Chicken Graduation Day

There were no caps. No gowns. No strains of Pomp and Circumstance. No long, boring speeches. But it was graduation day all the same … for our chickens.

Two months ago, we scored a fantastic deal on twenty Barred Rock pullet chicks. After several days in the brooder, they no longer needed to be kept inside with artificial lights — but neither were they ready to be simply turned loose in the barn. They would’ve been trampled, and they never would’ve been able to hold their own.

Instead, we moved the chicks out to a four-foot-by-eight-foot pasture pen in an unused section of the garden. The weeds in that part of the garden have been going crazy, and the chicks were happy to munch on them for us (and drop some fertilizer, for next year’s garden). We also gave them a high protein (23%) grain supplement, because weeds alone aren’t enough to get them up to their full adult size.

At first, while the chicks were still very small, we only had to move the pen to fresh weeds every few days. As they grew, however, so did their appetite and destructiveness. We were soon moving the pen daily, and the chicks were leaving obvious evidence of their path.

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Every time we returned to the local farm supply store, I kept my eyes open for a deal on unsold “senior” Cornish Cross chicks as good as what we’d scored on the Barred Rock pullets. Alas, deals like that are hit-or-miss. It soon became clear that if we wanted to raise a batch of birds for meat this summer, we would need to order them at retail.

Fortunately, our town’s local grain mill was putting together a group order for chicks. We got 25 of them, which came in a couple of weeks ago. The weather has been so nice, a single 75-watt incandescent bulb has provided plenty of heat for them — that’s the big advantage of waiting for June to raise baby birds. (The big disadvantage, of course, is that we won’t have fresh chicken on the grill until mid-August.)

With constant feed in front of them, the Cornish Cross chicks spent the last two weeks growing like weeds; no matter how many years we do this, it always astonishes me how quickly they grow up and feather out. Fourteen days is plenty old enough for them to go out to a pasture pen — especially in summer weather. And two months is plenty old enough for Barred Rock pullet chicks to hold their own in the barn.

Graduation Day had arrived.

I pulled the feeder and waterer, and moved the pen to a relatively fresh set of weeds. Then came the real fun: trying to catch juvenile Barred Rock pullets while keeping them from flying out of the pen. I would grab several pullets at a time, then put them in a plastic tub with a good lid. My eight-year-old son was of course eager to help, especially when it came to chasing down escapees.

Once I had ten pullets secured in the tub, I replaced the lid on the pasture pen. I hauled the tub to a spot deep inside the barn, near where we feed the adult laying hens, and emptied the pullets out. It’s always hilarious when they first look around at the completely foreign setting, and try to get their bearings. (The suspicious looks from the adult birds are always pretty amusing as well.)

By the time I returned with the other ten pullets, the first ten had begun exploring their new surroundings. Some had even begun pecking at the layer ration, or scratching at the straw on the barn floor.

My son and I now turned our attention to the Cornish Cross chicks. It took several minutes, but we managed to catch and secure all 25 of them in the plastic tub for the trip out to the garden.

The meat chicks were even more stunned at their new surroundings than the pullets had been in the barn. Think about it: your whole life, you’ve been in a 4×4 box with nothing but straw, a feeder, and a waterer. Next thing you know, you’re plunked down in the middle of this:

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I suppose it’s like Dorothy emerging from her black-and-white Kansas farmhouse, into the technicolor brilliance of Oz.

My son and I made sure the plywood lid was in place and sufficiently weighted down — but we weren’t finished. The garden terrain was just uneven enough to make me concerned about little chicks trying to wiggle out — or predators trying to wiggle in. Before going inside, we gathered up some scrap materials and laid them around the outside perimeter of the pen.

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Late last night, I took a flashlight to the garden for a quick inspection. The chicks had all settled in, and were twittering softly to each other. None had escaped. Good.

Out in the barn, the pullets had settled in as well. Virtually all of them had found places to roost. It always amazes me how deeply the instincts are rooted in these animals. Nobody needs to tell them it’s a good idea to spend the night someplace up in the air — or teach them how to do it. Some of them certainly looked like they were getting the hang of it more quickly than others, but all of them were figuring it out. This morning, when I went out to the barn, plenty of them were still happily roosting on the goat fence:

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As soon as I put feed down, they all came running. They’re certainly not stupid.

And back out in the garden? The Cornish Cross chicks had all had a good night, too. I gave them some feed, and enjoyed a quiet moment or two just watching them continue to explore their “Oz.”

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So, another successful chicken graduation day is in the books. It’ll be fun watching the pullets continue integrating themselves into the existing laying flock, and watching the meat chicks continue growing like weeds (as they mow down weeds for us).

And the most fun of all will be feasting on fresh grilled chicken later this summer!

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.

Our Dog, the Cat

It’s been cold, rainy, windy and generally nasty around here for the last several days, which has given very little to smile about. But who can’t smile at a dog who’s caught more mice in the last week than our barn cats have?

Wilbur has a great nose, and is a great digger. He unearthed and dispatched several moles this summer, and in the last few days has come up with two field mice. Just like a cat, he walks around with the mouse squirming in his mouth. Then he puts it down, watches it flop and stumble around, and plays with it until I approach. Then he picks the squirming, dog-spit-covered rodent back up, retreats a safe distance, and does the whole thing again. Eventually, he finishes the mouse off.

Now, if we could just get him to do his digging somewhere other than Mrs. Yeoman Farmer’s garden…

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!

Garden Helper

We have a fairly simple division of labor on our farm: I manage the animals, and Mrs Yeoman Farmer manages the plants. MYF is usually very insistent that members of my “team” not intrude on and mess with her garden, and with good reason. Ever seen what happens when a dog discovers how nice it is to dig in freshly-tilled soil? Or when a flock of birds discovers bushes full of beautiful ripe tomatoes? We therefore built a tight fence around the garden, and patrol it diligently.

Then, this morning, MYF observed that our new mother hen was managing to squeeze through a tiny gap near the gate — and her chicks were easily following her. MYF was about to shoo the hen out, but then she thought more about it. There are no more seeds that could be scratched out or uncovered. There is no fruit yet. The green tomatoes are probably unappealing. The potatoes are safely buried underground. Why not let Henny Penny take her brood on a bug-hunting safari?

So we did. She seems especially interested in the potato portion of the garden, which has lots of little insects hopping all over it.

I’m not sure we want to release the rest of the flock into the garden; some plants would be sure to get trampled. But for now, it’s an awful lot of fun watching Henny Penny and her brood do “organic pest control” for us.

Waterfowl at Work

I recently blogged about how the “chicken tractors” have been helping us get Mrs Yeoman Farmer’s garden ready. As the young birds grow older, they seem to eat more weeds and drop more fertilizer by the day. And as I type this, MYF is out in the garden beginning to till some of the garden beds.

The one pen with 15 ducklings and 9 goslings has been particularly productive. As waterfowl are voracious consumers of grass, we thought it made sense to put them in charge of clearing sod from the brand new beds we want to plow up in the lawn.

After just over one week, moving the pen basically once per day, take a look at what they’ve been able to accomplish:

This is a classic example of sustainable agriculture, and working with nature rather than declaring war on it. And we will enjoy remembering this lesson as we feast on goose all winter long.

Urban Composting

We do heavy-duty composting here on the farm, what with all the manure and animal bedding we have. Or, to be more precise, we will be doing heavy-duty composting this spring — once we shovel the whole winter’s worth of bedding out of the barn, and I build the composting bin that Mrs Yeoman Farmer has had on my “To Do” list.

But for those of you who are thinking about farming someday, and are trying to start small by acquiring skills right where you are now, composting is an important technique you can begin learning today. The New York Times has details about this new trend:

Composting in New York City is not for the faint of heart. It requires commitment, space and sharing tight quarters with rotting matter and two-inch-long wiggler worms that look like pulsing vermicelli.

But an increasing number of New Yorkers have been taking up the challenge, turning their fruit skins and eggshells into nutritious crumbly soil in an effort they regard as the natural next step to recycling paper, bottles and cans. Food accounts for about 13 percent of the nation’s trash — it is the third largest component after paper and yard trimmings — and about 16 percent of New York’s.

. . .

Happy worms eat about half their body weight in a day, and the compost is ready for harvesting in about four and half months, Ms. Pulverman said.

. . .

Experienced composters said that saving food scraps soon becomes part of a daily routine, and that the payoff is worth the extra work.

“To be actually able to reuse your food is amazing,” said Ben Stein, 30, a computer programmer who, along with his wife, Arin Kramer, 29, a nurse practitioner, composted for six years in their apartment on the Lower East Side before they moved to a brownstone in Brooklyn last year.

In Manhattan, they kept the bin under the bed, which Mr. Stein said led friends to think, “it’s disgusting, and you’re absolutely crazy.” In Boerum Hill, they can compost in their backyard (where microbial activity and decomposition slow down or stop in the winter, but pick up in the spring).

As for us, almost all of our table scraps and vegetable waste are already recycled — into eggs, via being fed to chickens and ducks. But for those of you lacking poultry…don’t be afraid to try feeding the worms!