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.

Raising Cornish Cross Chickens

There are a lot of contentious issues in the food/agriculture world: GMO vs. Non-GMO, Organic vs. Conventional, Grass-fed/finished vs. Grain Finished, and on and on and on. Perhaps the most misunderstood of these issues, however, is the Cornish Cross chicken. If you’ve ever watched any food or agricultural documentary or read any books on the subject, you have most certainly seen a Cornish Cross meat chicken. Many documentaries and bloggers in the sustainable food movement paint a pretty nasty picture of these so-called “Frankenchickens”. You’ll hear that they’re genetically modified or that they are pumped full of growth hormones and antibiotics and they aren’t a good, natural meat source for chicken. A lot of people see these poor birds crammed into factory confinement and assume that that bird is bad and anybody raising the bird is bad. And unfortunately we live in a world with quick access to all kinds of misinformation that can cause us to make rash judgments without drilling any deeper than surface-level. I’m not going to try to convince you that the Cornish Cross is the best meat chicken, but I’d like to provide you with a little bit of information about them and talk a little bit about why we are trialing them on our farm.

Cornish Cross chickens are not genetically modified, laboratory-created birds. There are multiple strains of Cornish Cross chicken from various hatcheries, but they are all the result of rigorous cross-breeding to create a desired set of genetics that produces a fast-growing, double-breasted chicken. My understanding is that these birds are simply an F2 hybrid. I’m sure you all feverishly study Mendel’s peas and play with Punnett squares in your free time, but if not, I’ll try to give the simplest explanation I can of how the F2 hybrid comes about. If you take two different breeds of purebred chicken and mate them together, the resultant offspring is an F1 hybrid. Now, if you take an F1 hybrid and cross it with a different F1 hybrid, you will end up with an F2 hybrid offspring. Now, geneticists have been working to perfect their strains of chickens for a long time, so let’s not pretend it’s that simple, but for our purposes it should do. So, as you can see, the only genetic modification comes in the form of cross-breeding.

I’ve seen people comment online that Cornish Cross chickens are injected with growth hormones. I guess here we just have to trust that the USDA is doing its job because the use of growth hormones in the poultry industry is illegal and has been for decades. Now, the use of prophylactic antibiotic use in commercially raised chickens (and other livestock) is an issue. If you have seen a commercial chicken house, it’s easy to see why they would need to employ antibiotics to keep the chickens alive for the 5 weeks or so it takes them to get a chicken to market weight. Disclaimer: I’m not fully against antibiotic use; if an animal becomes sick and needs treatment, it has a place. I do not agree with prophylactic antibiotic use because it stems from issues that could be remedied with better management practices. I personally use antibiotics when I have bacterial infections that warrant antibiotics as appropriate treatment. There are a lot of complexities in this issue, but simply put, I think there are appropriate uses for antibiotics in agriculture. Unfortunately, I think there has been a lot of misuse that has led to a lot of problems and has allowed farmers to prop up their animals instead of really creating an environment for them to thrive. Sorry for the tangent. We have never needed to use antibiotics and probably won’t need them in our poultry operation, so perhaps this is a moot point. There is a laundry list of other issues with commercial poultry production, but in my opinion, the bird of choice is not one.

Okay, let’s cover some of the reasons that we think the Cornish Cross is going to be a good fit for our farm. When we first started raising chickens I was 100% against using Cornish Cross birds for meat and didn’t even really want hybrid egg-laying strains. I wanted heritage breed dual-purpose chickens in the pasture and heirloom vegetables in the garden. I still like the heritage breed chickens and we still use them (along with crossbred mutts from our heritage birds) in our laying flock and will continue to do so into the future. They don’t perform as well as production hybrid layers, but they have a much meatier carcass and tend to produce eggs over a longer span. Essentially we won’t have to turn over our laying flock as frequently and when we do we will have bigger stew hens that will make out-of-this-world stock and meat for soups and pot pies and such. Since the first batch of chickens we started we have culled most of the roosters for our freezer. We have found that our heritage birds reach a processed weight of 3-4 pounds by about 16 weeks of age. We will be sending our Cornish Cross birds to the processor on May 7th and hope to have birds averaging in the 4-4.5 pound range at 8 weeks of age. There is not another chicken that can convert feed as efficiently as that. So, being able to cut our labor time in half to get marketable birds was a big influencer.

Speaking of being marketable, that perhaps should be viewed as the key to all of this. I came into chicken production with personal ideals that said we should only be raising heritage breed chickens. Well, ideals are great in theory, but we also have to live in the real world. I had never even eaten a heritage chicken before we started raising them and while it’s true, they have a richer flavor because they age longer, I actually prefer the meat of pasture-raised Cornish Cross. The heritage birds have a toothier meat that has a lot more dark meat and a very small razor breast. We’ll show you a picture of the difference between a Cornish and heritage bird when we get ours back from the processor. The Cornish on the other hand has a very large, double-breast with lighter meat and a softer texture. Now, confinement chicken tends to be overly soft and not very flavorful, but pastured birds are able to add some texture and flavor since they grow out a bit longer than commercial birds. The difference in the two may not be as significant as the difference between commercial pork and pastured or forest-raised pork, but it’s noticeable nonetheless. All that is to say that even though I didn’t want to raise a bird that I could not breed on my own farm (for sustainability purposes), I had to admit to myself that I prefer the meat of the Cornish Cross and it’s going to have a familiarity for customers. People already don’t place a premium on chicken compared to other meats, so it’s just not reasonable to expect that we could find a market for a product that would have to be at a higher price point (higher chick cost, processing cost, feed cost, and labor cost) and not really have the taste and texture people associate with chicken in modern days. At the end of the day, it really doesn’t do us any good to raise idealistic food that consumers won’t or can’t buy. Pastured poultry is already at a price premium over factory-raised chicken and ours will likely be even a little more expensive than others in our area just because we are using organic feed instead of just non-gmo feed like most pastured poultry producers use. Again, our ideals and values come into play with our feed choice. We realize the cost of organic feed over conventional and non-gmo feed is significant, but we also think that it’s worthwhile. We think there is a market for organic-fed, pastured poultry, but if the market won’t bear it, we will have to reconsider our feed choice.

Beyond the market for pastured chicken, we had to consider the labor required for raising the chickens. If you are familiar with typical pastured-poultry set ups, you’ll know that they usually consist of moveable coops called “chicken tractors”. These “tractors” are bottomless coops that get moved forward to new pasture every day to allow the chickens to be protected from predators while still allowing them to forage on grass, clover, bugs, mice, snakes, and anything else that ends up in front of the chickens on a given day. Our birds will spend about 5 weeks out on pasture after a 3 week brooder stay, so that means that we will have to move their tractors every day for 35 days straight (for one batch). It may not seem like a big deal, but that also means hauling water and feed farther down the field every day and the tractors are just heavy anyway. If we wanted to raise heritage birds the same way we would have to do this daily move for about 12 weeks. That’s a significant increase in labor. Some of you may be wondering why we don’t consider one of the other hybrid meat chickens that grows a little slower than a Cornish, but faster than a heritage bird, like a Red Ranger or something similar. I personally don’t really see the value in those birds for our purposes. They’re still a hybrid designed for pretty rapid growth. The carcasses don’t get as big nor do they look like a typical carcass that consumers are used to dealing with. Maybe someday we will try them, but I don’t see enough benefits from them to make me want to pursue them at this point. The added labor, additional processing fee, longer time on farm, and the fact that I still can’t breed them on-farm really is a non-starter in even considering them for our farming context. As we plan for future expansion of our pastured poultry operation we really have to try to figure out efficiencies and if we can condense our labor time significantly just by choosing the appropriate chicken breed it will allow us to focus that time we don’t have to spend dealing with chickens on other aspects of the farm.

Another attractive reason for using Cornish Cross birds is that the initial cost of the chicks and the processing fees at our processor are less. If we were to use another chicken in our program, we would either have to eat roughly $2 per bird in lost revenue or raise the price of what would already be a higher priced bird (due to additional labor cost) to cover the additional cost. If we had no intention of selling chicken, this conversation would likely be different, but we have to take these things into consideration as we try to make a sustainable business out of the farm. You can’t have sustainable farms if the farms can’t sustain themselves.

While we would love to be able to hatch and raise meat birds on our farm at a scale that would be economically viable, we don’t see a market that would support it at this point. It has taken me several years to get to the point that I’m actually willing to try Cornish Cross birds for our meat production, but I can honestly say that I’m really excited with the results we’re seeing in the brooder phase of production. If we can successfully get this first batch to the processor I think we are going to have the best chicken available in our area given the environment and quality feed we are providing for them. If you’ve never had pastured poultry, I would urge you to find a farmer in your area that is doing it and see the difference for yourself. Most pastured poultry producers are using Cornish Cross birds, so you will be able to see and taste how something as simple as animal treatment and management practices can create a vastly superior product. As a bonus you will also be directly benefitting your local economy and not buying a product rooted in the corporate exploitation currently bolstering the factory poultry industry.

 

Cornish Cross Broiler Chickens in Chicken Tractor
Young Cornish Cross Chickens in the chicken tractor that is moved to new pasture grass daily.

Shannon’s Burger Recipe

Can you believe I used to hate hamburgers? Everyone thought I was crazy (probably not just for that) and called me un-American. So, sometime before I was 30 I finally gave them a try at a fancy hamburger restaurant in Las Vegas of all places. Turns out, I never had a good hamburger – with all the fixings and meat with actual flavor. It turns out, hamburgers are delicious!

I don’t know how it started. Aaron does all of the cooking (and usually I do the baking) but somehow I got put on hamburger duty. I played around a few times with different ingredients and came up with a pretty tasty burger!

hamburger plated519-min

The burgers are not a low-calorie food by any means so, if you are watching your figure you may want to use a different recipe. But, it makes up for it in flavor because… of course it does.

Its hard to decide what ingredient gets most of the credit. It could be the eggs in the burger itself. Or the freshness of the herbs or the sprinkle of cheese. Or maybe the stack of microgreens and slices of avocado you put on top. Maybe not just one thing deserves the award. You try it and let us know if you can decide!

Shannon's Delicious Burger Recipe

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

1 pound of hamburger (not too lean or it’ll dry out)

2 farm fresh egg yolks (you can use the whites too if you are willing to sprinkle a little flour in)

2 cloves of garlic – minced

1-2 tablespoons of finely chopped fresh herbs (I like to go heavy on the basil, then a little thyme, dill, sage and oregano)

1 tsp of soy sauce

1 tsp of Worcestershire sauce

A sprinkle of cheese (maybe a couple pinches of whatever you have handy!)

Kosher or sea salt and pepper to taste (I like to use a course salt)

A dash of Turmeric (this is a staple when I’m cooking!)

4-6 Cheese slices for cheeseburgers

1 onion (red or yellow are my favorites)

1 large tomato (ALWAYS best when in season!)

2 Avocados (because one is always bad, right?? And my kids will eat the rest if they are both in good shape)

Microgreens or lettuce of choice

Olive oil or butter for cooking indoors

4-6 Hamburger buns – I love using pretzel rolls!

Directions:

Mix the hamburger, eggs, herbs, soy and Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper, turmeric and sprinkle of cheese in a bowl, really well.  Using your hands, you can make 4-6 patties depending on how big you’d like the burger or how big the hamburger buns are. I think making them somewhat flat allows them to cook more evenly and oddly enough, keep them from drying out.  I like to place wax paper on a plate to place them on while I get the griddle warmed up.

The cold temperatures have been lingering on forever here in Kansas so, when I cook them, they are cooked indoors on the cooktop. (and well honestly, I’m not a griller. I know I should learn but it has always intimidated me!) I use a Le Creuset Griddle we have that I can sink up between two burners on our GE induction top, but you could also use a frying pan or if you are braver than me, go outside and use the grill!

On medium low heat, depending on my mood I’ll either add a splash of olive oil or a small bit of butter to cook the patties in.   It takes probably 5+- minutes or so each side but I often check to see how well they are browning fairly often.

While those are cooking, if I have onions handy, I’ll caramelize an onion to put on top. It adds that slight sweetness to the savory. Rinsing the microgreens (or lettuce), slicing the tomato and avocado can be finished during this time too.

Once you have flipped the burgers and they have cooked on the second side for a couple minutes, you’ll add your slice of cheese if you and your guests want cheeseburgers.   This way, the cheese gets nice and melty when placed on the bun. If you are grilling the burgers, place those buns on the grill for just a minute to slightly toast them!

We love putting mayonnaise (this Mayonnaise is amazing) and some stone ground mustard on our burgers and will get this out of the way before we load them up. Then top the burger with the tomato, avocado and carmelelized onions and voila! Serve with some oven baked fries or chips (if you are feeling lazy) and some fruit. YUM. Enjoy!

Shannon

P.S.  For those of you waiting for a more FARMY blog post, one is coming this week!

7 Essentials for Chick Starting (brooding)

We posted a blog post last week that details how we’ve managed our chick brooders in the past and what we’re doing this year, but we just wanted to give you a quick run-down of what we think are brooder essentials. These are all things that you need to have in place BEFORE you bring home any chicks.

1. Brooder – I mean, seriously, this is important. You’re going to need a draft-free space with some side-walls and possibly a top if you don’t have a dedicated building for brooding. We do our brooding in the garage, so we screw together some 2’ tall plywood walls set over a tarp and put some kind of mesh over the top. Shoot for ½ sq. ft. per bird to allow them plenty of space to grow. We use pine shaving flakes on the floor and freshen them as they are soiled.


2. Heat lamp(s) – Baby chicks need it warm. Pretty much everything you read will say that it should be 95 degree F for the first week in the brooder. We accomplish this by hanging a ” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>heat lamp or two (depending on how big the brooder is) off the wall of the brooder so that the bulb is about 18” from the floor. ” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>Red lights are supposed to minimize pecking and be less detrimental to their sleep cycle, so we use them, but we’ve never had a problem when we used clear bulbs in the past. We use the clamp that comes with the heat lamps, but also secure that to the wall with screws as a secondary safety. The last thing you want is your heat lamp to fall and set your house on fire. If the chicks are all piled up under the lamp and aren’t skittering about to get food and water, it’s likely not warm enough in your brooder. You can either lower your heat lamp or add another one to increase your heat. Some people put a thermometer at chick level to make sure the heat is correct, but we just observe the chicks and adjust accordingly. It’s a good idea to have your brooder set up and the heat lamp running the day before your chicks arrive to make sure it gets up to temperature and that your bulb is working. It’s also not a bad idea to have an extra bulb in case one burns out.
3. Feeder- We like to use cheap trough Feeders with a little spinner bar that keeps the chicks from standing in the feed. We have both plastic and metal versions and they both work fine. We’ve also used the little plastic Mason jar and those work fine, too, but don’t provide enough space for larger batches of birds. If you are just doing like 10 birds, they should suffice.
4. Waterer – We use plastic founts (waterer)that you just fill up with water and flip over after attaching the base. These allow water to drain down into the water pan as the birds drink it to keep a continuous supply of fresh water present in the brooder. We start with them directly on the pine shavings, but as the chicks grow we put them up on a wooden frame with some hardware cloth over it to keep chicks from kicking a bunch of pine shavings in the water. The ones we use for our bigger batches of chicks hold 5 quarts and we tend to add fresh water once or twice a day as needed. Again, the little screw on trays that attach to mason jars work really well for a small number of birds and they are certainly a much cheaper option. They aren’t as stable, so it’s a good idea to have them on a solid platform. You also will have to replenish the water more often on those, but that just means you’re forced to spend more time with baby chicks and that’s never a bad thing.

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5. Feed – Make sure you have the appropriate feed for whatever type of poultry you’re bringing home. We are currently brooding a batch of Cornish X meat birds and a batch of heritage pullets, so we had to make sure that we had appropriate feed for both, given the Cornish have a higher protein requirement. With chickens, it’s pretty easy to find feed at your local farm store, but if you’re doing turkeys or something else, make sure you have a feed source before you order those birds. We’ve been using feed from our local farm store, but we’re excitedly placing our first order of organic, custom-milled grain from a regional mill right here in Kansas this week! If you can find a local mill you will likely get a much higher quality and less processed feed product at a lower price point (depending on the feed).
6. Plastic lids/plates – We like to give the baby chicks a little bit of plain yogurt to help establish good gut health for them. We just spoon a pile of it onto an old cottage cheese or yogurt lid (or plate, or shallow bowl, or…you get the picture) and mix it together with some of their feed to encourage them to eat it. You can also give free choice grit on these, but we tend to just sprinkle some on to their feed trough when we think about it after they’re about 2 weeks of age.
7. Coop – As you know, we’ve broken this one before, but it’s a REALLY good idea to have your coop built before you bring your chicks home. Sure you’ll have several weeks to finish it while they’re in the brooder, but wouldn’t you rather not have the stress of getting it done in time? There are so many coop designs to choose from, but I would highly encourage you to go ahead and build it much bigger than you think you need. Chicken math is real.

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Well, there you have it. As you can see, you don’t need much to get started with chickens. If you keep them fed, watered, clean, warm, and dry, you should be set up for success with your new flock!

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Brooding Chicks

There’s not much cuter than a bunch of tiny, baby chicks skittering about, peeping in unison. There’s also not much that grows faster, poops more, or kicks up more dust. The first time we brooded baby chicks we had the perfect set up. We set up one of the cardboard rings that poultry suppliers sell as starter brooders and set it on top of a tarp covered with pine shavings. Inside that space we had two plastic trough feeders, a water fount, and a heat lamp suspended to a makeshift wooden structure. We secured the heat lamp with screws, zip-ties, and wire so that if one method failed, we still had two backups. We’re very careful people and did not want to risk burning our house down. Oh, didn’t I mention that we set this all up INSIDE our house? In fairness, we set it up in the concrete tornado room in our basement, so at least the mess was contained to an easily cleaned area. Well, the setup worked great for maybe two weeks. The 25 chicks had way more room than they could possibly need, but it was really a pain to work in. Any time we needed to handle a chick (which was often because, you know, they were our first baby chicks), or adjust the heat lamp, we would have to step into the brooder area full of little chick droppings. Not ideal. We also realized that it doesn’t take long for chicks to grow big enough to hop over an 18” tall cardboard wall. Huh. Luckily we kept the door closed to that room to keep our dogs out while we were gone, so we didn’t have chicks pooping all over our basement. To remedy that problem, we built some frames of chicken wire to put over the top. We suffered the occasional escapee, but it did the job for the most part. So now, along with entering the brooder to do work, we also had to maneuver these hastily thrown together chicken wire panels. Not great. The one nice thing about keeping the chicks inside was that it forced us to be diligent about freshening the pine shavings in the brooder, lest our house smell like a poorly managed barn. Oh, and it taught us that we would never brood poultry inside our house again. We kept the chicks in this set up until they were probably about 4 weeks old and then we moved them outside into the first chicken coop we ever built (you can read about that here). We had that coop parked in our driveway and ran an extension cord from our garage to the heat lamp as we weaned them off supplemental heat and prepared to move them to our pasture. Much better. Well, much better after we cleaned the copious amounts of dust off everything in our tornado room.

As with most parts of farming, there are several ways to brood chicks. Some better than others and most better than our first attempt. The last few times we’ve brooded chicks (and ducklings) we decided that the garage would be a better place. Other than the dust, it is far superior. For small batches we have a rubber trough from Tractor Supply that we have fitted with a hardware cloth-covered frame to eliminate escapees. The frame also has a post to attach the heat lamp, so it’s easy to just slide the frame over to access the feeder, waterer, and to replenish pine shavings. It’s really important to allow chicks access to food and fresh water at all times. It is also important to keep the litter fresh to limit risk of illness and ammonia buildup. This set up has worked pretty well for about a dozen birds, but is not a good solution for larger batches.

 

For our larger batches last year we laid down a tarp in the garage and then screwed together pallets to make a walled structure roughly 40” x 7’. Then we wrapped that in chicken wire to keep the chicks from slipping out through the pallet openings. This system worked pretty well, but it required us to leave one pallet loose on the end so we could swivel it open like a door. We attached hooks to it so that we could just hook it to an eyelet on the adjacent panels and unhook it when we opened it. While the height of the pallets were great for keeping the chicks from jumping out, it also kept us from being able to easily grab the waterers to refill or add feed to the feeders. When we were finished with this set up we were able to just take apart the pallets and drag the tarp full of shavings and manure over to our compost pile. Overall, not a bad design.

This year, we modified our set up once again. We still put a tarp down in the garage, but this time we needed shorter walls. After looking through our scrap wood we didn’t really have enough extra plywood to make a brooder the size we needed. Just as we were about to go buy some new plywood we remembered that we had an old ping pong table that we haven’t had room to put in either of our last two houses. That poor ping pong table had been stored in our leaky shop at our old house and in our garage at our current house. The table was beat up and warped a bit and would probably never be reassembled in our lifetime. It probably sounds crazy, but we grabbed the circular saw and ripped each side of that table in two. We set three of the pieces perpendicular to the garage wall and placed one across the front of those. We had to add a couple extra pieces of scrap boards and metal to completely close everything in, but it made a nice big brooder structure with a partition in it to make a side for our broilers and a side for our layers. We separated our Cornish Cross broiler chicks from the rest of the chicks so that we can monitor their feed intake precisely, both for their health and so we can get a handle on what it is going to cost us per bird to raise them for market. We will go into detail on all of that when the time comes. This setup has proven to be our best one yet and probably something we will continue doing until we decide we need a dedicated brooder structure. For the batch size we’re currently doing, this works, but hopefully we will outgrow it once we get our broiler production ramped up. The broilers will be processed somewhere around the 8-8.5 week time frame, so we’re hoping to get them outside after 3-3.5 weeks. Since we’re starting so early in the Spring, that will all depend on the weather.

Okay, we’ve covered what our brooder setup looks like, now let’s talk about how we care for the chicks as soon as they hatch or arrive in the mail. First, always have your brooder set up with the heat lamp going several hours before your chicks arrive. We always set it up the day our chicks are due to hatch since it doesn’t take long for the hatchery to get them from Iowa to Kansas. If you order chicks through a hatchery you will, in our experience, get a call VERY early in the morning from your local post office that your chicks are there (you can read about our experience this year here). When you go pick them up you will most certainly make a joke about hearing your package in the back room. They’ve apparently heard that joke before. Anyway, while you’re still at the post office it’s a good idea to take a peek inside the box to assess the health of the chicks and to see if any are dead. Some chicks are born weak and have no chance at survival and some chicks can perish in transit from the stress or handling of the postal service. We have always had timely shipment and healthy chicks, but there are plenty of stories of the postal service losing shipments or not handling them properly. Most hatcheries will refund your money or ship you more chicks if you suffer losses in shipment, but it needs to be documented at the post office. This is the first year we ever had any losses in our shipment, but it was only two birds and we didn’t feel the need to file a claim. Hatcheries are pretty good about throwing an extra bird or two into the order to cover the potential losses and this order McMurray actually included 3 extra birds, so we ended up with 54 live birds out of our order of 53.

Once you have your healthy chicks in hand, take them straight home and get them in the brooder. This isn’t the time to go to the feed store for feed or any other brooding supplies. You’re brooder should already be set up with the heat on and feeders and waterers filled. The first thing you should do when you put the chicks in the brooder is to individually dip each of their beaks into their water. Hens show their babies how to drink, but hatchery incubators make lousy mothers, so it’s your job to teach them. If you’ve never done this before you may wonder how to know if you’ve done it right, but once you do the first one and see it swallow some water you will have mastered the art. Some people recommend putting down some paper on top of the pine shavings to sprinkle feed on so the chicks can see it better. We did this the first time, but in subsequent broodings we just set the chicks by the feeders after we dip their beaks. While you are teaching the chicks to drink you can also be looking at the health of each bird and counting them to make sure your order was filled correctly. It should be noted that now that the chicks have had water, they will need continuous access to feed and water (with the exception of feed for Cornish X, but we’ll cover that in another post). When chicks hatch, their metabolism doesn’t really kick on until they start eating and drinking. The yolk provides all the sustenance they need for a few days, but the minute they have food and water they will need it continuously. Hatcheries offer some vaccinations, but we have always ordered ours without any. To help minimize health issues we like to add a splash of apple cider vinegar to their waterers each time we replenish them. We also like to offer a little bit of plain yogurt mixed with some feed a couple times during their first week of life. We plan on adding garlic powder to this mix of natural preventative this year as well. A clean brooder and a little bit of prevention go a long way. Sure, it may be anecdotal, but we haven’t had any health issues in our flocks and we think these small steps are worth doing. We also sprinkle a little bit of chick grit into their feeders to make sure their gizzard is able to do its job of breaking down their feed. This initial management is why we like to have someone home with them for the first day or two to be able to keep an eye on things and make sure they’re getting what they need to start their lives off as healthy as they can.

As you can see, getting chicks started really isn’t hard and it’s pretty darn adorable. However, you will likely have to deal with death at some point if you do this more than once. We didn’t lose any birds our first go around, but over a few more broodings we have lost a few. We lost two additional birds in the brooder this year; one of them looked weak the night before and the other was really small, so we’re chalking it up to them just not being hardy enough to thrive. As cruel as it sounds, it’s probably better for your flock if the weaker birds are eliminated. Those are not the genetics you want to perpetuate if you intend to do any breeding. Sometimes animals just don’t make it, even with your best efforts. The birds we’ve lost have been the smaller, weaker ones that you can look at and tell something just isn’t right with them. If the thought of seeing a dead chick is something you can’t handle, this probably isn’t the right endeavor for you.

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One issue that can arise in the brooder that can’t be attributed to poor genetics is an affliction called pasty butt. While this sounds like an insult a 4 year-old would hurl at his brother, I assure you, it’s a real thing. Basically a bunch of poop can accumulate and harden over the vent of the chick and block subsequent excrement from exiting the chick’s body. If this occurs, the resultant blockage can lead to death. We’ve had a handful of pasty butt instances over the course of our broodings (pretty much all from hatchery-ordered chicks), but have never had any deaths as a result. The easiest way to deal with the issue is to get a bucket of hot water and a rag and just wipe the ball of poop with the wet rag. Get the water as hot as you can and then pinch the poop with the rag and rub your fingers together to break the hardened poop apart. It sounds gross, but it will become second-nature. Try not to pull the poop off as you run the risk of hurting the chick. Some of the feathers might come off the chick’s bottom, but just keep and eye on them to make sure the other chicks don’t start pecking at it. Some people recommend putting olive oil on the chick’s backside after the poop is removed, but we’ve never done that and haven’t had any further problems once the blockage is eliminated. Our understanding is that pasty butt is most likely caused by shipping stress or poor brooder management (improper temperature levels, over-crowding, etc.)

This is probably a good time to mention that you are going to need a plan in place to deal with roosters. If you order 25 straight run chicks, you are probably going to end up with half roosters. You are only realistically going to be able to keep 1 of those. Have a plan in place. If you order 25 pullets (females), you are probably going to end up with a rooster or two….or three. Some breeds are harder to sex than others and there is a margin of error for the hatchery. Have a plan in place. We have sold one rooster on Craigslist, but it would probably not be wise to assume you will be able to do that. If you look at Craigslist on any given day, you will likely see someone offering a free rooster. They probably didn’t have a plan. Part of the reason we like to order our chicks straight run is that it allows us to have a decent number of roosters to take to the processor, so we can make the trip worth while. You might consider this option so you can get your quota of hens, but also fill your freezer at the same time. Also, when you order just pullets, many hatcheries just cull the roosters. We would rather them get a really good life for 16-20 weeks and in turn contribute nourishment to our family, than a wasted hatchery life for a day. We have ordered straight run and just pullets, so we certainly aren’t judging your decision, but it’s something to be aware of when you’re purchasing from a hatchery.

So, that got dark. Let’s lighten things up a bit. Earlier we talked about using a heat lamp. The general rule of thumb is to have the brooder at 95 degrees for the first week and drop the temperature 5 degrees per week until it’s at 70 degrees. This sound difficult, but it’s really pretty easy. Make sure you have enough brooder space and then mount your light about 18” above the pine shavings at one end of the brooder. Place your feeder and waterer away from the heat lamp, so the chicks can move back and forth as they need to. The brooder should be plenty warm right under the heat lamp and cooler as you move away from it. To make sure your brooder is warm enough, just monitor the chicks’ behavior. If they’re all piled up together under the lamp, it’s probably too cold. If they are all as far as they can get from the lamp, it’s probably too warm. If they are buzzing around the brooder like little wild toddlers and passing out scattered around, things are probably just fine. Chicks can move in and out of the heat as needed if given enough room to do it, so your management of the heat lamp should be minimal. We tend to raise our lamp up gradually over a few weeks, but continue using the chicks as our guide for their comfort-level. Okay, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a deep breath and just go do it yourself. Experience is really the best teacher. And after you have some successes and failures, let us know what tricks you’ve found that work really well for you!

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This kid has a way with the chicks! He holds them gently and they usually relax so much they fall asleep in his hands.

Incubating Chicken Eggs

At the time of writing this, a heavy coat of ice has our woods hunched over and groaning like they would rather do anything but stay upright. I can relate with every passing year. Looking out the window it’s hard to fathom that we will be tending to baby chicks in 3 weeks (I should note that by the time you read this, we will have baby chicks. What good is a blog post about incubation without pics of hatching chicks?!). Alas, here we are. Spring is coming (as long as George R.R. Martin isn’t writing the novel for it).

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One of our newly hatched day-old chicks!

As we planned our poultry expansion this year, we decided to order more layers from Murray McMurray hatchery and do a trial run of Cornish Cross meat chickens. We chose McMurray again this year for a couple of reasons; One, we are giving Silver Grey Dorkings a go again and they had them available along with the other breeds we wanted. And two, they ran a promotion on Cyber Monday where you could buy a gift card for 15% off. Well, we knew we were going to be ordering more chicks this year, so we decided to snatch that offer up and save ourselves $15. Definitely keep an eye out for that offer this year if you or someone you know would benefit. Not sure they intended it to be used the way we did, but as the cool kids say, “treat yo’ self”. Anyway, since we lost a significant portion of our laying flock (and probably most of our readers after that last sentence) we took the opportunity to add some high volume layers and some more colorful layers to our flock. In the past we have done a few rounds of incubation with reasonable success, but since we’re working scale up our production we didn’t want to rely solely on that route. Plus, with our losses, we just wouldn’t get enough eggs during the optimal collection time for incubation to cover all our needs. So, this year, we decided to hedge our bets with hatchery stock and then have a little fun incubating to round out our needs. Oh, we should mention that another drawback to replenishing our hens through incubation is that about half of the birds that hatch will be roosters, so we would need to hatch twice as many eggs and well, I guess we would at least have a full freezer.

With our hatchery order scheduled to, well, hatch on March 12th we decided that we would coordinate our incubation so that we could brood all of the chicks at the same time. We like to get our chicks pretty early in the season because Aaron’s schedule is more flexible at that time and it allows someone to pick up the chicks and keep an eye on them for the first day or two in the brooder. The nice thing about a lot of livestock is that they have predictable cycles and gestation periods. Chickens might just be the easiest. From the time the eggs are set in the incubator to the time chicks hatch is 21 days. There can be some +/- to that based on the management of heat and humidity in the incubator, but if everything is dialed in correctly, it’ll be 21 days. So, with that easy math out of the way, we just counted back 3 weeks on the farm calendar and plugged in a new entry for starting incubation. (If you haven’t read it you can read a bonus blog about our little mail order chick hiccup!)

Now that our incubation date was set, we had to start planning for egg collection. Well, based on our handy dandy Kansas State University incubation guide from 1979, we know that eggs begin to lose their hatching viability after 7 days from when they were laid. Back to the farm calendar. Count back 7 days from starting incubation and look at that, that’s the earliest date we should start collecting eggs. In the past we have done a couple batches of 10-12 eggs and a bigger batch of around 20 or so, but this year we thought we might up that a hair to an even two dozen. But, once we started talking, and took into account that half would be roos, we decided that maybe we should up that number a bit. Well, based on the number of eggs we were getting a day, we figured that we could likely get 48 eggs in the seven-day period prior to incubating, so 48 it was. And since nothing ever follows a planned schedule, we ended up getting 54 eggs and settled on incubating an even 50.

So, with all of our eggs gathered we just pulled out the incubator, popped the eggs in, and fired it up. No, that’s not what we did. As any semi-responsible adult knows, it’s always best to test your equipment before you actually need to start using it. Back to the calendar. “Set up incubator”. If you are going to incubate eggs, it’s best to get your incubator dialed in 24-48 hours before you set your eggs. We set ours up the day before we began incubation and then proceeded to nail the temperate at 99.75 degrees while being totally incompetent trying to square away the humidity. The hatching manual for our incubator recommends 99.75 degrees for the incubation temperature for the first 18 days and 99 degrees for the final 3 days. The K-State manual recommends 102-103 degrees. We’ve had good success right around 100 degrees, so we are sticking with 100-101 to play in a safe zone. The K-State guide calls for a 50-65% humidity reading, which is 85-90 degrees on our wet bulb thermometer. The incubator guide tightens that up to 85-87 degrees wet bulb and 90-94 degrees for the final 3 days, so we try to stay closer to the 86 degree range. It’s pretty obvious that eggs need to stay warm to be able to hatch, but the reason humidity is so important is that if it’s too high the air bubble in the egg will be too small and when the chick goes to pip out of the shell it won’t be able to reach the air bubble and will likely drown in the fluid inside the shell. It can also create a chick that is really big from the excess fluid, which could cause the chick to not have enough room to get its head in position to pip out of the egg. If the humidity is too low, there will be a lack of fluid in the egg and the chick may not be strong enough to pip out of the shell or if it gets the shell pipped, it can get stuck to the shell as the infiltrating air dries the mucous membrane in the shell. The other critical factor in incubation is turning the eggs for the first 18 days. It is recommended to turn the eggs several times a day. Luckily we have an incubator with an automatic turner, so our eggs get “rolled” once per hour. The turning relieves pressure that can restrict nerves and cause improper circulation. Broody hens will use her head and beak to roll the eggs around when she’s sitting on them. We’ve had one that kept trying to roll the eggs back under her as we were trying to collect them one day! One way to test the fertility is to “candle” the eggs after 4 or 5 days in the incubator. If you can see a dark spot in the middle with blood vessels branching off of it, you have a fertile egg. You can also check the progression of development in the egg by candling them on days 7, 14, and 18 and checking the size of the air cell inside. We’ve never done that because we prefer to limit our disruption of the incubator to maintain temperature and humidity, but if you like to tinker, give it a whirl.

We mentioned in the past that our youngest son’s teacher excitedly invited us to bring the incubator into their classroom in the past so the kiddos could watch the chicks hatch. She has developed a lesson plan using 21 eggs that show the development inside the egg for each day during the process. It’s a really wonderful way to teach about the birth and growth that tends to happen every spring in nature and we’re really happy we get to share it. Our son is very shy, but you can sense his pride when we talk about taking the incubator in to share with his friends. Since the incubator requires specific management we keep it at our house until the last three days, when we increase the temperature and humidity and remove the auto turner and rolling tray. In the past we have wrapped the eggs in towels inside the incubator and wrapped the incubator in towels as we transport it to the school. Luckily we don’t live too far out of town and the travel doesn’t seem to impact the hatch.

If you have chickens (and a rooster), you should definitely try out incubation if you want to expand your flock. There are a ton of different incubator styles at a multitude of price points, so pick one that suits your context and give it a whirl. If you possess the ingenuity, there are plans online for building your own. Don’t feel like you need to spend a fortune to get started incubating. It would be better to outgrow a cheaper incubator and upgrade than to spend a lot of money and discover that it doesn’t really fit into your farm. We were fortunate to run across our incubator at a farm auction about a year before we even got our first chickens. It’s a Marsh Roll-X model that was postmarked to our local farm and feed store in 1980 and was purchased by a professor at the University of Kansas. It had been stored in a barn and was clogged up with mud dauber nests, so it didn’t attract much bidding. We weren’t sure if it worked, but we took a chance because it was neatly packed in its original packaging and came with the auto turner, thermometers, extra wicks, all the literature, and grids for Average Chickens, Large Chickens, Ducks, and Pheasant eggs. With a little elbow grease it looked almost brand new and you could tell that it had only been used a handful of times. These incubators have been around a long time and can still be purchased new. When we priced it out with all of the extra egg grids it would have cost us close to $900. We ended up getting it for something like $125-150, so we couldn’t pass it up. Well, we actually ended up getting it for free because Grandma was at the auction and decided sneak up to the auction cashier to buy her grandsons their very own incubator. She knew that it would provide a valuable learning experience for the whole family. Thank you grandma. Hopefully the boys won’t take it with them when they leave for college.

The Disappearing Chicks

Today we just wanted to share a quick story that illustrates how unpredictable farming can be. As you know, we need to replenish our laying flock and are starting our trial Cornish Cross meat bird batch. Well, instead of relying solely on incubation to replenish our flock, we chose to order some day-old chicks from Murray McMurray hatchery. We were ordering our Cornish X chicks anyway, so we figured it would be worth it to add to that order and save on shipping. Anyway, this is the week we have been waiting months for; hatch week! We got a text message and email from the hatchery that our birds were in the hands of the United States Postal Service in Iowa. We anticipated receiving the chicks the following morning (since it’s such a short distance from the hatchery), so we left our ringers on when we went to bed Monday night to field the pick-up call bright and early.

Unlike past orders, the call didn’t come before dawn. At least we would be rested when the chicks arrived. Now, we’ve heard horror stories about shipments of chicks being lost in the mail for days and arriving dead when they finally turn up, but we’ve never had any issues with our past orders. When the phone rang at about a quarter ‘til 10 we were informed that our chicks were ready and waiting for us at the post office. After putting away groceries and grabbing a second cup of coffee, I headed into town to pick them up. When I arrived I was in line behind a person from our local Orscheln farm store who was there to pick up chicks for their store’s “chick days”. When it was my turn at the counter I stated that I was there to pick up baby chicks, too. The same USPS person I had spoken to on the phone just 30 minutes earlier said, “are you sure? We don’t have any more chicks back there. Let me look again.” Uh oh. I overhear her ask another employee and hear mention of Tractor Supply, so I text Shannon that I think our chicks went to our local Tractor Supply store when they came to pick up their order. She quickly got on the phone and called over there to confirm that, yes, they in fact had our chicks. One of their employees was calling me about the same time, but I didn’t answer because it wasn’t a local call and I was in the middle of trying to figure out where our chicks could have possibly gone in the last 30 minutes. One of the USPS employees came back out and said they think they accidentally sent them with the Tractor Supply order and that they were trying to get ahold of them. I let him know that my wife had tracked them down and thanked him for his time. He was apologetic and I was frustrated, but getting upset with him wasn’t going to do either of us any good. Hopefully next time he will just take the extra time to read the labels to make sure the package is heading to the right place.

I ran over to Tractor Supply and picked up the chicks, so ultimately there was no harm done. I’m not sure what I would have done if they hadn’t noticed and went ahead and put our chicks out with the rest of theirs. I certainly would have been a lot more frustrated with the postal service and someone would have gotten a pretty good deal on some blue-laced red wyandottes and silver-grey dorkings! While this was ultimately a non-issue, I think it illustrates that even with the best laid plans, some things are just beyond your control. There will be days that nature doesn’t accommodate your plans. There will be days that the post office manages to lose your chicks in the 30 minutes it takes for you to get to the post office after they call. There will be days stray dogs decimate half of your laying flock. But, all of those days will strengthen your problem-solving skills and make you assess just what is actually important in life. Is my time better spent yelling at a post office employee that already feels bad? Or is my time better spent letting him know that mistakes happen and not ruining both of our days over something as trivial as 54 day-old chicks. Maybe that’s easier said than done and perhaps it would have been a bigger problem if it had been a batch of 500 meat birds that my livelihood depended on. I don’t know. I’m just glad it all worked out and now we get to watch these little peepers grow.

 

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Our 2018 day-old chicks staying warm in the brooder under a heat lamp.

 

Spring To-Do List

Spring is a busy time of year in nature; grass is coming out of dormancy, buds are swelling on trees, and bugs materialize from seemingly every fissure of earth. No matter how hard we try to convince ourselves that Winter isn’t that bad, our hearts can’t help but burst with excitement from the promise of Spring. As nature accelerates at break-neck pace, we too must find a higher gear to get ahead of this season’s farm chores. Spring has always been a joyously busy season at our house, but this year feels a little different. We are actually going into the season with a plan, so we thought we’d share what’s going to be happening on the farm this Spring!

First things first, we are two days away from having somewhere in the ballpark of 100 baby chicks in the brooder. We’ll have a dedicated post on the brooding process, but we want to emphasize the importance of having your brooder set up BEFORE you bring home any chicks. We got our brooder all set up on Saturday and will be firing up the heat lamps today to make sure everything is working and warm before the chicks show up. We have it set up in two sections, one side for the meat birds, and the other side for the layers and heritage roosters. We dropped the incubator off at Arlo’s classroom this morning, so we’ll report back on how many of the 50 eggs in it were successful.

Day old chicks in a brooder
Baby chicks in the brooder two years back.

Going back over the past month (technically not Spring, but it’s all part of gearing up for Spring) we have pruned back the suckers on our fruit trees, cut back our rose bushes, and ripped out any old growth in the garden. We’ve also started onions, microgreens, all of our brassicas, a variety of flowers, eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes in our makeshift greenhouse….errr Shannon’s art studio. Later today we will be cutting up our seed potatoes in order to have them cure before planting them out next weekend. One thing that we haven’t gotten to yet is tilling up the garden, so hopefully it won’t rain before we can get to that! In the future we plan on tilling the garden under in the fall and covering it with silage tarps over winter. This will prevent wind erosion and then will encourage weed seeds to germinate in the spring under the heat of the tarp, but then die from lack of sunlight. We didn’t get around to acquiring the tarps this winter, but we may give that method a try this summer in unused parts of the garden.

Getting back to the chickens, we need to do some minor maintenance on the A-frame coop that will house first batch of meat birds. One of the wheel hubs broke, so we need to replace that along with a new tow-rope since the puppies used the old one as a chew toy. We will also be bolstering the hoop coop and getting a new tarp to cover it. The biggest chicken-related task we will undertake early in the season is building a new, larger coop for our laying hens. As we mentioned in our Coop Design blog post, we’ve been pondering how we want to manage our laying coop. We were really leaning toward making another mobile coop that could be rotated with our future ruminants, but we ultimately decided it would be too cumbersome to navigate on the two roughly 4-acre pastures we’ll be using. We recently decided that we would build the new coop next to the dog house and just allow them to range in the pasture from there. Our plan is to use a deep-litter method of management and only provide feed and water inside the coop so they won’t be congregating around the feeders and waters out on the pasture, thus minimizing their impact on the land. There will be some level of degradation outside the coop, but our past experience suggests it will be a relatively small area and we should be able to manage that through mulching. That coop needs to get built sometime in the next 3-4 weeks, so wish us luck ☺ Once we have sheep on the farm we will be pursuing NRCS grant funding to aid in the construction of additional fencing projects to convert the old crop ground into additional grazing pasture.

Once we get the new coop built we will probably shift our focus to building fence in one of our pastures. Before we built our house we had our land surveyed and staked out so we could build fence, but our tenant farmer ran over all of our stakes with his hay mower and plow, so we need to have the surveyors back out before we start setting posts. Since we plan on eventually fencing two separate pastures along with most of our woods, we are going to set corner posts at each corner of our property and multiple line posts along all of our property lines, so that if we don’t get to the rest of the fence for a while, we’ll at least know where the fence line needs to go. With the property surveyed we will fence in our North pasture using a combination of woven wire and high tensile electric fence to make the area secure for sheep and our Livestock Guardian Dogs. We will be rotating the sheep through this pasture with portable internal fencing and our chickens, turkeys, and ducks will have free range over this area during the day.

Playful puppies
Our “livestock guardian dogs” who ate the cord on the A-Frame coop. It’s ok, they are too cute to be mad.

Over in the garden we will start planting some of our early season veggies (carrots, radishes, lettuce, beets, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, and potatoes) out next weekend. We’ll be adding peas the following weekend along with additional weekly succession plantings of carrots, radishes, and lettuce. We’re going to play it a little safe this year and not plant out our tomatoes, peppers, okra, cucumbers, edamame, squash, melons, and corn until the first weekend of May. Since we aren’t trying to be first to market with anything and are still in the trial phase of a market garden, we want to make sure we’re past any frost danger. Our long-term plans include playing with some season extension tools like caterpillar tunnels, tarping, etc., but this is where we’re at now. Perhaps more important, though, is we need to build a small raised bed area for each of our boys to plant their own gardens in. We planned out 4×4 plots with them this winter and they chose a few things they each wanted to grow.

As we get the garden going, we also need to focus a little attention on where our turkeys are going to live. We currently have one end of the winter chicken run that is framed as part of the run, but doesn’t have any fencing or net over the top. We plan to wrap this area in welded wire fencing up 8’ high and cover the top and top half of the walls with some material (likely tarp) to keep the turkeys out of the elements while they roost. Once the turkeys are about 2 months old, they need very little in the way of protection, so this should suffice. We will add a door to that area and plenty of roosts, so they can go in there to roost at night and be let out to forage the pasture during the day. The turkeys don’t arrive until May and will stay in the brooder for 6-8 weeks, so we have some time on this project.

Well, there you have it. If experience has taught us anything, it’s that this list will likely grow exponentially as the days tick by. What’s on your Spring to-do list?

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