Tag Archive | chickens

Harvest and First Snow

Apologies for the radio silence; I’ve been battling a cold-turned-sinus/ear-infection and sleeping just about every minute I haven’t been at my day job. Of course, the farm keeps turning no matter what else might be happening. Last weekend, with the help of some friends, we held a big harvest day to process our poultry. We had 8 large Muscovy drakes, 3 female Muscovies, a couple of chickens, and a trio of turkeys traded from a friend and fellow homesteader. It was the biggest poultry harvest we’ve ever done. We were able to borrow an electric chicken plucker from our landlord’s plumber/electrician, and it was a great help. I’m sure we’ll be looking to build our own sometime down the line. He even sent along an electric scalder with a temperature control. It was much fancier than what we’re used to. I wish I’d been able to take some photos; the machinery setup was pretty impressive and I loved getting to introduce some new friends to the process of slaughtering and bringing birds from wing to table.

We did our first big farm-to-table supper as a celebration that evening. While we’ve certainly hosted plenty of dinners that featured some home raised components or even a home raised main course, this was by far the most complete meal we’ve done from things we’ve grown ourselves. The only exceptions were the apple cider, which came from a nearby orchard, and some Parmesan cheese. We used the cider to braise one of our pork shoulders in the crock pot for pulled pork, and served it with acorn squash, kale, cauliflower, and broccoli. We also cooked up the duck hearts we’d harvested that morning.

Last weekend we also got the call from the butcher saying that our smoked meats were ready, and they were picked up on Wednesday. The bacon is absolutely the best I’ve ever eaten. I’m eager to try the ham; I’ve been disenchanted with commercial ham for the last several years, so I’m excited to see if this will change my mind!

With impeccable timing as we finish our harvest season, the first snow arrived overnight last night. Of course it all melted away by this afternoon, but it was a treat to wake up to a beautiful light coating of snow this morning. A lovely transition towards winter!

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Productivity

Productivity sounds like such an office buzz-word, but it’s definitely applicable. Our little farmstead has been quite productive! We are bringing in the harvest and reaping the benefits of the summer’s hard work. The garden is slowly emptying, and my mobile chicken ark goes from bed to bed, letting the girls sift through the soil for weed seeds and bad bugs (like squash borer pupae, which lay dormant in the soil for the winter). As the ark moves out, I spread a thick layer of mulch and rabbit manure on each bed. We have been so buried in fruit along with our other work (both on the farm and at our full-time jobs) that we’ve been simply chopping it for jam or juicing it for jelly, and freezing it. There will be time a little later to thaw it out and make the preserves, but for now, we just need to keep it from spoiling. The latest was a bumper crop of grapes from my father-in-law’s vines. Meanwhile, the kale is simply exploding, and the winter squash are soldiering on towards ripeness.

We harvested eight young roosters this past weekend. We didn’t raise as many as last year, since we ordered pullets instead of straight run, and had only one hatch of our own chicks. Right now I have my older Speckled Sussex rooster, a young Buff Orpington roo (traded to me after he turned out to be a “he” instead of the expected “she”), and a young cross-bred rooster who is nevertheless extremely pretty and seems to be quite good-tempered. I plan to keep the older rooster and the Buff Orpington, but I like to keep my options open, in case the Buff starts to become aggressive or otherwise become a poor choice.

I’ve also made arrangements to trade some of my ducks for a new chocolate drake and a favor to be named later. One of my favorite things about the Muscovies is the wide array of colors available, but I’ve only managed to acquire white and black. It’ll be nice to get a new color into the mix. Next spring I hope to be able to find some blue as well! I think my favorite part of this lifestyle is the prevalence of the barter system. A family friend was looking for some black-and-white females to purchase, but since he had a spare drake in a new color for me, I suggested a trade instead. While money may have its place, this serves everyone well, and it’s much more fun when it’s an option!

Garden Surprise

I’ve managed to surprise myself with the success of my garden this year. I don’t have a very good track record as a gardener, overall. I think there are several reasons for this. I didn’t grow up in a family that gardened, so I never learned the process when I was young. My first introduction to gardening was my father-in-law Francis, who makes every piece of gardening look easy because he’s so skilled. It didn’t exactly give me a realistic first impression! As a result, when Avery and I set up our first garden, we were a bit overly ambitious. The final nail in my gardening coffin is that unlike Francis, for whom gardening is a combination of recreation and meditation, gardening is definitely a chore for me. I absolutely love having my own fresh produce, but the process of maintaining the garden itself is something that I do because I want the end result, not because I enjoy going through the motions.

The long and the short of it is that the past two seasons have really been quite poor in the gardening department. This year, for whatever reason, we’re finally having some actual success! We’ve grown enough pickling cucumbers for several batches of pickles, we’ve had enough extra peppers to freeze for winter stir-fry, and extra zucchini which mostly goes to the chickens and pigs. Despite growing my favorite Tante Alice slicing cucumbers from leftover seed I feared was too old to germinate, they’ve been wildly successful as well, giving us plenty for fresh eating and for sharing. My early volunteer pumpkins from last year’s poor abandoned pumpkin patch are actually producing fairly heavily. It really makes last week’s Lughnasadh feel like the beginning of autumn after all!

Even the setbacks – and there have been plenty, certainly – have not gotten out of control as in years past. We did lose a lot of zucchini plants and one early pumpkin plant to squash borers, but luckily have been able to get good production just by having so many plants in the first place. Our deer problem calmed down a bit after initiating the dryer sheets/scented soap approach, and the pumpkins/winter squash are finally gaining ground. Hopefully they will bounce back enough to get us a good yield come October or so. I’ve planted a mix of decorative and culinary squash, so hopefully at least the decorative ones will make an appearance in time for Samhain!

Heartened by my lack of complete failure, I’m doing my best to keep on top of things and even think ahead for next year. I’ve got a small mobile chicken ark with four hens in it that I’m moving into the beds from the zucchini that succumbed to squash borers. I’ve seen it suggested on some forums that the chickens will scratch up and eat the pupae in the soil, decreasing the egg-laying adult population next spring. Of course I’m not sure how well this will work, but either way they will work the straw mulch into the soil and provide plenty of fertilizer, so I really have nothing to lose by trying. I’ve already started putting rabbit manure into the bed I plan to use for my fall garlic. I can’t wait to see what it will do for my crop!

This is my life now

As many of you may have guessed, I did not grow up on a farm. Until I was about 10, I lived in the honest to goodness suburbs, then moved to a housing development in what was at the time still a very rural area. After we moved the thing I wanted most in the world was to ride a horse, so I took riding lessons until I started high school. It sounds silly, but I assumed at the time that that would be the end of it. I was heartbroken when I had to stop riding, but young and naive as I was, I thought it meant that I had to “grow up” and leave the frivolous fantasy of that kind of life behind me. The pastoral bliss of watching my own horses or even livestock grazing in the fields outside my window was beyond my imagining. I couldn’t fathom that it was possible to go from the outside of that life to the inside. I still don’t have endless acres dotted with my extensive flocks and herds. I do have a plan with a timeline, and a burning drive to achieve it, and a lot of support as I take one step at a time towards that farm. And in the meantime, I have 8 acres and a life that 14-year-old me would never in a million years believe is ours. Here’s a day in it.

It’s hard to tell what wakes me up first: the alarm going off, or the cat stepping on my face. I get dressed and pull on my boots to head out to the barn while my husband feeds the dogs and cats. I make sure the chickens and ducks have food and fresh water. I check on Mama Duck and her ducklings, and the chicks, who will be striking out away from their mamas pretty soon. Mama Duck has started taking her babies to experience the great outdoors, which they greatly enjoy!

IMG_20140528_112722_121Then I check on Bacon and Pork Chops, where I discover they have made great strides in their efforts to turn the center of their pen into a mud wallow. I don’t mind, since it will help to keep them cool as the days get hotter. They haven’t been out on grass before, and are having a ball rooting up all of the grass and clover. I make sure they have plenty of feed and give them a treat of whole corn and potatoes. They are still fairly nervous when I am working around the pen, so I bring them something nice to eat every time I come see them. I give them plenty of fresh water too. They are so darn smart. I have a hog nipple style waterer made from a 15-gallon plastic barrel, but they had always been used to drinking water from a trough. I asked the woman who sold them to me what I should do to train them on it. The internet recommends sticking a marshmallow or a smear of peanut butter on it, would that work? She just gave me a little bit of a funny look and said, “Pigs are curious. You don’t need to do anything, they’ll figure it out.” Lo and behold, she was absolutely right – within 15 minutes of getting them home, they had already discovered how to work the waterer!

With everybody fed and watered, I head back up to the house to grab a quick breakfast, then change into my riding boots and toss my tack box and helmet into the back of the Jeep. I drive about 10 minutes to the farm where I’ve been riding for about 3 years now, for a ride with my horse mentor. She had a new horse there for me to take out, a sweet chestnut OTTB (that’s off-track Thoroughbred, pretty common around here) gelding who is now learning to be a trail horse and jumper. We tacked up and went for a leisurely ride over the neighboring farms. There is no better therapy in the world than a horse, for my money. I love my dogs, and I love my cats too, for all their differences, but if you told me I could have only one animal companion, a horse is the one I’ve discovered I simply cannot live without. After we got back and got the horses rubbed down and turned out in the field, I headed home completely reinvigorated.

For lunch I grabbed some chicken salad made of home-grown chicken, which even after several years of raising my own chickens still gives me a thrill. The clouds started to roll in, so I went to check on Bacon and Pork Chops and make sure they had dry bedding and their feed pan was under cover. As quickly as they picked up the waterer, they haven’t yet mastered the self-feeder, probably because there’s so much rooting to do that they haven’t gotten too curious about it so far. Once I was sure everyone was ready for the rain, I headed back inside to start some laundry, then settle down with a movie and cast on a baby blanket for a friend. There’s nothing like a rainy afternoon for knitting progress!

It’s now one blog post later, and I’m about to go have a dinner of venison and noodles, one of the last meals from our share of the deer my father-in-law got last fall. After supper I’ll collect eggs from the poultry and put together several cartons of eggs – both duck and chicken – to take to my coworkers. Tomorrow I work, but I should still have plenty of daylight when I get home to work in the garden and move my mobile chicken ark to a new empty garden bed. Then I’ll get out my seed catalogs and plan my pre-order of fall garlic, one of the only things I’ve grown successfully apart from herbs.

We’ve come a long way, haven’t we?

Livestock season is here!

Beltane is just behind us, and while we have no cattle to drive to summer pastures, livestock season is definitely here! Our chicks hatched last Friday, seemingly in honor of the holiday, and are enjoying learning their way around the world. We had two hens setting, and when the babies hatched they didn’t bother to keep them separate. As a result, rather than two hens with broods of 7-8 chicks each, we simply have 15 chicks with two mommies. Predictably, no one in the barnyard thinks twice about this arrangement. Everyone is happy as can be! Both moms are busy shepherding the babies around and teaching them how to eat, drink, and generally be chickens.

IMG_4144Mama #1 is a Welsummer, and Mama #2 is a Speckled Sussex. The eggs were collected from our wide assortment of hens. There were two roosters in the flock, a Speckled Sussex and a Barred Rock/Maran cross. As a result, the chicks are going to be a grand assortment of mutts, but that is part of the fun. Someday I would like to keep a few pure flocks to preserve some of my favorite heritage breeds, but for the time being, we will take what we get! The purpose of this mini-farm is to be a learning experience and trial ground for different things, after all.

I also was finally able to plant my herbs and move the bay tree outside for the season! I can’t believe how much it’s grown. Take a look!

bay tree year 1

March 2013

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May 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This winter I lost everything else I was trying to keep alive, even the rosemary that survived last winter. So, we started from scratch with parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil, mint, and lavender. I still need to pick up some chives, since we use a lot of that as well, but this will get us started at least. I love how accomplished I feel once the herb garden is started. Despite the rough winter, it is still one of my few mostly successful gardening endeavors.

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Stay tuned for more exciting undertakings in the coming weeks! There is still a lot of news pending!

Busy spring!

What a busy spring it’s been so far! It seems to be making up for lost time in light of its late arrival, and we are certainly not complaining. So much has happened in the last two weeks! My Muscovy hen is sitting on a dozen eggs, and two of the chickens are on nests of their own. I’ve sequestered them in one of the barn stalls, so they won’t be disturbed. We also ordered some new rare breeds from a hatchery, and those chicks arrived last Monday. They’re currently in my father-in-law’s basement until they feather out and it gets warm enough for them to move to the small coop at his house. Then when they are bigger, we will integrate them into our respective flocks.

I also found a great deal on some adult Muscovy duck hens, and picked up four new ladies. I’ve been wanting to add some color to my duck flock, and these fit the bill. Currently I have a white drake, one white hen, and one black-and-white magpie hen. Having some new colored hens, unrelated to the ducklings that will hatch next month, means I don’t have to keep any of my drake’s offspring in order to have more ducks in the barnyard. I like that a lot! These ladies are just about a year old, the same as my little magpie, and among them we’re getting five eggs almost every day! (Especially impressive since the sixth hen is sitting on a nest instead of laying!)

There hasn’t been any luck in the turkey department just yet. I’m not too worried, though. I can try to find some started birds later on in the summer, and try to finish them out for Thanksgiving. There is more news to come in the next few weeks though!

Spring on the Farm

Winter has abruptly left us and spring is finally free to arrive! For me the most tangible evidence is in the huge influx of eggs we’ve been getting from our poultry as the days lengthen. We have big plans for the farm this year. A lot of things were put on hold last year because the potential existed that we might need to move in mid-summer. That precluded things like a big garden, or a large hatch of ducks or turkeys, among other things.

This year, though, we know we’re not going anywhere, and that means that we have endless options! Right now I’m working on getting one of my two Muscovy duck hens to set. I’ll be putting some eggs under a couple of my chickens as well, if they’ll cooperate. I’m also scouring the local advertisements for some turkey poults and a couple of piglets to raise for pork. That last is very exciting, as it will be our first foray into raising meat other than poultry. With chickens, turkeys, and pork products of our own in the freezer, that means the only meat we’ll need to buy from another source is our beef. That thought is incredibly liberating.

Unfortunately since we got rid of our trio of breeding turkeys last year, thinking we might have to move, we’re starting from scratch in the turkey department. Last time we had Bourbon Reds, a heritage breed with lovely brown and white plumage. They got very large and were very delicious, although our Tom did develop quite an attitude. This year I’d love to get more Bourbon Reds, or perhaps some Narragansetts, which are very striking in a barred pattern.

Our original batch of juvenile Bourbon Red turkeys (and their Lavender cross sidekick)

Our original batch of juvenile Bourbon Red turkeys (and their Lavender cross sidekick)

There are plans for the garden as well, although it will be more modest than our first attempt when we moved into this house. I do want to take another shot at pumpkins, and I’ll be planting garlic in the fall.  Our previous crop of garlic was one of my rare successes when it comes to flora (as opposed to fauna). We’ll have some tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, onions, lettuces and other greens, and of course the herb garden – another area of unexpected success, at least as long as they can remain outdoors in the summer. I have, however, managed to keep my bay tree alive all winter for two years now, and I’m pretty proud of myself for that! I’m looking forward to finding out what new and unexpected accomplishments this year has in store for me, and I hope if you’re reading this, you are too!