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!

Cold Days

I’m not sure the temperature has been above freezing at all so far this month. There may have been one day when we hit a scalding 37F, but that’s been about it. We’ve had several days in the teens, and some with wind chills in the single digits (or below zero). We got quite a dumping of snow last weekend (December 12), with a driving wind to make it even more miserable. It hit us so hard and so fast, we were not able to go to Mass (or anywhere else) that Sunday. These rural roads are a pretty low priority for the County snowplows, and our 4×4 truck only holds four people. The Yeoman Farm Family judged it best to lay low and stoke the fire.

We’re still below freezing today, but the sun is shining and we’re in the upper twenties. I opened the sheep and goats’ barn doors for the first time in a long while, to let them have some fresh air and space to roam around. Their coats are plenty warm enough to be out even in much colder weather, but we keep the barn doors closed to keep their water tanks from freezing solid. The downstairs portion of the barn has just a seven foot ceiling, meaning the animal body heat can’t easily escape upwards. With the doors closed, we can keep the downstairs portion of the barn in the low thirties even on days and nights when it’s much colder outside. Only when we get stiff winds does enough cold air force its way in that the water tanks begin icing over.

We had one type of livestock which unfortunately did not fare as well during last weekend’s mini-blizzard: our bees. We got our first “starter” hive this year, and they’d established a strong colony by the fall. We didn’t remove any of their honey, choosing to let them have it all to ensure they had enough for the winter. We were looking forward to starting off the spring with a strong and vibrant colony that would split / swarm into a second hive we’d already prepared. Sadly, the blizzard literally swamped them. Wet snow drifted into the hive’s main entrance and froze into a nasty ice pack, blocking much of their air flow. Then, when the bees emerged from their smaller upper entrance hole to take cleansing flights, many seem to have gotten disoriented upon returning and finding the main entrance blocked. When I came out to check on them, I discovered dozens of dead bees littered all over the snow in front of the entrance. With their numbers (and body heat) thus decimated, it looks like the rest of the hive froze to death inside.

I feel awful about what happened, and will do a full post-mortem on what was going on inside the hive, but in many ways this is not unlike the mistakes we’ve made in getting started with other livestock. We lost our first two lambs, for example, because we weren’t ready for them and they were born in the pasture on a frigid night. The only real mistake is not learning from this kind of experience. (The rest of the lambs were all born safely, inside a building.)

One huge lesson learned about bees: next fall, I’m putting the hive(s) at least a foot or two off the ground, on pallets or cinder blocks. Another lesson learned: get some insulating foam fitted tightly around the outside of the hive before cold weather sets in. And go out there to check on the colony every day or two when it does get cold.

As for us humans, our family has been enjoying pot after pot of hearty soups and stews, made from the lamb and goat necks in our freezer. When the temperatures get and stay this cold, it’s hard to think of a nicer way to warm oneself from the inside out.

I’ll close with a lighter anecdote about the cold. If you’ve been following the NFL at all, you know that the roof of the Metrodome in Minneapolis collapsed from all the snow (same storm system that went on to hit us in Michigan and kill our bees). They haven’t been able to repair it, so tonight’s game between the Vikings and Bears will be played outdoors at the Golden Gophers’ stadium. Upon hearing this news and reflecting on it, Homeschooled Farm Boy’s face lit up in a smile. “You know what that means?” he said. “The cheerleaders will have to dress modestly!”

Yes, indeed. There are some good things about the cold.

Permaculture

In the comments thread on a recent post, the subject of “permaculture” came up. I have a couple of permaculture books listed in the right margin, and the commenter was interested in the relative merits of each. As I told him, the “Designers Manual” is much more detailed than the average person needs; the “Introduction to Permaculture” is a good practical overview of key principles. I noted that the prices for both books on Amazon are really high. In the days since, Mrs Yeoman Farmer pointed out to me that the “Seeds of Change” site has the Designers Manual for much less than Amazon is currently listing it for — and they also have a number of other relatively affordable permaculture books. I can’t personally vouch for those, but they look good.

Our one big criticism of Bill Mollison’s books is that he is Australian — and his diagrams therefore assume that northern exposures give the most sunlight for plants (exactly the opposite of the case in North America). He addresses this issue in the text, but many of the diagrams still seem oddly “upside down” and we sometimes struggle to understand them. It’s like trying to work on an American car using a Haynes Manual from England; all the information is there, but you have to keep remembering to turn it around.

Some other good permaculture sites include the Permaculture Institute and the International Institute for Ecological Agriculture. The latter is home to “Farmer Dave” Blume; he’s a fascinating and extremely knowledgeable character, and we had the opportunity to attend one of his full-day permaculture workshops in Illinois a few years ago.

One way to think of permaculture is as “permanent agriculture.” Or, as the Wikipedia definition puts it: “an approach to designing human settlements and perennial agricultural systems that mimic the relationships found in the natural ecologies.”

We have chosen to incorporate some aspects of this approach in our own farm, but we have never been able to set up our entire property following permaculture guidelines. In practical terms, for us, permaculture has meant:

1) Cultivating as many perennial fruiting trees, brambles, and vines as possible. These not only provide fruit for the humans, but lots of “windfalls” and extras that can feed livestock. In the fall, when apples and pears are coming down like crazy, we toss the extras over the pasture fence — and watch the sheep come running at full speed. A few mature mulberry trees out in the chicken yard will provide lots and lots of supplementary feed (not to mention entertainment, as the hens scramble to grab ripe berries every time the wind picks up and rustles the branches). But, as MYF cautions, keep the mulberry trees far from your garden — they will spread and become a real nuisance.

2) Integrating livestock with plants as a system. Our movable poultry pens, serving as tractors, are a prime example. Pens of waterfowl are perfect for clearing new garden beds in the sod. Then make your garden twice as large as you need, and run chickens or turkeys in pens on the unused beds. The birds mow the weeds, get green stuff and bug protein in their diet, reduce the bug population in the garden, and leave fertilizer behind. The next year, those beds get planted — and the poultry pens can move on the beds that had been previously cultivated. We also ran pens up and down the aisles of our vineyard in Illinois; in addition to providing fertilizer and weed control, they also did a number on the Japanese beetles. Next year, we will be introducing bees to our farm; they will provide an important service as pollinators, and will also provide honey.

3) Utilizing large PVC tanks to catch rainwater, and then releasing that water for livestock or the vineyard.

A very important theme of permaculture is that, whenever possible, the outputs from one component of the farm should serve as inputs for another component. Mollison’s book is outstanding in giving ideas for constructing these sorts of systems. (Just remember that North means South and South means North!)

Bottom line: The key to permaculture is to work with your property, taking advantage of its natural characteristics, and fostering connections within it, rather than declaring war on it.

Problems with Industrializing Livestock

Seems that a quiet revolution has been taking place in the raising of a type of livestock most of us never think about: bees. Many of our friends raise and keep bees, and we buy as much of our honey from them as possible. Once our orchard matures, we plan to begin keeping our own hives.

Today’s New York Times describes the unexpected consequences that have arisen from the dramatic commercialization and consolodation in the beekeeping industry.

The sudden mysterious losses are highlighting the critical link that honeybees play in the long chain that gets fruit and vegetables to supermarkets and dinner tables across the country.

Beekeepers have fought regional bee crises before, but this is the first national affliction. Now, in a mystery worthy of Agatha Christie, bees are flying off in search of pollen and nectar and simply never returning to their colonies. And nobody knows why.

Researchers say the bees are presumably dying in the fields, perhaps becoming exhausted or simply disoriented and eventually falling victim to the cold.

[snip]

Once the domain of hobbyists with a handful of backyard hives, beekeeping has become increasingly commercial and consolidated. Over the last two decades, the number of beehives, now estimated by the Agriculture Department to be 2.4 million, has dropped by a quarter and the number of beekeepers by half.

Pressure has been building on the bee industry. The costs to maintain hives, also known as colonies, are rising along with the strain on bees of being bred to pollinate rather than just make honey. And beekeepers are losing out to suburban sprawl in their quest for spots where bees can forage for nectar to stay healthy and strong during the pollination season.

“There are less beekeepers, less bees, yet more crops to pollinate,” Mr. Browning said. “While this sounds sweet for the bee business, with so much added loss and expense due to disease, pests and higher equipment costs, profitability is actually falling.”

[snip]

It could just be that the bees are stressed out. Bees are being raised to survive a shorter offseason, to be ready to pollinate once the almond bloom begins in February. That has most likely lowered their immunity to viruses.

Mites have also damaged bee colonies, and the insecticides used to try to kill mites are harming the ability of queen bees to spawn as many worker bees. The queens are living half as long as they did just a few years ago.

Researchers are also concerned that the willingness of beekeepers to truck their colonies from coast to coast could be adding to bees’ stress, helping to spread viruses and mites and otherwise accelerating whatever is afflicting them.

Dennis van Engelsdorp, a bee specialist with the state of Pennsylvania who is part of the team studying the bee colony collapses, said the “strong immune suppression” investigators have observed “could be the AIDS of the bee industry,” making bees more susceptible to other diseases that eventually kill them off.

It never ceases to amaze me when industrial farm operations seem to think they can scale their operations up indefinitely, without consequence. And, from the story, it sounds like the problem isn’t just the beekeepers: it’s the massive size of the consolodated orchards, which require these large numbers of bees. I wonder how much of a collapse it will take before small, local beekeepers re-emerge with heritage bees and beekeeping techniques to pick up the pieces — and the growers scale back to a more managable size.