Pleasant Valley Farm

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


Rain Delay

April showers are still falling here at the farm, making it hard to get much done outside these days. I've been so excited to spend my first spring on the farm full time and have been anxiously awaiting conditions outside to dry out so we can begin the spring field work prep with the horses. Last year, I have photos of Dan plowing on April 15, with a trail of dust behind him because of the dry weather. This year, it's hard to even take the plants out into the greenhouse without losing a boot in the mud and slop. But such are the realities of farming; I honestly can't think of a job that requires more patience or that is more weather-dependent.  I just keep my fingers crossed that the sun will find its way back, the soil will dry out, and we'll be able to get plowing.  I'm looking forward to trying my hand at more of the machinery this season.

Even though we have yet to plow a round, though, doesn't mean things here have been slow! April is always a busy month. Lil's calf continues to grow, and we've let the pair out in the pasture to join the rest of the herd. He loves the freedom and runs and plays- it's so cute I often find myself stopping what I'm doing just to watch. While we had discussed milking Lil, we decided not to. She's an older cow at 13 years old, and we felt it was best not to tax her body too much with milk production. Most Holsteins have a productive life of just 3-4 years, so this shows what a difference using heritage breeds such as Dexters can make, as this is likely Lil's 10th or 11th calf! However, we still have plans to try milking, as our other Dexter cow, Finni, is very close to calving. So close, in fact, that we penned her up in the barn last night. While I'm sure she would rather be out in the pasture, we don't want to take any chances. It will be her first calf, and we want to make sure it's born in a safe, clean, dry place. It's also easier to keep an eye on her there to watch for any problems. We're optimistic that everything will go smoothly, but it's always best to be prepared to give assistance if necessary.

In addition to calves, we've had other babies born lately too.  There are fluffy, moving nests of rabbit fur with tiny bunnies inside. Also, the incubator is a busy place this time of year! We've hatched out a variety of fuzzy chicks as well as our first few Pekin ducklings of the year. We also had another batch of Bourbon Red turkey eggs ready this past weekend, and every single one hatched. We're so thrilled with how this has gone. While we definitely wanted to be sure of hatching enough turkeys to supply our farm's Thanksgiving bird orders, we would also like to see if our hens will hatch out poults naturally. One hen has been sitting on eggs for a couple of weeks now, but as I had been collecting all the turkey eggs at that time, I'm quite sure she is not sitting on her own eggs. If the hatch is successful, I'm pretty certain she will be the proud surrogate mother to a nest of goslings! The other hens have been laying in some crazy places, and most of the nests I collect to discourage them from using. I do not want a turkey attempting to hatch eggs on my front porch furniture. Likewise, I don't want them sitting across the road. They found a brush pile which has been heavily used for nesting, but I don't like them crossing the road. It's also in the woods, and the other day, when getting the morning paper, I noticed gobs of white feathers all around. They were unmistakably from one of the Royal Palm hens, and my heart sank. It was a lot of feathers, pulled out in hunks, the kind of evidence of a predator attack. Eggshells were also scattered around and licked clean. I went into detective mode, trying to figure out what had befallen my bird, but I couldn't find blood or body parts (like a wing) nor could I find any animal tracks in the leaf litter. Discouraged, I went to check on the birds near the turkey pen to get a head count. At first, I thought I counted all my Palm hens, but that couldn't be...I thought I must be mistaking an escaped Delaware hen (also white with a bit of black markings). But there they all were, with one looking a bit scruffy from missing feathers. No blood or signs of injury though, and she is doing well. So I definitely don't want a hen sitting for a month in that spot! However, the hens have finally made a nest I'm ok's right next to the house in a secluded spot that should be safe. I hope one of them sits on it. They must all be using it to lay, as I counted 17 eggs in it last night! I removed some of them as it was too many for a single bird to cover, but I'll just try to keep the number reasonable and see what happens.  

We did have a day or so of nice weather last week, and Dan and I took advantage. I got some necessary pruning done on the blueberry bushes, and Dan finished up work early and we did get out into the garden. Although we haven't worked up the soil, there was a stretch that had been covered by landscape fabric over the winter which was weed-free. After a single pass with the tiller, we had a nice stretch of bed to plant. It's pushing the season a bit, but we were excited to get some seeds in the ground. Some garden plants can tolerate a light frost, which is still very likely, so we planted beets, carrots, radishes, peas, chard, lettuce and a variety of other salad greens. We also put in onion sets and some seed potatoes. It was great to get our hands in the soil, if only for an afternoon! We also tilled up a small spot in my herb garden and planted a few strawberry crowns. While I don't anticipate growing enough berries to sell by the pint or quart at the stand, it's something I want for myself. Dan though it was a great idea, so we picked up crowns of Ozark Beauties, an everbearing variety. Most strawberries are June bearers, meaning you need to wait a year for the plants to establish themselves before you can harvest any fruit. But because these are everbearers, with a little luck, I may even have a few berries by the end of summer. I'm excited to see how this goes and decide if I want to put more berries in the garden in the future...perhaps someday I'll even be able to offer strawberry jam!


Poults & Plastic

April sure has been a roller coaster, weather-wise, so far!  We're not even 2 weeks into the month and we've had everything from snow to thunderstorms to 80+ degree temps!  We're hoping things will even out and dry up a bit soon so we can get serious about preparing our fields for planting.  Getting the horses harnessed up and making the first few rounds with the plow says spring more than anything else here!

The started sprouts have been getting some good greenhouse time, and I see new growth daily.  I'm getting ready to start some more things that we'll want to plant as seedlings, but in the garden rather than the greenhouse.  This will include some of our open-pollinated and heirloom tomatoes and peppers as well as things like zucchini and squash that just don't need greenhouse space, but that we want to get a jump on in preparation for our sales season.  We are also hoping, if the weather cooperates, to get in some serious work on the greenhouses this weekend.  We plan on putting up plastic on one of the metal frames for our tomatoes, cukes & peppers.  We may also tear down one of the frames that is not in good shape.  There is also some repair work to be done on the small one I'm currently using for seedlings.  The back end of that greenhouse was made of untreated wood and is in rough shape.  The recent winds went a long way towards removing the plastic on that part, so we'll work on that and tearing down the lumber supports.  We've tossed out ideas for what we'll do with that space next- it could be anything from an asparagus bed to a new pavilion for poultry processing. 

But the most exciting event of the recent past was definitely on Sunday.   We have been hatching chicks for the past few years, and have over a thousand healthy chicks under our belt, so while it is exciting and fun, it's also not groundbreaking when the first fuzzy chicks of the season hatch.  Our incubator has also brought other birds to life, in the past few years we've had good luck with ducklings, quail and even peachicks.  We've also tried goslings, but they seem to require such high humidity that they don't hatch well, especially if we need to balance it with the needs of the chicken eggs in the incubator at the same time.  So we just let the geese do their thing, it works much better.  Our hope this year was that the Bourbon Red turkeys we bought last year would lay eggs and we would, for the first time ever, be able to hatch our own poults.  We've found eggs everywhere, it seems.  The hens have rejected my cardboard nest box in the safety of the turkey coop.  Instead, I've collected eggs from the yard, the woodshed, the bad part of the greenhouse, my front porch furniture, and the most popular spot, the neighbor's brush pile across the road.

 Since this is their first year to breed, so many things could go wrong.  Are they fertile?  Will the first eggs be viable? (often the first eggs laid by a chicken don't have as good of a hatching rate as ones from a slightly more mature hen.)  Did I find the hiding spot before the eggs got too cold?  Will we have any luck at all???  We set our eggs weekly, so that they don't get too old & lose viability.  The first time I set turkey eggs, I had a total of seven.  They take 28 days to mature (chickens take 21) so this weekend was the time to find out what, if anything, was going on inside them!  I had hoped that at least a few of the first eggs would hatch.  I was optimistic we wouldn't fail totally, but  was prepared to call even two poults a success.  I pulled out the hatching tray Sunday morning after hearing telltale peeping.  We had chickens in there too, so I saw a rainbow of adorable fuzzies...Barred Rocks, Cochins, Phoenix chicks...and two little turkeys! SUCCESS!  I removed all the dry birds to the brooder pen.  Then I snuck a look and noted that other eggs were also pipped (showing the first cracks as the bird works its way out).  More chickens and also more turkey eggs.  In the end, we had what we considered a monumentally successful hatch with 6 of 7 eggs producing a healthy baby turkey!

 We are looking forward to more hatching this weekend, including a bunch of Mille Fleur bantams from purchased eggs, more of our own variety of chicks, lots more turkeys and possibly a few ducklings as well.  I'm confident we'll have success, but as the saying goes, you really can't count your chicks (or poults) before they hatch...


Our First Calf

Finally, the April showers today are rain and not snow.  It's been a rather cold (and white) beginning to spring so far.  But it is spring, and so we're getting busier every day now!  Last Sunday,  I was hoping for a relaxing day to recharge my batteries from the business of the Farm to Table conference.  It was a nice idea, but as Dan came back from the barn after morning chores, he told me that Lil was unmistakably in labor.  Lil is the older Dexter cow we bought last summer, and we'd been suspecting for a few days that she was getting close.  We had decided to move my horse Sara from her roomy box stall and put Lil in there to give her a safe, clean space for her and the baby.  Sara was moved over by the pen currently holding the sheep with young lambs, on the other side of the work horses.  It seemed to bother Dixie more than Sara, as Dixie had a spell of kicking at the divider wall and in Sara's general direction.  Other than a bit of confusion when it is time to come back into the barn in the evenings, Sara has been fine with the new arrangements; as long as her food is there she is pretty flexible!  Lil also seemed fine with her new home,  the cow that had the biggest problem with being separated from her was Buzz.   He is a Holstein-cross beef cow we've raised up here, and the cow that has been on the farm the longest as of right now.  He knew his herdmate was missing and called to her for several hours before calming down.  While that's not totally surprising, the fact that the noisy cow was not Bernard, Lil's baby from last year, was.  He, however, seemed fine without mom since he's a big boy now and still with the other cows he knows. 

Lil is 13 years old, and has had quite a few calves in her lifetime.  Dexters are known for not needing assistance, and this delivery was no exception.  After the baby was born, Lil right away began talking to it, licking it, and showing all the motherly instinct that you could hope for.  She's a sweet cow, and very used to both Dan and I , so what happened next was a bit of a surprise.  Dan went to pick up the calf to check its gender and dip the navel in iodine, a general practice for any farm baby (iodine helps to prevent infections from manure or anything that might get on the navel).  Lil was not impressed and began pawing the ground, shaking her head, and threatening to charge Dan right into a wall if he didn't leave the baby alone!  We left them alone to calm down, since Lil was in a safe clean area.  When we came back in an hour or so, we "tricked" Lil with a bit of feed and tied her up.  She was not too happy, but we safely found out that we have a little Dexter boy, and he sure is cute!  He's growing by leaps and bounds already in the past week, and Lil has pretty much returned to her normal, friendly self.


Lil and calf, less than an hour old 


Our newest farm baby, a few days old...have you ever seen such a good-looking calf?!? 

 While I usually don't tolerate aggressiveness from any farm animal, and will happily eat anything that tried to hurt a person, this is one exception I'm happy to make.  We want the mamas to want to protect their babies, and there is simply no substitute for good mothering instinct.  As long as they calm down in a day or two, a little over-protectiveness isn't necessarily a bad thing.  It's far better than the opposite-nothing is more frustrating that seeing an animal (I've seen it here with both goats and sheep) that give birth, then think the baby is some foreign creature to abandon.  Mom won't have anything to do with baby, and it becomes an orphan.  Sometimes you can get another mom to foster it, otherwise it becomes a bottle baby.  While bottle babies can be adorable, they are a lot of work, and any baby is better off if it can nurse it's mothers milk instead of formula.   

While Dan had years of experience with cows, as his family milked Jerseys for years as he was growing up, this was my first experience with a calf.  It's simply amazing to see how quickly they can get to their wobbly little feet, and I can't wait until the weather improves enough that we can begin to let our little guy out to run and play in the spring sunshine.

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