Pleasant Valley Farm

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

 
 

The Purple Bunny Palace

  We had a couple days of spring thaw here last week. The snow all but melted (so much so that the creek in the barnyard overflowed its banks with nothing falling from the sky!) and the temperatures were in the 50's to near 60. Something about that kind of weather is enough for me to feel like spring is coming, and it's time to get busy with all the winter projects if I have any hope of completing them before we start plowing. The warm weather meant not just the snow was thawing, so it was a great opportunity to get the frozen manure out of the corners of the hog pens and chicken houses. It felt like spring cleaning!

The next project we stated was replacing the main rabbit hutch. I enjoy my rabbits and usually keep 5-6 does (females) in the main pen, plus I have smaller & moveable pens to separate out the buck (male) and any does about to give birth or pens of young rabbits I'm raising up to sell. But the main hutch has been in bad shape for some time. It was well-used when it came here quite a few years ago, so it's simply lived out its useful lifespan. Wood is rotting and sagging, wire needs replacing, and we decided it wouldn't be worth the effort to try and rehab it. So Dan told me to dream up some plans to make something really interesting, and we'd figure out what would be possible with the materials on hand at the farm. So I came up with a nice big living space (8' x 3') with two separate lofts(2' x 3'). While you don't normally think of bunnies as climbing animals who would use a loft, our girls are well used to ramps. They have a nice yard to play and graze in, and use a ramp to get into the hutch where the food, water and shelter is. So we put two lofts in. I fancied it up by outlining bunnies on the doors, Dan cut them with a jigsaw, and those are the windows. We have real windows in the center, and large doors with wire on the bottom. This pen should last for a very long time. The sides are made from cast off pieces of steel roofing. The roof is green and the sides a nice purple. Once we escape from the deep freeze, I have some leftover paint in nearly the same shades for the wooden parts. It's a great thing to get all the construction leftovers from Matt & Dan's contracting business...we always find uses for them at the farm, and they never go to waste! Literally, the only thing bought for this pen was the hardware cloth for the floor. The rest was found and/or recycled!

 The purple bunny palace, or our new hutch.

 

I know it's hard to see...but here's Dini up in the loft (it doesn't help that she's all black, except for her nose...)  It did not take long for them to adjust to the indoor ramps! 

 
 

Baby Season Again

It's a spring thaw here at the farm!  Although it's a great change of pace not having to break chunks of ice from all the water buckets, the packed snow has become so slippery that it's pretty much a matter of when, not if, I land on my rear while doing chores.  The best I can hope for is that it's not on a big cow pie!  

 

As I mentioned last time, we have babies!

 

Here's Char's pile of piglets- there are 8 total, 6 mostly black like mama and two of the blue butt coloration like Wilbur.

 

and here's double trouble...Rosa's twin ewe lambs, who are already beginning to bounce around and play!

 

It's somewhere between snow and mud outside, but luckily for me I have lots to do here inside!  The Farm to Table conference in Pittsburgh (www.farmtotablepa.com) is coming up March 25 & 26.  It's official that I'll be presenting at 2:30 PM on Saturday, so I've been polishing up my presentation as well as putting together a Powerpoint full of pictures of the animals to show as well.  I'll also have a table in the exhibit hall, so I'm inventorying what products I can take to sell, putting together some signs with information and photos of the farm, and prepping to be part of the Friday evening food tasting as well.  While it is work, I enjoy this kind of stuff and I'm really excited. If you attend this conference, be sure to stop by the Pleasant Valley Farm table and say hi!

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Good to Be Back

The impossible happened this week...Dan and I actually took a bit of a vacation from the farm! We joke that even if the world ended, we'd still have to do chores before we left. While I'm not taking anything away from vegetable and crop farmers, the garden has a down time. You can go on a tropical vacation over the winter if you please. The plants won't suffer terribly if left alone for a day or two mid-season. Having as much livestock as we do, it's very rare that we can get away as a couple, even overnight. I think the last time we did was October of 2009, and that was just for a night. There is a reason raising farm animals is called “animal husbandry”; in a sense, you are married to your animals. They need to be cared for every day, without fail, and whether or not you are tired or ill. You need to care for them when they are sick, and be there for births. Your schedule revolves around their care every single day of the year, including holidays and weekends, since there is no magic day when the animals won't be hungry. I can't count the number of times we have been visiting friends or family locally, only to leave in the middle of the gathering because it was chore time. Please don't get me wrong though, I love my critters, I do choose to live this way, and I wouldn't trade it for anything else in the world. But we all need a bit of a break now and then!

Both my mom and Dan's parents live in the middle of the state, just far enough to feel like a mini vacation, and we had been looking forward to visiting on this little trip for some time. There was a pretty small window of opportunity between the holidays and the start of lambing season/piglet time/starting seedlings that we could leave for a few days. Dan's brother Matt agreed to tend to the livestock and the woodstoves in the house while we were gone, or it wouldn't have happened. Matt lived here on the farm for many years and visits us all the time, so the animals know him and he knows them. I can't think of anyone else I could trust to get everything done! We had planned to leave earlier, the end of January, but then Sheepie got sick. Caring for her meant putting any leisure plans on hold. We fought through that, but I'm very sad to report that in the end, it was all too much and she didn't make it. We did our very best, but it was a difficult condition to treat successfully. Then Nutmeg, one of our oldest ewes and consistently the earliest to lamb, had a healthy little ram. We knew the rest of the sheep would soon follow, and Char was expected to have a litter of piglets in mid-February as well, so for us, it was now or never. Baby season is just too much to put on someone else, even a great farm person like Matt.

So Dan and I visited family and took in some local sights from Sunday to Friday. It was nice, but it's great to be back home too. The house was warm and the animals were well-fed and thankfully, none of the animals gave Matt any trouble (except for Puff, my fluffy cat- he demands attention from everyone!). My replacement hens, although close to full grown, seemed like they grew while I was gone. And it seems as though we got back just in time. As we were doing chores last night, I noticed Rosa wasn't following me around looking for snacks as she usually does. I got her into the barn, and by this morning she had two beautiful, healthy ewe lambs. We also knew Char was close and have been watching her and giving her lots of extra bedding, and this morning, eight tiny piglets were busily nursing. The temperatures here are warming a bit, the snow is melting from the rooftops, and with all these babies, spring can't be far behind!

 
 

Thinking Spring

Despite the fact that it's still bone-chillingly cold here, there are signs of spring on the way.  Perhaps that groundhog was on to something!  The days are steadily getting longer, giving us a slightly longer window of time to get evening chores done without flashlights.  I have been hearing many more wild birds calling from the trees, and while I haven't seen a robin yet, I doubt it will be too much longer now.  Our mail ordered seeds are steadily arriving in the mailbox, which make me anxious for the ground to thaw.  At the end of the year, I'm ready for the end of the garden season; it's a welcome break from weeding, planting, harvesting, and canning/drying/storing.   At this point of winter, though, I long for something fresh and green.  I miss planting, harvesting, eating, canning, and yes, even weeding. Of course, in my mind the new garden will have less weeds, less bugs, and more produce than ever before.  (Reality has yet to set in!)  But I do miss it and I look forward to the time when at least I can get the indoor seedlings started (tomatoes, peppers, and such).  I'm trying to get better at it each year, because there are just so many more interesting varieties possible when you don't need to rely on what the local garden centers are carrying!  I also try to get more comfortable with working the horses each year, so I'm looking forward to using some machinery this spring that I haven't in the past.  (Check out www.pleasantvalleyfarm.weebly.com/field-work.html to see photos of Dan & I, our horses, and equipment!)

The last sure sign of spring around here is, of course, farm babies.  I've mentioned the heartbreak of the ones we lost, and there is nothing to do now but move on.  We noticed that another one of our ewes, Nutmeg, seemed to be very close, and even though it's a week or so early for her, we put her in the barn.  A healthy lamb greeted us this morning as we did chores.  I'll check on her soon to  make sure all is well and to see if there are two babies, as she normally has twins.  

 


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Hope & Heartbreak

First of all, I want to say thanks to everyone who took the time to read about my sick sheep and send warm thoughts, kind words, and suggestions on how to help her.  It was truly appreciated.  Sheepie survived.  She appears to have made a total recovery; no more wobbliness, a healthy appetite and is alert and attentive.  Despite my earlier predictions, she is no longer skittish around me and happily comes over for a treat from my hand whenever I'm near her pen in the barn.  Here are a few photos I took of her at feeding time two nights ago.

 

 Sheepie

looking for a handout! 

Looking for a handout (yes, she's actually licking my hand!)

 

However, there is sad news; she went into labor this morning. We assumed that it wouldn't be good, since it's earlier than we expected.  For us, lambing season begins in mid to late February, not the end of January.  She had two big, beautiful twins; both were born dead and required our assistance.  This was my first time assisting a sheep in labor. Sheepie was a good patient, I just wish it could have been a happier ending.  It is always sad to have a pregnancy end badly for any of the animals, but it does happen. In this case, we know what went wrong, which makes it a bit easier.  We did all we could and I know this. I just remind myself that it could have been much worse, because if we would have lost the ewe, we definitely would have lost the babies too.  We saved her, and she will be able to have lambs again.  Her mother, Pansy, was productive well into her teens.  Sheepie is just 2 years old, so that's a lot of life and many more lambs (we hope) ahead of her.

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