Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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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!


Rosa's Special Deliveries

Today brought lots of driving and a less than looked forward to meeting at my day job, so it was good to come home to more baby lambs.  Rosa, had been staying in the barn for the past 10 days or so, baa-ing for food whenever a person came or went.  It can be a bit frustrating, hoping for lambs daily and continuing to wait, but as Dan kept reminding me "they have to come out sometime!"  Today, we have another set of twins.  Rosa is my favorite ewe not only because she's friendly to the point of being a pest, but because her lambs are always just a bit different looking.  The first one I saw was black with a key-like white shape down her face, and last year she had black twins with bits of white markings.  So, before I changed into barn clothes, I asked Dan what the new twins looked like.  "One black, one white, both rams" he replied.  Rams mean boys, which means they won't be here past fall.  That's too bad, I thought out loud, disappointed that I wouldn't have a little ewe to keep as part of the permanent flock.  But Dan reminded me that we never speak negatively as long as there are healthy mammas and babies and the little ones are getting fed without a 2AM feeding from us.  I have to admit how very right he is.  

Upon entering the barn, Rosa began calling to me...or more specifically, to the cookies in my pocket.  I went over to check out our newest arrivals.  One is all black with a tuft of white wool on the crown of his head.  He looks much like his older siblings.  I looked a bit closer at his brother, for a minute I though his wool was still dirty, since being born can be messy.  No, not dirty...brown.  He's mostly white with brown rings around his eyes and brown across his back.  I've never seen a lamb like this before, either here or on any other farm.  Rambo, the father, is a pure white polled Dorset, and Rosa is all black and of uncertain breeding, but all other babies have been black with a touch of white on face or legs.  Some of the other ewes have had all white lambs with some black "freckles" across the muzzle too, and most sheep come out all white.  So he's unique.  And although the boys are newborns, they already are taller than the lambs in the next pen (who are also thriving and bouncing about!).  But most importantly, Rosa is feeding both.  Last year, she also had twins but only cared for one.  The little guy she rejected was also born blind.  While he was able to see just fine a week later, we had to bottle feed him.  I'd much rather feed mama a cookie and let her take care of all the late night and early morning feedings.  Plus a pocket full of cookies is far less expensive than a sack of milk replacer at the feed store!




Can I Have One?

We kept 10 piglets from the last litters.  I don’t name them, because they are going to be in someone’s freezer come spring, and I know that.   I do try to keep somewhat of an emotional distance from the food animals, while at the same time treating them with love and respect.  Pigs are smart and funny.  Our have been trained to water themselves…it makes less mess if there isn’t a big container of water for them to wallow through in their pen.  So, just like the horses and cows, we open the door to the pigpen every evening and they run down to the creek to drink.  After quenching their thirst, they usually run around, rooting up the snow or chasing the sheep and geese.  It looks like they do this just for the entertainment of watching the other critters run.  Eventually, they file back into the building they live in.  They know fresh food and a dry bed await them when we close them in for the night.

If the piglets could talk, I have no doubt they would tell me this is their favorite time of the day. The minute they hear me filling a bucket of water or opening the door to the hen house, they squeal and start pushing at the door.  I think a pen of hungry dinosaurs would probably make less noise.  When it is their turn, they rush out so quickly that I sometimes see one on top of another for a few steps, since none want to be the last one out.  After the frantic racing is over, I watch the door some nights to shut it when all 10 are back inside.  Lately I’ve offered them a cookie by standing very still next to the path with my arm outstreched.  One taker one day led to much friendlier piggies.  Last night, they were racing down to the creek when one stopped, turned around, walked up to me and just stared at me, head tilted to the side ever so slightly.  I looked down at this piglet at my feet and realized that she was asking me for a cookie.  I pulled one out, offered it to her, and she took it gently.  Munching the cookie, she turned and scurried down to the water with her siblings.  It was one of those times when you are certain you know exactly what another creature was thinking, without words. I also don’t believe she’d taken a cookie from my hand before, so it was a rather charming moment. She had seen the others get a snack and saw that they trusted me enough to eat from my hand, and that nothing bad happened to them. I know it sounds a little Disney-fied, but Dan happened to be filling a bucket of water and saw the whole thing.  Even living on the farm his whole life, sometimes he sees the animals act in a way that is still surprising.  This was one of those times.  He agreed that there really was no explanation other than that the pig stopped, turned, and asked me in her wordless way for a cookie.



A Victory for the Little Guys

I read with great interest yesterday, both in an e-newsletter and a print newspaper, that the federal government is discontinuing the National Animal Identification System as previously proposed.  For once, the voices of small farms and consumers appear to have been heard.

The National Animal Identification System (NAIS) was a pretty scary thing to small farmers.  It proposed mandatory identification of all places that housed livestock by GPS location.  This would apply to factory farms down to grandparents keeping one pony for their granddaughter or a couple who has a half-dozen chickens as pets and for eggs.   Then, all large animals would need to be microchipped (also readable by GPS satellite) and the government would need to be notified if the animal was sold, died, gave birth, or was taken off premises.  This would need to occur within 24 hours of the event to avoid a fine of hundreds of dollars per animal involved.  The cost of microchipping, record keeping and government notification would, of course, be the responsibility of the farmer.  If passed, this literally would have meant that if my husband and I took advantage of a nice day and rode our horses down to the lake through the woods, with full consent of all property owners, we would still need to notify the government within 24 hours that those two horses had left the farm for a few hours.  If the government happened to notice a signal from the microchips off the farm property and did not recieve such notification, we could recieve 2 fines, one for each horse.

 So why would the government be bothered?  The reason was food safety...this way, any animal found to be contaminating the food chain could be traced back to the source, and any other affected animals could be withdrawn from the nation's food supply.  This sounds perfectly reasonable, until you read enough to know that the main offenders of contaminated meats, the factory farms, or CAFO's, wouldn't need to microchip any of their animals.  The government would only need them to register the location of the operation and give a number of animals housed & processed there.  No traceability by animal.  This is wrong.  Most farms thought so too, as the government was only able to register about 36% of estimated farm locations despite years of promoting voluntary registration.

Big beef, pork, and poultry were not opposed to this regulation.  It really didn't apply much to them, and hurt the small farmers with undue costs and government regulation, all in the name of safety.  I wouldn't feel any safer had this passed, would you?  Big meat gets its business by selling its products at virtually every grocery store at the cheapest price possible.  All the recent recalls show that safety isn't the #1 concern.  If you buy meat from a small, responsible farmer, we are staking our reputation on every package sold.  If you get sick, you won't come back, and you'll tell your friends not to visit us, either.  Besides that, small farms are committed to product quality, a personal relationship with customers, and healthy food.  Killing your customers with e. coli just doesn't fit into those values.  Besides, I don't need a microchip to tell you about your meat.  I can tell you the age, sex, color, breed, parentage, diet, birthday, name, and anything else you care to know about the live animal that produced the meat we sell.  A microchip wouldn't be of any advantage to our customers, because all they have to do is ask, and that information is already available to them.  We don't feel we have anything to hide, and that, in my opinion, is the quickest route to food safety.  Put a face on your food.  Know where it comes from.

 The new proposed regulations, according to the article I read in Farm & Dairy, would apply only to animals or products crossing state lines, would be regulated ultimately by states or tribal nations (some states had already passed laws protecting their farms against the old NAIS proposal) and would be pursued by lower-cost technology.  This seems more reasonable, but I'll be interested in seeing what the details of this plan look like.

The plan was dropped not only because of farm opposition or groups representing small family farms, but because concerned consumers voiced their opinions to local government officials, and everyone made their voices heard during 15 stops on a national "listening tour".   If you were one of those voices, I thank you, as do many farms across the country.  Today we can chalk up a victory for the small farm, something that happens far too rarely.  

O.K.... I'll get off my soapbox now.  I promise next time to write about more cute animal happenings here at Pleasant Valley! 


Lambing Season is Here!

Our small flock of sheep has just increased by two!  We began the winter with 7 ewes and our ram.  Four of the ewes were born last year, so while they will probably lamb in the late spring, we won't look for that to happen until late April or sometime in May.  Of the other three, one is two years old, and the others, twin sisters, are what I like to refer to as the "senior ladies."  Their names are Nutmeg and Rosa.  If you've ever stopped by the farm and been mobbed by a black sheep looking for treats, that would be Rosa.  Nutmeg is a bit more reserved, but still fairly friendly.  She's been in a pen in the barn since last week.  We noticed her udder was filling up, a sure sign that lambs won't be far behind, so we penned her up where it is warm and dry.  She gave birth sometime last night, to two healthy lambs, one female and one male.  Here's a picture of them.  They are less than 18 hours old!


 Rosa is also looking like her udder is getting large, so we set up a second pen for her tonight.  I lured her into the barn with a bag of sheep bait...otherwise known as day-old bread from the local bakery outlet.  I gave Nutmeg a few slices as well as a treat for a job well done.  We're looking forward to even more lambs.  They're a sure sign that spring can't be too far behind, despite the blizzards we've seen lately!



Putting the Mother to Work

I'm finally in the process of making vinegar.  One of my Christmas presents was a vinegar cask, a large, pear shaped container with a spigot on the bottom.  It is used to ferment the vinegar, with the final product being heavier and sinking to the bottom.  The spigot lets you remove some without disturbing the "mother." The mother is a whitish, jelly-like substance that floats on the top of the liquid and converts the alcohol in wine, hard cider, beer or any other alcoholic beverage into an acid, which make vinegar.  It functions much like yeast does in home beer or wine making- it's best to buy a good starter so you can be confident your end product is going to be what it is supposed to be.  It was also a treasured possession years ago, much like a good starter for sourdough bread.

 The first step was deciding what kind of vinegar I wanted to make.  The season is past for buying good, local, unpasteurized apple cider, plus I would need to ferment it into alcohol before starting the vinegar making process, so I figured that could wait until next fall. I don't use a whole lot of red wine vinegar in my cooking, so I though a nice white wine vinegar would be a good choice.  However, Dan and I have really developed a taste for a champagne-dill mustard lately, and I just can't seem to re-create it here at home.  I'm thinking that I need champagne vinegar, and I simply can't buy it locally.  So, it just seemed logical to try and make some of my own!

The next step was to buy the champagne.  Since I live in Pennsylvania, the only place to buy it is at the state-controlled liquor store.  When I walked in, I was the only customer in the store, so the gentleman working there came over to try and help me find what I was looking for.  I was just comparing prices, because I'm not going to buy really expensive champagne to turn into vinegar, a moderate priced one seemed like a much better idea.  When I explained what I was doing, the man got a very puzzled look, and suggested which brands were drier and might be more like vinegar.  I tried to explain that it was a process of refermenting the alcohol, which seemed to totally lose him.  I'm sure I'm the only person who has walked into the Tionesta liquor store lately for vinegar making supplies!

After I made my purchase, I brought it home and poured the champagne into the cask, added some water, and dumped in the mother of vinegar culture I had purchased through the LocalHarvest online store. I covered the opening loosely with cheesecloth to keep out dust and kitty hair, and put it under the sewing machine in the living room.  It needs to be near the wood stove, as the mother works best when the temperature is near 80 degrees.  In a few months, I'll be sampling my own vinegar!



It's Alive!

We're really proud of doing lots of things here the old-fashioned way, usually with horses.  But there are some tasks that are easier to do when you're using motorized equipment.  We have both a baler and a feed grinder here, but we're not able to run either of these without a motor.  Stored away for the past 15 years or so has been a large Wisconsin 4 cylinder engine.  It hasn't run for all that time, and wasn't the most reliable piece of equipment on the farm when it did.  Stories like "the time the motor caught fire"  "the other time the motor caught fire" and "the time it almost cut Dad's finger off and we had to rush him to the ER" make me very nervous about trying to use it again.  It's surprising it never was hauled away to the scrapyard, but Dan thought that someday it could be rebuilt and be a real asset to the farm.  He's been working on it for a good part of the winter; tearing it down completely, cleaning the gunk that forms when hay, dust and motor oil combine, and looking for parts, mostly online, and waiting on UPS/FedEx/USPS to deliver them.  I was amazed it's not that hard to locate parts for a motor that was manufactured from the 1940's through the mid-60's.  Because it was a popular, commercial engine, we were able to find pretty much everything.

 Yesterday, it fired and ran for the first time in well over a decade.  Sure, there are still adjustments to be made, but it's possible that we will be grinding our own feed here at the farm before Valentine's Day.  We have the luxury of a feed grinder & mixer system in the top of the barn, and it will be a huge time and money saver compared to hauling our corn to the closest feed mill that will grind, which is well over an hour's drive each way.  This motor will spin a large belt to run the grinder, baler or other equipment.  It's a heavy motor, nearly 500 lbs, but with only about 25 horsepower.  It's exactly what we need, and still a rather old-time piece of equipment itself.  To start it, you need to crank a handle around until it fires.  It also needs a special additive to the gasoline, as it was built to run on leaded fuel.

I know Dan is beyond pleased to hear it roar to life.  I'm really proud of him, it was a pretty big project, but he had patience and figured it out.  And I've been told some plug wires or an electric start are right at the top of his list of nice Valentine's Day surprises...

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