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.

 
 

All Natural

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!

 
 

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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