Another busy week here on the farm! Last week was full of excitement. As I began the early Saturday garden rounds, I heard a soft noise coming from the turkey nest by the old greenhouse. I knew that the Royal Palm hen had been sitting on a few eggs, but since she was nestled on top of some of the wire onion drying racks and not a hard surface, I wasn't holding out much hope that she'd actually hatch anything. However, this was the last nest standing, because we've had some trouble with raccoons and such lately, having lost a couple of hens and the eggs in the turkey nests were raided as well. But as I was getting ready to cut lettuce for sale at the stand, I saw that there was a fuzzy poult with the Palm hen. She ended up hatching 2 of the 3 eggs she was sitting on! While turkeys would normally sit on a larger clutch than that, because of the location, I took most of the eggs and put them in the incubator.
I was somewhat conflicted this spring, because I wanted to have lots of turkey poults, both to sell and to raise for our own Thanksgiving offerings, but I also wanted to see if the hens have enough mothering instinct to actually rear their own young. With poultry, eggs are taken away to incubators, and breeding stock is selected for characteristics such as egg production, weight gain, feather coloration, etc. Mothering instinct is actually selected against in many cases, because if the hen defends her nest from humans, then it's harder to collect the eggs to sell for consumption. Most chickens lay an egg, but never think to do anything further than that. This is not as true with the heritage breeds, as we have seen Phoenix and Cochin hens successfully hatch chicks, which is just the first step. We had a Pekin duck hatch out a few ducklings this spring too. While that was exciting, she just kept on at her normal pace, wandering all around the farm with the drakes, and in a few days the ducklings were gone. She just didn't call to them and keep them close and warm, and when left to sort of fend for themselves it was not a success. But our turkey is doing very well. It's been 10 days now, and both poults are growing and thriving. She stays mostly in the backyard, away from the other birds, and calls to the little ones to keep them close as they forage around. At night or during a rain shower, she hunkers down and collects them between her wing and body, keeping them warm and dry. To me, it's amazing to watch. She was just a poult herself last spring, one raised in a brooder pen with a heat lamp instead of a mother. She has never seen this modeled by other birds, yet she knows.
Just a day after Father's Day, Pixie's father returned to the farm as well. The Muirs of Muirstead farm were willing to lend us one of their bulls, Finnbar, again this year. This is another instance where we do things the all natural way. Many farms that breed cattle never have a bull set foot on the premises, instead relying on Artificial Insemination to produce calves. The advantages to using AI are that you don't have to deal with a bull, and they can be very dangerous to work around. You can also breed your cow to the best bull, basing your decision on any quality you are looking for- milk production, breed show champion, weigh gain for beef, etc. And doing it this way means one bull can produce many, many more calves than he would be able to otherwise. As long as the semen is properly stored, it can last for years so you can even breed to a bull that's dead! The downside to this is that everyone wants to breed to the best, and by doing so the breed as a whole can tend to become very inbred. The Holstein cow is the worst example of this, as 2 bulls born in the 1960's actually make up 30% of the genetics found in the breed today. When that happens, it means that if that bloodline is particularly sensitive to a new parasite or disease, it could go a long way towards wiping out the breed. Inbreeding can also have a lot of other nasty side effects, like genetic deformities, low reproductive rates and shorter lifespans.
Beef cattle to some extent rely less on AI. Heritage breeds are also more likely to use the tried and true method of turning the bull out to pasture with the cows and letting nature take its course. We were thrilled to have Finnbar come again, not only is Pixie a beautiful baby, but he was a pleasure to have around. The biggest concern last year was that a bull would be nasty, and that we would have to be watching over our shoulder as we went about our routines in the barnyard. This was not the case at all! Finnbar isn't aggressive, and while I always keep my eye on the livestock, I don't feel the need to take any more precautions around him than I do the other males, like Rambo the sheep. And it seems Finnbar had a good time here last year as well. As the trailer was backing up, he had his head up and ears forward in anticipation of getting out. When the door was opened, he calmly stepped off and began heading out to the herd. Our Finni was just coming out of heat, so he was a bit more interested in her, but it just amazed me how calm everyone was- no chasing or headbutting, just some sniffing and then back to grazing. He settled in almost instantly. So he will be with us for a couple of summer months before returning to his farm, and we will anxiously await more lovely Dexter babies in the spring!
What a good looking bull!