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.

8 thoughts on “A Time to Plan – and Dream

  1. You should check out S&G poultry in Alabama. They breed for Pastured Poultry production. We've ordered from them and absolutely love the birds and the owners. It's a mom-and-pop, but they are VERY knowledgeable and have a good (but not too spiffy) website: http://www.sandgpoultry.com/

    We typically get their Red Ranger meat bird, which is somewhat smaller and slower growing than the Cornish Cross (what could be bigger and faster?), but it is MUCH hardier and just looks more normal and not like a freak of nature. The meat is excellent quality and they have published feed conversion ratios per week of growth on their website.

    We ordered Golden Nugget layers from them too, but I don't remember why we chose to stick w/ Ideal Poultry (in Texas) instead…I think it was price.

    BTW: We're in central Florida, so it was important for us to try to find southern breeders whose chickens could take the heat of our summers. We lost 50% of our Cornish one year b/c of the April to May heat. 😦 We've had to put electric fans on the Cornish…totally not worth the trouble.

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  2. Thanks for that comment, Randy – excellent point about buying locally from hatcheries with birds adapted to your area's climate. We've had the opposite issue when shopping for most of our animals: we've needed cold-hardy critters that can survive over the harsh Michigan winters.

    We lost a fair number of Cornish broilers in the extreme heat of summer in Illinois; we were able to adapt by starting our birds earlier in the year and butchering them before it got blazing hot.

    I like the sound of those meat birds. We got something similar, from a similar type of operation, a few years back; great birds, but then the guy shut it down because he felt called to move to China as part of a Christian ministry.

    While I'm thinking about it, there's another advantage to buying locally: less shipping time and stress on the birds. This is a good thing for all readers to keep in mind. If you can find a good local supplier, by all means make them your first choice. Your baby birds will thank you.

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  3. I've been doing much the same, YF. Actually, the Stark Brothers tree catalog is right here…

    We aren't buying too much in the way of seed, as we didn't get to plant anywhere near what we had planned last year (thanks to the almost non-stop rains). So we're going to need to sit down and look at what seed we have left, what we need to order, and then draw out the garden plan.

    Our potatoes got too much water and were unable to be cultivated thanks to the wet soil, and so we got next to nothing back from the 300lbs of seed potato we put out. Between the weather and the potato beetles, welllllll…we were “doomed”.

    We actually are probably getting barred rocks this year (buffs and australorps are what we've had before). And meat birds. And hopefully, some guineas, too.

    With the weather we have coming in right now, though, I suspect the latter half of this week, and over the weekend, we'll be looking more seriously at our seed needs/garden planting layout for this spring. Only got another couple of months before we get things going down here…

    GL!

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  4. I have had wonderful success with Welp's Rhode Island Reds. This is my second batch from them and aside from chick heartiness, they are the only ones to lay in the winter without supplemental light and heat in N IL.

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  5. We used towline hatchery last year and got 100 meat birds. They came about a week later than expected, but there was no issue with delivery. That was nice. Although we did the Barred-Rock Cross, I'd like to experiment with heritage breeds this year. I'm planning on doing turkeys also. That's a first for me. I'd like to buy heritage breed. Can you give me an recommendations as to what heritage chicken and turkey breeds do best in Michigan?

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  6. RR –

    We haven't experimented much with heritage chicken breeds, but our Barred Rocks, Buff Orpingtons, and Black Australorps have all done well here.

    We haven't tried to over-winter mature heritage turkeys in Michigan, but did keep some Narragansetts over a harsh winter in Illinois and they did great. One hen even hatched some poults the next spring. We've raised several varieties here in MI: Blue Slates, Black Spanish, Bourbon Red, and all did fine — but we butchered them all in the fall, and didn't try to overwinter them.

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  7. Cackle catalog is color this year.

    Try also Meyer Hatchery in Ohio. Get a catalog or call because their online listings are never up to date. We've ordered chickens and turkeys from Meyer with great results.

    Meyer's heritage breed turkeys are more expensive than Cackle, but often their chickens in some quantities are less.

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