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!

Salvaging Turkey Lurkey

Generally speaking, turkeys — and other birds — are best eaten in the same year they’re hatched. We like to start a batch in April or May, and put them in the freezer that October or November. That ensures the birds are young and tender; an older bird can get tough.

We’ve also preferred to raise heritage breed turkeys. They’re significantly smaller than the broad breasted “Butterball” turkeys you see at the grocery store, but much more interesting to have on the farm. They tend to have higher survival rates in the brooder. They can fly and roost much like wild turkeys. They’re colorful. And, most importantly, they can reproduce naturally. (Broad breasted turkeys are so huge, they can’t actually mate. They need to be artificially inseminated. And that’s something I just don’t want to have to help them with.)

Most years, we try to get a mix of heritage turkeys and broad breasted birds. A heritage turkey is excellent for a dinner and a night or two of leftovers. The BB turkeys are really too big to be practical, unless we’re hosting a really large gathering, so we cut them up into pieces and freeze separate portions in gallon-sized ziploc bags. Each bag is just right for a meal or two.

Since we’re not particular about breeds, we tend to get a “hatchery special” or “surplus turkey assortment”. They send basically whatever is left over after filling orders for specific heritage turkey breeds. At a place like Cackle Hatchery, a batch of 15 surplus heritage turkeys will run $114, or about $7.60 per bird, plus shipping. Not bad when you consider that specific breed poults, such as Bourbon Reds, cost more than $9 per bird. (For comparison, 15 broad breasted white turkeys cost $87.75, or $5.85 per bird.)

Still…any way you look at it, turkey poults are expensive. And heritage breed turkeys can theoretically reproduce on their own. Why not keep a few hens, and a tom, over the winter and see what they manage to produce the next spring? Could save a small fortune, right?

Could. But never has – at least not for us. We’ve tried letting the turkey hens brood a clutch of eggs. A couple of them actually hatched, but the hen proved to be a better setter than mother; the poults were killed by something or other within days. We tried hatching the eggs ourselves in an incubator, but were never able to get the temperature and humidity settings correct. With more time and patience, and perhaps an investment in a really good incubator, we may have gotten better results. But at the end of the day, I concluded it made more sense to invest in a fresh set of hatchery poults each spring.

That left us with several mature heritage turkeys. They were fun to have in the barn, and we enjoyed watching them do their turkey antics out in the pasture. And the females did give us some eggs – at least for a few months out of the year, and for a couple of years. Then the eggs slowed to a trickle, and I realized we simply had a bunch of glorified, grain-consuming pets. And we don’t do “pets” with the livestock. Time to make a meal out of them.

Given the age of these birds, I was concerned that they would be tough. So, I did a little experimenting and hit upon a solution: brine.

The middle of last week, I butchered a very old Blue Slate turkey hen. After plucking and eviscerating her, I figured we had about six or seven pounds of bird. I then “disassembled” it by removing both leg quarters, both wings, and the breast meat. All of these prime pieces went into a big bowl, and everything else (the carcass, neck, and scrubbed-up feet) went into a large soup pot.

I then used a mason jar to measure out enough water to just cover all the pieces in the bowl; it took three quarts. A standard brine solution requires one cup of salt per gallon of water, so I pulled a bunch of the meat out, added 3/4 of a cup of salt to my bowl, and stirred until all the salt was dissolved, and put the meat back in. I covered the bowl, and put it in the refrigerator for a few days. (Theoretically, I suppose we could have left the bowl out at room temperature; the salt acts as a preservative. But we had room in the fridge, and I preferred to keep things cold.)

Sunday morning, I discarded the brine solution and put most of the turkey pieces into a Crock Pot. (The remaining piece I wrapped up and returned to the refrigerator, because my daughter wanted to make turkey curry out of it later.) I added a little apple cider vinegar, a little water, a chopped onion, and seasonings — and then set the Crock Pot on high and let it go. From time to time, I stirred the pieces around. Otherwise, it was the world’s easiest meal. By 5pm, the meat was tender and practically falling off the bone. And was the perfect centerpiece for Sunday Dinner.

So, out of one smallish turkey hen that was otherwise useless, our family got (1) an excellent Sunday dinner; (2) a dinner of turkey curry; and (3) enough soup for one dinner for all of us, with enough left over for me to have for lunches for the rest of the week.

Not bad. Now, to get started on the four other turkeys still taking up space in the barn…

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!

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.

Turkey Come Home

We have an unusually large number of young turkeys this year. Long story, but it boils down to two things:

1) The hatchery we’d ordered from later told us the turkeys might be greatly delayed. I placed a second order with another — more reliable, but also more expensive — hatchery, to make sure we got the minimal number of heritage breed poults we need. My intention was to cancel the order with the original hatchery, once we were certain we had a good survival rate in the brooder. We ended up getting both orders coming thru a few weeks later, before I could cancel the original one, for a total of 35 poults shipping to our property.

2) We had far fewer brooder deaths than usual. I think that’s because we got the poults in later May, when the weather was warmer and the birds were less stressed in transit.

Anyway, we now have all the poults out in two portable 4×8 pasture pens. They’re thriving, with fresh air and fresh green stuff in their diet each day (along with some supplemental high protein grain ration).

And then, this afternoon, we ran into a problem. I opened the lid of one pen, to give the birds some grain. Two poults got spooked, and flew through the open top to perch on the lid. One small bird was easy to capture and replace. The other, a largish Bourbon Red (an older bird, from the McMurray order), flew away. He went over the fence to the garden, requiring me to walk all the way around to the gate to reach him. By the time I got there, and had him pinned against the fence, he spooked again. Big time. Somehow clawed his way up and over the fence…and flew off INTO THE HIGH BRUSH separating our property from the road.

The young bird was now in a 20 foot wide patch of 3-4 foot high grass and brambles and branches that runs the length of our property. I came in after him, but he easily evaded me in the weeds. Meanwhile, I’m stirring up clouds of dormant mosquitoes and running into big patches of poison ivy and nettles. Was about to give up on him, when I had an idea: go out to the road, and work my way back in. I had no idea where the bird was, but fortunately stumbled onto him before long. He ran farther into the weeds. I almost got him…and then he squirted away and disappeared, leaving me to contend with another cloud of mosquitoes. Try as I might, I could not find him again.

I’d hoped the chirping calls of the other turkeys — the ones still in the pen — would eventually draw him back. But I kept checking all evening, but he never did reemerge. Finally, when the sun was all the way down, I went back out with a flashlight…still no Bourbon Red poult. Hopefully he’ll be there in the morning, but I’m not counting on it. He’ll probably get eaten by a raccoon or fox.

This is one of those maddening, never-saw-it-coming disappointments of farming. Yes, we still have plenty of other turkeys. But, dang it, we raised this one and he was thriving and this is such a stupid way to lose him.

And then, as I thought more about it, something came to me: how often do we humans act like that turkey? We have a good situation going, we’re being taken care of, we’re living according to the Plan that a higher power has in mind for us…and then in a moment of passion we [literally, in this case] fly the coop, determine that we know better what the Plan should be, strike off in a radical direction of our own…and then, very quickly, discover that we’re lost in the high weeds with no simple way out. Because we blew it, and squandered the situation we had. And are too stubborn or proud or blinded to listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd who is calling and begging for us to come out and return to the safety of the fold.

Don’t mean to get too overly philosophical, but these are the sorts of thoughts a person can have when living on a farm. You really do develop a greater appreciation for the agricultural parables of the Bible. And quickly come to understand why the Bible has so many of them.

UPDATE:
I went out to do the chores at 6:30 the next morning (Monday), accompanied by Scooter the Border Collie. As I was putting feed in one of the turkey pens, Scooter flushed the runaway turkey poult from the grass next to the pen. It’d apparently heard the other turkeys chirping, and come back from the high weeds/brush to rejoin them at first light. Anyway, Scooter chased the bird down and excitedly held it with his paws until I could come and grab it. It was damp from being out in the morning dew, but otherwise no worse for its night spent outside the pen. I’m just thankful it’s back.

A Time to Plan – and Dream

One of the few fun things about winter on a farm in Michigan is spending time poring over catalogs and planning for the upcoming growing season. Mrs. Yeoman Farmer is the farm’s designated gardener, and she loves sketching out which beds will be used for which plants. The task involves rotating certain plants into different beds, and making sure that certain plants are not grown in certain other beds. She also needs to decide roughly which week/month each bed will be planted, so I can make sure I’ve hauled and spread manure in the right places early enough for it to break down and be worked thoroughly into the soil.

MYF has a core of seed companies that she likes to order from (see the blog’s right margin for links), and spends hours comparing prices and varieties in their respective catalogs. Just a couple of days ago, we ordered our seed potatoes (this coming year we hope for a large enough yield so we can keep our own seed for 2011 — with the adoption of Yeoman Farm Baby this last year, we didn’t get the potatoes watered enough, and the yield barely covered our eating needs).

I have no less fun making plans for livestock. How many new laying pullets should we get? How many broiler chicks? Ducklings? Goslings? Turkeys? Which breeds? How should we stagger them, to ensure enough chicken tractor pens are available inside for brooding — and available outside to move them into once they’re feathered? Do I need to build more tractors? Which hatcheries have the best deals on which birds?

If you’ve never raised chickens (or other poultry) before, I highly recommend McMurray Hatchery as your first stop for shopping. They are one of the most experienced, and widely regarded to be one of the best in the business. And their variety of birds is staggering; if you can’t find it in McMurray’s catalog, you’ll probably only find it from a preservation center like Sand Hill  or other highly specialized breeder (Magpie ducks come immediately to mind – we liked the breed, but had to get them from Holderread’s Waterfowl Farm in Oregon). Anyway, the McMurray Catalog is tremendous fun to browse and let your dreams run wild. You can view everything online, and I recommend going online to place your order, but we personally like the experience of holding that full-color catalog in our hands and thumbing through it. You’ll also find excellent advice for getting your new birds started. And McMurray has one of the best poultry guarantees in the business. Their birds are excellent, healthy, and when something tragic happens in shipping they make it right.

However, all of that service, and the beautiful catalog, and the top-notch website…comes with a price. McMurray’s prices tend to be significantly higher than from other suppliers, especially when you factor in shipping. A good lower-cost alternative we’ve been happy with is Cackle Hatchery in Missouri. They don’t have the same fancy chicken selection, their website isn’t slick, it sometimes takes a really long time to get through to them on the phone, their printed catalog is all black-and-white … but they have most anything a small farm would want to raise. They have a good selection of the most common laying breeds, a good broiler meat chick, and all the heritage turkeys and waterfowl breeds we’ve wanted of late. An especially good deal, if you’re not choosy, is their “surplus rare turkey” package, where you can get a box of 15 or 20 heritage turkey poults that are left over from when the orders for specific breeds have been filled. Cackle’s prices are great, and their shipping charges are very reasonable.

Here in Michigan, our local feed store has an even better deal: they send a large combined order to a hatchery that’s just a couple of hours away. This yields a bulk discount, no shipping charges, and no interstate shipping stress for the birds. Best of all, the feed store has a special deal: for each 50# bag of chick starter you buy, they’ll give you ten free broiler chicks. Since the feed costs $8.50 per bag, and the ten chicks would normally cost $10.00, this deal is beyond a no-brainer. Anyway, this particular hatchery’s selection is very basic, but covers most of what we want to raise.

I’m thinking we’ll get 30 or 40 of those broiler chicks, 25 Black Australorp pullet chicks ($2 each), and 20 White Pekin ducklings ($2.75 each). We can easily brood up to 100 chicks in one of our tractor pens, so we’ll put the broilers and pullets into one pen; the ducklings will get a separate pen. All these chicks come in to the feed store on April 7th, so they should be ready to go outside the first week of May. Because the local hatchery doesn’t have heritage breed turkeys, and their goslings are $2 more expensive than Cackle’s (even after taking shipping into account), I’ll order 16 goslings, and a box of 20 surplus rare turkeys, from Cackle to arrive in early May just as the brooder pens are being cleared out; the goslings will go in one and the turkeys in the other. (By ordering all the Cackle birds at the same time, we get a big break on shipping.)

Longtime blog readers know that we color-code our layer chicks, so we know how old each one is; after two years, it’s time to put them in the freezer and soup pot. Last year, we raised Buff Orpingtons…so the Australorps will be easy to distinguish from them.

I’ll probably have to build a couple of more tractor pens for the garden, but that’ll be a fun project to do with the Homeschooled Farm Children…and we’ve built so many of them now, they come together quickly.

Lots of things to plan. Lots of things to dream about. Lots of fun in the year ahead.

A Different Kind of Adoption

This may seem like an odd move, but bear with me. I’d like to merge two recent streams of posts: our adoption of Yeoman Farm Baby, and the natural hatching/brooding of baby birds on the farm.

I’ve enjoyed the comments and input from various readers, who have asked about and shared their experiences with allowing various types of birds to hatch and brood their own young. Whether you’re doing this for the educational experience, the economics, to fly under the radar of NAIS, or purely for the entertainment value…hatching your own baby birds is a wonderful experience and I highly recommend it. But the unfortunate reality is that many good egg layers don’t make good nest setters. And many good nest setters don’t make good mothers. With broodiness and mothering instincts having been so aggressively culled by commercial hatcheries, it’s remarkable to find a bird that can both hatch and successfully mother her own young.

One answer that we’ve found to this problem: adoption! Unlike larger mammals, mother birds are not terribly particular about which babies are “theirs.” A good mother hen will look after and brood any chicks she can get her wings around. We saw this happen frequently in Illinois, when on occasion we had multiple brood hens in the barn at the same time. It was actually fairly amusing to watch as days passed, and the brood of the less interested hen gradually shrank while the brood of the more aggressive/interested hen gradually increased. I still remember one hen that ended up with something like eighteen chicks streaming across the yard with her (which was actually too many — even she couldn’t keep track of that many chicks, and they kept getting lost. And I kept venturing out to help, because there’s nothing quite as forlorn as the peeping of a stray chick stranded in the tall grass).

We’ve observed something similar with ducklings. We’ve had several ducks of various breeds successfully hatch a nest of eggs, with even greater variability in mothering ability. The Muscovies have been by far the best setters and mothers, with Cayugas a close second. The Khaki Campbells are not bad at setting, but we have yet to see one successfully mother her hatchlings. Every Khaki that has ventured off the nest with a brood has quickly lost every single duckling. Khakis don’t look back to see if the ducklings are keeping up, and they don’t respond to distress calls from little ones who have fallen behind. We got to the point where we would immediately remove any ducklings a Khaki hatched, and either give them to a mother Cayuga (assuming we had one with new ducklings) or brood them ourselves under a heat lamp.

BTW, I don’t say any of this to diss Khakis or Muscovies: they have their place, and Khakis are extremely good egg producers. We had a lot of Khakis when we were producing duck eggs commercially in Illinois, and at one time had a good flock of Muscovies. But we’ve chosen Cayugas as our primary homestead duck because their egg production is respectable, they are good natural setters/mothers, and they get to a nice eating size. We ultimately decided against Muscovies in part because the females are too small to make much of a meal, but also because Mrs Yeoman Farmer thinks those “caruncles” the males have on their faces/heads are disgusting to look at (not to mention the bizarre social behavior that Muscovies engage in when they’re together in groups. I still keep a few Muscovies, just for fun (and where MYF doesn’t have to look at them), but they’re now too old to good for much of anything.

We’ve never had very good luck getting a non-broody hen or duck to accept and mother baby birds — but geese are different. Earlier this year, we bought several goslings from a hatchery and brooded them under heat lamps for some time. Then, when we turned the goslings loose in the pasture, something amazing happened: our two older Gray Toulouse geese swooped in and adopted all eight of them. They proved to be excellent mothers, and took great care of the brood all summer. They were extremely protective, and dutifully led their charges to fresh grass and water (and stood guard attentively as the goslings grazed). The lesson we took from that incident: next year, we will put the goslings in with the mature geese much sooner. Perhaps not as brand new hatchings, but hopefully after significantly less time under the electric heat lamps. I may also try giving the geese a few ducklings at the same time, to see how that works out.

Because adoption need not be limited to the same species! We’ve had real life “ugly ducklings” hatched on our farm; one of the hens laid an egg in a duck nest when the duck was taking a quick break. Chicken eggs have a shorter incubation period than duck eggs, and the chick ended up emerging along with the ducklings. He/she managed to keep up with the web-footed siblings for several days, but the problem was when Mother Duck took her little charges through puddles. We eventually had to remove the chick for that reason, but it probably would’ve worked out alright had the mother been a hen and the adopted bird been a duckling. And I bet a goose would be an even better mother to a duckling than a hen would be.

A final thought, for those of you interested in hatching your own eggs: try to find a broody bird to do it for you. We’ve never had much luck with the commercially-available incubators. We did get some chicken eggs to hatch in them, but usually the temperature ended up a little too high or a little too low (or both, when the air didn’t circulate properly). But we never got turkey eggs, duck eggs, or goose eggs to hatch; waterfowl eggs have special humidity requirements (picture a mother duck sitting back down on the nest after taking a quick swim), and humidity is difficult to adjust in most of the more affordable incubators. We decided a long time ago to give up on incubators altogether, and either purchase baby birds or let a broody hen/duck hatch them for us.