Our Tractor System

It took several years of experimentation and trial and error, but we’ve finally refined our chicken tractor system into something that’s very effective — and something that I can recommend to others.

The basic idea for keeping broiler chickens in movable pasture pens comes from Joel Salatin, who raises thousands of birds that way each year in Virginia and has written numerous books on the subject. The idea is to keep the birds in a safe place, but outside in the fresh air, where they have plenty of good green stuff and bugs in their diet. By moving the pens each day, the manure never gets built up too much in one place — and the birds have a constant source of fresh green stuff.

Our first year here, I built a few crude pasture pens and basically moved them around in the yard. There was little rhyme or reason to how I moved them or where. I also experimented with various materials and styles for building the pens, and wasted a lot of money (which we dubbed “tuition money”) in the process. But I took good notes, and improved the pens each year.

Then, last year, came a big breakthrough. I began planting a new vineyard at the north end of the property, and fenced it off securely from the sheep. The vineyard consists of four very long lines of wire trellis, stretching from north to south. The first line, on which I planted approximately 35 vines last year, is about ten feet from the property’s western perimeter fence. The next lines (one of which I planted last year, one of which I planted this year, and one which will be planted next year) are each eight feet further east of the previous, and there is an eight foot gap between the final line and the sheep pasture. All five of those 8+ foot aisles are filled with a wide variety of weeds and clover.

Rather than mowing down all that green stuff, I decided to let the chickens do the work. We put three pasture pens, each of which is approximately six feet wide and eight feet long, staggered on various aisles of the vineyard. Two of those pens contain laying hens (to keep them out of our fruiting brambles and Mrs. Yeoman Farmer’s garden for the summer), and one contains a mix of broiler chicks and pullet chicks (next year’s laying hens). Each day, the kids and I gather eggs from the pens with laying hens, move all three pens one length (8 ft) down the aisle, give the hens some layer ration and the growing birds some broiler ration, and ensure that their waterers are full.

As the pen begins moving, the birds scramble to snap up all the crickets and grasshoppers that are stirred up in the fresh weeds. They then begin picking at the green stuff itself, sometimes even ignoring the supplemental grain I’ve just put down for them. By the time I come out the next day, they’ve completely mowed down the weeds and given the vineyard floor a nice layer of fertilizer. This picture shows the amazing degree to which a pen of birds can mow down weeds — notice the contrast between the aisle behind this pen and the height of the weeds in the adjoining aisles. Before the pen went through, the whole vineyard had weeds that high. (The blue grow tubes are where the grape vines are growing — the tubes act as a greenhouse, and support the vines to help get them up on the trellis.)

This photograph gives a wider perspective of the vineyard, showing a couple of different pens moving in different directions.

I’m not sure exactly how long each trellis line is, but it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 feet. At 8 feet per day, it takes about 25 days for a pen to make it from one end to the other. There is a generous amount of open space at both the north and south end of the vineyard, to allow the pen to be dragged sideways and started down a new aisle. Once all five aisles have had a pen go over them once, we send the pen down whichever aisle’s weeds have grown back the most.

It’s a beautiful system: the birds are confined in a safe and manageable space, they get fresh air, fresh greens, and plenty of bugs in their diet, and are moved off their droppings. The vineyard gets mowed and fertilized, and a significant number of bugs are removed. It’s “ecology” in the truest sense of the word, and I highly recommend it for farmsteads everywhere.

Cage Free Eggs

Interesting article in yesterday’s New York Times about cage free eggs. Seems that demand is increasing, due in large part to concerns about cramming production hens into battery cages where each has an amount of space roughly equal to a “laptop computer.” We have such a factory near our town, and locals who’ve worked there have told stories that will make your hair stand on end. One ex-employee will not even eat chicken — any kind of chicken, even when we offered to give him a free pasture-raised broiler — because the mere thought of chicken still turns his stomach, some 20 years later.

One thing the article makes very clear, though, is that “cage free” does not equal “free range” or “pastured.” As we’ve been telling our customers for some time, “cage free” simply means the birds are loose in a large building, just like most commercial broiler chickens are raised. It does not mean the birds ever see the light of day, or have anything fresh and green in their diet. Also, as the article mentions, it does not mean the birds are necessarily healthier than those raised in batteries.

Our own chickens are the next step beyond “cage free.” They are completely free ranging during most of the year, and during the summer gardening/fruit months they are kept in movable pasture pens. As I’ll describe in another post soon, these pasture pens give the birds fresh green stuff every day, take them off their droppings every day, and keep them out in the fresh air in small groups 24 hours per day. (And this system has the added advantage of keeping them away from my ripening wine grapes and away from Mrs. Yeoman Farmer’s tomatoes.)

Furthermore, on a more philosophical level, our pastured and free-range chickens give glory to God. This is because we allow them to behave in complete accord with their nature; they are allowed to behave in the way God designed and intended them to behave. Were we to cram them into battery cages, we’d be reducing them to mere egg-laying machines.

The eggs from hens raised in this manner are incomparable, and are usually only found at farmers markets or local health food stores. I only wish we could produce more of them without overwhelming our small farm with chickens.

Raw Milk

Raw (unpasteurized) milk is almost impossible to purchase, unless you know a farmer and get it directly from that farm. Even then, you often must bring your own jar and/or have it labeled with something along the lines of “WARNING: This Might Kill You.”

I still remember the first time we bought raw milk. I called the seller, which happened to be a convent of nuns in Washington State which had a herd of cows. I called and asked the good sister, “I heard you had raw milk, and we wanted to get some.” Her (suspicious) reply: “Who is this?” Only when I assured her I was a father of young children with severe food allergies, looking for natural food, did she relax and talk with me…and give directions to their farm.

Raw milk is not only delicious, it is also wholesome. Pasteurization kills bad bacteria…but it also kills all the wonderful living things that make milk so incredibly healthy. It basically turns a living thing into…chalk water. Granted, you must obtain raw milk from a healthy cow (or goat) milked under clean conditions for it to be safe. Pasteurization basically allows mega farms to milk dirty and/or mastitic cows and pool all the milk and “clean it up” on the back end. In other words, it’s industrial agriculture at its worst.

We finally got so frustrated trying to find raw milk, we bought our own goats.

The New York Times had an excellent piece today discussing this issue:

Mr. MilgromElcott never missed a drop. Each month, he joined mothers with newborns and Wall Street titans in search of a box of unpasteurized, unhomogenized, raw milk. He is also part of a movement of perhaps hundreds of thousands across the country who will risk illness or even death to drink their milk the way Americans did for centuries: straight from the cow.
Twenty years ago, the
Food and Drug Administration
banned interstate sales of unpasteurized milk. This spring the agency warned consumers again that they were risking their health drinking raw milk.

Still, individual states determine how raw milk is bought and sold within their borders. While its sale for human consumption is illegal in 15 states, New York is one of 26 where it can be bought with restrictions. The chief one is that raw milk can only be sold on the premises of one of 19 dairy farms approved by the state. Clandestine milk clubs, like the one Mr. MilgromElcott joined, are one way of circumventing the law, and there are others.

Raw milk drinkers may praise its richer flavor or claim it is more nutritious than pasteurized milk. No matter why they drink it, the demand for it is booming. In 2000, the Organic Pastures Dairy Company in the San Joaquin Valley near Fresno became California’s first raw milk dairy with certified organic pasture land. This year its co-founder, Mark McAfee, expects it to gross $6 million — up from $4.9 last year.

It’s really sick that Americans today must form “clandestine milk clubs” to obtain raw milk. Or buy their own dairy animal. But for those seeking a business opportunity…this could be very big.

The Postman Cometh. Loudly.

Jeff Culbreath’s recent post about a wonderful children’s book, The Jolly Pocket Postman, reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to post about for some time: rural mail delivery.

Do you know your mailman’s name? Do you know anything about him? Out where we live, everybody knows Ron Dudley. He’s been buzzing around the country roads, delivering mail, ever since retiring from the military and taking this up as a civil service job. There are many more like him in these rural areas, driving a huge territory to make sure the mail gets to everyone. In some cases, the rural mail carrier is the only human being that some isolated people see in a given day. Because of the stability of the population out here, and the stability of postal employment, rural mail carriers end up getting to know just about everyone on their route. And when mail unexpectedly piles up in an elderly person’s box, carriers have been known to get out of their cars and investigate whether the resident is alright or not. If you don’t know how much postage a large envelope requires, or if you accidentially don’t put enough postage on an envelope, many rural carriers will afix the proper amount when they get to the post office — and then collect the money the next time they see you.

Mr. Dudley has a new automobile which he occasionally uses on the route, but he’s usually out in his old blue compact car. Picture a Ford Fiesta or something similar. The thing has no muffler, so it’s louder than a motorcycle. We thought at first that it lacked a muffler because he hadn’t been able to get it fixed or find a replacement part. Turns out, he deliberately removed the muffler. Why? So people could hear him coming from a mile away! As it turns out, this is a wonderful way to signal that the mail has arrived. Also, there have been countless times that I’ve heard the “Dudley Drone” coming down our road and I’ve remembered that I forgot to put the outgoing mail into our box. If I jog slowly down the driveway, I can intercept him at just the right time. We’ll exchange mail, joke around for a moment, and then he’ll be again droning down the road (with Rush Limbaugh blaring from the stereo, if it’s between 11am and 2pm).

At Christmas time, we always bake extra cookies so we can give a dozen to Ron Dudley. Ditto for our UPS driver, Scott. He’s been driving this same rural route for many years, and like Mr. Dudley knows everybody. When I’m ordering something and have a choice of shipping options (UPS or FedEx), I choose UPS because that means Scott will be stopping by in his big brown truck and we’ll have the chance to talk with him.

These guys are definitely part of the glue that holds a rural community together.

Two more

Not sure if anyone out there is interested, but the saga of the mice continues. As detailed in a recent post, last week we nabbed two mice that had taken up residence behind the stove and were climbing up the stove’s propane line to the counter top. By positioning a trap in just the right place, we nailed them as they stepped onto the counter.

I reset the trap, but two days went by with no further activity. I figured I’d leave the trap out for one more day, then pack it away until the next sign of rodent invasion.

Procrastination turned out to be a good move. On the third morning, there was a very small mouse caught in the trap; it was only one-third to one-half the size of the two we’d caught before. Clearly, we deduced, the original two were adults and they must’ve been making a nest back there. Knowing mice seldom have just one offspring at a time, I reset the trap. Sure enough, the next morning, we caught another juvenile.

There was a time in my life that I might have felt guilty about being a “baby mouse killer.” All I can say is: it’s remarkable what living in the country does to one’s attitude toward animals in general — and toward rodents in particular. If I catch Thumper in Mrs Yeoman Farmer’s garden, and the 12-gauge is close at hand, Thumper is going down no matter how old or young he is. Ditto for anything that takes up residence in the house.

Political Socialization

As a political scientist, it’s amusing watching the way our children have been acquiring their views about politics and public policy. In the business, we refer to this process as “political socialization.” Adults do not always share the political orientation of their parents, but the correlation is generally quite strong; parental party identification is an excellent predictor of a child’s party identification. (I still remember a fellow UCLA graduate student sending out a birth announcement to the department; after listing his new baby’s name, length, and weight, he closed with “and is reportedly a Democrat.”)

We don’t appear to be raising any Democrats in this family. Yesterday, my eleven year old and I were driving around running errands. At a stop light, he pointed to the car in front of us and remarked (approvingly), “Look at those bumper stickers, Daddy. ‘Rush is Right,’ and ‘Bush-Cheney.’ Those people must be Republicans!”

Then, when we got home, the eight year old greeted us with big news. Just like how Daddy had recently published a research piece about abortion attitudes, she had decided to write her own article about abortion — complete, like Daddy’s, with “numbers.” Here is how it reads, in part:

Abortion’s a bad thing. 3,9225,6225. Abortion’s horable (sic). 6535,23560. … I’m a Republican and do not support abortion. 3225,82201128.

Speaking of that article I wrote, one of our more remarkable findings is the dramatic pro-life swing among Generation Y over the last 15 years. The WSJ’s James Taranto, among others, has speculated that this may be due in part to the “Roe Effect.” In other words, those who are pro-choice tend to have more abortions than those who are pro-life, leading to a skewed population today. I’ve seen other research showing that Republicans tend to have more children than Democrats do. It’ll be interesting to track the long term impacts of these fertility differences on the American electorate.

As for us here on the farm in Illinois…we’re doing our part.