One thing that people don’t usually give a lot of thought to before moving to the country and starting a small farming operation: You are chained to it. Much faster, and much more thoroughly, than you ever could have imagined. The things you took for granted while living in the suburbs — going away for the weekend, going on vacation for a week, even staying out late at a friend’s house or a show — become major productions when you have livestock. Goats and cows need to be milked at reasonably regular intervals. Sheep need to be brought in from pasture before the predators are active. Poultry need to be secured in a barn or coop, and fed, and eggs gathered. And so on. And so on.

How much of a production? Our last family vacation was in November, 2004. And it was combined in part with an election-related trip I needed to take for work anyway.

When we lived in Illinois, we were seldom all out of town at the same time. If I had a business trip, Mrs Yeoman Farmer and the kids would stay home. If MYF and the kids went to see her folks in Michigan, I would stay home (and rent action movies, and eat pizza, and drink beer…but that’s another story). On the few occasions when we all went to Michigan together, we had a homeschooled neighbor boy (“Rent-A-Son”) named Matthew who was extremely mature and responsible, and was able to come to our place twice a day to take care of things when we were out of town visiting Mrs Yeoman Farmer’s family. He fed the various livestock, made sure everything was in order, and took care of milking our goats. We’d usually talk by phone at least once or twice a day, and he sometimes had to do extraordinary things to save livestock which had gotten into peril. Because even when you’re not physically present on your farm, the farm is never far from your mind. Matthew was our long distance “eyes and ears.” Not to mention “arms” and “hands.”

Here in Michigan, we have yet to all leave town together. Unfortunately, we have not yet found a local “Matthew” who we trust.

This is on my mind because I recently received an invitation to go to South Bend in April and give a talk to a Republican group, about my work in politics. The person who invited me is familiar with our farming activities, and himself lives on a country property. And has aspirations about establishing a farming operation. As part of his invitation, he encouraged me to bring the whole family — so they could meet his family, and we could get to know each other better, and so we could exchange ideas about farming.

Fantastic aspirations and intentions. I would have loved to have responded in the affirmative. But my first thoughts were: April. Lambing season. Multiple goats needing to be milked twice a day. Sheep needing to be let out, and brought back from, pasture. Dogs need to be fed. Chickens need to be fed. Chickens? We’ll have lots of pullet chicks in the brooder! And turkey poults. And ducklings. And the garden will be going in! Who will water it?

Who? Simple: When I am gone, MYF and all the Yeoman Farm Children.

I graciously accepted the speaking invitation, but explained why the rest of the family couldn’t come along. He completely understood, and I thought his response was worth quoting verbatim:

I had not considered being so tied to a family farm. Man, that complicates things. I travel a little for work and I often take the family with me when we can. We’ll have to think that through. We’re a couple years from pursuing the farm as it is…

Yes, it definitely complicates things. And we hadn’t considered it, either, before we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of it. And we’d only been on our Illinois property for 13 months when it was already causing huge problems: MYF was 9+ months pregnant, staying in Chicago with the other two kids in anticipation of a C-section, and I was shuttling 80 miles each way to get home to feed our chickens. And was at the house when she went into labor, and had to go to the hospital by ambulance (with the other two kids riding in a police car), leaving me to go bombing up I-57 at 80 MPH so I could arrive with minutes to spare before our son’s birth. And then I took the older two home with me, fed the animals, and then drove back. And so on. And so on.

Believe me: we still talk about this incident. And we didn’t even have that many animals at the time. But the ones we had (mature broiler chickens, out in pastured poultry pens) needed considerable attention. If it’d just been a handful of free range laying hens, we wouldn’t have worried. They can take care of themselves. But those big meaty broilers would’ve been dropping right and left if I hadn’t kept running home to tend to them.

This isn’t to try talking anybody out of farming. I just hope it helps you stop and think about all the implications of what you’re getting yourself into when you have a farm — before you find yourself “in it.” And wonder what on earth you have done.

Midwinter Surprise

We’ve had a foot of snow on the ground for over a month now. I can’t remember the last time the temperature climbed above freezing. Mrs Yeoman Farmer’s mail-order garden seeds have been arriving nearly ever day, but I’m wondering when we’ll ever be able to plant them.

In short: it is really, really, really dreary and depressing here in Michigan. Has been for some time, and will be for the foreseeable future.

And then, today, a surprise greeted me in the barn when I went out to do the afternoon chores:

Yes, a goat kid. In fact, TWIN goat kids:

I hurried back to the house and announced the news. The children cheered and screamed with excitement, and I’ve never seen them move so quickly to get dressed. Within minutes, all of us were out in the barn to look at our two new beautiful little girls (both do appear to be female).

Unfortunately, the kidding pen was in serious disrepair. Fortunately, I’d patched the fence and installed a new gate a few weeks ago — but the pen itself was full of junk, and we had no water bucket set up in there. And the gate needed some chain link material fastened to it, to keep little kids from slipping out.

Our whole family went to work, clearing the junk from the kidding pen and getting it ready for our new arrivals. I set up a 250W heat lamp (usually used for brooding chicks), so the kids could get some extra warmth for the next couple of weeks. Mrs Yeoman Farmer found some goat mineral. I brought an armload of clean straw down from the loft. Homeschooled Farm Girl carried both goat kids to the pen, while I made sure their mother (“Button”) followed. I then got her some grain, and MYF put some hay in her feeder.

As the kids got accustomed to their new pen, MYF and I went to work fastening chain link material to the gate. Apart from being cold (and freezing our fingers), that went off without a hitch. I went to the house and filled a bucket with warm water, and brought it back out for Button. She slurped it like there was no tomorrow.

The most amusing participant in this whole circus was Scooter, our Border Collie mix. Bottom line: it astounds me the instincts that God has given him. As MYF and I worked on the gate, Scooter hovered protectively over the goat kids. He nudged and herded the barn cats away from them, and then sat down to lick the amniotic fluid off one of the kids. When both kids were near Button, Scooter made sure he approached them in his most “subservient” posture: head down, full crouch, tail between his legs — as if to communicate to Button that he didn’t represent a threat, and was only here to help. Once near the new little goat family, he stood protectively and continued nudging the barn cats away.

At last, everything was set and the chores were finished. Scooter and I returned to my office, and the children excitedly returned to the house to finish their schoolwork. Just another dreary midwinter day at the farm…made much brighter by the addition of two beautiful new lives.

Chickens: The Basics

I’ve had several posts, over the years, about chickens (click on the subject word “Chickens” below to pull up all of those posts). But as chickens are among the most basic of homestead livestock — and can even be raised stealthily in an urban or suburban environment — they are always worth another mention. This post is prompted by a recent reader email:

We are wanting to get chickens this spring. I have checked out Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens from the library, but I need to go ahead and buy it. I guess a couple of my big questions at this point are what kind of chickens to get, when to get them and where to get them from. We are wanting layers this year. I have checked a few places online for chickens and it seems most of them require a minimum of 25 chickens. I don’t really want 25 chickens!

Any advice you could give me would be most appreciated!

I sent her a personal reply, but we both decided that my response would be worth sharing with the wider blog readership. Here it is, with some modification and embellishment:

Storey’s Guides are definitely a good investment. I have a link to the Amazon pages for several of these books, over in the right margin of the blog. (The only Storey’s Guide we found unhelpful, and are glad we didn’t buy, is the one about turkeys. That book seems to assume an industrial production model, with fairly little about heritage turkeys or pastured/free range models.)

25 chickens is the absolute minimum you can mail-order. They don’t stay warm enough if there are fewer bodies in the box. And it’s not a bad idea to start with more than you think you’ll need; we killed many baby birds when we were learning how to care for them.

But if you want to end up with, say, 10 layers, there are a few routes you can go:

1) The local feed store, or Big R, or Rural King, Tractor Supply, Family Farm & Home, Farm & Fleet (whatever you have in your area). Call and ask when they’ll have chicks; you can usually buy any number of chicks you want — but sometimes they insist on a minimum as well. Just ask. If you want to try getting a few turkey poults, or ducklings, this is also a good way to get started. And, as a bonus, the babies may be as much as a week or two old by the time you take them home — that’s all the less you need to feed them, and the less exposure you have to their most fragile/vulnerable time period. (We find that brooder deaths decrease rapidly after the first week or so. The weaklings don’t tend to make it past the first several days.)

2) Mail order a “straight run” of 25 chicks of a decent dual-purpose breed, and butcher the cockrels once you can tell the difference between the sexes. They don’t make the best eating birds, but they’re not bad. You really can’t go wrong with any of these breeds: Buff Orpingtons, Black Australorps, Barred Rock, New Hampshire Red, Rhode Island Red. We’ve had good luck with all of them. We color-code our flock, buying different breeds in different years so we can tell which ones are older. You can expect two laying seasons from a hen, and then they go downhill pretty quickly. With all the work getting our new farm in shape, we didn’t buy any pullets last year; we’re going into the second season of laying with our Barred Rocks, so we’ll definitely be getting more pullets this spring. We will be getting Buff Orpingtons, which are easily distinguishable from the black-and-white Barred Rocks. Once the former start laying, we’ll begin filling the freezer with the latter (and then enjoying chicken soup all of next winter).

3) Place an order for 15 pullet chicks and 10 Cornish Cross meat bird chicks. The Cornish Cross will grow much faster, and will be ready to butcher in 6-8 weeks. They are an outstanding, meaty bird — there’s a reason they are the industry standard. Once you taste your own home-grown ones, you’ll never want to buy chicken from the grocery store again.

In terms of timing: do yourself a favor and get your first batch of chicks in later spring (May, if you’re in the upper Midwest like we are and the questionner is). The somewhat warmer weather will give the birds an easier time, and make the transition from supplemental heat all the faster. In good spring/summer temperatures, we’ve gotten babies out from the brooder and into a pastured poultry pen in as few as 10-14 days. When you start earlier in the spring, at least in the upper Midwest, they need more brooder time to get ready for the colder temps.

For suppliers, the very best (though a bit more expensive) is McMurray Hatchery. I usually recommend people get their first few orders from them. Their website is a tremendous resource, and they have an excellent guarantee on their birds. If any die in transit or in the first day or two, they refund that cost. One time our package got delayed in transit, and a whole bunch of birds died. McMurray didn’t question it or grill us about it; the customer service rep expressed genuine sympathy about how hard it must’ve been to see all those dead birds, and asked if I’d prefer a refund or a new (free) order to replace them.

A lower-cost alternative is Cackle Hatchery. They don’t have as wide of a selection, and we’ve seemed to have had more deaths with birds from them, and the website isn’t as professional. But Cackle does have all the basic breeds of chickens and turkeys; unless you’re looking for something really exotic, they probably have it. When you compare their very basic website and catalog to McMurray’s, you’ll understand why McMurray has to charge more for their product. Anyhow, with Cackle I’ve found it’s best to call them and place your order over the phone, once you’ve figured out what you want, so you can be certain they know which day you want your birds. McMurray lets you nail down the shipping date right on the site.

(Warning: when you load the Cackle site, it has REALLY annoying chicken noises. I always turn my speakers off.)

If you’ve been thinking about taking the leap and trying some chickens…go for it! And don’t hesitate to email me with any questions of your own.