Why Pastured Poultry?

If you look at the labels of things like chicken and eggs at the grocery store you will find a dizzying number of buzzwords trying to entice you to make the “right” choice. Many of the labels are just ambiguous phrases that make the consumer feel good about what they’re eating, but aren’t really a meaningful representation of what the consumer thinks they’re getting. Things like “natural” and “cage-free” sound good to the average consumer who imagines a serene, pastoral setting with chickens scratching the lush grass at the base of a windmill, but let’s talk about reality for a minute. I’m not going to drill down on every labeling phrase, but be warned, most of them are meaningless. Some “cage free” and “free range” birds never even see the outside of a crowded commercial chicken house. That “range” could be a slab of concrete or bare dirt outside a small door that they never even pass through. Most people (myself included) feel good about buying things labeled “organic”, but when it comes to organic meat products, you’re really only being guaranteed that the animal was fed organic grains and not given antibiotics/growth hormones/etc. While that’s better than some production methods, that doesn’t mean the chicken wasn’t still just crammed into a crowded building while it was eating organic grain.
So, what’s the answer? We think it’s locally raised, pastured poultry. What does that mean? Well, who knows? What it means in most pastured poultry operations and in our system is that once our birds have fully feathered out in the brooder (about 3 weeks of age), they are taken out to our pasture and are placed into floorless structures that allow the birds to eat grass and bugs along with their grain rations. Some people seem misled by the term “pastured” and think that it means the chickens are not given any supplemental feed and are gleaning all their needs from the pasture, but that’s not the case. At a production level, it’s not feasible to expect to grow chickens to a marketable size with no grain inputs. The structures, called chicken tractors, are moved to new grass every day to allow the birds to continue foraging for a portion of their diets. This forage allows the chickens to uptake more vitamins, minerals, omega 3’s, etc. than they would otherwise get in a confinement operation, thus producing a more nutrient-dense meat. We are planning to experiment with a day-range system once our pastures have perimeter fencing to allow the birds to range over more ground than a chicken tractor provides. While the final product will remain the same, we think it’s ultimately better for the birds.

Our main goals in farming are to produce the healthiest possible products in the most environmentally beneficial way we can. As I’ve mentioned in the past, we use organic grains for all of our animal operations that require supplemental feed (future lambs and cattle will be grass-only). We think that the organic production methods used to produce our grain not only provide a more nutritious feed for the animals, but also are much better for the environment than conventional grain production. Another added benefit of pasturing our chickens (and turkeys) is that we are able to evenly distribute their manure as a natural fertilizer across our pasture, which will help in building the quality of our soil and grasses/legumes. With proper stocking density, we’ll be able to add sheep and a few cattle to our pastures and they will graze and trample the grass, which will also help build soil and grass. Over the course of a few years, we should see our pastures improve significantly without having to bring in any additional fertilizers. As our pastures improve through daily pasture rotations, we should be able to increase our stocking density, allowing us to produce more animals on the same land base. All from proper, intensive grazing practices!
While the animal welfare piece and the environmental impact component of this is important, we still have to produce a great tasting product. This is another area where pastured poultry wins out over conventional, confinement chicken. You can taste the difference. When birds are allowed to eat grass, clover, and grasshoppers, all while actually being able to walk around, they develop a superior flavor. Pastured poultry producers usually raise their birds a little longer than confinement operations too, which allows the birds to develop more quality fat and muscling, resulting in a better flavor and texture profile as well. We recently had some friends in town from Colorado and decided to cut up one of our whole chickens, brine it, and grill it for them. Our friend, Sean, couldn’t stop raving about how good the chicken was. He was telling us that he had recently bought some chicken from the store and it had a terrible texture and no flavor. We haven’t bought chicken from the store for a couple years, but it sounded about like how I remember it. If you want the best tasting and most nutritious chicken you can buy, seek out a farm raising pastured poultry in your area. It will definitely cost you a little more, but it’s reflective of the real cost of raising real food.

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We forgot to take pics of the one we bbq’d but frankly, they looked very similar. We’ll post a recipe soon!
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Shannon’s Made-From-Scratch PIZZA SAUCE

You guys! This is my new FAVORITE pizza sauce.  Shannon here, and I just want to share my new, delicious and homemade pizza sauce recipe made from our own home grown tomatoes (and onions and herbs).  Its not a quick process so, make sure to plan it for your day off!  Don’t worry, although it takes time – it’s not very complicated. 

We are not alone in saying that growing gorgeous, sun-ripened tomatoes in the heat of summer has to be one of our favorite parts of the season.  A lot of the times we all consume them straight from the vine faster than we can get a nice stash up at the house. Finally, we had a beautiful pile of tomatoes and the wheels started turning on what to make first.  

We have a tradition of Friday Night Pizza at our home.  (it’s not always on Fridays but usually once a week).  Aaron makes a wonderful homemade pizza dough and we make simple yet delicious pizza with the boys. Instead of buying the jarred stuff this week, I decided to take on making my very own pizza sauce.  I kind of winged it and we couldn’t be happier with how it turned out.  I just hope we didn’t get spoiled and can still appreciate the jarred stuff when time and supplies are limited.

We are growing a variety of tomatoes from small to large such as Sun Gold, Black Cherry, Red Pear, Valley Girl, Brandywine, San Marzano, Monte Carlo and Lilliput Cherry.   I decided to make a party out of it and use them all!  Although, you could surely use whatever you have on hand.

I gathered all of my beauties up and weighed them on my kitchen scale – it added up to be 4 pounds.  First I had to clean and core the tomatoes and cut an “X” on the bottom for blanching.  This will make it easier to peel the skins off.  Once you have them ready, use a large pot to boil water.  Slowly add your tomatoes for about a minute using a skimmer strainer to both add and remove the tomatoes.  Luckily they won’t be too hot since they were only in the boiling water a minute.  Then you get to work on peeling the tomatoes (don’t forget to save the skins and cores for your chickens or compost!)

Now you take the skinned tomatoes (Is it just me or do they feel super weird without their skins?!) and you’ll dice them.  Set them aside.  

Next, I gathered some onions from the boys’ gardens and diced them up – about a cup.  Then I minced about 3-4 cloves of garlic.  We grow a variety of herbs in our landscaping bed – so, I went out and grabbed a bit of basil and oregano – equalling to about a tablespoon each once chopped. 

Now the fun part.  With about 2 tablespoons of olive oil warmed in the dutch oven on medium heat, I added in the onions.  Once they are starting to caramelize a bit – about 4 minutes or so I added the garlic in for another minute.   Then I added in the diced tomatoes, herbs, about a teaspoon of salt and a few shakes of pepper.  I decided to also drizzle in some honey – maybe just about 1-2 teaspoons but in hindsight, I’m not sure it needed it with the sweetness of the tomatoes.  I also usually add a few dashes of turmeric to things and this time, one bayleaf. 

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I gave it a nice stir and turned down the heat to low and let it simmer for HOURS.  Ok, it was just 2 but it did seem like forever.  The aroma was amazing.  After the time it needed to thicken, I threw it all in a food processor (or a blender would work!) and blended it all into a nice puree.  I wish you could have experienced the savory and sweet aroma!  Four year old Arlo licked the spoon and could NOT get enough – he could barely wait for it to be added to the the pizza!  
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Now you just add it to your favorite pizza recipe.  We’ll post ours here soon!  Enjoy and let us know what you think!

Shannon's Homemade Pizza Sauce from Scratch

  • Servings: 1 pint
  • Difficulty: moderate
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Shannon’s Homemade Pizza Sauce

Ingredients:

4 pounds of garden fresh tomatoes

1 cup chopped onions

3-4 garlic cloves – minced

1 tbsp fresh basil

1 tbsp fresh oregano

1 tsp salt

1/2 tsp pepper

few dashes of turmeric

2 tbsp olive oil

1-2 tsp honey (optional)

Directions:  Clean and Core tomatoes. Cut an “X” on the bottom of the tomatoes. Blanch for approximately 1 minute in boiling water.  Using the X part of the tomato – peel then dice.  

Heat 2 tbsp oil in a dutch oven over medium high heat.  Cook onions for approximately 4 minutes until tender.  Add garlic and cook for another minute.  Add the rest of the ingredients and lower heat to Low – simmer for 2 hours.

When sauce thickens after simmering, put in a food processor or blender and blend.  Use immediately or store in the refrigerator for a week.  Enjoy!  

Selling Chicken

After doing some trial runs with the Cornish Cross, we’ve decided to squeeze in a couple of batches of chickens this Fall that will be available for sale! We secured processing dates on October 11thand November 1stfor two batches of 50 chickens. We will be retailing our pasture-raised, organically fed chicken for $5.49/lb for a whole chicken. If you would be interested in reserving chicken for your family, please email us at 1450farm@gmail.com. We are providing a discount for orders of 10 or more birds. Orders will be filled in the order they are received and we will notify you when we are sold out. We are also going to be processing some of our turkeys on November 1st, so we may have a few of them available as well, but we want to make sure we keep them alive long enough to process them before we pre-sell any of them :).

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We also wanted to let you all know that next year we will be adding a chicken CSA to our offerings. We are working on setting up a system where we will have 3 package sizes available at discounted prices (the more you buy, the cheaper per pound). We will be sending out an email in late Winter for sign up and will be taking deposits to secure spots in the CSA. Once we have all of the logistics worked out we will post about the details before sending out the sign-up email. If you are looking to fill up your freezer with chicken next year or just get a few birds every now and then, we’ll have a package that fits your family’s needs.

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And since we’re talking about next year already. We will be adding forest-raised, organically fed pork to our line-up in 2019. Our first pigs will probably be ready in June or July, but when we have dates and quantities lined up, we will begin taking orders for half and whole hogs. We will also be ramping up our turkey production significantly, so stay tuned in 2019 for pre-ordering opportunities to secure a local, pastured, organically fed Thanksgiving turkey.

I know a lot of this stuff is pretty far down the road, but we are excited for the opportunity to grow our farm in 2019 and wanted to let you know what’s on the horizon. Our pullets just started laying, so we should be flush with eggs here shortly. Email us or let Shannon know on Instagram (@1450farm) if you want to be notified when eggs are available ($5.00/dozen). We can’t begin to express how grateful we are for the fast support we have received this year. Cheers!

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Farming on the Side

As I’ve mentioned in past blog posts, Shannon and I both work full-time off-farm jobs. I spend my days running my own business and doing physical labor outside from March – December, while Shannon spends her days inside laboring mentally. Coming from the corporate world, I understand just how taxing mental labor can be, so like most working people, we are pretty tired at the end of the day. Unlike a lot of people, our work starts beforework and ends around sundown. These days Shannon gets up before anyone else in the house and makes her way down to open up the chicken coop and make sure all of the chickens, ducks, and pups have food and fresh water. She typically takes the Pyrenees on a perimeter walk around the front pastures and works with them around the chickens.

When I get home, usually between 4-5, I stop and freshen all of the waterers again since the temps have been 90+ pretty consistently since late Spring here. I make sure feeders are topped off, and I gather eggs. Sometimes we all go down to visit all of the animals again after dinner, but that doesn’t happen on nights the children decide to spend way too long at the table not eating their food. We alternate nights putting the kids to bed, so whoever is not conducting bedtime heads back down to check on the garden and close up the coop. Most of the time in the garden these days is harvesting okra, squash, and tomatoes and gathering tomato hornworms and squash bugs to toss to the chickens. In the height of summer, we have enough sunlight to allow for a good deal of leisure time to snuggle on the puppies before the sun sets. It’s really amazing how mentally refreshing it is to just go sit in the pasture with the pups for 30 minutes or so.

Right now chores are pretty easy. Back in Spring (and coming up again later this summer) we had the pastured meat birds to deal with a couple times a day as well. I would go down to the pasture every morning and move their pasture pen forward to new grass, topping of the feeder, and making sure their water was full. Every night about 12 hours later, we would have to go back to the pens to remove any feed that was left to prevent them from overeating and suffering heart attacks and leg problems. We have a batch of 50 meat chickens coming at the beginning of September and we might try to do some starting in August, too, but we are still trying to decide on that. So, if you are interested in buying some whole chickens, we should have some available after November 1st. The labor of moving the chicken tractor is pretty easy the way we have it set up, but we’re planning to modify how we raise them a bit next Spring (or whenever our pasture is fully fenced). We like the pasture pen method for security, but we want to create something closer to a day-range model since the dogs and fencing will be available to protect them from predators. If we are successful with our range model, it should cut our labor significantly when we increase our meat bird production.

A lot of these chores aren’t terribly taxing, but they have to be done every single day of the year. You can’t just skip a day or two. Obviously we enjoy doing this, so it doesn’t seem so bad to us. We were just talking the other day about how we don’t even know what we would be doing with our time if we didn’t have the farm. We might watch a show or two on tv at night before bed, but we’re not the type of people to just sit and watch tv for long stretches at a time. I’m sure we would find other hobbies to fill our time, but I can’t imagine anything more fulfilling than raising our own food and teaching our kids the importance of caring for the land and our food system. A lot of people think we’re nuts, and we probably are, but hopefully we can keep improving and growing our farm while transitioning it away from being just a side-hustle. Thanks for joining us on this journey!

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Easy Balsamic Summer Squash Pasta

We’re entering the time of year when gardeners and market farmers are about to be up to their ears in summer squash. If you’ve grown tired of it, you can go with the tried-and-true method of leaving a bag of the stuff on your neighbor’s porch, ringing the door bell, and running back to your house, but I would recommend trying a light pasta dish with it first. We got our garden in late, so we’re just now getting to the joyous-abundance-of-squash phase of the year. With our first harvest, we decided to make a light, simple pasta dish to accompany the heat and humidity that have settled into Eastern Kansas this summer. Give it a try and let us know how you like it and feel free to share any of your favorite summer squash recipes!

Easy Balsamic Summer Squash Pasta

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: easy
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Ingredients:

16 oz of your favorite pasta  (we used Strozzapreti)

4 slices of bacon, cooked and crumbled

2 small summer squash (we used crookneck yellow squash & a zucchini)

3 cloves garlic, minced

Juice of 1 lemon

1 Tbs butter

1 Tbs Olive Oil or bacon grease

Splash or two or three of Balsamic vinegar

Shredded Parmesan to taste

Fry up the bacon and set aside while you make the rest of the dish. If you want to use the bacon grease to sauté the veggies, omit the olive oil from the ingredients. If you cook your bacon in the oven, I can’t help you. Bring a pot of water to a boil and cook the pasta per the package’s directions. While the pasta is cooking, sauté the garlic in either olive oil or bacon grease over medium heat for a minute. Add the squash and continue to sauté until the squash is tender. Once squash is tender, add a few splashes of balsamic vinegar to the mix and sauté a little longer. When the pasta is done cooking, drain and return to pot. While pasta is still hot, add butter to pasta and mix. Mix in the cooked squash, bacon, and lemon juice. Salt and pepper to taste. Add Parmesan to each serving of pasta.

We like to accompany this dish with a hearty loaf of bread from our local bakery along with a healthy heap of fruit. We’ve also found that alerting our kids to the fact that the food we’re eating came from our garden seems to motivate them to eat it a little better. It’s especially helpful if they helped plant or harvest whatever it is we’re eating. So, if your kids don’t like to eat veggies, try growing them together!

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Pupdate

Sometimes in life you get something that makes you wonder how you managed to function before you go it. That’s pretty much how we feel about our Great Pyrenees pups, Bo and Lou. Pyrenees have been on our radar for a long time, but until recently our home wouldn’t have provided the right environment for them to thrive. Now that we are building our farm with them in mind, we are enamored with them.

As you’ll recall, we got Bo and Lou back in January when they were little, squishy puppies. Ok, Pyrenees pups aren’t exactly little, but man are they ever cute. Well, our little fluff balls have since matured into stoic, lanky 7 month-old teenagers. Perhaps “teenager” isn’t fair, because they don’t really act like teenagers, but they’re kind of at that developmental stage where they haven’t filled out all the way and they still like to wrestle around. At every stage of their lives, I have to say, they have been the best dogs we could ever hope for. We absolutely adore our two old-timers up at the house (13 year-old Oscar and 10 year-old Merle), but these puppies have seriously made me question whether I ever want another breed of dog. From the day we picked them up they have been the calmest, most well mannered dogs we’ve ever had. Sure they’ve chewed a few collars and leashes up and they like to carry their food bowls out into the pasture sometimes, but overall, they’ve surpassed our expectations.

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We’ve posted this pic before, but in case you needed a refresher on their squishy cuteness.

Since we got the puppies we have been working with them to get them used to being around our chickens. We plan to have the dogs guard our future flock of sheep, but one of the other main reasons we got them was to hopefully eliminate some of our chicken predator issues. We have set up a fenced off area using portable electric sheep fencing that surrounds a permanent chicken run where we’ve housed some hens after our winter dog attack. It also surrounds our newest “hoop coop” that houses all of our soon-to-be-laying pullets and another area of electric poultry net that surrounds fresh pasture for them. We’ve created an alley around the pullet coop and fence to allow the dogs to patrol their entire perimeter. We often walk them around their perimeter, but Shannon also takes them for a walk around the perimeter of our two front pasture areas so they are familiar with our boundaries. We plan to eventually have both pastures fenced in, so they will have a decent amount of ground to cover.

From day one, we have been working with the dogs inside of the permanent run to get them used to being amongst the chickens and ducks. We started by taking them in on leashes, and corrected any undesirable behaviors, like chasing or trying to eat their food. As they’ve gotten older we’ve begun to allow them in the run without leashes, but still with supervision. They show almost no interest in the birds, even when the roosters mount the hens! We’ve been really pleased with how the dogs have interacted with the chickens, but recently we’ve noticed that if any pullets jump the fence into the dog area, they get a little more excited about the chickens. We’ve seen Bo run toward the chickens, but we haven’t seen any physical altercations yet. We’re wondering if perhaps the dogs distinguish between dog areas and chicken areas and while they are fine with the chickens when they go into the chicken area, they are less so when the chickens enter their area. Perhaps we’re being overly concerned, but we are going to start leashing the dogs and bringing chickens into their area to get them used to having chickens in ALL the areas they will be covering. We are planning to run an egg-mobile down the pastures once we have the permanent exterior fence up and we need to be able to trust the dogs with day-ranging chickens. We’re easing into this because we can’t afford another setback like the stray dog attack. It takes 4-5 months to get a chick to laying age and we don’t want to have to start over from scratch again. I have no doubt that some day we may go down to the field to find a chicken walking on a sleeping Pyrenees, but we aren’t there yet.

Even though we still have a little way to go before we can fully trust these pups with our poultry, we’re encouraged by their protective instincts. They’ve become pretty good little barkers and will give passing deer, coyotes, and throaty trucks an earful. And when they show each other their teeth while they wrestle, it becomes clear why they are such revered livestock guardian dogs. These dogs are not for everyone, but they are perfect for us.

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Farming is Hard

If you follow the farm on Instagram (@1450farm), you’ll sometimes see Shannon post that farming is hard. It is. As I mention last week, we lost some turkeys in the brooder, and while they were just a few day old turkeys, it’s still not fun to dispose of dead things. While I was sick, Shannon had to remove our neighbor’s dead cat from the garage and last weekend she took on turkey-disposal duty. I’m typically the one that deals with death on the farm, but she had to take over that role recently and it was hard on her. I’ve dispatched several chickens over the years and it’s something that, while I’ve grown used to, still leaves me sad. One of the benefits of death on the farm, however, is that it provides an opportunity to see what parts of our management can be improved to hopefully remediate losses in the future. While not the most enjoyable way to learn, at least something good can come from loss.

Well, since we last blogged, we suffered more loss on the farm. No, we didn’t lose any more animals, but we lost a significant portion of our garden. We had a tremendous hail storm move through the farm in the night last week and when we went out the next morning we saw our once-thriving garden ravaged. Our 120+ tomato plants were stripped of foliage and had broken limbs and dented fruits. The okra plants faired a little better, but still had quite a few broken bits. Our cucumber plants were absolutely demolished and the green beans are pretty beaten down. I tore off all the broken foliage on our squash plants and hope that with a little time and some extra fertilizer we can rejuvenate what’s left. We’re going to reseed some crops and hope to salvage some production. Fortunately we have a pretty long growing season here in Kansas, but it’s disheartening to watch all of the hours of (Shannon’s) hard work be destroyed in 10 or 15 minutes of 60 mph winds and marble/quarter sized hail.

Ultimately we would like to have some hoop houses or caterpillar tunnels to have some protected growing areas on the farm, but I’m not sure how they would have held up in the storm that hit us. I think one of the biggest take-aways we got from this experience is that we are doing the right thing in our personal farm context. We’re diversifying our enterprises. If our livelihood depended on just the market garden, we would be in real trouble right now. Pulling dozens and dozens of damaged fruits off of plants put a dent in the amount of food we’re going to be able to put up this year, but it isn’t going to be a financial burden for us. As the farm grows and we derive more of our personal income from it, that story changes. This has definitely reaffirmed our need to spread our risk across many ventures, so that if we have catastrophic losses in one, we can hopefully offset those losses in other areas.

Farming is hard, but with the trials come myriad opportunities for personal growth and education. There’s no room for complacency, but isn’t that just how life should be? We will replant what we can and hope Mother Nature decides we’ve learned enough lessons this season. In the mean time we’re going to do some brainstorming to figure out if we can diversify even more in the future.

 

Turkey Talk

Coming into this farming season, we decided to ramp up our enterprises a bit to trial run some ventures we thought we’d like to add to the farm. The no-brainer first addition was the pastured broilers. Since we have raised egg layers and culled our heritage breed roosters, we felt like it wouldn’t be a stretch to try our hand at meat production. We need to modify some of our infrastructure and dial in our processing ages (depending on what strain of Cornish cross we end up using), but we’re pretty confident in managing a pastured poultry operation moving forward. I have a call into our processor to see about getting a batch of Cornish from them at the end of July, so stay tuned if you’re going to be in the market for some pastured, organic-fed chicken around late September/early October.

The next logical enterprise that would integrate well with our current enterprises is pastured turkey. Well, as I tend to do, I decided that I wanted to try my hand with heritage turkeys first to see how we liked their meat and decide if we thought it was worth raising them over a traditional broad-breasted white turkey (the commercial standard). I saw a lot of people recommend Porter’s Rare Heritage Turkeys (porterturkeys.com), so I decided to order a breeder’s choice assortment of 15 turkeys way back in November. I was under the impression that the turkeys would be delivered mid-May, but we didn’t end up getting them until June 7th. It actually worked out really well that they came later because I would have been sick when they were supposed to come. Also, just to be clear, Porter’s states on their website that they will try to meet your earliest requested shipping date, but shipments can be delayed because of issues with hatches and other things that are really out of their control. I just didn’t want to give the impression that we had any issues with the hatchery.

Well, when we opened the box, after retrieving it from the post office bright and early, we saw 16 little googly-eyed poults staring up at us chirping. At first glance they really just looked like a box of baby chicks, but upon further examination we noticed their bigger eyes and little bump above their beaks where their snood will be. We dipped their beaks in their waterer and set them in front of their feeder and sat back to observe for a bit before heading off to work. We quickly noticed how much more curious turkey poults are than chicks. When we stick our hands down into the chick brooder they scatter and chirp like crazy, but when we stuck our hands into the turkey brooder they would come running over to us to see what was going on, sometimes pecking at us or jumping at our hands or phones (I mean, how can you not take pictures of 2 day old turkeys). They are full of personality.

After the first two days in the brooder we were feeling pretty good about how things were going. We had heard and read plenty of horror stories about how difficult poults can be to keep alive the first few weeks of their lives. People say they’re always coming up with new ways to die. Well, if I’m being honest, I usually cast aside commentary like that and assume that I can manage things better. This time I was wrong. On day three we started noticing a poult that didn’t look like it was doing well. We intermittently dipped its beak in the water and tried to get it to eat, but after a while, it just dropped dead. We lost a couple more throughout the day in the same manner and we have no idea why. We did have the garage door open most of the day, so perhaps it was too humid, or perhaps they were just weak birds, or they never figured out where the food was, or some combination of several factors. In total we have lost five of our 16 poults, but the remaining 11 appear to be doing well. They are actively running around and I know all of our remaining poults are eating. We had already added some brown sugar and apple cider vinegar to their water when they first arrived to help give them a boost and mixed a bit of feed with some plain yogurt to give them some probiotics. After we started losing some birds, we added an electrolyte mixture and then a vitamin supplement. So, hopefully all of these steps will keep the remaining poults alive long enough to get out to pasture.

We can tell we already really like the turkeys. My main concern is that since we got heritage birds, I’m worried that we’re going to have a hard time keeping them where we want them. I’ve read they tend to like to fly up in trees to roost and well, we have around 10 acres of trees for them to choose from. Clipping their wings is an option, but I want to see how they react when we get them out on pasture before we decide to do that. After getting these turkeys I immediately wished we would have ordered some broad-breasted white turkeys so we could compare how we liked raising them and eating them so we could ramp up production next season knowing our preference. Our processor has some chick days for Cornish cross and hybrid egg-layers and also sells broad-breasted white turkeys on their farm in June and July, so I’m waiting to hear back whether they still have any available this season. If we can get some, we’ll probably add another 10 to our rafter of turkeys. My other concern is that my heritage birds won’t be ready to process before this Thanksgiving, so I’d like to at least have some turkey to try this year.

Ultimately, I think we will end up keeping some heritage birds to breed a small number of birds each year and then we’ll round out our turkey production with broad-breasted white turkeys. These birds will all be out on pasture eating bugs, worms, and grass, so they will be full of vitamins and minerals. I should also mention that, as with all of our poultry, we’re feeding our turkeys organic feed. We talked to our feed mill and they were able to custom blend a 28% protein organic turkey starter for us. The significantly higher protein requirement makes the turkey feed much more expensive than our chicken feed, so we will be tracking our costs closely to determine pricing when we are ready to bring our product to the public. I can guarantee that our turkeys will not be competitive with the birds you see in the supermarket, but I can also guarantee that we will produce the highest quality turkey in the area. When I see turkey (or chicken for that matter) at the store for $1.29/pound it makes me sad. Cheap food comes at a great cost. It costs us in our own health, it costs the animals in horrendous living conditions, it costs the contracted farmers who can’t make a living wage, and on down the line. We can’t wait to partner with conscientious, local consumers and to join in changing our food system for the better.

 

 

When the Farmer is the One Sick

Farmers often have to think about and deal with sick or injured animals, but what happens when the sick one is the farmer? Recently we’ve had the misfortune of finding the answer to that question here on our farm. A couple of weeks ago I (Aaron) woke up shivering in the middle of the night and then again a few hours later to part with the contents of my stomach. The next day I went to work and struggled through the day with little energy and a pounding head (don’t worry, I work alone so I wasn’t jeopardizing anyone else’s health). That night I continued to have a terrible headache, fever, night sweats, and chills, so I went to the doctor first thing in the morning. While I was at the Dr. I mentioned to the PA that I had had well over 50 ticks on me this year and suggested that perhaps I should be tested for Lyme disease. She ran a full blood panel along with tests for Lyme and Ehrlichiosis (another tick-borne illness). When the results came back we were told that my white blood cell and platelet counts were low and that I needed to be tested again to be safe since I’ve had Melanoma in the past. The next blood test came back with even lower numbers and immediately signaled the PA to get me to a hematologist. Luckily between that test and my appointment with the cancer doc we got the results of a blood smear, which I understand as a literal smearing of blood on a slide for a pathologist to study under a microscope, and it showed no abnormal cell activity. After meeting with the hematologist he was pretty convinced that I was suffering from Ehrlichiosis and got me on the appropriate antibiotic for treatment. I went back for a blood test a week later and my levels were all back in the normal range and I was relieved to not be worrying about cancer anymore. You may be thinking, why all the detail for this when I could just tell you what I had, or not even mention it at all. Well, I wanted to share my experience and symptoms so that more people are aware of Ehrlichiosis. I had never even heard of the illness even though it is more prevalent in our area than Lyme disease, yet everyone knows about Lyme disease. It’s a tricky illness to diagnose because the testing commonly shows false negatives (mine was negative) based on the length of time it takes your body to create the antibodies that would show up on a positive test. We are really thankful to have had such proactive medical attention. I have never been so sick in my life and thanks to them I was able to get quick treatment and didn’t have to suffer as long as some people that aren’t diagnosed properly. I’m still not back to being 100% in terms of energy level, but we’ve read that can take some time for people following this illness.

So, other than bringing awareness to an illness I had never even heard of prior to a couple weeks ago, my other motivation for writing about this is how it impacted the day-to-day operations on our farm. I physically couldn’t do our farm chores while I was sick. I could barely do the work required of my main job, but luckily my dad was able to take time off of his job to come help me get my work done. Being a solo operator of your own business is usually a good gig, but this was a real wake-up call for me. With me out of commission, Shannon had to take over all of the work on the farm. I’m usually the one lugging around 50# feed bags and 5 gallon buckets of water, but now it was all on her shoulders. Fortunately, Shannon is strong and determined and is fully invested in the farm. If she had not been on board for all of the farm enterprises I’ve been setting up, it could have been a real strain for her to have to take on chores that she didn’t want in the first place. Our set up right now is pretty simple, but this made me think about how we need to plan everything on our farm in the future. I started wondering in hypotheticals about what would have happened if this had occurred at a time we needed to load pigs to haul to the processor or some similar physical activity. We need to start looking at systems and making sure that they can be physically handled by other people and that they can be easily explained to another person if we are both unable to do the chores, even for a short period of time.  We also need to make sure that we are both aware of every aspect of the farm. As the initiator in most enterprises on this farm, I know what is happening, who gets what feed, when things need planted, etc., but Shannon has no way of knowing any of these things if I don’t tell her or if it’s not on a calendar. I think this is an important area that a lot of young, able-bodied people don’t really consider when they’re setting up their farm enterprises. Do you really want to lug buckets of water when you can have buried irrigation? Is there an easier way to haul feed? Do you want to have to move portable electric fencing frequently when you could have permanent exterior fences with easier to manage interior fencing? Sure, a lot of these more convenient options are significantly more expensive up front than their cheaper counterparts, but when you factor in your time and energy savings, it won’t take long for them to pay for themselves. Something that doesn’t require a great deal of capital is just simple job aids. Going forward, I think it would be wise for us to create job aids that detail the steps of everything that needs to be done on the farm. They need to be clear, concise, and set up so that a novice could look at it and understand how to do the task. An added benefit would be that if we ever have anybody come work on the farm we can make sure that all tasks are being done the same way every time to eliminate potentially negative variability.

FarmHer Shannon
Thankfully, we are a team!

We all get sick occasionally. No matter how much kombucha and kefir we drink or how many fruits and veggies we consume, we cannot eliminate illness from our lives. Sometimes we have to just work through the suffering, but that’s not always an option. It’s important to take steps to ensure that things will continue to run smoothly even if you aren’t. On the plus side, you’ll also have systems in place if you ever want to take a vacation (whatever that is!). If you don’t want to take the time to create systems, it would behoove you to not get bit by ticks.

NOTE:  Going forward, we are using a natural bug repellent (like Bug Soother – it smells amazing!) on our skin and a standard bug spray that contains DEET on Shannon & Aaron’s boots and clothes every time we head out to do chores.  Then, a full body tick check on everyone every night. It is also recommended to shower after spending time in tall grasses or wooded areas.  The Pyrenees pups are on a Bravecto and the house dogs are on Vectra.  We won’t be taking those tiny, little bugs so lightly anymore!

A Lighter yet delicious Banana Bread Recipe

I can’t stand letting bananas go to waste after their prime and here in our family, we LOVE us some banana bread.  It makes a great, quick breakfast for the boys on busy weekdays and Aaron loves to have a slice as dessert when it comes out of the oven.

I’ve mentioned this before, but we try to cut unnecessary cane sugar out of our diet whenever possible.  Someday I’ll go into that more, but for now, just trust us that once you become used to your baked goods being a little less sweet, you will NOT miss it.

One of the key ingredients here is of course the very, very almost black bananas (the darker the sweeter) but also, using farm fresh eggs really makes a difference as well!  I love replacing all or most of the cane sugar with local honey for the additional sweetness and I think you will too!

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Lighter Banana Bread Recipe

  • Servings: 12-14 (2 loaves)
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Ingredients

4 ripe bananas (I mean really ripe)

3 1/2 cups of flour

2 tsp baking soda

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp salt

1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons of buttermilk

2 tsp vanilla

5 farm fresh chicken eggs

3/4 cup of honey

1/2 cup canola oil

1/2 cup of melted coconut oil

Optional:  Powdered sugar or chocolate chips.

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350.  Grease two bread loaf pans.

In a large bowl, combine all of your dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, cinnamon, salt) and set aside.

Next, in your mixer if you have one, you’ll mash your bananas until blended.  Start your mixer and begin adding ingredients one by one – buttermilk, vanilla, eggs individually, honey, canola oil, and coconut oil.

Once blended nicely, slowly add your mixed dry ingredients you’ve already prepared.  Once well incorporated, you’ll pour into your greased loaf pans.

For a slightly sweeter loaf, sprinkle with chocolate chips OR powdered sugar.

Bake covered for 30 minutes.  Remove foil and bake 40 more until toothpick test comes out clean.

Cool on a cooling rack.  Serve with a little butter and a drizzle of honey for a richer treat!

 

 

Our Cornish Cross Results

As we’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, this year is the first time we’ve decided to trial Cornish Cross chickens to see how they perform as prospective meat birds on our farm. Well, we just got our inaugural batch back from the processor last week, and more importantly, ate one Monday night. Spoiler alert: the results were staggering all around.

Heritage vs Cornish Cross
Left: Heritage breed Rooster at 16+ weeks. Right: Cornish Cross at 8 weeks.

In the past we’ve culled whatever roosters we weren’t keeping for our laying flock and used those for our family chicken meat. We have processed those anywhere from 16-22 weeks of age and typically got an average size somewhere around 3.5 pounds. The last heritage chicken we have in our freezer currently weighs in at a whopping 3.84 pounds, which is actually a really nice eating size. As you can see from the photo, the carcass difference between the heritage chicken and the Cornish Cross is pretty mind-blowing. I remember the first time I picked up a batch of heritage birds from the processor; I couldn’t believe how scrawny they looked compared to what I was used to seeing at the grocery store. The last couple of years we have only eaten heritage birds and I’ve become quite accustom to the size of the birds. They’ve become my new normal.

Well, my mind was blown again with this pick-up from the processor. When they brought out the tubs filled with our chickens I could not believe the size of the birds I was seeing. It’s been several years since we’ve bought chicken from the store and I was no longer used to handling or seeing chickens of that size. Not only were they bigger than our heritage birds (at only 8 weeks of age), they were monsters! Now, perhaps I didn’t do my research well enough when I ordered our particular strain of Cornish Cross as it was billed as a “Jumbo Cornish Cross”. I’m guessing this strain was meant to grow out even faster than typical Cornish Cross, hence the “jumbo”, but I had assigned a traditional pastured poultry model of 8 weeks with 12 hours on and 12 hours off feeding regiment. In hindsight, these birds probably could have been processed at 6 weeks and still have produced an ideal 4-4.5 pounds carcass size. So, just how big were these birds? Here are the individual weights of each of the 19 chickens (and our 4 Muscovy drakes)

Cornish Cross Chickens (at 8 weeks)

4.84#

4.90#

4.96#

4.98#

5.08#

5.16#

5.22#

5.28#

5.32#

5.42#

5.42#

5.50#

5.78#

6.00#

6.08#

6.22#

6.24#

6.58#

7.26#

Total Weight: 106.24#

Average Weight: 5.59#

 

Muscovy Drakes (at 10 months)

6.10#

6.18#

6.22#

6.60#

Frozen chicken195-min
Left: Heritage Breed Rooster at 16+ weeks.  Middle: Cornish Cross Chicken at 8 weeks.  Right: Muscovy Duck at 10 months.

Pretty incredible numbers! I was expecting chickens in the 4-4.5# range…missed it by THAT much! I’m really glad we decided to do a trial run instead of jumping in and pre-selling a bunch of whole birds at an assumed 4# weight. I can’t imagine giving customers this size of bird. I don’t think many people would be too keen on forking over an extra $5 per bird based on these sizes. Luckily, these birds were always destined for our freezer, so it’s just bonus meat for our family. What this tells us now, though, is that we either need to find another strain that will grow a little slower so we hit our desired carcass size, or we continue using this strain and just cut down our time-to-process. The idea of being able to cut possibly two weeks of labor out of the equation is certainly appealing, but we may just do a couple more trials with more of this strain and some other strains to see if we can find the sweet spot for us.

Our Muscovy drakes went along for the ride to the processor because they were the brothers of our Muscovy ducks and Muscovies apparently don’t line breed very well. They were also really terrible to the chickens, so they had to go. We’ve been told that if you cook them properly you could mistake them for steak. This batch of fellas was around 10 months old, so we’re not sure how they’re going to cook up, but we’re looking forward to trying them. If they do in fact taste like steak, we will be ramping up our Muscovy “herd” until we can get real cattle.

Muscovie
One of our Muscovy Ducks for those of you who have never seen one!

With Shannon’s sister in town from San Francisco, we decided there couldn’t be a better time to cook up our very first homegrown Cornish Cross. Years ago we found a Rachel Ray recipe for a roasted chicken with spring veggies and we’ve made it roughly a bajillion times since. Basically you just fire the oven up to 500 degrees, coat the chicken in olive oil, put it on a baking sheet, sprinkle it with salt, and squeeze half a lemon over it. Cook it for 15 minutes or so and then add some quartered radishes, small potatoes, carrots, and green onions and cook it for 20 more minutes or until the veggies are tender and the chicken is cooked to the appropriate internal temperature. Since our bird was about 1.5# bigger than the one called for in the recipe, we decided to trust our oven’s probe and roasting setting to make sure we got the chicken cooked appropriately. We guessed on when to add the veggies based on the temp of the chicken and fortunately it all came out great. I should mention that the radishes came from the boys’ gardens and the chives came from our front landscaping bed (we like to grow food interplanted in our landscaping). If you don’t think you like radishes, give them a try roasted, it’s a game-changer. It really mellows out the spiciness and gives it a terrific flavor. The chicken had loads of tender, juicy meat and fed 5 of us with enough leftover to make chicken enchiladas the next night. After eating heritage chicken for so long, it was surprising to see how much white meat and breast meat comes off these birds. Even the leg meat is much lighter than the heritage leg meat. While we’re fans of dark meat, it is nice to have a less toothy texture and a more forgiving array of cooking methods to work with. I’m really looking forward to parsing up one of these birds and grilling it with some bbq sauce and maybe smoking a whole bird.

Roasted chicken196-min
So delicious and healthy!  Also… the LEMON is key.

Overall we couldn’t be happier with the meat these chickens provided us. It certainly seems like this will be our go-to meat variety on our farm, although we will always have some extra rooster culls to fill any desire we have for heritage meat. We will keep you posted on future trial results and hopefully we’ll have some meat for sale later this Summer or next Spring. We also have a couple broody hens on clutches of eggs, so we’ll let you know if anything exciting comes of that!

Planting the Garden

Our poor garden has been put on the backburner this spring as we’ve tackled other projects, dealt with crummy weather, and juggled trying to work full-time jobs while raising two kids. We developed a pretty good garden plan over the winter and started hundreds of transplants in Shannon’s art studio-turned nursery, but we’re a little off the pace we had hoped to keep in the garden. This past weekend was the first time we were able to get any of our transplants in the ground. By “we” I mean Shannon and the boys (when they weren’t busy climbing in the cedar trees on the edge of the woods). While my parents and I started construction of a 16’ x 20’ shed up by the house, Shannon tackled the garden. I had tilled up a smaller patch than we usually plant a couple weeks ago when the weather cooperated, so she was pretty much ready to go. Unfortunately for Shannon, we are working with some heavy clay soil that sometimes seems like concrete when you try to plant in it. She spent two backbreaking days planting things out and watering them in by hand.

For this year’s garden we decided to work with the typical 30” wide beds that a lot of market gardeners use to get us familiar with that set up. Shannon ran string to mark out her beds and then planted hundreds of tomatoes, peppers, okra, pac choi, eggplant, and flowers. We will go back in and set up a trellis system for the tomatoes, but we didn’t have time this weekend as we had to cut our work short on Sunday to take our Cornish Cross chickens and Muscovy drakes to the processor. Typically we would have our entire garden planted by mid to late April, but this year has been challenging and it feels like we just don’t have enough time to get everything done we need to do. We’re hoping to get the rest of the direct-seeded crops in the ground this week so we can get something checked off the to-do list.

IMG_5016-min

As I mentioned, our garden soil is pretty rough. We are working a plot of ground that was in a conventional rotation of corn and soybeans for years and then lay fallow after we purchased the ground. Unfortunately there’s a pretty good hard pan and quite a weed seed bank accumulated in the soil. We’re hoping to till up somewhere in the neighborhood of ¼ – ½ an acre this year and seed it with a cover crop to add some nitrogen, send some roots down into the compacted soil, and add some organic matter back into the soil once the cover crop is killed off. We have also been talking about having a local nursery haul in loads of compost and topsoil to accelerate the soil amending. Through a combination of bringing in soil, cover cropping, and then turning more toward a no-till strategy once we establish beds, we’re hoping we can change the composition of our soil to make it more desirable for market gardening. Once the beds are established we will likely utilize broadforks, tarps, and tools like the tilther and flame weeders that won’t damage the soil structure the way tilling does. But, for now, tilling is helping us get started.

This year is serving as a trial run for our farm. We just had our first batch of Cornish Cross processed (so expect a blog about that next week!) and we are due to get turkeys sometime in the next week or two. Once the shed build is finished we are going to turn our attention to fencing one of our pastures so we can bring sheep into the fold. After we are comfortable with the sheep, we plan to bring hogs onto the farm to run through our woodlot, but we’ll need fencing for that, too. These are all things that are new to us on some level. And although we’ve had gardens in the past, we’ve never had to really focus on the planning and succession planting that goes into market gardening. Unfortunately, we’re already falling down a bit on this. We have no season extension infrastructure and really hard soil to plant in. We’re realizing that this is going to require quite a bit more time, labor, and money to get the garden where we want it to be. It’s kind of a catch-22 because we’re fortunate in that we both have jobs to help support the farm and to allow us to not have to rely on farming as our income, but it also means we can’t spend the time we really need to be spending on the farm to get it up to speed quickly. Some people are able to devote all of their time to their farms at start-up and become fully operational in year one. We are clearly on a slower track than that. We are trying to build the farm without taking on debt and by adding ventures at a pace that allows us to be comfortable with each venture before adding another. Some days (ok, most days) I wish I could wave a magic wand and have a fully fenced property and a greenhouse/nursery/wash and pack station, but I think if we build slowly and methodically we will be able to understand our workflows and ultimately set everything up better than how I envision it without having ever worked all aspects of the farm.

So, what are the next steps for the garden? Well, we need to get stuff like squash, beans, corn, and melons in the ground first. The next big thing we need to do is set up some irrigation on a timer so that we don’t have to be out there dragging around hoses every day and spending time we don’t have watering the garden. We also will be putting down straw mulch around most of the plants to act as a weed suppressant and to have another material to incorporate back into the soil as we work to improve it. It’s hard to imagine that we’ll ever get to the garden I have imagined in my head, but I know that with enough time and organic matter, we’ll be able to achieve it. I may have to come back and read that last sentence next time one of our kids falls down in the garden and gets road rash from dried out clay soil. I’m sure we’ll have some struggles with weeds, pests, and diseases this year, but hopefully we will still have a bountiful harvest. In the future we will profile some of the varieties we chose to grow this year and let you know what we think of them.