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.

Playful puppies
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.

Pups in June237

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!

IMG_3500

 

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.

Kid-Friendly Raised Garden Beds

As we begin to figure out what direction we want our farm to take, we’ve tried to set everything up to include our two little boys. The original intent of this endeavor was for our family to eat really great, clean food. People have become so disconnected from their food that we felt it was important to not only educate, but include our children in the process of our food production. While our boys aren’t old enough yet to have daily chores they are accountable for, they often help out in whatever ways they can. Children have this wonderful sense of self and purpose when they carry out meaningful work and it is our hope that as our boys see us striving for our goals, they too will develop a work ethic that can drive them toward their passions as they develop.

Ansel's Garden
Ansel watering his own raised garden bed.

We are not super parents with perfect kids, but we try really hard to nourish our boys’ minds and provide opportunities for them to take responsibility in meaningful chores around the farm. We do not expect a 4 and 6 year old to pull themselves out of bed at 6 in the morning for chores, but we encourage them to contribute when we are tackling tasks. It may be as simple as lifting them up to gather eggs from the nest box, filling a dog food bowl, scattering some compost, or cutting some asparagus. The important thing is that they’re included. We’ve found that if our kids help out in the garden, they’re more likely to eat the things we harvest. If you are a parent, you know that any advantage you can find at dinnertime is invaluable! So, this year, we decided to give each of our boys a raised bed garden of their own. With some guidance, we sat down with a seed catalog and a list of seed we already had and planned out a 16 square foot garden for each of them. We provided the boys with the basic list of what would go in their garden since planning something like that would likely be too difficult for them, but with an established list of what would go where, we allowed them to select a few varieties of crop. At first we thought we might just plan the gardens and make them identical to make it “fair”, but after some thought we decided that it would be best to let each kid make their own selections. Obviously we had to limit the options since we were working in a confined space and within a specific climate, but it was important for us to allow some choice and ownership in the matter.

When all was said and done, the boys excitedly selected some cherry tomato varieties and some cute little lettuce heads. Our oldest son wanted to plant a small eggplant variety, so we acquiesced even though he’s never even had eggplant. To get the garden going this spring we loaded it with radishes, lettuce, kale, carrots, peas, and onions, but we will be replacing some of those blocks with their longer-term selections once those crops reach maturity (namely radishes and lettuce). The boys have helped water the transplants and have begun to water the outside beds now that they have some vegetables growing. We water the gardens every day, but they often ask if they can go water their gardens. You can see their enjoyment and pride as they shower their crops with water. The important thing for us is not that the gardens are solely maintained by them, but that they are there for the boys to have a place to experience ownership and responsibility. We are not going to let the gardens die if the boys forget to water them because they are not old enough for that kind of responsibility. We want to foster a love for these types of tasks and not make them seem like a dreadful farm chore. So many people our age that grew up on farms were forced to labor on their family farms with little return for their efforts and grew to resent farming. Our goal is not to sugarcoat what it means to produce our own food, but we want the experience to be full of positive lessons with some type of reward. Right now, the reward is pride and yummy food, but we hope that as the boys age they will see the community value in what we’re doing. Most of this is a little mature for 4 and 6 year-olds, but we hope that guiding eating habits and work habits now will benefit their success (whatever that means to them) as they mature. In the mean time, we can’t wait to roast a Cornish cross chicken with some of the boys’ radishes later this spring!

Kid's Raised Garden sketch

Our Newest $300 Chicken Coop

It finally feels like we’re turning the corner into Spring! Now that the weather is nice, everything seems to be moving at the speed of light. We have so many tasks on our farm to-do list that it doesn’t feel like we’re ever going to get them all done. Lately we’ve had to just focus on the things that have to get done now and save the other tasks for another day. This past week, our highest priority has been getting the 75ish chicks out of our garage and into their new coop. Slight problem though…there was no new coop and we were at capacity in two of our other coops, one coop has been converted to the dog quarters, and the other coop is still in a state of disrepair after the stray dogs destroyed it. So, as we tend to do here, we improvised a solution at the last minute and cobbled together a temporary-permanent coop.

As time was getting closer to move the chicks from the brooder, it became clear that we weren’t going to get a useable running gear or hay wagon at a reasonable price for our intended use of creating an egg mobile, so we had to scrap that idea and come up with a new plan on the fly. We knew we needed a pretty sizeable coop, but we didn’t want to spend a lot of money on it since we have a lot of other infrastructure costs coming up on the farm. After contemplating several options for framing and roofing, we decided that the most cost-effective solution would be to just stand some pallets on edge and screw them together to form walls and then bend some 16’ cattle panels over the top of them to create an arch that could then have a heavy duty carport-style tarp attached to them. That was the basic plan, and if I’m being honest, most of my plans include about that little detail in them when I start. With no further ciphering, Shannon and I hauled a bunch of pallets from our never-ended pallet pile over to the pasture and started setting them up and screwing them together. We ended up making the structure about 20’ long by about 10’ wide, leaving a 2’ gap in the middle of each end to accommodate a door. After getting the walls set up we needed to figure out how to attach the cattle panels. In the past I’ve just used fencing staples for this, but that didn’t seem adequate for the magnitude of this structure. What we ended up doing was screwing 2x4s to the outside of the walls about 2’ off the ground and running the length of the coop and extended past the end about 2’ to create an overhang on each end. To those 2x4s we screwed 2x6s, lining up the bottoms of each board to create a pocket on top of the 2×4 that we could slide the cattle panels into. After we bent the panels into the slots we just ran some screws through the boards to hold the panels in place. We lined the outside of the walls with old steel roofing under the 2x4s to make the lower half of the coop predator proof (although it’s inside electric fencing and next to the puppies, so we’re hoping predation will not be a major issue).

Overhead view of Coop Plan
You can see the overall design of how the coop was built. The walls are made of pallets, the roof is cattle panels and a tarp, the sides are framed with siding – window and door on opposite sides.

After we got the panels attached to the walls it was time to start doing a little framing on the ends so we could attach some siding. We were supposed to be starting the build of our detached garage, so my dad came out to help get that going. Unfortunately, I had to let him know that I needed to work on the coop instead. Well, as my dad always does, he jumped right in and started suggesting major improvements to make whatever I’m working on better. My dad is just about the handiest person you could ever meet, but he’s also a bit of a perfectionist. I’m not either of those things, so I can’t imagine how much it pains him to see the messes I start out here. Alas, he enthusiastically started helping me and we were able to get the end walls framed and sided, made a door, attached the tarp roof and put a window replete with shutters on the end wall opposite the door, in 2 short days. Every time I would remind dad that this was just a temporary coop, he reminded me that temporary often turns into permanent. And he’s right. I imagine we will be using this coop until the pallets rot from the ground up.

We have an old set of cabinets from my grandpa’s workshop that we are going to convert to nest boxes and hang in the coop and we also will be adding a multi-tiered roost bar situation ASAP. We plan on keeping the chicks inside this coop for a few weeks until they’re big enough to not be able to just slip right through the electric poultry netting. Between now and then, I should probably also make a pop-door in the end of the coop, so the chickens have a small door to access the pasture while not allowing the pups to go inside the coop to forage on chicken feed and poop. Once the chicks are big enough, we will be letting them range in the pasture with some electric net fencing between them and the puppies. Hopefully the puppies’ presence will deter hawks and the proximity will allow the puppies and chickens to get used to being around each other. Once we can trust the puppies with the chickens, we will remove the electric fence barrier and allow the chickens to have free range of roughly 4 acres of pasture with the dogs present as their (hopefully) fierce protectors.

With the coop finished enough, we gathered up some old Rubbermaid containers we’ve used to haul roosters to the processor and set to work emptying our garage brooder of somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 chicks. Ansel and Arlo helped us release the chicks in the new coop and made sure they became acquainted with their new feeder and waterer, which by the way, are awesome. Our new feeder holds an entire 50# bag of feed and the new waterer holds like 8 or 10 gallons of water. We got both of them from Premier One Supplies and so far couldn’t be happier. On a side note, our surveyors are supposed to finally be out today so we can start putting up permanent fencing for the dogs, chickens, and future sheep and pigs. Sometimes it feels like we’re going 90 mph and not getting anywhere, but it’s nice to be able to check an important project off the to-do list, even if 3 more projects take its place. It’s also nice to have a garage that doesn’t smell like chickens.

April Farm Update

Well, here in Kansas it seems we have set off some sort of eternal winter. We have had snow (albeit not much) the last three weekends….of April! Nonetheless, we have been moving forward with our plans here on the farm, even if Spring refuses to come with us. Given the weather, it’s been a slow start to Spring, but we’ve still been chipping away where we can. Here’s a rundown of what’s been happening on the farm:

Chickens – As we mentioned last week, our Cornish Cross meat birds are out on pasture. It’s a small batch, so we are just using the A-frame chicken tractor we have. The last couple of days have been a bit challenging since our lows at night have dipped into the 20’s. Since this is our first run of pastured Cornish X we were a bit concerned that they would be able to handle the cold temperatures at less than 5 weeks old. The chicken tractor is protected on the sides, but is only covered by metal hardware cloth on the ends, leaving the chickens exposed to the cold and the blustery winds. While this works great to get a breeze through the coop in the summer, we worried that if we didn’t do something to protect the birds, we would wake up to a pile of frozen chickens in the morning. Well, after some talking and rummaging through the garage, we decided we could fold some old moving blankets in a triangle and fasten them to the ends of the coop with some screws screwed through some big metal washers to keep the blankets from stressing too much and tearing in the wind. We made sure the birds had sufficient water and feed and went to work covering the ends. The following morning I had to go out with my driver and unscrew the blanket from one end to access the door and make sure the chickens survived the night. I was pleased to hear their peeps before I even got to the coop. Success. There was still snow on the pasture, so I didn’t pull the coop forward to new grass like I normally do in the morning because I didn’t want them to be walking around in cold snow. Luckily we have such a small batch of chickens (19) in the coop that they had plenty of forage left to get them through one more day in that spot. After filling up the feed and topping of their water, I battened down the hatches to get them through one more day of unseasonably cold weather. These guys and gals have a date with the processor on May 7th, so we’ll give you an update on how well they finish out at that point.

Speaking of inventorying the garage, at last count we still had something like 76 chickens in our garage brooder. We had to move the two Polish Crested chicks into the side the Cornish vacated because the other chicks were pecking the feathers out of their little “hats”. It’s starting to get a little crowded in there, but hopefully we can get them out to their new coop by the weekend. We’re guessing we’ll have around 50 new layers out of this batch and we may keep another rooster or two, but the remaining 25ish roos will be processed around 16 weeks of age and then we can show you the difference between a heritage chicken and Cornish X after processing.

Did someone say “new coop”? That’s right, we’ve started construction on yet another coop. We’ve gone back and forth on coop design and ultimately just had to start building something since we need to move the chicks out of the garage pretty soon. I’ve been searching for a reasonably priced hay wagon or old running gear to build a mobile coop that we can move around following our future flock of sheep, but nothing has turned out locally yet. So, we decided to build a stationary coop next to the dog quarters. Since we ultimately would like to build a small-scale “eggmobile” we didn’t want to put too much time or money in this structure. After another farm inventory we decided that we would build walls out of pallets and arch cattle panels across them and cover the whole thing with a sturdy white tarp. After we set up the pallet walls, we fastened leftover roofing tin to the lower 3ish feet of the pallets to provide a bit of protection at ground level. Then we ran a 2×4 along the top of the roofing and attached a 2×6 to the 2×4 so that their bottom sides were even with each other and a pocket was created on top of the 2×4 that we could use to brace the cattle panel arch on each side. After the panels were up we secured them all together using heavy wire leftover from a chainlink fence project. Now we just need to build a man-door on one side and a pop-door and window on the other side. We bought some siding to put up on the ends so that it will look nice and be pretty predator proof, assuming they get past the electric fence and our vicious guard dogs. We will put together a little post on the coop so you can see how it all came together when we finish it.

New COOP
A low budget chicken coop in the making – made from pallets and cattle panels and a tarp will go over the top and the sides to have a door and window.

Dogs – The Great Pyrenees pups just turned 5 months old! The stand as tall as our other 90 & 100 pound dogs already and seem to have little interest in harassing the chickens. We still keep them separated from the chickens and work with them in the chicken area, but we don’t quite trust them to be alone with them yet. The dogs have started showing natural signs of alertness and have been giving a few barks to interloping deer. Sure, we don’t really mind deer hanging around, but I suppose they do eat our fruit tree saplings and run through the garden, so bark away babies. I really can’t say enough good things about these dogs. They are wise and mature beyond their years…er, months. It really is hard to believe they are only 5 months old. They are so calm and so intelligent that we already can’t imagine the farm without them. Another success.

Sheep – Well, we still have none. The surveying company was supposed to be out last week to relocate our property lines and provide stakes through our pasture and our woods so we could put fencing in for sheep and pigs. They haven’t shown up yet. Hopefully they’ll come out this week and we can get started working on fence. Well, after we finish the coop and the much-needed detached garage we’re adding to alleviate the strain our house’s garage is currently feeling!

Turkeys – They’re supposed to be coming in the middle of May. I really hope they do because we turned down a trip to Mexico to be here for them! We placed our order for custom-milled turkey starter with the mill we just started using for our poultry feed and now we just wait.

Garden – The weather has really thrown a wrench in our garden this year. I wasn’t able to get the garden tilled before a rain a while back and the weather hasn’t been cooperating much as of late. We have a lot of stuff started in our nursery, but we’re definitely behind. In the future, we hope to do some tarping and stale seed bedding to minimize the impact of weather on our Spring bed prep, but for now we’re working with what we’ve got. Since this is still a trial phase for scaling up the garden a bit, we aren’t too concerned with being behind, but we can’t wait to get things moving along. We did notice some of our asparagus popping through the ground the other day, so we’ve got that going for us. One thing we really need to get a plan together for is irrigation in the garden. With everything we’ve got going on, hand watering just isn’t a feasible option. We’ve probably just run a splitter off our frost-free hydrant across the driveway from the garden and put some overhead sprinklers on an automatic timer. I can almost taste the first sun-ripened tomato already.

Well, as you can see, we’ve been pretty busy around here and things are about to charge full speed ahead once we get some consistently warm and sunny days! I hope our Spring is as long as our Winter.