Just Another Sunday Morning

We were looking forward to a particularly easy-going Sunday morning this week; we’d gone to Mass the evening before (very unusual for us), and didn’t have anything on the schedule before mid-afternoon. I figured I’d sleep in, and then spend some time in front of the fireplace.

Mother Nature had other plans, and proved that “farmers never get a day off.” Out in the barn, I got hay for the sheep and fed the chickens. Then, as I took hay to the goats, I spotted something very odd: a smallish white body of some kind of animal, laying under the hay feeder. My first thought: it’s a dead cat. Then, an instant later, I remembered that we have never had any white cats. A wild animal? Nope. Possums are the only white animals I can think of, and this was definitely not a possum.

Finally, my brain kicked into gear: STUPID. It’s a GOAT KID. One of the does obviously gave birth in the night, and this is where she deposited the kid.

All the goats were swarming me, trying to get the hay that I was still holding in my arms. I feared that if I filled the hay feeder the goat kid was under, the herd would trample the kid to death. So, brain now fully engaged, I filled the feeder at the other end of the goat area first, drawing the herd away from the kid. With the herd distracted, I filled the other feeder and then snatched the kid into my arms before any adult goats could get close.

Fortunately, the kid was alive. She’d been laying so still, and looked so dirty and neglected, that hadn’t been clear it first. Now came my next two tasks: (1) see if there was a twin laying around somewhere else, and (2) identify the mother.

A quick scan of the goat area revealed no twin. But identifying the kid’s mother proved more difficult. The kid was now bleating (which I took as a good sign of life), but none of our does was responding. And they were doing so much swarming and fighting over the hay, none was standing still long enough for me to get a good look at their backsides. At last, I found a young doe (Holly) with dried blood on her haunches — but it looked like it’d been a while since she’d delivered. Her udder and teats looked tiny, and she wouldn’t stand still for me to see if any milk had come in. Worst of all, despite the kid’s insistent bleating, Holly seemed oblivious to her.

Being only fifteen degrees outside (and about 25 degrees in the barn), I decided to take the kid into the house and confer with Mrs Yeoman Farmer. We put her in a box next to the fire and let her warm up a bit, and sent Little Big Brother [with Yeoman Farm Baby’s arrival, he’s not “Little Brother” anymore] upstairs to rouse his siblings. They weren’t happy about getting out of bed initially, but eventually came tromping down excitedly to see the new kid.

Our biggest concern: how would we handle the logistics of our herd? Holly and her newborn kid needed a separate place where they could bond and she could focus on taking care of the little one, but we already had two older kids in the kidding pen, in the process of weaning so we could milk their mother (Button). If we just turned those two older kids back into Gen Pop, we’d lose the morning’s milk. The two oldest Yeoman Farm Children volunteered to go out immediately and milk Button, and we decided that the kids could then stay with her in Gen Pop for at least the next 24 hours while Holly adjusted to motherhood. Perhaps Monday night we would put the two older kids back in the kidding pen with Holly and the new arrival, and see how that went. (The YFCs were of course pleased to realize they wouldn’t have to milk again before Tuesday morning.)

So, the YFCs and I headed for the barn. We took Scooter the Amazing Wonderdog with us, to help move Button’s kids out of the kidding pen — and move Holly into it. I got Holly a nice clean bucket of warm water with apple cider vinegar (as a good overall tonic), and a little bit of grain (to aid her milk production). As the YFCs began milking Button, I smashed ice out of the sheep water trough and goat water trough (both were frozen solid), then thawed the faucet and refilled both water troughs to the brim.

After taking the milk into the house, Homeschooled Farm Girl and I turned our attention to Holly and the new kid. The kid was still just laying in the stall’s bedding, and Holly was showing no interest in anything but eating. We wanted to make sure that the kid (and Holly) figured out the whole nursing thing, and that the kid got a good meal, before we left them to their own devices. HFG held Holly still, which allowed me to finally do a good inspection of the goat’s udder. There was definitely milk in there, but it was way up high and felt hard. I gave the udder a thorough massage, and HFG managed to express some milk from the tiny teats. She guided the kid to a teat…and Holly pulled away. HFG got a new grip on Holly, and I focused on keeping the kid on the teat. To get low enough, and at the right angle, I had to basically lay in the stall’s soiled bedding…but the kid did eventually get a good first meal. As the kid suckled, HFG and I had a nice conversation about goats and milking and cats and everything else that HFG likes to talk about. Which is many things.

Our mission accomplished, the two of us headed to the house so we could finally have some breakfast. After breakfast, with my prospect for quiet “Sunday morning time” in front of the fire long gone, I went out to the solitude of my office for a bit. About a half hour later, I heard the farmhouse door closing and wondered where the YFCs were going (and why). Ten or fifteen minutes after that, I got my answer: HFG appeared at my office door with good news. She’d just been to the barn, and the new kid was finally up and on her feet. And she was nursing on her own — and Holly was standing still for her to do it, and sniffing the nursing kid just like all the other mother goats do.

I thanked HFG for the update, and praised her initiative in going out to check on the new kid. And asked her if she’d like to take my camera to the barn, so we could share some photos of the new arrival with all of the blog’s readers.

HFG happily agreed to carry out that task. She brought back a nice photo of the kid:

And of Holly taking good care of the kid:

Just another Sunday morning on the farm. Just another day when you have no idea what to expect.

A Time to Plan – and Dream

One of the few fun things about winter on a farm in Michigan is spending time poring over catalogs and planning for the upcoming growing season. Mrs. Yeoman Farmer is the farm’s designated gardener, and she loves sketching out which beds will be used for which plants. The task involves rotating certain plants into different beds, and making sure that certain plants are not grown in certain other beds. She also needs to decide roughly which week/month each bed will be planted, so I can make sure I’ve hauled and spread manure in the right places early enough for it to break down and be worked thoroughly into the soil.

MYF has a core of seed companies that she likes to order from (see the blog’s right margin for links), and spends hours comparing prices and varieties in their respective catalogs. Just a couple of days ago, we ordered our seed potatoes (this coming year we hope for a large enough yield so we can keep our own seed for 2011 — with the adoption of Yeoman Farm Baby this last year, we didn’t get the potatoes watered enough, and the yield barely covered our eating needs).

I have no less fun making plans for livestock. How many new laying pullets should we get? How many broiler chicks? Ducklings? Goslings? Turkeys? Which breeds? How should we stagger them, to ensure enough chicken tractor pens are available inside for brooding — and available outside to move them into once they’re feathered? Do I need to build more tractors? Which hatcheries have the best deals on which birds?

If you’ve never raised chickens (or other poultry) before, I highly recommend McMurray Hatchery as your first stop for shopping. They are one of the most experienced, and widely regarded to be one of the best in the business. And their variety of birds is staggering; if you can’t find it in McMurray’s catalog, you’ll probably only find it from a preservation center like Sand Hill  or other highly specialized breeder (Magpie ducks come immediately to mind – we liked the breed, but had to get them from Holderread’s Waterfowl Farm in Oregon). Anyway, the McMurray Catalog is tremendous fun to browse and let your dreams run wild. You can view everything online, and I recommend going online to place your order, but we personally like the experience of holding that full-color catalog in our hands and thumbing through it. You’ll also find excellent advice for getting your new birds started. And McMurray has one of the best poultry guarantees in the business. Their birds are excellent, healthy, and when something tragic happens in shipping they make it right.

However, all of that service, and the beautiful catalog, and the top-notch website…comes with a price. McMurray’s prices tend to be significantly higher than from other suppliers, especially when you factor in shipping. A good lower-cost alternative we’ve been happy with is Cackle Hatchery in Missouri. They don’t have the same fancy chicken selection, their website isn’t slick, it sometimes takes a really long time to get through to them on the phone, their printed catalog is all black-and-white … but they have most anything a small farm would want to raise. They have a good selection of the most common laying breeds, a good broiler meat chick, and all the heritage turkeys and waterfowl breeds we’ve wanted of late. An especially good deal, if you’re not choosy, is their “surplus rare turkey” package, where you can get a box of 15 or 20 heritage turkey poults that are left over from when the orders for specific breeds have been filled. Cackle’s prices are great, and their shipping charges are very reasonable.

Here in Michigan, our local feed store has an even better deal: they send a large combined order to a hatchery that’s just a couple of hours away. This yields a bulk discount, no shipping charges, and no interstate shipping stress for the birds. Best of all, the feed store has a special deal: for each 50# bag of chick starter you buy, they’ll give you ten free broiler chicks. Since the feed costs $8.50 per bag, and the ten chicks would normally cost $10.00, this deal is beyond a no-brainer. Anyway, this particular hatchery’s selection is very basic, but covers most of what we want to raise.

I’m thinking we’ll get 30 or 40 of those broiler chicks, 25 Black Australorp pullet chicks ($2 each), and 20 White Pekin ducklings ($2.75 each). We can easily brood up to 100 chicks in one of our tractor pens, so we’ll put the broilers and pullets into one pen; the ducklings will get a separate pen. All these chicks come in to the feed store on April 7th, so they should be ready to go outside the first week of May. Because the local hatchery doesn’t have heritage breed turkeys, and their goslings are $2 more expensive than Cackle’s (even after taking shipping into account), I’ll order 16 goslings, and a box of 20 surplus rare turkeys, from Cackle to arrive in early May just as the brooder pens are being cleared out; the goslings will go in one and the turkeys in the other. (By ordering all the Cackle birds at the same time, we get a big break on shipping.)

Longtime blog readers know that we color-code our layer chicks, so we know how old each one is; after two years, it’s time to put them in the freezer and soup pot. Last year, we raised Buff Orpingtons…so the Australorps will be easy to distinguish from them.

I’ll probably have to build a couple of more tractor pens for the garden, but that’ll be a fun project to do with the Homeschooled Farm Children…and we’ve built so many of them now, they come together quickly.

Lots of things to plan. Lots of things to dream about. Lots of fun in the year ahead.

Truly Marvelous Eggs

In a recent post about eggs, I noted that a researcher from Iowa State University appeared on a History Channel program and declared that there is no nutritional difference between eggs from caged hens and free range hens. I’m not sure what evidence she was basing that conclusion on, or if she’d been comparing “caged” to “cage free” hens which all ate the same commercial layer ration diet, or what; one of the weaknesses of television is it doesn’t allow much depth and nuance. I noted that my gut told me that conclusion couldn’t be correct — and, thankfully, commenter Sara directed me toward the necessary evidence.

This article from Mother Earth News is outstanding. Their nutritional testing concludes that:

Most of the eggs currently sold in supermarkets are nutritionally inferior to eggs produced by hens raised on pasture. That’s the conclusion we have reached following completion of the 2007 Mother Earth News egg testing project. Our testing has found that, compared to official U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrient data for commercial eggs, eggs from hens raised on pasture may contain:

• 1/3 less cholesterol

• 1/4 less saturated fat
• 2/3 more vitamin A
• 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
• 3 times more vitamin E
• 7 times more beta carotene

These amazing results come from 14 flocks around the country that range freely on pasture or are housed in moveable pens that are rotated frequently to maximize access to fresh pasture and protect the birds from predators. We had six eggs from each of the 14 pastured flocks tested by an accredited laboratory in Portland, Ore. The chart at the end of this article shows the average nutrient content of the samples, compared with the official egg nutrient data from the USDA for “conventional” (i.e. from confined hens) eggs.

And later in the article they do address the sorts of misleading statements that the Iowa State University researcher made in the Modern Marvels program. Go read the whole thing.

I should mention that here in Michigan there is very little for our free range hens to forage on in the winter. They do eat our table scraps, but we must supplement their diet with layer ration from the feed store. We hope to remedy this in the future by growing more “winter keeper” feeds such as pumpkins, mangals, and other squashes that can be broken open for our hens when the pasture is gone.

Thanks again to Sara for directing me to this article.

Marvels of Eggs

One of our kids’ favorite television programs is the History Channel’s series, Modern Marvels. We’ve seen nearly every episode, and each one provides a remarkable amount of educational content — while remaining entertaining and engaging.

Last night, a brand new episode aired, and it was about…eggs. As many Modern Marvels do, they began by showing the modern, industrialized production models — basically, taking the viewer through a massive facility in Iowa and explaining the way in which 98% of eggs find their way to market. They then move on to alternative production models, showing the differences between “cage free” and “pastured”; the segment about Eatwell Farm in California, raising hens on pasture is beautiful, and an inspiration for all of us who are trying to keep livestock in a holistic manner (rather than by declaring war on nature). Later in the program, they explore different ways in which eggs are packaged, shipped, and consumed by end users.

They did their best to paint the industrial egg plant in as good a light as possible, but what struck me was the number of times the narrator had to explain that a given practice was “in accord with [SOME OFFICIAL-SOUNDING GROUP OR ORGANIZATION] guidelines.” I think that’s because, really, the concentration camp production model strikes most human beings as an affront to decency and the good stewardship with which animals ought to be treated. And I couldn’t help laughing at the Iowa State University researcher who looked into the camera and solemnly declared that there are no nutritional differences between factory eggs and free range pastured eggs. It may indeed be true when subjected to a scientific analysis, the different kinds of eggs have identical levels of various enzymes and vitamins. But aren’t “health” and “nutrition” about more than that? Does anyone really believe that a hen kept in close confinement with six other hens, allowed roughly 67 square inches of space, who never sees the light of day, and is fed a diet laced with low-level antibiotics to keep her from getting sick…can really produce from her body a fruit that is as healthy as what comes from the body of an active hen who spends her days ranging freely on pasture? (I discussed this issue, including my conversation with a USDA meat inspector who has seen what the hens look like when they’re done laying and heading to the processing plant, some time back here.)

Anyway, I highly recommend watching this episode; chickens are so integral to most small farms, it’s good to get a look at the variety of ways in which eggs are produced and used. Unfortunately, the History Channel isn’t scheduled to run it again any time soon; if I do see it pop up on the schedule, I’ll post an alert on the blog. In the meantime, I understand that Modern Marvels are available for purchase and download through the iTunes store. This is something I have zero experience doing, and can’t even figure out how to post a link to the relevant page over there, but if you’re an iTunes user you may want to give this a try.

Finally, speaking of eggs, look what I found in the barn this morning:

Yes, one goose egg, one duck egg, and one chicken egg (we’ll get many more chicken eggs this evening). This is the first duck egg we’ve gotten in several months, so hopefully our Cayugas are kicking in and getting ready for some serious production. I thought you’d enjoy seeing the difference in size, and what they look like straight from the barn.

Goose Eggs

For those interested in the productivity of geese as egg layers, I have some preliminary numbers. Today we got Egg #12 from our yearling Embden goose; she was hatched last April, and this is her 20th day of laying. Goose eggs are so big, a single one makes a meal for an average person (and when cooking, we treat goose eggs as we would two or three chicken eggs).

We’ve enjoyed goose eggs for many years, but I’ve never before been able to keep track of a single bird’s productivity; in the past, we’ve always had multiple geese laying at the same time in the same area. But as far as we can tell, the yearling Embden is the only one currently laying. We’ll keep you posted on her production, but so far we’ve been very pleased with what we’ve been getting — especially given how bitterly cold it’s been here in Michigan, and the number of days the birds have been totally confined to the barn.

Helping Out

As you no doubt have been, our family has been astounded at the magnitude of devastation in Haiti. Because I haven’t been there, and don’t know anyone on the ground, I can’t add anything to what you’ve already read or seen about what’s going on in Port-au-Prince. But I would like to share this brief anecdote:
Yesterday morning, I was at the customer service desk at a Whole Foods in Ann Arbor; “Whole Paycheck Market” isn’t exactly my shopping destination of choice, but there is precisely one kind of formula (lactose free, soy free, and free of high fructose corn syrup) that the recently-adopted Yeoman Farm Baby can consume…and, as you might guess, there is exactly one place around here that sells it. [As a quick aside: YFB is thriving on that formula, and at a recent visit our pediatrician told Mrs Yeoman Farmer “Whatever you’ve been doing — keep doing it.”] Anyway, we placed a special order for a case of the stuff, which entitled us to an excellent discount.
As I was waiting for the clerk to bring my case of formula out from the stockroom, a woman entered the store and went straight to the customer service desk. She explained to the manager that she wanted to make a donation to Haitian earthquake relief, but that the Red Cross had told her it would take weeks for them to process all the online donations they’ve been receiving. She’d heard that Whole Foods had a program where you could donate money for Haiti right at the register, upon checkout, by adding some amount to your total bill. Her question: was it possible to simply make a donation, without making a purchase? And would that donation be processed immediately?
“Absolutely,” the manager replied, and rang her $25 donation up as a “sale” right there on the same register she used to collect payment on my case of baby formula. She explained to the woman that donations in this region go to an excellent organization called AmeriCares, and that the money would be available to them the next day. After making payment, the woman thanked the manager and left the store.
I didn’t say anything to the manager or to the woman who made the donation, but I called Mrs Yeoman Farmer as soon as I got back to the car. Both of us were nearly in tears, and only partly because of the depth of this particular woman’s generosity (and the fact that she’d made a special trip to Whole Foods just to make a donation). It was something much more than that: the fact that Americans are such a generous people, and so quick to help, that even in the depths of a severe economic recession…the Red Cross needs weeks to process all the donations they are receiving. What an amazing country this is! Is there any other place in the world where people open their hearts (and their wallets) so spontaneously in the wake of tragedy?
I couldn’t help remembering the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, when it seemed that half the country was lining up to donate blood. If memory serves, the Red Cross and other organizations received so much donated blood, and there were (unfortunately) so few survivors in NYC who could use it, they actually put out a statement discouraging additional blood donations; they simply couldn’t use all they’d received before it would go bad.
Anyway, I mention this because I may have some readers out there who are still wondering what they can do to help (and have been discouraged by reported backlogs at the Red Cross). Mrs Yeoman Farmer and I would like to suggest two outstanding charities, to whom we have contributed in the past:
Food for the Poor, Inc is an absolutely terrific organization. Their primary focus is on providing “goods in kind” to those in third world nations. We especially like them because they provide the means that impoverished people can use to support themselves, rather than just giving food that is consumed once. (Think “teaching a man to fish” rather than just giving him a fish; these folks supply the fishing poles.) Their Gift Catalog is lots of fun to browse; you can donate $90 to provide a goat to a family, or $205 to provide a water pump…or any number of other amounts, to supply any number of other things a family could use to climb out of poverty. I’m not sure exactly how the funds from their Haitian special appeal will be deployed (how many goats and how many water pumps, or whatever), but we trust that the contribution we made to that appeal earlier this week will be put to the best possible use. And, interestingly, Food for the Poor is the charity to which Whole Foods will be forwarding customer contributions made in certain other regions.
The Catholic Medical Mission Board is another organization we have helped for many years. Their mission is to “work collaboratively to provide quality healthcare programs and services, without discrimination, to people in need around the world.” The only reason we didn’t respond to their Haitian appeal is that Food for the Poor contacted us first and we’d already given all we could give. But if you’d like to make a donation that you know will go directly toward treating those injured in the quake, you cannot go wrong with this organization. And, according to their website, a generous donor has agreed to match any donation up to a total of $50,000. So, donate to them and your money will go twice as far.
This afternoon, as we were watching news footage from Haiti, Homeschooled Farm Girl was waxing philosophical. “I sort of wish I was there,” she said. “And I’m sort of glad that I’m here. Do you know what I mean?”
“No,” I replied. “Tell me about it.”
“I mean,” she continued, “If I was there I could help all those people.”
I explained that ten year old girls couldn’t do much to help. They needed big strong men to clear rubble. And she would probably get sick if she went to Haiti.
“But I’m strong!” she reminded me. “I can milk a goat! And I could probably milk a cow.”
“Yes, you are strong,” I smiled, and decided to play along. “Maybe you could go to Haiti, and take some of our goats with you? And milk them for the people down there?”
“Oh, yes!” she replied, her face lighting up. “I could take Button, and Marigold [two of our milking does]. And maybe I could take Calico [a barn cat] and Peaches [a kitten living in the basement of our house] with me, too.”
“The goats would be good,” I told her, “But why take cats with you? They wouldn’t do much, would they?”
“No,” she admitted, but then explained her thinking: “But some people down there might like cats.”
Yes, indeed. I bet a lot of people down there in Haiti like cats, and are sad that their cats have been crushed by falling buildings.
Too bad my little Cat Girl can’t go and comfort them all…