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.