Chickens are often jokingly referred to as a gateway animal. We’re not laughing. Okay, maybe a little, but they’re the reason we’re in this mess in the first place. We had plans in place to get chickens since the day we first moved to the country, but as we mentioned, the timing just wasn’t right until a couple years ago. With copious amounts of research under our belts and no real infrastructure in place, we took the leap and decided to order a batch of 25 chicks from Murray McMurray hatchery in late 2015. Our first order consisted of Barred Plymouth Rocks, Buff Orpingtons, Speckled Sussex, and Silver Grey Dorkings. Our choice to order from McMurray centered around the availability of all of these breeds at the same time, something that was difficult to be guaranteed at other hatcheries. The biggest wild-cards were the Dorkings and Sussex as they are not super common breeds and have consistently been on The Livestock Conservancy’s priority list for poultry (They have 5 levels of endangerment: Critical, Threatened, Watch, Recovering, and Study). These breeds were chosen based on their reputations as good layers with good temperaments, and table-worthy carcasses. With the order placed, the pressure was on. We had started building a coop on a trailer at our last house, but much of it had rotted in place over a couple years, so it was time to tear down and rebuild. We wouldn’t recommend not having infrastructure in place prior to getting any livestock, but we were confident that we could finish the coop in time. Spoiler Alert: We did! We have since built a few other coops and will be adding a fifth this year, so we will share those designs along with their pros and cons in another post. We will also document our brooding and incubation procedures next month!
When it comes to choosing chickens for your flock, the options seem limitless. Your location, size of desired flock, and goals will ultimately help you decide the best route for you. When we decided to raise our own chickens we were looking to get birds that would supply us with eggs and meat. In the chicken world, these breeds are usually referred to as “dual-purpose”. Dual-purpose breeds are typically purebred heritage breeds that will lay well and reach a respectable size for the table. Our plan was to order our chicks “straight-run”, meaning that they wouldn’t be sexed at the hatchery and we would likely end up with about a 50/50 split of females and males. Hatcheries usually send an extra chick or two and we ended up with something like 14 hens (or pullets as they’re referred as youngsters) and 12 roosters. We decided that we would keep all of the hens, along with two roosters, and send the rest to the processor around 18 weeks of age. We are fortunate to have a USDA poultry processor about an hour away, so after we labored over processing 3 ourselves, we decided it would be best to have the professionals finish the task for us. On processing day, one of the roosters escaped our grasp and ran into the woods, never to be seen again…or until we got back from the processor and he was waiting to be let into the coop (we ended up selling him, a beautiful Speckled Sussex to a family that had lost their rooster to a fox attack). We kept our nicest rooster, a Barred Rock named Max, as our main rooster and a secondary Silver Grey Dorking rooster to serve as our breeding male to breed purebred Dorkings. The Dorking is said to be a superb table bird and we had planned to use them for filling our freezer in the future. Well, Max turned evil and could no longer be trusted around our children, but since we named him and loved him he stuck around until a hawk did us the favor of ending his reign of terror. The next day we called the Dorking roo up to the big leagues. Two days later, he met the same fate as Max. We were now rooster-less and really wishing we had kept the Sussex, who we heard was doing great and ended up being super friendly. Go figure.
During the course of the first year we lost some of our hens to hawk attacks as well (and a couple Dorkings got hung up in our electric poultry net fence and died, possibly because of their extra toe). So, as any chicken addict would do, we ordered 20 more chickens the following spring. This time we went with Hoover’s hatchery because we were ordering more common birds, they had lower prices, and a lower purchase quantity requirement. We chose to get White Leghorns, Americana (Hoover’s spelling of their variety), Cuckoo Marans, and a hybrid egg-layer call Tetra Brown. This batch would add some color variety to our egg basket with white, brown, chocolate brown, and pastel blue/green eggs. During that Spring we also got half a dozen chicks from our local Orscheln farm store (more Buff Orpingtons, a Rhode Island Red, and some Easter Eggers). Oh, and we also incubated some of our eggs along with some eggs we traded with a friend. And there may have been a trip to Tractor Supply to get some straight-run barred rocks since we didn’t have any birds for the freezer that Spring. When the manager at Tractor Supply says if you take the rest of the Barred Rocks you can have them for $0.50 a piece, you should probably walk back out the door. That’s exactly what we did…with 23 more barred rocks and a couple Black Australorps that had somehow ended up in that batch of Rocks. Fortunately, the biggest chick was a Black Australorp rooster that we called Jon Snow. He is currently our main rooster and is everything we hoped Max would be. He has two Americana roosters, that were supposed to be pullets, as his arch nemesis. Ultimately, we ended up amassing a collection of 77 chickens. Whoops. We ended up selling some and we traded a few older pullets for 9 Muscovy ducklings, a grape vine, and two hardy figs. After all was said and done (and extra roosters processed) we ended up with about half of the number of chickens we started with.
As we mentioned in our post about our puppies, we’ve lost several more chickens and we’ve also decided to build our flock up a little bigger than it was so that we can expand our egg sales (which have come to a screeching halt after losing half our flock). We wanted to add good production and color variety into the flock, so this year we chose to order some Ameraucanas (blue/green eggs), Speckled Sussex (since we have none left), Blue-laced Wyandottes (beautiful birds), Welsummers (of Kellog’s cereal Rooster fame), Pearl White Leghorns (egg-laying machines), Columbian Wyandotte (beautiful – our youngest son picked them), and a fresh batch of Silver Grey Dorkings (to restart our attempt at breeding). Our oldest son has been asking to get Turkens for about a year now, so we decided to get a few of those for him. Turkens are also called “Naked Necks” because they have no feathering on their necks and look kind of like little turkey buzzards. He also wanted to get some White Crested Black Polish chicks, so obviously we caved to that request, too. You’ve probably seen those little gals, they look like they’re wearing a fancy little hat of feathers. The final component to this year’s order is our first batch of Cornish Cross meat chickens. While we have enjoyed the meat from our heritage birds, they really aren’t going to be a viable meat bird solution as we start producing chickens for market. Cornish Cross can create a bigger bird in 7-8 weeks than a heritage bird will in 16-20 weeks. We could ramble on for some time on our decision to raise Cornish Cross, so we will, in another blog post. Another thing we’ll do to round out our flock this year is to incubate some eggs ourselves. We are going to try to hatch out some of our own Easter Egger type chicks along with several mutts and probably some eggs that we will swap with a friend of ours that is also a chicken hoarder. We will be starting the incubation process later this month and taking the incubator to our youngest son’s classroom a couple days before hatch so the kiddos can experience the process. His teacher has put together a whole lesson on chick hatching that includes eggs for each of the 21 days that show what is happening inside the egg as the chicks grow. Sharing this process has certainly been a highlight for us in our short chicken-keeping careers.
It may seem that our process is a little haphazard and probably not the best way to maximize profit in an egg production venture. That is correct. We have discussed shifting to a system that includes only one type of hybrid egg-laying bird, but it just isn’t what we want to do. We enjoy going out and seeing a multitude of colors in our flock and having egg colors that range from white to green and myriad browns in between. Would we produce more eggs with a strictly hybrid flock? Yes. Would the nutrition levels of the eggs be the same? Yes. Would the eggs look the same once the shells were cracked open? Yes. Egg production is just a component of our farm, not the primary focus, so we have the luxury of being able to make a choice that brings color to our lives and our customers’ refrigerators. You can bet, though, if we wanted to just focus on eggs, we would definitely be using hybrid layers that could give us the best egg production of uniform size and color possible. Again, your goals need to dictate your choice when it comes to selecting your chickens. Every farm is different, so what works for us, may not work for you.
A final word of caution when assembling or expanding your flock; be careful bringing chickens in from other farms. If you have a local breeder or hatchery that is trustworthy and has a good track record of healthy stock, by all means, use them. But, be wary of buying chickens from auctions or off Craigslist. Biosecurity is a big issue for farms and you could unknowingly bring a contaminated animal onto your property that could infect your flock. Any time you buy an animal from another farm, make sure to assess the health of the animal and the practices of the farm you are buying from. If you see unsanitary conditions for the animals or any indications that the animal could be sick, don’t be afraid to walk away. It is also good practice to quarantine any animal you bring onto your farm until you can confirm that it is healthy and does not pose a risk to your other animals.
Okay, didn’t mean to scare you. Go get some (more) chickens.
Every year winter seems to crawl along like cool molasses. The world is colored by myriad shades of brown. Sometimes it’s hard to remember if Spring is something dreamed up in your mind’s eye or if you will actually be able to see it. Smell it. Feel it. And then one day, as you sit by the fireplace and look across the valley through a pane of frosted glass, a panic convulses your body. You rifle through your calendar (not as dramatic on an iPhone calendar) and breathe a sigh of relief as you count back the weeks from your average frost-free date. There’s still time.
In the past we’ve been guilty of starting seeds too early, too late, and somewhere in between. We’ve had makeshift stands, sawhorses covered with plywood, and old dinner tables strewn with seed flats in garages, basements, and guest bedrooms. This year we’ve finally come up with a seed starting setup that should serve us well for years (and more importantly, one we won’t have to cobble together at the last minute). If you look in seed and garden supply catalogs you will see beautifully streamlined multi-shelf units equipped with casters and grow lights. You’ll also see that those cost a small fortune. Well, for a fraction of the cost of one of those units, we were able to put together two units that should each handle 10-20 seed flats. We bought two shelving units from Sam’s Club for $90 each (or you can buy this shelving rack from amazon) and then simply mounted a fluorescent shop light above each shelf (except the top one). In each fixture we put one cool and one warm T12 fluorescent bulb. We’ve always had great luck with plain old cool bulbs, but we read that you get a broader spectrum of light if you use one of each. Theoretically it should make a difference. You’ll notice we don’t use bulbs specifically for “growing”. If you already have them, go ahead and use them, but don’t bother buying more, they are super expensive and regular bulbs will serve you just as well. Make sure you can move your lights up and down to keep them as close to the plants as possible to keep plants from becoming leggy and stretching to try to reach the light. Once the fixtures were attached to the shelves we just ran the cords neatly down the side and secured them with zip-ties. We plugged each light into a power strip mounted to the side of the shelving unit where we could also plug in the Hydrofarm heat mat we use.
This shelving set up is pretty big, but luckily we have a large art studio above our garage where Shannon paints and does photography, so if she needs it out of the way she can just roll the units to another part of the studio. With our set up taken care of, we focused on timing our seed starting. The easiest way to do this is to find what your USDA hardiness zone (planthardiness.ars.usda.gov) is and from that, determine what you’re average frost-free date is for the Spring. Once you’ve determined that, you can begin calculating all of your seed starting dates based on the date you can start planting out in the garden. Keep in mind that your frost-free date is just an average and soil and air temperatures may not be what you need them to be. It’s important that you start your seeds counting back from the date they will actually be planted out, not always just the frost-free date. Some plants, like tomatoes and peppers, will only thrive if the soil temperature is warm enough.
What we’ve done this year is put together a farm calendar that has reminders for everything we need to do, from seed starting to incubating. It takes a little time, but it’s worth it to go through each variety you will be growing and make note of when it needs to be started, whether indoors or directed seeded in the garden. It is also important to note multiple dates if you will be doing any succession planting to spread your harvest across a longer season for crops like radishes, carrots, lettuce, etc. Once you have some experience gardening, this is a good time to put together a plan for where everything will go in your garden and plan for how you can fill in the parts of your garden that have been harvested. If you have an opportunity to replant an area you can reap a bigger harvest and not just have an area lay fallow. If you don’t plan on planting a late season/fall crop after an early season crop is harvested, you might also consider growing a cover crop in that spot to help with erosion, fix nitrogen, or just to add more organic matter back to the soil when the cover crop is incorporated back in. We’re really good at the initial planning phase, but are really focused this year on doing a better job with succession plantings and extending our growing seasons.
We have traditionally started most of our seeds in the typical 50-cell flats using organic pro-mix. Some people like to put clear, plastic domes over their seed flats to keep moisture in for germination. We don’t always do this, but it’s important to note that if you choose to do this, remove the domes as soon as your plants germinate to keep mold, fungus, and rot from damaging your plants. As our plants grow, we will pot them up to bigger pots to insure they don’t become root bound and stunted. We were gifted a couple different sizes of soil block makers for Christmas, so hopefully we will do some experimentation with soil blocking in the near future, but for now we are sticking to our tried and true starting methods. We’ll be sure to keep you posted on our soil block experience as it develops. If you don’t want to spend the money on plastic flats to start seeds, you can use anything from old cups, yogurt containers, and milk jugs to egg shells and egg cartons. Just make sure whatever you use is clean and will accommodate the roots of your plants. We use generic spray bottles to water our seed flats as to not disrupt the plants by a heavy stream of water. Over the years we’ve had great success without supplemental heat mats, but if you have them or don’t mind spending the money on them, they can provide a great benefit in the germination of plants like tomatoes and peppers (these are the only seedlings we’ve consistently used heat mats). We’ve heard anecdotal evidence that peppers do better when the heat mat cycles on and off with the light, allowing the soil a cooling down period overnight. This is not something we’ve ever tried, but we will be experimenting with it this year as we grow our bell, frying, and jalapeno peppers.
Some of the earliest crops we start indoors are onions and asparagus. We’ve got a hundred or so onions and the same number of asparagus started already this season. A lot of people just plant 1 year-old asparagus crowns to get their first harvest faster, but we’re cheap and just start it from seed. We have a small patch already started (the third house we’ve started them at) and are going to expand it with this years starts. We’ve also added microgreens to the mix and will be continuously harvesting them once we get our timing and sales schedule down for that. We plan to devote one whole shelving unit just to microgreens! Generally, we like to start many more seeds than we really need to hedge against poor germination and because we can get a little carried away selecting seed varieties ☺. If all goes well this year, we will have extra started plants for sale in the Spring. We will be growing some varieties that you won’t be able to find in the local garden centers and nurseries, so stay tuned if your interested in adding some new varieties to your garden this year.
Starting your own plants from seed can seem a little overwhelming, but in the long run you will save money and be able to get a much broader array of varieties than you would otherwise have access to if relying on local garden center starts. Give it a try and let us know how it goes!
If you’re like me, your local post office probably has to hire an extra mail carrier just to deliver all of the seed catalogs (and bee equipment catalogs, and hatchery catalogs, and farm equipment catalogs, etc.) that show up in your mailbox this time of year. I’ve thought about seeing if I could be taken off the mailing list of several companies since I can see the same thing on the internet, but for some reason I just can’t pull myself away from using the catalogs for everything up until the point I actually order seed. Sure, I’ll cruise through various websites looking at reviews of certain varieties, but when it comes down to determining what is going in the garden in a given year, I’m seated at the table surrounded by catalogs and a disheveled bin of leftover seeds that were hastily thrown into ziplock bags the prior year. Have I mentioned that my seed storage system is high on my priority list this year? I envision a nice shelving system, lined with glass canning jars filled with the hope of a bountiful harvest. My very own seed bank entrusted with preserving the genetic bio-diversity necessary to sustain the global food system. Or a haphazard menagerie of ziplocks, strewn about a 25 quart Sterlite tub. It has served me well, no need to reinvent the wheel, right? I’ll feed the world another day.
This year, as the seed catalogs began rolling in, I decided I would start by going through all of the seed I had retained through the years. I assume many of you are learning as you go as well and may not realize that seeds have a sort of expiration date. If you look on your seed packet it will have some information around the year it was packed and by when it should be used. I don’t look at this date like some people look at a milk expiration date. The repercussions of using an “expired” seed will, at worst, be poor or no germination. You will not want to scrape your tongue and taste buds out of your mouth with your garden hoe as you might with sour milk. Now, if you are a serious market gardener/farmer you will not have the same flexibility as a home gardener when it comes to getting seeds germinated at the proper time and getting your produce to market, but if you are in a situation that grants some wiggle-room with planting and harvesting dates, by all means, use some of your older seed. Certain seed types will keep better than others, but I’ve had luck getting pretty good germination out of some tomato and jalapeno seed that had been poorly stored for the better part of a decade. If you decide to roll the dice with seed that is over 2 or 3 years old, you might be well-served to toss a couple extra seeds in each cell when you start your seeds. I’m always a little sad to thin my seedlings, but I would rather have a pile of micro-greens or chicken scraps than no germination at all.
Once I inventoried my seed and made the executive decision to toss anything that was over 3 years old (excluding one packet of sweet pea currant tomatoes that I’m convinced will never stop germinating and consistently produce roughly 47,000,000 of the tiniest tomatoes you’ve ever seen. If you have small children they will love harvesting the tomatoes for you!) I needed to start my search for replacements. I started by making a list of everything I want to grow this year. To do this, I used a list from last year along with the box of seeds sitting in front of me. I mean, if I have the seed already, I’m going to try to grow it whether I think it will perform or not. Which brings me to another point that is important for new growers. If you try a variety that doesn’t grow well or doesn’t produce like you’d hoped, don’t give up on it in one year. Sometimes weather events or soil conditions or a host of other issues can cause certain vegetables to not perform in a given year, but the next year they can perform quite well. Now, if you have a couple years of disappointment or if you’re trying to grow long season crops in short season climates, certainly don’t waste your time. I digress. Once I have my list made, I look at the holes I need to fill with my seed order and I put a number on each varietal indicating how many I want to grow this year. I have a pretty good stockpile of seed from the last two years, so my orders this year were relatively small. I needed some sweet corn, bok choi, a slicing cucumber, yellow squash, acorn squash, micro greens, eggplant, carrot, and one of our all-time favorite cherry tomatoes – the Sungold. What I actually ordered was all of that, plus sugar snap peas, tennis ball lettuce, a fourth variety of green bean, two yellow squashes, another variety of cherry tomato, another slicing tomato (because 11 tomato varieties wasn’t enough), a back up pack of jalapeno seeds in case my trusty old seed doesn’t germinate well enough, and another variety of onion. If you keep chickens you’ve probably heard the term “chicken math” which basically means that once you start with chickens, your flock will just keep multiplying. Well, I think “seed math” must be a thing, too.
As I mentioned, I get a lot of seed catalogs. Over the years I have started to really pare down the companies I get my seed from for a couple of reasons. One, I’ve had success with certain varieties from certain companies and I trust I can count on those seeds. Two, shipping costs can start to add up when you start ordering from multiple companies. Some companies offer free shipping over a certain price or will send promo codes out, but I usually end up getting those offers after I need to start my seed anyway. If you have a friend or two that garden, see if they want to go in on seeds together. And if you don’t have any gardening friends, get them started with your extra seed and split future seed orders! This year I limited my orders to Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Seed Savers Exchange . That said, the bulk of my current seed is Franchi seed from Seeds from Italy with a smattering of Renee’s Garden seeds. Seeds from Italy is a company that imports Italian seed and distributes it from right here in Lawrence, KS! We have a fantastic local hardware store (what’s up Cottin’s?) that carries a pretty good selection of their seed and I just order any of my desired varieties that they don’t stock. They also carry Renee’s seeds, which is why I have some of those. The Franchi seeds are unlike any seeds I’ve gotten from other suppliers. They come in huge envelopes and, depending on varietal, include a ton of seeds. If you are used to getting like 10-40 seeds per packet, you’ll be blown away if you buy some of their seed. The only downside to the Franchi seed is that it isn’t as beginner-friendly as say Johnny’s simply from a packaging and instructional standpoint. If you look at a seed packet from Johnny’s you will be directed exactly what the germination times, planting specs, days to harvest, etc., but if you look at a Franchi packet you will see an odd little chart on the back with colored dots, a plethora of verbiage in other languages, and no real instruction. You can gather most of the requisite info from the Seeds from Italy website or catalog, but it’s an extra step. That said, some of the Italian varieties are unique and out-of-this world delicious (Striato D’Italia zucchini, Charentais melon (which I believe is actually a French melon), Verde da Taglio chard, and on and on).
When I select seed I don’t get too hung up on whether the seed is certified organic or not. We garden without the use of chemical inputs and will typically buy organic seed if it’s available, but I don’t sweat it if I can only get a varietal I want in non-organic form. When I started gardening I was insistent that all of my seed be organic and heirloom. My gardens failed a lot. While many of the heirloom varieties produce vegetables with outstanding flavor qualities, they don’t always produce in sufficient quantity or with the hardiness to withstand transport. I’m not saying tomatoes should be of the quality I can get in the supermarket in Kansas in January, but it would be nice to have something that can make it across town to a market or customer. Sometimes I’m not sure why they even call those pale orange, crunchy, South American, winter imports tomatoes. What I’ve begun doing is implementing a mix of heirloom and hybrid vegetables to kind of hedge my bets. Often times certain varieties will have resistance to certain diseases or pests and it’s nice if your entire crop of something isn’t wiped out if that problem presents itself. Hybrids get a bad rap in the local/sustainable food movement because people associate them with things like GMOs when really they’re just an F1 cross with no genetic manipulation. This same discussion comes up when people talk about Cornish X meat chickens, but I will talk more about that when I talk about our meat birds. The only downside to hybrids in your garden comes if you want to save seed since the seed of an F1 hybrid won’t breed true. Meaning you can’t save the seed and expect the plant grown from that seed to exhibit the proven traits of the parent plant. So, if you aren’t saving seed it would probably serve you well to include some hybrid plants in your garden. The heirloom varieties typically have superior flavor qualities, but lets face it, a garden-fresh tomato picked at peak ripeness is going to taste a hundred times better than any store-bought tomato could, regardless of what variety it is.
A lot of people suggest starting small when it comes to gardening, but I was never good at deciding on just a few things to grow, so I say start however you want. One thing I will urge you not to do, though, is grow stuff you don’t like to eat (unless you want to grow it for someone else). Notice I never mentioned beets in my garden. No matter what size your garden is, you’ll learn and get better as you go. If you feel smothered in town like I did, plant some patio containers or just till up your whole damn yard and realize that even a 1/16th of an acre garden will produce a lot of food.
So, we thought we’d try something new with the blog. Okay, the whole thing is new, you got us there. Our original plan for the blog was to just post some weekly content that was relevant to the current goings on of the farm, but since a lot can happen here in a week, we decided not to be constrained by some predetermined rules.
One of the reasons we choose to farm is that we love to eat. And if you eat, you are directly connected to agriculture whether you want to be or not. Sure, we could buy everything from the supermarket and not think twice about it and trust that the growers are doing what they say they are and the labels mean what the say they mean, but that would leave us wanting. Perhaps I’ll touch on my feelings regarding food labeling and what it means to me in a future post, but suffice it to say, I like to know EXACTLY how my food was produced. This is all to say, connected to our love of food, is a love of cooking. So, we thought we’d try to occasionally share recipes that we like that incorporate the foods that we grow.
We like to find recipes that serve as guidelines and then make whatever changes suit our needs or work with our pantry. We also like to be able to use ingredients that can span several dishes for the week. In this case we had some Italian sausage held back from spaghetti night along with some mozzarella pearls and mushrooms held back from pizza night that would transform a somewhat pedestrian frittata recipe into a hearty, scrumptious, filling meal. Feel free to substitute whatever veggies or protein you like and serve it with some fruit and a bed of microgreens for a nutrient-packed dinner, lunch, brunch, breakfast, or midnight snack. Roasting the broccoli really makes this dish, but you could steam it if you’d rather.
½# Ground Italian sausage, browned
¼ fresh basil, loose
2 cups broccoli florets minus a few bites for you vegetable-loving dog
½ cup sliced mushrooms
10 eggs (isn’t it handy having chickens?!)
Salt and pepper to taste
Dash of Turmeric for good measure
½ cup shredded cheese (mozzarella, parm, or mix of whatever you like)
½ cup Mozzarella pearls
3 Tbsp butter, divided
¼ cup milk
Preheat your oven to 425 degrees (F) and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Combine broccoli and mushrooms in a large bowl. Melt 1 Tbsp of your butter and pour it over broccoli and mushrooms. Season with salt and pepper to taste and stir to combine. Spread evenly on your baking sheet and roast for 15 minutes.
While the veggies are roasting, grease (butter, oil, lard) a 10” cast iron skillet (or similar baking dish). When the veggies are finished, reduce the oven to 350 degrees (F). After the veggies have cooled a bit, whisk together the eggs, milk, basil, salt, pepper, turmeric, and shredded cheese. Pour this mixture into the prepared skillet and sprinkle with cooled broccoli, mushrooms, and Italian sausage and gently press them into the egg mixture.
Bake for 25 minutes at 350 until fluffy and almost set. Sprinkle mozzarella pearls on top of frittata and broil for 3-4 more minutes or until mozzarella is melted. Remove from oven and eat the second it hits your plate.
This dish made enough for us to have lunch leftovers the next day (which is something we try to plan for with our weekly meal plans), so we enjoyed it atop a bed of microgreens with a splash of our favorite vinegarette. Speaking of microgreens, we just got our growing station set up and seeds delivered to begin our microgreen production. Stay tuned for availability!
As Shannon mentioned in our inaugural blog post, we are now the proud parents of two Great Pyrenees puppies. I want to talk a little bit about why we chose the dogs we did and what our plans are for them, but first, perhaps a little background is in order.
I am a master at becoming fixated on a topic, learning everything I can, developing a plan for how it will fit in my life, and then not doing anything about it. For over a decade now I have been planning the perfect chicken flock, the perfect garden layout and crop rotation, the perfect breeds of pig and sheep and the exact numbers of produce we need to put up each year to be as self-sufficient as we can. When I started said research, we had both just finished college and lived in town on a quarter-acre lot. My farming dreams could not be fulfilled on a measly quarter-acre. Defeated, I decided to build a couple raised bed gardens, a compost bin, and we planted a couple fruit trees. I started asparagus from seed and could hardly wait for the bumper crop we would surely be celebrating in a few years…but…like I said, good at planning, not so great at execution. I nurtured all of the plants I started from seed, but once everything went to the garden, it became a neglected forest. My heart just wasn’t in it. I needed to be back in the country for this to work right. This might be a good time to mention that it is painfully expensive to live in the country and we had just bought our first home at the height of the housing market in 2006. I spent almost five years looking for a rural property we could afford and had a house Shannon would agree to live in. I’m certainly not trying to paint my wife as high-maintenance, she’s far from it, but yurts and trailers were not in our future.
Well, finally I found a tiny, old house on about 7.5 acres with a couple out-buildings and a small pond. Perfect. The owner had horses and had amended a garden area with composted manure for years. Rich, beautiful soil…that would have to wait. If you ever want to do anything outside of your newly purchased, 110 year old farmhouse, don’t tear off any wall paneling, or drywall, or plan a “little remodel”. Oh, and definitely don’t get pregnant with your first child while you’re in the middle of remodeling the master bedroom and bathroom of a house that only has one other bedroom and ¾ bath. Did I mention the other bedroom in your house would be up a tight set of stairs that turned with sharp, wedge-shaped treads at the very top? A room that would be wholly unsuitable for a small child? Anyway, I plotted bigger and better gardens at that house and had some successes, but again, my heart wasn’t in it because I knew we wouldn’t be staying there. I started building a chicken coop, but put off getting chickens because I didn’t know what I’d do with them if/when we sold the place. And that horse stable that would have been perfect for a little goat herd? Same story. Back to the property search.
I’m not sure I can make this long story short at this point (we haven’t even talked about dogs yet), but we ended up finding a little over 21 acres and built our dream home on it. Oh yeah, we had another kid, too. The wheels started moving. Bigger gardens were planned and planted. The gardens had some successes and some failures (I’m still a better garden planner and planter than tender). Chicken coops were built. Chickens were brooded. Chickens were processed. Chickens laid eggs. Predators came. More chickens were ordered. Rinse. Repeat. More predators came.
And that last point was where this new farming journey really begins. “More predators came”. About a month ago, Shannon was coming home from the doctor with a severe case of strep throat and came across two stray dogs killing our chickens. I had built a hoop-style coop to house the birds for late fall and winter since we’d suffered numerous losses to red-tail hawks the year prior and the trend looked to be returning. The birds would be safe and I would just move the coop forward to new grass once or twice a day. Then, we could turn them loose in the pasture again in the Spring when the hawk pressure subsided. That all worked splendidly until a relentless little terrier managed to rip a whole the size of a grapefruit in the wire mesh covering one end of the coop and weasel his way in to start snapping chicken necks. We ended up losing 11 hens that day and undoubtedly would have lost the other 16 if Shannon had not come home when she did. I moved the surviving chickens in to our original chicken coop and huge run that our Muscovies were living in and took three injured barred rock hens to another coop to quarantine them until they died or healed. With a little luck and a lot of Blu Kote they healed. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “uhhh, dude, I just came here to look at pictures of adorable puppies.” Okay, I’ll get to the puppies.
A couple weeks after the stray dogs reenacted “The Red Wedding” with our chickens, I happened upon a tweet from a local humane society with a fuzzy little Pyrenees/Saint Bernard mix up for adoption. I (not so) innocently texted the pic to Shannon and somehow the next day we were headed to Kansas City to add a third big dog to our family. Sadly (for our 4 & 6 year old sons), the pup and its five siblings had all been adopted in one day. Our plan had been to get the dog and integrate it into our family, but take it down to hang out with the chickens during the day to protect them from any would-be-predators. Prior to seeing the puppy tweet we really had no intention of getting a third dog. But, missing the chance to adopt it allowed us to think through our plan and do a lot more research on what type of dog would provide us with the protection we wanted for our chickens and how best to handle the training of a livestock guardian dog. As Shannon became consumed with learning all she could about LGDs, something suddenly clicked in her and she developed a much stronger urge to get more serious about farming and become a more active participant in the growth-plan for our farm. In the past I had always been the one to plan when we were getting chickens, or bees, or planting the garden. She would always help with everything, but now we were having real conversations that we never really had before around what our goals and dreams were for the farm. And here is where it is so valuable to have a partner that not only wants to do the same things as you, but also compliments you and makes up for your deficiencies. Over the past decade I have suffered from a bit of paralysis by analysis and haven’t been able to make myself commit to anything beyond a few dozen chickens, a beehive, and an often-overgrown garden. Shannon was able to research guardian dogs and develop an action plan for the farm. I joked with some friends that what I had been unable to accomplish in ten years, she was able to knock out in a long weekend. Before I knew it, we had a legal business entity, a website, a blog, short and long-term plans for gardens, chickens, livestock, and jobs for dogs.
Okay, okay, NOW I’ll get to the dogs. After researching a solution for poultry guardianship we decided that our original plans of adopting another family dog and training it to just hang out with the poultry during the day probably wasn’t going to work very well. We also decided that we would like to add some hair sheep to our farm this year for meat production. All the info out there on LGDs specifically says that they have been bred for centuries to live amongst and protect their charge. Hmmm….we’ve only ever had big dogs that live in the house with us. Can we bring ourselves to have a dog that will likely never see the inside of our house? We also read that it can take some dogs up to 2 years before they can be trusted with poultry. Oh boy, we’re Americans, two years might as well be a lifetime. Now you’re probably going to tell me that they work better as teams or that they should come from working lines. Oh bother. Well, after spending a solid week of doing nothing but researching Livestock Guardian Dogs we decided to go look at a litter of 9-week-old Great Pyrenees puppies an hour and forty-five minutes away from our house. When we pulled up to the farm, all seven of the puppies were sitting outside in a line watching us drive up the driveway. Nobody was outside, this was not staged, our hearts melted. I knew we would be leaving with two.
I think everyone that knows us is surprised that we bought two working dogs with every intention of letting them do a job for our farm. We have long been advocates of pet adoption as shelters are filled with an endless supply of animals longing for forever homes. Many people recommended that we look for rescues or shelter dogs. That was where our search started. As much as we wanted to make that work, we couldn’t let the decision become an emotional one. We decided it would be best for the direction we want to take with the farm to get puppies from working parents who had experience with livestock and poultry and give ourselves the best odds of having puppies that would grow to do the same. We couldn’t justify rolling the dice and potentially increasing the chances of having a dog that would become a problem. By problem I mean it could wipe out our entire laying flock and meat production flock in the blink of an eye. We have a business to think about now and losing a laying flock would cost us 5 months of revenue, plus the cost of replacement birds, plus the cost of feed to get them to laying age, plus the reputation of not being a reliable source for eggs. Elimination of meat birds would set us back about two months plus sunk costs and replacement costs. We just weren’t willing to take the risk of an unknown lineage.
When we decided we were all-in on working dogs we knew that the hardest part for us would be the urge to bring them into our home. Although it’s not as hard as I thought it was going to be, part of me still wants to snuggle the not-so-little puffballs on the sofa. Honestly, I think we were relieved when we read that they work well in pairs. Dogs are pack animals and the decision to bring home two was not difficult for us as we felt better knowing the dogs would have a companion. It was sort of surreal when we were driving home with two puppies in the back cab of the truck. What did we just do? Well, as I mentioned, it can take up to two years for dogs to be good working dogs and we were both tired of waiting. If we wanted to do this, we needed to jump. The longer we waited, the longer that would postpone other dreams on the farm. So, instead of getting everything perfect, we just did it. Now we have animals that require our care and attention. I liken it to being a parent; you’re never quite ready to have a baby and sometimes you’re not really sure how you’re going to manage everything, but you just have to, so you do. That’s the approach that we’re taking with farming. We now have plans to fence in the hay field on one side of our driveway to run sheep through paddocks with the dogs and chickens. On the other side of the driveway we have an area that contains our garden that we plan to expand to the better part of an acre with the remaining few acres available for pig pasture. We are going to be pasturing some Cornish X meat chickens this spring along with some heritage turkeys as a trial run for what our meat market looks like, so we’ll keep you all posted on how those ventures progress and when we have product available. We will also be expanding our egg production, so we should be in full swing with egg availability around August or September. I’ll stop yapping now and let you get back to looking at puppy pictures.
So, we did a thing. We did a big thing. We thought a lot about the thing and researched the thing like crazy.
We just came home with two Great Pyrenees puppies. They are possibly the cutest things on this planet, even covered in mud and twigs and a little stinky!
Some of you who know us may be thinking “Why on earth would this family with two indoor dogs, two young children, two full time jobs (total, not each) and a coop full of chickens and ducks want TWO puppies to deal with?”
How about a backstory to explain? See, we haven’t been doing this very long, although Aaron has been dreaming of having a homestead or farm for probably twelve years. We are on our third year of having chickens and have lost most of them to predators; mostly red tailed hawks and stray dogs. Well, that farming dream I mentioned didn’t include chickens that were unable to forage in fresh greenery and soak in the sun, nor did it include finding dead chickens.
According to our research, with the proper training, Livestock Guarding Dogs can protect all sorts of livestock animals from almost any predator out there. But guess what? The training and maturing process of a dog can be around two years. TWO years! And like the true Americans we are, that feels like forever (I want it and I want it now)! But, like planting fruit trees or asparagus crowns, you do the work up front to reap the benefits at the end. And, those of you in your thirties or later know…how insanely fast 2 years will go.
Since this is our first blog post, maybe we should have introduced ourselves. We just got so excited to tell you about the puppies because….puppies. We are Aaron and Shannon Meyer of 1450 Farm in Lawrence, Kansas and we have finally jumped into our small-scale farming endeavor. We plan to blog about it weekly (or more…or less – we’ll see how we feel), feel free to follow along at www.1450farm.com!
When I say we are jumping in, I should clarify. We have gardened since 2006, lived in the country (mostly) since 2010 (barely), have had chickens and bees since 2016 and ducks since 2017. Yeah, newbies. Aaron will probably write most of the blogs – he’s such a good writer and remembers all of those rules about punctuation I seem to have forgotten. He is also the brains behind this operation and pretty darn funny and does the most research and work on this farm.
Aaron received his bachelors in Secondary Education and Masters in Business. I got my bachelors in Interior Design. Whoops, neither of us went to school for this. Looks like this could be entertaining and hopefully a little educational for those of you reading!
Hopefully our future posts are a little more helpful for you. We plan to share our stories and adventures with you – even when we fail, so you can learn from our mistakes (or so you can sit back and laugh at with us).
Aaron & Shannon
Check back soon for posts about our adventures on the farm, our boys and animals, our failures, our successes, our RECIPES, all things homesteading and few extras!
Shannon & Aaron