with 20% of its weight consisting of nothing more than salt water.  So not only are you getting more salt from an unexpected source, $1 of every $5 you spend is nothing but salt water!  So I've gotten used to the idea of butchering.  We have until this point been using Cornish-Rock hybrids, the same bird the commercial places use.  They are bred to basically do nothing more than eat and grow at an accelerated rate, mostly in the breast since Americans are so fond of white meat.  They are usually no more than 8 weeks old when processed, a very short life.  They grow so fast that they would literally outgrow what their legs and heart can support and would die before reaching breeding age.  

As I've learned a lot in the past few years about farming, I was shocked to discover many breeds of livestock are just as endangered as wild creatures.  Other kinds of chickens once raised for meat birds have gone by the wayside in favor of hybrids or other fast growing breeds that can stand up to the confinement of industrial agriculture.  One of the breeds we use here for laying hens is the Delaware.  They are nearly white, with black barring on the neck and tail feathers.  For a time they were the #1 meat chicken in the country, but they don't grow at nearly the rate of the hybrids and have fallen out of favor.  The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, an organization devoted to saving these endangered breeds, puts them at  the critical rating, estimating that there may be as few as 500 of these birds left.  Total.  I feel so fortunate to have a small flock, and this spring decided to keep a few roosters as an expirement, to see how they rate as a meat bird. The ALBC recognizes that to bring these animals back in larger numbers, they have to be economically viable.  So that means in order to save them, we need to get people to eat them!  We butchered one this morning, and I was suprised that it bothered me far more than the usual broilers.  He seemed too pretty to be put to such a fate, even though I have too many roosters and they are starting to beat up my hens a bit, as well as fight with each other.   I was afraid that plucking would be hard because the broilers are bred to grow less feathers, both for easier processing but also so their bodies can devote more energy into making meat.  Although so thick that the feathers were dry near the skin, even after being dunked repeatedly in hot water, they came off with no problem.  (We do this by hand and it's my job, so it's something I noticed readily.)  While a much leggier bird, there was not nearly the amount of breast meat.  It was definately an obviously different bird, even once the whole process was finished and all the birds were in the fridge.  I plan to cook him up soon, and I'll share with you the final result of this experiment!

 
 

Super Scruff Hen Returns

What is a scruff hen? At our farm it's a hen that came to us that we weren't really looking for.  As in, I buy a particular chicken at an auction and it comes with another, less desireable chicken.  One such gal came to be know as "Super Scruff Hen" as she looked to be molting when we got her, and was in no hurry to get her feathers back.  She's a small gold and black barred bird that lays white eggs quite consistantly.   I think she's probably a Campine.  We were going to take her back to the auction, but she just kept laying eggs.  Then we moved her to a pen that, unlike the first, was not completely enclosed, and she became a barnyard bird as she could figure out a way out of the pen daily, no matter how short her wings were clipped or what you did to the fence.  But, being the extremely cagey bird she is, she would see me at chore time and follow me back into the coop, where she would safely spend the night.  Several weeks ago I stopped seeing her, and I was sad, but we had lost quite a few hens to the predators, and all seemed to be my favorites! We found out what happed to Super Scruff Hen this week...she had relocated herself to a secret location in the haymow and made a nest to sit on.  I found a rather soggy chick last night and put it under the heat lamp to dry, but we couldn't find its mom.  Super Scruff Hen reappeared today, with two more tiny chicks in tow!  Now if I can just lure her back to the henhouse...

I sit typing this as my first "full time farmer" activity.  Tomorrow is my first day of being laid off, so I am keeping my head up and making the most of it...it's a great time of year to be home on the farm!  Tomorrow Dan and I plan to put the finishing touches on shed cleanup and we'll be set for the grand reopening on Saturday from 10-2.  I've canned some dilly beans, blueberry basil vinegar, and a Thai sweet and hot dipping sauce to sell and I intend to get some mustard made in the next day or so.  I hope to see some of you there, but I must go now...time to mow while the sun shines to make the place look presentable!

 
 
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