Chicks and Ducklings: Mission Accomplished

Back in August, we had a couple of fun surprises. First, a mother duck hatched out eleven ducklings. Shortly thereafter, a mother hen hatched out nine chicks. Given the propensity with which baby birds get picked off — even when being raised by the most-attentive mothers — we decided to move both broods into a portable 4×8 garden pen. They weren’t happy about sharing the space, but it was our only option. They did manage to co-exist, and both broods thrived.

The pen turned out to be a great choice, for several reasons:

  • We were able to get lots of high-protein feed into these little birds. Had they been running around the barnyard, they would’ve been limited to forage and would not have grown nearly so large nearly so quickly. With autumn approaching fast, we’re glad they’re in good shape.
  • They cleared out TONS of overgrown weeds from a fallow swath of the garden, that we would otherwise have had to deal with. They got all that green stuff in their diet.
  • They eliminated lots of crickets, beetles, and other bugs from the garden area.
  • They converted all those weeds and bugs into a wonderful layer of rich fertilizer. This portion of the garden will be exploding with growth after next Spring’s planting.

Here’s a good picture of what they managed to accomplish (in tandem with a second pen, home to nine layer pullets we’ve been raising since April):

And here’s a good shot of what things looked like inside the pen:

With cooler weather and shorter days, we decided it was time to transition the birds and their mothers into the broader flocks. Plus, ducks go through an unbelievable amount of water. I was having to fill their five-gallon waterer at least once per day. (For the nine pullets in the other pen, the interval is more like once per week.) Time for them to go splash around in the swamp with their brethren.

The toughest part was getting the mother hen, and all nine chicks, into the barn last night. We’d turned them loose in the area behind the barn, hoping they’d follow the other birds inside as darkness fell. Unfortunately, they kept trying to get back into the garden; after all, that was the only “home” they remembered, and even Mother Hen had trouble convincing them there was any better place. The two oldest Yeoman Farm Children helped me catch the nine chicks and physically deposit them deep inside the barn. Once Mother Hen joined them, they settled in for the night. They were still piled up in the same nest when I came out this morning.

So far, so good. Next task is to move the Barred Rock pullets. Problem is, they’re now so big they’re indistinguishable from our two-plus-year-old Barred Rocks which need to be culled. I don’t have the time or freezer space to cull them right now, so it’s looking like I’ll need to put an orange zip tie around a leg on each of the old ones.

Never a dull moment on the farm.

Turkeys Were Here

No, it’s not graffiti. But the turkeys left their mark on the hay field as clearly as if they’d used spray paint. Green spray paint:

This year, we kept the turkeys in three portable pasture pens that we moved in a staggered formation along the edge of the hay field. Each pen is four feet wide and eight feet long. In their staggered formation, the three pens therefore took up the first twelve feet of the hay field. Because that portion of the field is bordered by fence, mowing and raking it into hay is a tricky proposition anyway. It seemed like a good place to let the turkeys clean up some overgrown grass. And since we have plenty of hay stored up in the barn, we didn’t mind seeing the harvest reduced by a few bales.

We moved the three pens each day, allowing the birds to feast on fresh alfalfa and grass (in addition to their 21% protein grain ration). As the pens were dragged forward, the turkeys would also scramble to snap up all the crickets and other bugs being disturbed by the moving grass, further supplementing the protein in their diet. Moving the pens got the turkeys off their droppings, and ensured their fertilizer would be spread fairly evenly.

The photo above is from a spot where the turkeys were over the summer. Each day, they consumed a huge amount of the grass that their pen had been covering. Judging by how well the “replacement” grass has been coming up, and how green it is, the turkeys left behind some serious fertilizer and is doing some serious work. It’ll be interesting to see how well that portion of the hay field yields next year. Maybe we won’t lose any bales after all.

Where are the turkeys now? Here, where the final two are meeting their end this afternoon (note the rooster cleaning up spilled grain from the previous day):

I’ve been butchering like crazy over the last few weeks; note the large pile of feathers on the right. That’s the fence post where every turkey hung upside down from twine tied to its feet, to bleed out, before getting dry-plucked. That took about 75% of the feathers off. I then took each bird into the barn, dunked it in scalding water to loosen the remaining feathers, and hung the bird from a nail in the rafters so I could finish plucking. I found that if I did no more than two or three in a day, it wasn’t too burdensome. Hefting around big turkeys can become a real pain in the back if you save all the butchering for a single day.

We had so many poults survive the brooder, and the freezer is getting so full, we’ve decided to overwinter two toms and several hens. Those birds are now in the barn at night, hanging out with the chickens and ducks and geese. They can go out and range in the pasture during the day if they like, but they’ve preferred to lie low for now. Given how well some of our Buff Orpingtons managed to hatch out and brood their own chicks this past year, I think we’ll try collecting turkey eggs and giving them to the chicken hens to manage (assuming the turkey hens don’t do the job themselves — it’s just that we’ve never had any luck in this department in the past). But if the Buffs succeed, we’ll be able to save at least seven bucks for every poult we don’t have to purchase from a hatchery next spring.

In the meantime, we’re going to enjoy roasting up the turkeys in our freezer. A heritage breed hen makes a nice Sunday dinner for our family, with enough left over for a second meal and some soup. The toms are a good size to break out when entertaining guests.

And, needless to say, we’re very much looking forward to our Thanksgiving feast later this month.

The Puzzle of Dr. Norman Borlaug

Ever wondered why food today is so incredibly cheap and widely available? Why we no longer see so much footage of starvation and famine in third world countries? There are many reasons, of course, but much of it can be summed up in two words: Norman Borlaug. Dr. Borlaug passed away this weekend at the age of 95, and is generally recognized as the architect of the “Green Revolution,” the explosion of crop yields and farming productivity that occurred after World War II.

Dr. Borlaug’s New York Times obituary includes a fascinating description of just how profoundly his work transformed agricultural practices and the resulting outputs.

Dr. Borlaug’s initial goal was to create varieties of wheat adapted to Mexico’s climate that could resist the greatest disease of wheat, a fungus called rust. He accomplished that within a few years by crossing Mexican wheats with rust-resistant varieties from elsewhere.

His insistence on breeding in two places, the Sonoran desert in winter and the central highlands in summer, imposed heavy burdens on him and his team, but it cut the time to accomplish his work in half. By luck, the strategy also produced wheat varieties that were insensitive to day length and thus capable of growing in many locales, a trait that would later prove of vital significance.

The Rockefeller team gradually won the agreement of Mexican farmers to adopt the new varieties, and wheat output in that country began a remarkable climb. But these developments turned out to be a mere prelude to Dr. Borlaug’s main achievements.

By the late 1940s, researchers knew they could induce huge yield gains in wheat by feeding the plants chemical fertilizer that supplied them with extra nitrogen, a shortage of which was the biggest constraint on plant growth. But the strategy had a severe limitation: beyond a certain level of fertilizer, the seed heads containing wheat grains would grow so large and heavy, the plant would fall over, ruining the crop.

In 1953, Dr. Borlaug began working with a wheat strain containing an unusual gene. It had the effect of shrinking the wheat plant, creating a stubby, compact variety. Yet crucially, the seed heads did not shrink, meaning a small plant could still produce a large amount of wheat.

Dr. Borlaug and his team transferred the gene into tropical wheats. When high fertilizer levels were applied to these new “semidwarf” plants, the results were nothing short of astonishing.

The plants would produce enormous heads of grain, yet their stiff, short bodies could support the weight without falling over. On the same amount of land, wheat output could be tripled or quadrupled. Later, the idea was applied to rice, the staple crop for nearly half the world’s population, with yields jumping several-fold compared with some traditional varieties.


This strange principle of increasing yields by shrinking plants was the central insight of the Green Revolution, and its impact was enormous.

Particularly in sustainable agriculture circles, many point out that Dr. Borlaug’s Green Revolution, like every revolution, included its share of unintended consequences and created problems of its own. Chief among these: the industrialization and corporate domination of agriculture, the depopulation of the countryside, and squeezing out of small family farms. Modern farming is no longer conducted on a “human” scale, and the overwhelming majority of people in developed countries have lost all connection to where their food comes from.

I understand these sentiments well, and sympathize (at least in spirit) with much of the critique of modern industrial agriculture. However, I am under no illusions that it is possible — or even desirable — to put the genie of modern agriculture back into its bottle. Fertilizer is a prime example; the large confinement livestock operations have never been better at capturing animal waste, but even all that manure falls far short of what is needed to grow crops on the scale needed to feed the world’s population. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are a practical necessity. As Blake Hurst, himself a commercial farmer, points out in his excellent article, The Omnivore’s Delusion:

Norman Borlaug, founder of the green revolution, estimates that the amount of nitrogen available naturally would only support a worldwide population of 4 billion souls or so. He further remarks that we would need another 5 billion cows to produce enough manure to fertilize our present crops with “natural” fertilizer. … And cows do not produce nitrogen from the air, but only from the forages they eat, so to produce more manure we will have to plant more forages.

Hurst goes on to discuss the planting of cover crops (aka “green manure”) to supply nitrogen naturally, but demonstrates that this is both impractical and would remove a great deal of cropland from production. I love the Amish, and the way they farm, but we can’t pretend that Amish farming practices can feed the world.

Don’t get me wrong: I highly recommend the small-scale agriculture that our family is engaging in, and I hope that more families follow us in adopting this lifestyle. But it’s difficult to imagine “yeoman farmers” like ourselves ever being able to feed the world with what we’re doing. Heck, we can’t even (entirely) feed our own family this way…and we’ve met very few families who even come close.

We do produce all of our own eggs, and almost all of our meat, and what we can’t raise here (beef) we buy from a neighbor who does. But, even there, I need to be honest. Our egg layer and broiler chicks all come from a commercial hatchery. So do our ducklings, and our goslings, and our turkey poults. All the feed they consume was grown by “industrial” farmers and mixed up for us by the local grain elevator (with industrial-strength equipment). Our sheep are exclusively grass-fed, and our goats are largely grass-fed, but the does could not produce enough milk for us without supplemental grain from the elevator. Our egg chickens are free to forage, but their egg production would suffer badly without supplemental grain. In short, without the extraordinary crop yields and productivity of modern agriculture, we would not have the relatively inexpensive feed grains that ultimately make our family’s micro-farm possible.


Perhaps the most important by-product of Dr. Borlaug’s Green Revolution is the shattering of Malthusian theories. Thomas Malthus argued that because population increases geometrically, but agricultural production only increases arithmetically, human populations would eventually outstrip the ability of farmers to feed them. Malthus and his modern disciples (such as Paul “Population Bomb” Ehrlich) therefore argued that stringent population-control measures were the only way to solve this dilemma.

But Malthus failed to anticipate the extraordinary manner in which technology and innovation could literally change the rules about agricultural output. As the late Dr. Julian Simon pointed out in numerous books and other research writings, human beings are not mere consumers of resources. Rather, we are truly “the ultimate resource.” Humans, because of our brains and intellectual ability, are equipped to solve problems and produce far more than we consume. Particularly when markets are allowed to function freely and offer incentives for meeting the needs of other people, and governments protect property rights, human beings have proven themselves capable of coming up with extraordinary breakthroughs to solve the problems of food production. As others have put it, every child is born with a mouth to feed — but two hands to help work. And, as Dr. Simon would add, a brain to help innovate.

And that leaves us with a puzzling final observation. Despite his personal experience in revolutionizing the way food is produced, and having witnessed first-hand the ability of human intellect to find new ways of feeding a growing world, Norman Borlaug was and remained an advocate for the population-control movement. His references to “the population monster,” and other similar formulations, even hint at an underlying misanthropy in his beliefs — as if the problem is too many people in the world, rather than not enough freedom and market incentives for innovators to find ways to supply the needs of those people. I greatly admire what Dr. Borlaug was able to achieve in his work, but am left wondering why he could not recognize the profoundly anti-Malthusian implications of his achievements.

What I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall for the conversation that Norman Borlaug and Julian Simon might be having right now on the other side…