What Have We Been Doing?

I apologize for the infrequent posting of late. Things have been busy here, but I owe you all an update. There’s never a dull moment on a farm.

First off, can you believe this is Post Number Six Hundred? Many thanks to all of you who’ve been following us and our farming adventures all these years. Sometimes I get the sense that I’ve said everything that can be said, and that I don’t have anything really new to talk about. Do my readers really want yet another post about pastured poultry pens? Or fences the goats have (again) broken through? But as long as you all are game for continuing to hear about our farm, I’ll keep writing.

We’ve had a pretty bad year with turkeys. We started with about 20, and it’s looking like we’ll harvest no more than seven. Especially given how expensive the baby turkeys are, it’s a pretty poor return on investment. We got 15 “surplus” heritage turkeys and 5 giant whites from a mail order hatchery this spring. The “surplus” deal is pretty good, as long as you’re not picky; the hatchery sends a variety of heritage breed turkey hatchlings, basically leftovers not needed to fill orders from people who want a specific breed. It’s actually a pretty good way to experience several different breeds, and it definitely makes things more fun. We got the giant whites, boring as they are, because it’s always nice to have a few really big birds in the freezer.

Anyway, the poults did fairly well in the brooder, but turkeys are notorious for spending the first several weeks of their lives thinking up ways to die.  We moved them out to a pastured poultry pen for several more weeks, and lost a few more. By the time I turned them loose in the fenced goat area by the barn, we were down to five heritage turkeys (all Black Spanish) and four giant whites. I secured them each night in the barn, but a predator still managed to pick off one of the heritage birds. Another of them flew into the kennel and became a chew toy (and meal) for one of our dogs. Then, last week, one of the giant whites developed a serious leg problem; I butchered her on Monday, to make sure we got those 11# of meat before she got any worse.

Here are some of the ones we have left (note the significant size difference between the breeds):

So…are turkeys worth it? We never seem to get a good return on our money, no matter which hatchery we use. But I’ll continue raising them, for a couple of reasons. First, there is absolutely nothing like roasting up your own turkey and serving it on Thanksgiving. We’ve been supplying the turkey for many years now, no matter where we’ve spent the big day, and it makes the feast special in a way that nothing else can. Even the year we were a thousand miles from home, in the process of adopting Yeoman Farm Baby, we took a turkey with us and the family we shared Thanksgiving with cooked it. Second, a turkey is a great size for serving when we have several visitors (or a large family) over for dinner. With both heritage turkeys and giant whites in the freezer, we can pick just the right size bird for the number of visitors. It’s easy to roast, and there’s never any shortage of meat.

For day-to-day meals, though, we’ve found that Cornish Cross broiler chickens are a far more practical size. One of them provides plenty of meat for our family, with some left over for lunches or soup. In the winter, we tend to roast them whole all afternoon in the Crock Pot — but whenever the weather allows, we prefer to grill them outdoors.

We raised 25 broilers earlier this year, but lost over half of them along the way to predators or other “stupid stuff” like them piling up and suffocating each other during a thunderstorm. We also lost almost all of the replacement egg laying pullets we started at the same time. Faced with an aging and dwindling laying flock, and very few broilers in the freezer, I decided in early August that we should raise another batch before the weather turned cold.

I’m really glad we did. We got 25 more Buff Orpington pullet chicks, and we haven’t lost more than one or two. By early next year, our egg production should kick into high gear. Likewise, almost all of the 50 cornish cross broilers have survived, and they’re rapidly approaching optimal butchering size. Get a load of the size difference between the two breeds (all the birds in this pen are exactly the same age); this is why it makes so much sense to use Cornish Crosses, and not the males of an egg laying breed, as a primary meat bird:

We’ve spread the 70-75 surviving birds between three of our movable pastured poultry pens. Each pen is 4’x8′, and I’m running all three of them along the edge of our hay field where harvesting hay is difficult. We try to move the pens every day; this supplies fresh greens for the birds’ diet (a healthy supplement to the high protein feed which is their main source of calories), gets the birds off their manure, and ensures an even distribution of fertilizer along the field. It’s a beautiful system. But here’s what it looks like when we don’t get around to moving the pen for an extra day:

Toward the right is what the weeds/grass look like after just one day. Toward the left is what happens if something keeps me from getting the pen moved. Note also how we’ve staggered these two pens as they’re moving down the field.

Sometimes, I deliberately keep a pen in one place for extra time, to ensure the birds totally wipe out whatever is growing there. This pen, for example, is down in the impossible-to-cut corner of the hay field, where the grass is so long I can’t even get a mower in there. The organic chicken tractor is taking those high weeds down and making sure they doesn’t grow back for a long time:

The only problem with having 50 broiler chickens survive is that … you have to butcher 50 broiler chickens. I try not to do more than five per day, or I tend to go crazy. And since I can’t butcher every day, by the time I get to the last broilers they tend to be extremely large. To make sure I don’t get too far behind the curve this time, I started butchering a couple of birds this week (along with that turkey with the leg problem), even though they’re not optimal size yet.

But you know what? They were still a pretty good size for our family. We got a complete (and absolutely delicious) dinner of grilled chicken out of one of them last night, with a thigh left over for my lunch today. Which I will go in and enjoy momentarily.

But first, lest I leave you with the impression that our whole farm is livestock, I must tip my hat to Mrs. Yeoman Farmer (and the Yeoman Farm Children) for a smashingly successful year of gardening. I tried to capture as much of it as I could with one photo: the 400 row feet of potatoes at the top (which I am going to be enlisted to start digging soon), tomatoes and kale on the right (we cooked up some kale with our chicken last night…amazing), and squashes going a LONG way out of the picture to the far right. On the left is our bee hive, from which I will try to harvest honey this weekend. At the very bottom is a grape vine, clinging to the fence which separates the garden from the hay field (and the deer which run up and down it all year…except during hunting season.) In the background is my office; yes, I get this wonderful view every day as I do my work.

Here’s a better shot of the squashes. We’re going to be putting up a ton of these “winter keepers” in the pantry:

That’s all for now! Thanks again to all who’ve been following us. I’m looking forward to sharing the next six hundred posts with you!

4 thoughts on “What Have We Been Doing?

  1. Not sure if we told you about our Freedom Ranger chickens, but they've been our end of summer experiment as an alternative to the Cornish Cross. At the beginning of the summer we got 50 Cornish Crosses and it seemed like they were dropping like flies from broken legs, exploding hearts, heat exhaustion, etc. As you know, they're the most hideous looking animals alive. You almost want to kick them when you walk by them :).

    We got 51 Freedom Rangers on July 15 and have only had 1 die for unknown reasons. They're very good foragers and are getting nice and big, albeit a few weeks slower than the Cornish Crosses. Although you can't taste asthetics, they have all of their feathers and look like a very fat Isa Brown. We'll be butchering a bunch of them on Saturday at 11 weeks – many could have been butchered last weekend. I'll let you know how they taste and how big they dress out at.

    Congrats on the milestone!

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  2. Pat – I've been looking forward to hearing about how the Freedom Rangers turn out. Several years ago, we tried a similar “new, alternative” broiler that an independent breeder was developing. They were good, but he shut the hatchery down to pursue another opportunity.

    The one nice thing about the hideousness of Cornish Cross broilers is that you feel absolutely no guilt about butchering them. You end up kind of glad to be putting them out of their existence.

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  3. JCH – Good question. We do exactly that with our laying hens, once they're a few months old. And, of course, the turkeys. We've found it works a lot better keeping broiler chickens in pasture pens their whole lives, though. The biggest reason is that they're terrible foragers; they're so big and lazy that they'd never venture much farther than the barn door if they didn't have to. You really need to put them on the green forage, as they won't go seek it out the way a turkey or laying hen will. Also, they need a higher protein grower feed which the other birds would raid if we had them in the barn.

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