While the winter slowdown has not yet happened it does seem to be around the corner. Or is that just wishful thinking? At any rate winter is a time to regroup and plan for another year for the farm. We have some serious infrastructure planning to do thanks to a grant from Animal Welfare Approved which will allow us to add some fox proof fencing for our free-ranging laying hens; and some improvements to our sheep pastures that will allow for more organized rotational grazing and sorting. The AWA Good Husbandry Grant is not just financial support but a vote of confidence which really does propel us up to the next level as farmers. We can build our infrastructure as we also grow emotionally and intellectually with our farming practices. I know this may sound a little strange but farming is very emotional because at any moment things can go terribly wrong. I am not suggesting that we have a fatalistic approach to raising animals, fruits and vegetables but for each species there lurks a threat.
We hedge our bets with fencing, livestock guardian dogs, movement, sunshine and rain, and vigilant observation. This applies to sheep and potatoes alike. Observation reveals a happy lamb or a diseased potato plant. If we see the happiness we know we are on track; anything to the contrary we need to act accordingly to address the situation. Yes, we have blown it on occasion and missed the signs of distress but the lessons have never been lost on us. I try very hard not to make the same mistake twice.
We had 26 lambs born this year, increasing our herd of Katahdins by nearly 100%; over 300 Freedom Ranger chickens made it from our pastures to local plates; and pints of fruit and dozens of eggs went out to our Egg CSA members. Next year we take another step forward and grow the operation to meet both our desires to farm more and to address the growing demand for humanely raised food that relies on and contributes to our local economy. More eggs, more chicken, more lamb and we plan to try our hand at turkey for the first time.
There are two things that I go back to as I try to maintain a meaningful existence. First is this idea that individual dependency on the whole reinforces accountability to one another. We have lost some of this accountability because of the anonymity of the services we use daily. My customers know where their eggs, lamb and chicken come from so you can be sure that accountability is easy to trace. The other thing that keeps me grounded is articulated best in a quote from Will Harris of White Oak Pastures, “the way you know you are successful is do you still enjoy watching your animals.” I can say that this is usually the best thing I do on any given day.
We continue to challenge the threat of an aerial attack on the growing pastured broilers. So many of you have been kind enough to lament my troubles with predation on the chickens that an update is in order.
I wrote earlier that I had let our Maremma livestock guardian dog out of his pasture where he patrolled for predators around the broilers and the sheep. I thought maybe he would help to deter fox during the day around the barn area where we were having trouble with the laying hens. This was not a real solution because it basically confused Baxter. He had been trained (rather we reinforced his natural instincts) to stay on pasture with broilers and sheep. If you go off routine with Baxter it makes him a little manic for a few days.
So, as the owls continued to pluck a chicken a night we decided to net the whole area; this was cumbersome because we move them weekly through the nut grove.
We managed to break the cycle and finally return to an unnetted version with no fatalities for 21 days- several nights ago our winning streak ended and one got it! It was very foggy so we are thinking that this may have worked to the advantage of the very nearly silent owl that Baxter could not see. Next night it happened again and there was no fog, plus owls are silent is the problem. A new idea emerged and we decided on the “Fiesta”. I bought colorful pennants to string between branches because the netting is now over the blueberries. So on total we have lost 8 broilers to owls. They go to the processor on Tuesday so a cleared field for a month may help to “reset” the simpatico of the farm and encourage the owls to move on; or not? Plus, the “Fiesta” seems to be working, no fatalities since it was strung together.
Our troubles did not end with the winged and four-legged eaters; seems snakes like to eat baby birds and chicken eggs. Yep, of all things, one morning we look up at one of the barn swallow’s nest and there is a big rat snake wrapped around and in it (with a bulging mid-section). This was the ultimate insult to the farm because we are named after the barn swallows! We discussed the matter and decided that we needed to protect our investment and let us just say the snake is no longer in one piece. Our brooder for baby chicks is also in the barn, right below where the snake is) and is about to receive 125 new Freedom Ranger chicks so it is critical to secure it from snakes.
So at the end of a couple of bad weeks Andy and I sat down to try and figure what the long term solution to some of our problems may be and we finally decided on another Livestock Guardian Dog that would be trained with an emphasis on the barn and home where the layers roam. Of course my car broke down on the way to pick up a Great Pyrenees puppy but my neighbor Cindy Danehy came to my rescue and we came home with Finca. Finca means farm or estate in Spain so it
seemed fitting for this breed that was used by the Basque people over thousands of years. I have never been around a more laid-back puppy in all my life. He was not afraid of the thunderstorm that hit overnight his first night here; never batted an eye at fireworks and has taken to his hens quite well. I have the advantage of our old dog Buck who is proving to be an excellent teacher. Buck never roams off property; does not chase chickens and will put Finca in his place when he doesn’t feel like playing. He has even helped me teach Finca to stay and sit as the pup mimics the old man. I vowed I did not want another mouth to feed and vet but this may be just the solution we need to secure our environment from predation threats to a reasonable end. In addition to Finca and the “Fiesta” setup we have going on for the broilers we added 2 Nite Guard devices. Nite Guard is a small, solar charged blinking red light that activates at dusk. The red light deters nighttime predators by making them think there is a predator already on the job. We shall see…..
Please note, that the images here are only to make me feel better after a bad week of predation! Dinners from the farm that include our pastured poultry, kale, sage lamb sausage from KyLamb, asparagus, eggs and sweet potatoes. Eat real food and it will make you happy.- J
I value the guardian behavior of our animals as one is charged to protect the other. We have house cats that are free to go outside; barn cats that mostly hang out in the garage; a companion red heeler mutt who rarely leaves my side; and a Maremma livestock guardian dog (LGD). Baxter, the LGD, has challenged our thinking in owning dogs. He has reinforced that animals follow their instinct above all else. He is not a pet, rather a worker that is a critical component to keeping our farm alive.
And, to that point, this week has been a challenging one. On Tuesday morning, after doing morning rounds to open the barn and check on the pastured poultry, Andy says there is some good news and some bad news. I get butterflies in my stomach when he says that. Apparently after our 75 laying hens were freed from the security of the barn for the day a fox did a morning grab? Two dead just south of the blueberries; I was charged with disposal but by the time I got back there they had returned to actualize the meal. I was glad they returned to take the birds because I would rather they not go to waste, plus this was how we were able to determine the likely predator as fox. Dogs kill for sport; fox kill for sustenance. Oh, and the good news, Andy added, was that our 102 Freedom Rangers (a chicken breed we raise for meat) down in the nut grove looked great.
So, during the day on Wednesday, while I was away, it seems the fox returned. There were additional 6 or so scenes of struggle. Not every pile of feathers corresponded to a dead hen; and there were several missing their tail feathers (sort of like a lizard.) By our best count I think we lost 4 or 5 hens that day and all I kept thinking is that the fox will keep coming back if I don’t do something.
So, yes, we live with constant anxiety over who might be dead in the morning-or afternoon! To allay this anxiety we have employed Baxter to the nut grove to patrol the area where our pastured poultry are rangeing inside of an electrified fence. He does a great job keeping the fox from even thinking they can take a chance. But on Thursday morning it seems that our configuration was a bit off. The nut grove is perfect for free-ranging chickens because the trees actually deter aerial attacks by hawks. Well, it seems the way we arranged their little A-frame shelters allowed for a clear aerial path between the row of nut trees and 2 little Rangers got it. The viscera was left behind which is an indication of a hawk strike. This batch of Freedom Rangers was special because up until Thursday morning we were at 100% success rate. 102 chicks came in the mail and we still had 102 chicks at 1 month. Damn that hawk? Or is it our faulty configuration?
Okay, now it is Saturday morning, a lamb is born on the 15th anniversary of my my father’s death due to prostate cancer. I like the idea of rebirth so this marked the occasion well. But, as I was checking on the lamb Andy was noting we had a problem again from the other end of the pasture. 3 more broilers dead! No heads or neck! We finish the chores and I head to Lexington to sell my blueberries. There I described my dilemma to 2 seasoned poultry farmers and both immediately said OWLS!
So, ultimately it is playing out like this: Baxter was being freed from his pasture patrol in the morning to go back to the barn area as I pick blueberries to maybe deter daytime fox predation? Now we are going to ride it out for a few days and just keep them in the barn. The broilers in the nut grove are going to get a netting strung between 4 trees to thwart an aerial attack…..or that’s the plan at least.
Swallow Rail was the name my Dad gave the farm over thirty years ago. He wanted it to be relevant, reflecting the spatial and natural qualities of his 18 acres in Western Shelby County. His inspiration came from the swallows that swoop and swerve so adeptly in open fields, catching insects on the fly. The rail of Swallow Rail comes from the two railroad tracks that flank either end of the road.
The name he chose remains as true today as it did thirty years ago; almost more. The swallows still fly and the trains still run. We value our swallows and it is remarkable how the population has rebounded from the years after daddy died and before the barn was opened back up for active use. For 5 years if was mostly closed, storing a smattering of equipment; for over 5 years now it has been opened at both ends at daybreak to release the hens and closed at nightfall to protect them. This time of the year we must also honor the swallows’ timing as the return to their nests for the night.
They fly about in rapid movement; sometimes I flinch because they come so close and at such great speed. If they were bats catching insects I would be uneasy but because they are the swallows I feel a sense of comfortable familiarity; and that they belong here more than anyone else. They are doing what they do best, out there in the field catching insects on the fly. They know exactly how to manipulate their bodies to move this way or that. Tail forked, pointed or fanned; wings outstretched or pulled close to their bodies, their flight truly is an aerial acrobat. Swallows are one of the few birds that are entirely insectivores and they have all the moves to catch as many insects as possible.
The barn swallow is the only swallow that has a “swallow-tail”, a term that has come to mean deeply forked. The colorations also make this bird easily identifiable (which is helpful to me because I am not a very good birder). As they jet through the air you can catch glimpses of its blue-black back; the underside is buff-colored to cinnamon with a slightly darker throat; and then, of course, that amazing forked tail.
The barn swallow is most common but there are others including the tree swallow that has entirely white under parts; the cliff swallow has a rust-colored rump and a squared tail; the bank swallow is marked by its brown back and dark band that runs across its otherwise white breast; and the much desired purple martin, which is the largest of the swallows and has an entirely blue-black body.
To date we have about a dozen families nesting in the barn this year. They swoop in one door and out the other end or perch a while on the rafters as they prepare their nests or tend to their babies. I am watching 3 glean in flight just outside the window now, in the late morning. Later this afternoon they will perch on a utility line above an open field and pond before they take their last flight for the day.
We so often do not take the quiet time to simply sit and observe. Watching the swallows- or any other species for that matter- reinforces the reality that there is an extraordinary balance in the natural world. I do not need to put out a hummingbird feeder full of sugar water if I let the native wild flowers grow on the dam. The grove of catalpas in the middle of the back field makes it a perfect place for my little Eastern King Bird who watches from her perch for an insect meal. Her tail fans out and she shows off the unmistakable white band that allowed me to identify her. I am often mesmerized by her moves because she hovers just above the grass with her wings out stretched, fluttering like a heavy butterfly or a papery puppet on a string, until she goes in for the snatch. And, those amazing swallows that are worth keeping the barn doors open for.
Our lamb crop for the spring of 2013 totaled 23. We had all twins including 2 sets of triplets. All of our lambs presented perfectly with nose and two front hooves headed out first! I was worried about #1065, my big ewe who had a little trouble with her first twins last year. She was huge this year so we suspected triplets and that is exactly what she delivered under the night sky with the constellation Orion’s Belt above us. We call her triplets Orion’s Belt!
We gave our ewes 3 cc of BoSe 2 weeks before lambing, the extra selenium (due to their all-grass fed diet on generally selenium deficient soils here in Kentucky) helps with muscle tone and therefore ease of delivery. It also can help off-set white muscle disease in lambs due to selenium deficiencies. One ewe (our Houdini-girl because she always slips away) did not get the injection so I gave each of her twins a .75 cc of BoSe at 3 days. One of the Orion triplets exhibited some signs of wmd at about 1 month- looking a little puny, getting up and down and a hunched over appearance (not constipation because I saw him poop pellets)- so he got .75 cc of BoSe as well. We are always mindful of selenium overdoses with lambs and never give more than .75cc.
Look forward to about 13 ram lambs for the fall harvest. If you would like to be on the “Lamb List” to be informed of the harvest email me at JWiche@Shelbybb.net.
Yes, the age old question about which came first springs to mind this time of the year as the stores start to stock the shelves with chicken raising paraphernalia. We had a total of 130 chicks in brooders in the basement and barn this early spring. It was not a warm season so we were met with many new challenges. The Brown Leghorns and Araucanas that have joined our other laying hens are thriving after being brooded in the basement; the 100 Freedom Rangers now totals 95 after spending a week too long in the brooder due to 22 degree nights! They content today in the nut grove but it was a season mounting in stress for all of us. I learn something new each season as the variables of animal and Mother Nature are never the same.
We have turned chicken farmer in less than 5 years from keeping our first chickens. I had wanted chickens so my friend and neighbor Kay Yount gifted me a dozen of her mature Barred Plymouth Rocks in the spring of 2008; the following spring, on my 40th birthday, we were brooding our very first batch raised from day old chicks. How does one go from raising a few chickens for eggs to raising enough to sustain a small broiler and egg business, you ask?
I will attempt to answer that question for myself as we navigate our second year of raising animals for food. My first thought on the matter is that I really like food and I take what happened to this food before it reaches the table very seriously. This includes animal, vegetable, mineral, water, worker, environment- the whole lot of what it takes to turn something into sustenance. Okay, so the second thought (which is only now becoming evident after being engage in animal husbandry) is that the very hard work of carefully raising living creatures is not for cheap and convenient eating but for mindful living.
I have pondered, too, that perhaps our disconnection from the actual processes of procuring, raising and transforming edibles into edibles has left us disconnected with one another. When it took the collective help of neighbors to get the fields planted, cultivated and harvested we were accountable to one another; we valued each other’s successes because it was a reflection of ourselves. To help your neighbor was an investment because the favor was often returned in short order.
So, back to raising food for ourselves today: try it in the garden, with some hens for eggs or a few broilers for the table. If you keep them alive long enough to reap the rewards you will learn to value food in a way barely imaginable by most who eat with no thought as to where their food came from before the cellophane wrap. It is so easy to eat today, just go to the grocery and pop it in the microwave? Drive-thru? Instead, consider playing a little role in what keeps you alive and healthy. In just a few weeks you could be planting potatoes and onions; maybe raising some chicks that will give you eggs in 6 months (yes, it is an investment in many things including time and patience).
We are at the threshold of another growing season. Grow something…animal, vegetable, mineral, mindfulness, horseradish, whatever!
Perhaps this can be a reminder of the payoff of “putting up” the garden in spring, summer and fall: we have extended our homegrown eating pleasure into the winter months with some basic preservation methods. If you froze, dried, canned or otherwise preserved fresh fruits and vegetables in 2012 do not forget about them (or horde them for some unreasonable time.)
First, open the freezer and assess what’s there: blanched Romano beans with some ice crystals forming inside the freezer bag? Plan a stew for dinner. A big bag of grilled corn (from Gallrein’s, which you cannot beat) sliced from the cob? This corn is so sweet we just use it as a side dish with a little salt and pepper. The tomato and zucchini mixture is holding up well so I will search out anything else that is starting to look freezer-weary.
Spring peas are ready to be steamed in a little water and finished off almost sautéed in olive oil with some garlic. These were blanched briefly, iced down to cool, drained and frozen in deli containers. Better than grocery bought from the frozen vegetable aisle.
On the pantry shelves I can reach for canned tomatoes for my cottage cheese or chili; lacto-fermented green beans go great with roasted potatoes and olives. Next I will make a salad of pickled beets, walnuts and blue cheese. Some blackberries preserved in balsamic vinegar was great on vanilla ice-cream last week, I know that sounds weird, but it was really good. That plum compote would be good on pork. And of course, Andy’s oatmeal has our dried apples, figs, persimmons and pears in it; the combination made more complete with peaches from Mulberry Orchard. My husband’s routine peanut butter and jelly is not complete with my blueberry or blackberry jam. How much to shelve is a calculation based on how many sandwiches need to be made before the berries come ripe again.
There are many vegetables that do not need to be transformed from their fresh state to be preserved for later. For example: we are eating turnips from mid-summer that I just tucked away in a plastic bag in the back of the crisper drawer. I like to eat turnips raw and after several months chilled in the refrigerator these turnips not only remain crisp but they have largely lost any of their heat. I am also getting turnips from my friend Janice Walls and her later season harvest taste as fresh as one’s just pulled from the ground. This is why people used to eat turnips…they lasted and they fed you and your family through the winter. This is no lowly vegetable
And, at my fingertips in our basement, I have loads of potatoes stored on slated racks. I admit they are getting a little shriveled but quite frankly once they are roasted, stemmed or mashed no one would suspect anything other than perfect potato. The winter squash are holding up well, as we monitor for any decay which means you get eaten next.
I do realize I am obsessed with all aspects of food but it didn’t seem like I went to great measures to stock up for the winter and 2012 was a busy season that took me out of the kitchen more often than not. Still we have good food that we grew and we have chicken, eggs and lamb to make the meal complete. I am so grateful for each animal, fruit and vegetable, perhaps that’s where the obsession comes from.
And, I must share this last anecdote about the early summer harvest. My friend Mary Courtney gave me a big, beautiful head of Napa cabbage back in June sometime. We enjoyed that Napa cabbage cooked, raw, on BLTs, and as an experiment in freshness. I kid you not; I have one lone piece of Napa cabbage in a little zip lock baggy in the refrigerator today (yes, February 2013). I will deliver it back to Mary as a symbol of how great or local farms and farmers are.
If there was anything that I came to understand more profoundly this year it would have to be the power of instinct: mine, our animals and the forces of ideologies of which I agree and disagree. I reread my year end column from 2011 which reminded me of where I was 12 months ago; it helps me better appreciate where I am today. It seems we did not do too badly, after all, and it’s all because both Andy and I recognize the power of instinct.
Before we got sheep people kept saying “sheep are stupid”; and chickens are stupid; and nature needs to be mowed and paved and tamed and sprayed…I could go on. I think that these naysayers have been wrong largely because they never took the time to notice instinct. Sheep eat grass and in order to do so effectively they need to move forward, that’s what they do. It is smart if you live off of grass; and if you don’t want to live around your own manure.
Chickens eat grass, too, and move about in search of it and other protein sources (and away from their manure): they are maybe better omnivores then humans. Don’t judge the knuckle head moves like getting jammed into a roll of wire fencing or going broody. When we decry the instinct of an animal we do so in an anthropomorphic righteousness that deems any behavior outside of what we want “stupid.” This year consider it otherwise.
Last December I wanted to raise chickens for eating; and last December we had 10 pregnant ewes that I hung my hopes on delivering lambs in April. They delivered in so many ways. We had 13 lambs (I know, we were bound for some trouble!) We lost our first born to a crushing accident which taught me lambs will get into trouble if there is anything in their midst that might allow for trouble. I was sick to my stomach over my oversight as their shepherd. We lost another little girl to parasites, which is the number one killer of sheep, second to domestic dogs. I finally got the hang of it a raised some happy, healthy animals for a fall harvest. The lessons learned were about good animal husbandry, protection, life, death and the completion of a life cycle meant for food. This year I learned more about death than the average year! My first crop of lambs would, of course, be harvested for meat. This was why we got into the sheep business, after all.
The challenge of 2012 was to grow food beyond vegetables, fruit and eggs. We wanted meat to make the offering complete; and to fully use our gift of land. We harvested 6 ram lambs and nearly 150 chickens for our customers and ourselves. My friend Angie said “you have done what you set out to do,” as I cried in anticipation of taking our lambs to be processed. I did not cry over the chickens because it was very hard and dirty work during a recording breaking hot summer. I did love every one of those chickens but the human emotion is stronger (which is our instinct) when a living being has eyes and lashes and a personality that we can more closely relate. The chickens had personality, to be sure, but the lambs knew how to manipulate me with more finesse. The totality of the farm was cared for with great affection; they lambs were sweet to me, the broilers not necessarily so, they just wanted me to feed and water them. I suppose the lambs did, too, but they also courted me in a conscious effort to be favored. Favored here, is a lambs’ instinct to get food and affection. So perhaps we are more alike than we ever imagined?
Early on in my shepherd training I was instructed that lambs forget their mothers a few months after being weaned. I do not agree: #0010 (also known as Violet) ran straight to her mother, dropped to her knees and tried to nurse when they were reunited in a pasture several months after weaning. Her instinct was no doubt keen but mama was long dried up. To this day Violet and her mother Brownie are still best of friends. And, with them as a guide, we will raise more food for local tables in 2013. Happy New Year!
The animals we raised for food this year have all reached their full potential, if you will. The 6 ram lambs and some 150 chickens have found their way into local freezers and onto local dinner tables. The farthest that any of it will travel will be to Montreal in a carry-on bag by my side so that I can eat my own lamb with dear friends later next month. It was a year full of many lessons and you can read more about the trials and tribulations in the January-February edition of Edible Louisville.
The winter season progresses with a supply of eggs and frozen whole and half chicken for sale. The egg shares are sold out for now; winter solstice is December 21st so as the days start to lengthen so will the prospects of more egg-laying! We are also pleased to know have Animal Welfare Approved status for our laying hens and eggs. This is a nod to our responsible animal husbandry practices.
Let me know if you would like any pastured poultry for winter roasting. Andy and roast a chicken each week and eat on it for several days, we have determined that the texture and flavor stands out as the most significant difference between the taste and texture of factory farmed poultry (plus we are not contributing to antibiotic resistant bacteria, contamination and pollution!)
We will be doing this again and hope that our customers will continue to support the farm by purchasing Ky grazed poultry, eggs and lamb. Happy New Year!