Moving Up and Out

Near the top of my list for things that can’t be beat about country life: fresh eggs, and home-grown meat. Today, our new batch of little birds took a step forward in providing the new year’s supply of both.

We got our baby birds pretty late this year. Our local grain elevator organized a series of group purchases from a Michigan hatchery over the course of the spring; we waited for the very last of these. One big advantage of the group buy is that we all get a low per-bird rate — and no charges for shipping. So, we almost always go that route now.

Why did we wait so late? Like much of the country, the weather has been awful here in Michigan this spring. I simply didn’t want to put the birds out too soon, and have them suffer chills. When we first started farming, we were usually in a rush to get birds started … and we typically lost a number of them to cold or wet. With experience, we’ve come to appreciate the value of warmer spring temperatures for getting birds off to a solid start.

The downside to starting late is, of course, the final product isn’t ready until later. And that’s fine with me, actually. Our new pullets won’t start laying until November, but it’s not like we’re relying on them for our only eggs; these will be simply taking the place of some older hens that we’ll be retiring to the soup pot. We have some yearlings that will continue supplying eggs in the meantime. (Hens lay productively for about two years; we like to replace the oldest half of the flock each year. And we raise a different color of chicken each year, so we can tell which ones are oldest and which still have another year of productive laying.)

The Cornish Cross meat chickens will be ready to start butchering in late July, which I suppose is a bit later than I’d prefer, but we still have several in the freezer from last year that we need to eat. The new ones will give us a nice supply of fresh chicken for the grill in August.

That leaves the turkeys. I want to be able to butcher turkeys shortly before Thanksgiving, and a June start translates into a bird that’s big but not too big at that time.  If we start the turkeys early in the year, we have to butcher them early and freeze them — or let them grow to a monster size in November.

You’ll notice I mentioned three different types of birds: pullets, Cornish Cross meat chickens, and turkeys. Conventional wisdom says to brood separate types of birds separately, and there are good reasons for this. And we used to do it that way, when we were raising larger numbers of each type. This year, we’re only doing 25 meat birds, 10 pullets, and 5 turkeys; we’re not selling to the public, and that’s plenty for our family. However, there’s no point running brooder heat lamps for 10 birds or 5 birds. And we only have one brooder, anyway, so doing separate brooding would require three separate orders (or building separate brooders, which I’m not really in the mood for). I prefer to take my chances on the little pullets getting trampled by the larger birds, or the turkeys catching a disease that the chickens carry (but are immune to). And you know what? It’s worked out perfectly fine so far.

The birds arrived about a week and a half ago. For the nine year old, this is one of his favorite days of the year; he thinks it’s a blast to drive with me to the grain elevator, hold the box of cheeping birds on his lap as we drive home, and them help put them into the brooder one at a time (dunking each one’s beak into the water for a drink before releasing). We ran a 250 watt red heat bulb to start, in part because the weather was still surprisingly chilly for June. Once things warmed up, and the birds were well established, I swapped the big bulb out for a 100 watt incandescent. (We laid in a good supply of these before the government banned their sale. It’s nice having a bulb that can produce some heat, but not too much.)

Today, graced with fantastically sunny weather, the birds took their next step: the outdoor pasture pen. Last year, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer planted roughly half of the space available in the garden; I ran chickens in a pasture pen in the other half. This year, we traded. MYF worked up and planted the wonderfully-fertilized portion of the garden that I used last year, and I have moved my pen to the portion she used last year.

Here are this year’s birds, all set to go to work (you can see part of this year’s garden off to the right):

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Because the weather is so nice today, and because pullets are too little to fly out of the pen, I’m leaving half the lid open this afternoon (note there are two pieces of plywood stacked on the right side). This evening, I’ll move one of those pieces over, to close the pen up.

For now, the birds are a bit disoriented — but are beginning to explore their new surroundings. In addition to their high-protein feed, they’ll have lots of weeds to supplement their diet. They’re already starting to peck at these. We’ll give them a few days to clear those weeds out, and then we’ll move the pen to a fresh patch.

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I can hardly wait for fresh chicken on the grill!

The Concentration Camp Isn’t Really that Bad

In an interesting followup to this summer’s story about massive egg recalls, the NY Times takes a look inside some of the more modern egg plants and the methods they’re employing to manage manure. The conveyor belt system sounds fascinating, and I imagine it saves an enormous amount of labor. It also seems to keep the facility much cleaner.

But this is the quote that struck me:

“We’ve had to completely change the way we look at things,” said Mr. Krouse, who is also chairman of the United Egg Producers, an industry association. “Thirty years ago, farms had flies and farms had mice, everything was exposed to everything else. They just all happily lived together. You can’t work that way anymore.”

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a fan of flies or mice or any other vermin. What bothers me is the industrial scale of these operations, and the necessarily attendant obsessiveness with making them “sanitary.” If you’re going to have 381,000 hens living under one roof in a concentration camp eggery, you can’t have everything exposed to everything else. You must compartmentalize, and obsess about sanitation. Otherwise, you quickly lose control.

But the problem with emphasizing the sanitation strikes me as possibly designed to convince the public that “that makes it okay” to produce eggs in this way. Sure, we have 381,000 hens under one roof. Yeah, they’re crammed into little cages. No, they don’t ever see the light of day. But we have some really great manure removal systems, and the eggs are really really clean. And the hens get vaccinated against all the diseases you’d expect them to catch while living in this kind of environment. So, eat up! Nothing to see here.

As for the Yeoman farm family, we’ll take the “messy” eggs laid by hens happily living together with the ducks and the geese and the sheep and the goats. The eggs that sometimes get manure on them, and that we have to wash. The eggs laid by hens that keep the barn mouse-free because any time one appears, they gang tackle it and use it as supplemental protein for their diet. As they do with the flies and the crickets and even frogs.

You can get away with that kind of “messiness” when you’re farming on a small scale. On a human scale. Producing outstanding food for humans who appreciate it.

Thanks for Your Service

Now that my professional work has gotten caught up, I’ve been turning my attention to getting long-postponed farm projects caught up as well.

My number one priority: the old laying hens.

We color-code our breeds, so it’s easier to tell how old the birds are. Once hens are mature, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish a yearling from a three year old. Hens have a productive laying life of about two years, and drop off dramatically in the third year. Our approach is to raise a batch of one breed in the spring of Year 1, which will start laying in the fall of that year. When then start a different colored breed in the spring of Year 2. In Year 3, we either try another new breed or go back to what we had in Year 1. Either way, in the fall of Year 3, we butcher the hens from Year 1.

If we repeat the Year 1 breed in Year 3, as we did this time with Barred Rocks, we must race against the clock to butcher the old hens before they become indistinguishable from the new pullets. The key features are the size of the comb and wattle on their heads. Also, younger birds tend to have yellow feet but older birds’ feet tend to get white with age. And once you pick up an older hen, it’s often obvious from the weight and fattiness of the belly that this bird has been around for awhile.
My work was so busy in recent months, I put the butchering off way too long. The pullets’ combs are starting to grow out, and I’m worrying that I may kill some of them by mistake. With the nice weather yesterday, I knew I had to get caught up. Homeschooled Farm Girl helped me chase down and catch six older hens, and then assisted me as we butchered them. Five are destined for the freezer, and we started a stock pot immediately with the sixth. Overnight, it turned into some of the richest and most delicious chicken soup imaginable. I had some for lunch today, and it’ll be the centerpiece of tomorrow’s dinner.
This morning, I managed to pluck an additional four hens off their roosts. Guess how I’m going to be spending my sunny Wednesday afternoon?
 
There may be a few more older hens to butcher after today, but I’ll need to wait until tonight (when they again come home to roost) to get a good look. In the meatime, we appreciate all the wonderful eggs our Barred Rocks gave us. And we’ll appreciate the chicken soup just as much.

Too-Good Eggs?

With the total number of eggs recalled now growing to over half a billion, I wanted to add a few additional thoughts to my previous post on the topic.

As commenter Bill and Dogs notes (BTW, Bill, it’s wonderful having you as a new reader):

I am currently in the city but have purchased a farm on which to retire and raise cattle and chickens. I have been unable to eat eggs since I left the farm and no longer had my own hens. My birds were contented, active and had both commercial and natural foods. … Store bought eggs are so horrible by comparison that I just don’t bother. I will be eating eggs again in a few years.

I’m not a big egg eater myself, but want to underscore Bill’s point: Once you begin eating your own eggs, or anyone else’s local eggs laid by active and happy hens, it’s extremely difficult to again eat eggs laid by “concentration camp” hens. I travel on business from time to time, and simply cannot order egg-based dishes in restaurants. Farm fresh eggs are so good, they’ve ruined all other eggs for me.

Yesterday morning, I used olive oil and a cast iron skillet to saute a chopped onion and three different kinds of fresh peppers. All were straight from a neighbor’s garden (for various reasons, particularly the adoption of Yeoman Farm Baby, we’ve been unable to stay on top of our own garden this year. But our neighbor’s farmstand is as good a substitute as you can get.) To this I added four scrambled eggs, laid the previous morning by our hens. Once the eggs were done, I served them onto a freshly-picked and chopped garden tomato.

To my knowledge, a dish like this cannot be purchased in any restaurant at any price. And after tasting it, no restaurant omelet or grocery store egg will work for me.

380 Million Reasons to Own Your Own Hens

380,000,000 is the estimated number of eggs now being recalled in response to a salmonella outbreak.

Grocery stores across the state yanked eggs off their shelves after one of the largest U.S. producers recalled 228 million eggs connected to a salmonella outbreak that sickened hundreds of people across the nation, including as many as 266 in California.

On Wednesday the Associated Press reported that the recall had expanded to 380 million eggs.

The eggs, produced by Wright County Egg of Galt, Iowa, also were linked to a number of illnesses reported in June and July in Colorado and Minnesota, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The outbreak led to a surge in reports of infection with the bacteria salmonella enteritidis this summer — at least four times the expected number, the agency said in a statement Monday.

Salmonella can cause fever, diarrhea and abdominal pain, and can be fatal to young children and older people. No deaths so far have been reported in connection with the egg recall.

I’ve posted about egg factories before, and have often extolled the virtues of free-range or cage-free eggs. There isn’t much I can add in this regard, other than to say: this is one of those times when we really, really appreciate having our own healthy livestock and knowing exactly where our food is coming from.

A few quick thoughts, however:

First, if you want an eye-opening experience, do a Google search on the phrase “DeCoster Farms,” which is the agribusiness conglomerate of which Wright County Egg is part. Pretty remarkable how many different controversies this one company has been involved in. But I guess that’s not surprising, when a “farm” (sic) gets so large and disconnected from its customers.

If you can’t keep your own laying hens, I’d strongly encourage you to buy your eggs directly from a small farmer who does. Yes, those eggs can be a little more expensive, especially if the farmer is trucking them in to an urban farmers market. But they don’t have to be, if you’re able to go directly to the source. Around here, there are several farmers selling eggs for $1.50/dozen. The biggest hassle is making an extra stop, not coming up with extra money. But make that extra stop. Have that extra conversation with that extra person. See how their chickens are being kept. And I bet you’ll never worry about your eggs making you sick.

And if you think you can’t have your own chickens…think again. You’d be amazed at how creative some folks have become at keeping them stealthily in urban or suburban environments. And to my readers back home in Seattle: kudos to your city council for just unanimously voting to allow the keeping of up to eight hens on properties within the city limits! It really is becoming possible to be a yeoman farmer nearly anywhere.

Easter Comes Early

At least…the colored eggs have come early. These are all completely natural colors, by the way, and represent the variety of what we collected over the last day and a half:

The huge white egg is from a goose. The brown eggs are from our chickens. All the rest — in their varrying shades of green and gray and black — are from our Cayuga ducks. The coloring is a sort of fine film, and can be washed off if you rub it enough. But we think the colors are fun, and don’t do more than wash off the dirt from the barn.

How else can you have green eggs and ham?

Special Eggs

If you’ll indulge me one more post about eggs, I promise I’ll be brief.

As noted in previous posts, our kids have celiac disease and a number of other food allergies, and this was an important reason we originally decided to move to the country and take more control of our food supply. It’s also made us highly sensitive to the special food requirements that others may have, and interested in helping them obtain what they need.

I never would’ve imagined it, but there are some people who are allergic to chicken eggs (even those raised on pasture in the most wholesome of conditions), but have no problem with duck eggs. Actually, as I think more about it, I shouldn’t be surprised that there are people in this situation: our children cannot drink cow’s milk, no matter how it’s cultured, but they do just fine with cheese and yogurt and other cultured products made from raw goat’s milk.

Anyway, if you think goat milk is hard to find…just try tracking down duck eggs. Even the local Meijer supermarket is now fairly well stocked with goat milk; it’s expensive, but they have it. But I’ll bet ten-to-one that none of my American readers has a grocery store nearby that stocks duck eggs. Maybe if you live in the Chinatown of a large city. But otherwise? Forget it.

We love duck eggs; they have a higher fat content than chicken eggs, and have a wonderfully rich flavor. We’ve enjoyed raising Cayuga, Magpie, and Khaki Campbell ducks, which are all excellent laying breeds. But here’s the funny thing: once you put the word out in online directories that you have duck eggs…the folks with allergies to chicken eggs will find you. Fast. So will the Asians who want duck eggs for pickling and brining. When we lived in Illinois, we developed a nice little business supplying duck eggs to restaurants, Filipinos, and those with allergies in the Chicago area.

And then we moved to Michigan, and were no longer able to get to Chicago regularly. We cut the flock back quite a bit…but some of our old customers kept calling my cell phone and emailing me. Do you have any duck eggs? I really miss being able to eat eggs. You have no idea how integral eggs are to a normal diet until you can’t eat any. Kind of like gluten is for our kids. If rice was as rare as duck eggs, I’d be burning up the phone lines trying to ensure a steady supply.

So…we bought a bunch of Cayuga ducklings last spring. Mrs Yeoman Farmer much prefers their eggs to those laid by Khaki Campbells (personally, I can’t tell the difference…and neither can most people), so she can enjoy any that go unsold or that we can’t deliver. Cayuga eggs are especially fun because they have a dark green (sometimes almost black) tint to the shell — you can literally make Green Eggs and Ham. They started laying three or four eggs a day recently, and by early this week I’d managed to accumulate two dozen. Yesterday I needed to travel to Chicago on business, so shot an email off to one of my old customers who works in the heart of the Loop.

He didn’t get the email until the day before I was set to leave, but immediately replied. YES, absolutely he was interested. He was off site in meetings until 1:45; could I come by his building after that?

No problem. I took the South Shore Line train to Chicago, laptop slung over one shoulder and my other hand grasping a shopping bag with two dozen very special green eggs. Then I took them on the CTA Red Line and into my meeting on the Near North Side. Then to Holy Name Cathedral for the 12:10 Mass, and to Starbucks as I grabbed a sandwich and coffee and checked email. Back onto the CTA State Street Subway and into the heart of the Loop, down a side street, into the lobby of a major bank…and into the hands of one very grateful man who hadn’t enjoyed an egg for nearly a year.

We exchanged warm words for a few minutes, and then he retreated to the elevator and I headed for Millennium Station. Yes, he paid me a very fair price for the very special eggs I’d brought. But there really isn’t any amount of money that can produce the joy that of knowing I’ve supplied something he’s waited so eagerly for and cannot find anywhere else.