So far in this blog we’ve talked about a few of the things that we have been doing leading up to this farming endeavor. We’ve spent some time playing around with our chicken infrastructure, gardened without great intention, and thrown in some bees and ducks for good measure. Our journey started much like many other small-scale producers, as more of a homestead-focused operation. When we decided to produce food, the intention was to feed our family the best food we could. We wanted to know that if we were going to eat eggs and chicken they were going to come from animals that had a chance to bathe in sun and dust, scratch and peck, and eat grass and bugs. By now, most of you have probably seen pictures or videos of commercial poultry facilities where the term “factory” certainly applies more than “farm”. Chickens crammed in cages for egg production or packed like sardines in buildings with no room to really move while they plump to market weight. The same types of scenarios play out across the agricultural landscape and do a fine job of pumping out high quantity, low quality food. When most people imagine where their food comes from, it’s not this that they’re picturing. When you buy that “Certified Organic” chicken breast, you’re picturing “free range” chickens, which in your mind means they are free to graze the fields as the please. You may want to investigate those organic standards a bit unless you just don’t want to know that most of those birds won’t ever see a blue sky in their lives. They may have slightly better living conditions and be fed a healthier ration, but that range of theirs may just be in the form of a small pop-door that leads to a small concrete patio. This may seem a bit cynical, but hopefully it starts to paint the picture of why raising our food is so important to us. We like to know that our chickens, whether for meat or eggs, get to eat grass, bugs, and organic grains. We like that they have space to stretch out and don’t have to have their beaks trimmed to keep them from pecking each other bloody. We like that we don’t have to prophylactically feed antibiotics to keep them from getting sick when better management could prevent the most common illnesses. We’ve been privy to conditions of commercial livestock production for probably 15 years or so now and it’s one of those things that once you are aware, you can’t just forget about it. Unfortunately, many consumers don’t care, don’t want to know, or don’t want to/can’t spend the extra money for humanely raised meat. We are certainly not perfect in this regard, but it is one of the motivations for us to raise our own meat.
Having said all that, what is the plan? Well, we quickly realized that we enjoyed supplying our own chicken meat and eggs, but we were still reliant on outside sources for our other animal proteins and much of the rest of our diet. This is where things have started to ramp up pretty quickly as of late. As we started to think about all of the products we wanted to raise for our freezer and pantry, we realized that given the infrastructure costs necessary, it would make more sense to raise a surplus and sell what we don’t need to cover the cost of our food. As that thought process evolved we began to realize we both were getting really excited about the prospect of farming rather than just homesteading. Now, many people will probably scoff at us calling ourselves farmers, but that’s ok. There are examples all over the world of people producing an abundance of food and fantastic incomes on small amounts of land through proper management. It really is an exciting time to see all of the innovation in small-scale agriculture. Land is prohibitively expensive, but people are learning how to effectively manage small amounts of land through intensive grazing, stacking enterprises, and developing new techniques while improving the soil. We may not have thousands of acres of row crops or 600 hogs, but we have a desire to raise food that can nourish our family and our community, so that sounds like farming to us. As you know, we currently have chickens, ducks, and bees, but let’s walk through the enterprises we plan to add to our farm and how we plan on expanding what we’re doing now.
Chickens: This seems like a natural place to start since we actually have them on-farm! We’ve talked about our recent losses and frankly we’re lucky to still have enough chickens to provide us with eggs. As you know, we have a batch of chickens coming from a hatchery as well as a batch of eggs in our incubator. With those additions to our flock, we’ll probably end up with around 60 hens this Spring, but most of those won’t start laying until around August. To someone who keeps a flock of backyard chickens, 60 hens may seem like a lot, but when we’re talking about egg production, it’s really not. The margin on eggs is razor thin, so it takes a lot of birds to make an egg venture financially viable. We don’t really see eggs as being the main focus of our farm, but we really enjoy being able to provide them to our customers and there aren’t too many local options for organically-fed, pasture-raised eggs in our local market. We will probably add another batch of 40 hens or so in the late summer so they’ll start laying in early 2019. Late this summer we should be getting around 20 dozen or so eggs a week and that will increase to over 30 dozen a week with the extra hens for 2019. We feel like this is a manageable number of eggs for us to be able to sell. We will evaluate our market and determine where we want to be in terms of our laying flock, but we think this is a good starting point. We think we produce really high-quality eggs and they should prove to be a nice accompaniment to our other products.
On the flip side of chickens, we have our meat birds. In the past we have just processed excess heritage breed roosters for our own freezer. These birds take around 16 weeks to grow out and have a much smaller breast than your typical supermarket chicken. We really enjoy the depth of flavor these birds provide, but don’t think it’s something that the typical consumer would prefer. So, our plan for meat chickens is to raise Cornish X hybrids. We will be profiling these birds in a separate blog post, but we’ll give you a quick comparison to the heritage birds for now. The Cornish X is the commercial standard for chicken. They grow to market weight in about 8 weeks on the same amount of supplemental feed as the heritage birds, but produce more meat and a much larger breast than the heritage birds. The taste and texture of these birds is what most people think of when they think of chicken. We will raise these on pasture and supplement with organic feed, so while they are the same birds produced in commercial models, they will be more nutrient dense the way we raise them. Our initial run will just be 20 birds so we get a feel for how to best manage the Cornish X. Assuming things go well, we plan on producing another batch of the Cornish X later in the year. We will let you know when we are going to do that and give you the opportunity to pre-order some whole chickens for your family’s freezer. Our second batch will likely be limited to around 50 birds, but we will be looking to expand that number significantly.
Turkeys: Our first batch of turkeys is set to hatch in May. We ordered 15 assorted heritage turkeys and plan to keep a breeding trio of one Tom and two hens to hatch out more birds each year. Turkeys are said to be a little harder to keep alive in the brooder phase, but once they reach a couple months of age, they’re very hardy. We ordered heritage birds because we liked the idea of being able to breed them instead of having to spend around $11 for EACH baby. Commercial turkeys that most people are used to seeing cannot naturally mate. Because they’ve been bred to have such large breasts, the Toms cannot mount the hens. Somebody’s job is to artificially inseminate a bajillion turkey hens so we can have dirt-cheap, flavorless, dry Thanksgiving turkey. As with the rest of our poultry, we will be pasturing our turkeys. The heritage birds will take 5-6 months to grow to a respectable table size and will cost a significant amount to raise. We are giving them a trial run this year, but will likely add some commercial strains next year to offer consumer choice. The commercial Broad-breasted White turkey is basically the turkey version of the Cornish X and produces a larger table bird over a shorter period of time. Even so, pastured birds end up being expensive to raise, and expensive to purchase. It’s not uncommon to see a $100 pastured turkey, but we think the consumers in our market are engaged enough in the local food movement to understand the importance of high quality turkey as the centerpiece for their Thanksgiving table. We are going to gauge interest this year before determining an expansion plan for the turkey enterprise, but it will probably not expand beyond 50-100 birds, just because of infrastructure, transportation, and processing costs.
Ducks: We currently have 9 Muscovy ducks. Well, technically they’re not actually a duck, but everyone calls them ducks. We traded some pullets for them, a couple grape vines, and a hardy fig last year. We didn’t get the drakes scheduled with the processor in time last fall, so we plan to have them processed with our first batch of Cornish X this spring. The drakes are just now reaching maturity and have become a terrible nuisance as of late. Our original plan was to cull the drakes and bring in an unrelated drake with our 5 females to allow them to hatch out fertilized eggs. Our new plan is to cull the drakes and see how we like their meat before we decide to bring in a new drake. We’ve read that they don’t line breed very well, so bringing in unrelated genetics is a must. Muscovies are well-known for their ability to brood multiple batches of ducklings a year on their own. We’ve read that their meat is a little different than typical duck meat and some say it’s similar to roast beef. If that’s truly the case, we may look into keeping them on the farm, but if we’re underwhelmed by the meat, we will likely process the females when we take our heritage birds to the processor a couple months after the Cornish. Frankly, we find the ducks to be a bit of a pain. Muscovies are often referred to as “land ducks” and they don’t require a pond or anything to be happy, but that doesn’t mean they don’t love to instantly hop in any waterers they can as soon as they are filled with fresh water. We constantly have to clean out the baby pools we have for them and have to freshen the chicken waterers that we use in the winter because they get them filthy. Really they make everything remotely near a water source filthy. We’ve had them in a confined run since we got them since they’re pretty decent fliers, but perhaps we need to give them a chance out on pasture before we eliminate them from the farm completely. Most of our complaints would probably be mitigated if they were managed a little better. The other concern, however, is we really have no idea what kind of market there is for their meat. Duck eggs are highly valued for baking, but Muscovies are not known as good or even consistent layers, so if we want to get into duck eggs we would likely move to something like a Khaki Campbell. Basically, the future of Muscovies on our farm is not set, but you could say they’re on the chopping block.
Bees: We are not good beekeepers. Our first hive of bees starved last winter because we didn’t realize we should have been feeding them in late winter/early spring. We got a new package last spring, but we didn’t get enough honey to take any for ourselves. So far, this hive is still alive (at least it was a week ago). We’ve put some sugar water in a feeder for them and hope to keep them alive so we can harvest some honey this year. Bees are fascinating and we really love observing them. We also love having a hive on the farm to help with pollination in our garden. Tending the beehive is a bit of a chore for us, however. If we were focused on honey production it wouldn’t be a big deal, but since we have so many other things going on, it’s often a challenge to find the time during the right part of the day, with the right weather, to light the smoker and check the hive. We use a lot of honey in our cooking and really want to harvest our own, but if things don’t go well with the hive this year, we’re not sure how willing we’ll be to reboot the bees again. Our motivation for bees is purely for personal consumption, so it may not be wise to keep it as an enterprise on our farm if it can’t pay its own way. We have some great local honey producers that we will patronize if our hive ends up failing. If we are able to harvest honey this year, it will be the most expensive honey we’ve ever had.
Sheep: Sheep were kind of the catalyst for Shannon to get on board with the whole farming thing, mostly because we got to get two fuzzy puppies. We are only interested in meat production, so we will be focusing on meat breeds rather than wool breads. Our ideal sheep would be a hair sheep like a Katahdin or perhaps a Katahdin cross. Hair sheep don’t require sheering like their wool counterparts and tend to be hardier. Our plan is to have sheep serve as not only a source of meat production, but also as a key player in pasture regeneration. The main area we will be grazing them in is an established pasture that was hayed for years prior to us purchasing the property. The other side of our driveway was in conventional monoculture cropping when we bought the property. We seeded a pasture mix into it a couple years ago and it’s now filled with some rye, fescue, and clovers, but it’s pretty thin. Our grazing plan centers around moving the sheep into a new paddock of grass every day and only allowing them the amount of forage they can utilize in the time they are in the paddock. This forces them to eat all of the types of forage available to them in the pasture rather than picking and choosing the best bits. With too much space, animals will overgraze their favorite forages and undergraze the less desirable areas. You can imagine how this serves as a detriment to pasture quality. While the sheep are in their paddocks they will also be adding manure and urine to the ground, which will also aid in the improvement of the soil. In a pasture-based system, nothing is more important than the soil structure. We hope to manage our livestock in a way that will increase our soil’s organic matter and microbial activity which will in turn provide better forage for our livestock, all while improving water retention, erosion, etc.
We will be adding sheep to our farm this year, but first, we need some infrastructure in place. Our plan is to install perimeter fence around our main pasture and create paddocks with temporary fencing inside that permanent perimeter fence. We will also need to figure out a system for moving their water with them. As with most things we do, that will likely take many iterations before we get it right. Like many aspects of farming, this will require a decent capital outlay and significant labor, but we hope to get started on it this spring. Our long(er)-term goal is to do something similar on the other side of our driveway where our pasture needs significant improvement.
Pigs: When we first started thinking about the farm, we were planning on having some pigs over by the garden to do our plowing for us and then letting them graze in the clover field, but the more we thought about our farm layout, the less we liked that idea. Our property has about 10 acres of woods that we currently don’t really do anything with other than source firewood. The area closest to our pasture has a gentle slope that becomes much steeper after a few acres. We think this area of 2-3 acres is going to make for an ideal spot for pigs. It has mature oaks, black walnuts, and cedars, which will provide ample shade as well as forage in the form of acorns and walnuts. The underbrush is pretty thick in all of our woods, so we’re looking forward to having the pigs clear that out for us. Our plan with pigs is somewhat similar to the sheep, except we won’t be moving them daily. We plan to install a perimeter of high tensile electric fence and then subdivide that area with paddocks that we will rotate the pigs through as needed. We have a water lined stubbed off near the area that is in place for a future shop, so we will install a frost-free hydrant near their paddocks. Our biggest challenge is going to be hauling feed to them and loading them in the trailer, but we have some ideas on that. We have a lot of room to expand in the woods if we decide we want to add more pigs later, but we’re probably going to start with around 6 wiener pigs and build that up to doing two batches of 12 a year. Our plan is to start out buying in pigs to feed out, but if it makes economic sense to keep a breeding sow or two, we will consider that after we get some time with pigs under our belts. Our neighbor keeps pigs, so it will be nice to have his experience available to us even though his methods are more aligned with commercial production. It will likely be 2019 before we add pigs to the mix, but when we do we will probably start by selling half and whole butchered hogs and then adding a retail cut component as we add more production. As with our chickens, we will be providing organic feed to the pigs in addition to their forage.
Cattle: This is the component of our farm that most people with farming experience will probably laugh about. We don’t have a ton of acreage, but we have determined that with intensive grazing practices using daily paddock moves, we can accommodate 4 head of cattle at a time, processing two a year. These would likely be 500# stockers that we bring in and finish on grass to around 1000#. They will be grazing in a rotational system with the sheep and poultry and will provide the biggest impact as far as pasture improvement for us. Fortunately, we have the advantage of being able to build our fencing infrastructure for the sheep in a manner that will allow us to contain cattle as well. We obviously will be sourcing smaller-framed cattle like Lowline Angus or similar crosses. We think there are environmental advantages in the production models of grass fed and finished beef as well as nutritional advantages. We will have to carry these cattle on farm much longer than grain-finished cattle, but we plan to house them off pasture in the winter to minimize negative pasture impact and feed them hay during that time.
Market Garden: We currently have an area that’s roughly ¼ acre for our garden area. We are planting a plethora of veggies this year and are planning on really trying to get this aspect of our farm dialed in a little better. We will likely need to scale back the varieties in production as we move forward and just focus on products that will be marketable and profitable in our context. We have enough space to expand our garden to an acre or more, but we want to get really good at that ¼ acre scale before we expand beyond that. If you take a look at what people like JM Fortier and Curtis Stone are doing on small food plots you can see the direction we’re hoping to head.
Well, there you have it. We’ll probably look back at this and wonder what the hell we were thinking and laugh about our naivety, but this is where we think we’re starting and where we think we might be headed. Life happens and we reserve the right to change our minds, but we think we can create a farm that will nourish our bodies and minds and hopefully we can share that with like-minded people in our community. Thanks for joining us on this adventure!