This is how I can tell it's spring:
My chickens are enjoying the warm weather, frolicking around the yard and into the woods, digging up flower beds and bushes, crowing right under my open bedroom window at first light, pooping on the front porch... But on the bright side, um, all of those eggs up there tasted pretty good.
I have 3 hens that are sitting on eggs right now. One of them is hiding in a stall in the barn, the other two are in nest boxes in the coop. One of the potential future moms is Penny, Sasquatch's daughter from last year, one of the trash can babies! I'd love to continue Sasquatch's line because he was the bestest rooster ever. I'll be able to tell if any of the babies are part-Squatch cause they'll have feathery feet *crosses fingers*
If all 3 of them hatch babies, then soon we'll have little chicks to give away to anyone looking to get into chickens or add more to their current flock! And we also have eggs for sale at $2.50/dozen (from happy, healthy, free-range hens!)
The freezers are full of the first batch of Cornish Cross chicken, and the second batch is enjoying life on the pasture. There are 30 birds in this group (there were 70 in the first one), and it's a world of difference - no odor, birds are much cleaner, only need to feed and water them 1-2 times a day instead of at least 3, and they just seem happier too. Imagine that - density matters in livestock production ;)
The Broad-Breasted White turkeys are ready for harvesting, but we're waiting to do them with the next batch of Cornish Cross (we'll do the dual-purpose boys from the Speckled Sussex & Easter Egger group too). The BBW are getting HUGE!
We were letting them free-range, but we lost one to a pair of hawks (how the hell they carried/dragged that thing away is beyond me, but Dave caught them in the act of eating the poor bird). I really love these turkeys though! They're so friendly, they'll follow me around, they're not scared of me (I can walk right up to them without startling them), and they make the most hilarious noises - I hadn't heard a real "gobble" before, but they really do "gobble!" *love* I'm seriously considering keeping a breeding trio of the Bourbon Red turkeys and then hatching my own babies next year. ... Don't tell Dave.
Speaking of the Bourbon Reds - they're fiesty! We had to move them to a different stall in the barn and put poultry netting from the top of the stall walls to the ceiling because they were flying out of the stall and flying out of the windows! We lost one of them to free-ranging too, but they're secure now. They miss their freedom though and all pile in to roost at the window:
The replacement layers of Speckled Sussex & Easter Eggers are getting big too! The boys are now practicing their crow (they're in the strangled giraffe/drowning howler monkey stage), and I definitely have 6 SS girls and 2 EE girls to add to my flock. I'm going to keep 1 boy of each breed too. Next year instead of buying Cornish Cross, I'm going to breed and hatch SS, EE, and Blue-Laced Red Wyandotte babies. We'll harvest the boys, keep and/or sell the pullets, and maybe sell hatching eggs or day old chicks too if I've got enough extras. At least that's the plan right now... we're also considering putting farming on hold for a year and using our dollars and time to go on a super awesome vacation instead... Anyhoo, here's a pretty EE teenager:
In other news, my layers are brats. I'm finding eggs all over the place - in the barn, in the pasture, in the woods next to the coop, under the porch, in Snyder's mouth (that creature finds the eggs in the woods, carries them to the door of the house, lays down, and licks them - they don't even break open! And they say pit bulls are vicious biters, ha!) I'm only actually getting about 6 eggs a day in the nest boxes of the coop - I have 13 hens. *not impressed* But I still like them - I even give them watermelon that I forgot I left in my car for 2 days in the heat:
That's Penny on the left - she's Sasquatch (Cochin) and Emmy's (Phoenix) baby from last year. And that's a pure Cochin, Buffy, on the right. So round and fluffy! The flock ate those watermelon bits down to the rind - like, sliver-thin rind. It's amazing how little you throw in the trash when you have creatures around.
Yesterday was Round 1 of Slaughter Day: 2012. With the help of 5 amazing friends (thanks guys!!), we processed all 70 of our Cornish Cross meat birds (and 12 of our friends' birds too). It was a hot, sunny, sweaty, long day, both physically and emotionally exhausting! But we now have a giant chest freezer full of shrink-wrapped chickens that will feed us all year (and that are available for sale at $3.50/lb... hint hint).
Here's our set-up for processing:
The birds are all in their hoop house below (with 1 turkey hanging out outside their pen there, taunting them with her freedom). We grab one and put it upside down in one of the cones hanging from the wooden frame on the left in the picture. We cut off their head and leave them hanging to bleed out, then we dunk them in the scalding pot and swish them around to loosen their feathers. The water in the pot should be between 140-150 degrees, so we have our pot on a propane turkey fryer to heat it up. The water gets gross fast, and it takes a while to heat up, which really slows the process down - next time we'd like to have 2 fryers going so we never have to sit and wait and watch a pot boil!
After they've been dunked and swished around, we put 2-3 at a time in the Whiz-Bang plucker that Dave built. The plucker spins the birds around, and the combination of water pressure (from the hose you're spraying in there) and the rubber fingers lining the barrel take about 95% of the feathers off in about 5-10 seconds (as opposed to hand-plucking, which would take like 10 minutes per bird). Then from the plucker they go up to the butchering table (nope, didn't take a picture of that), where they get cut up and gutted and cleaned. From there they get placed in a shrink-wrap bag and heat-sealed for the freezer.
I still have to trim the bags, weigh them, and put pretty labels on with our farm logo, but the VAST majority of the work is done! Woohoo!
Now, I have to say - I freaking HATE slaughter day. Hate hate hate. I hate killing creatures, I hate the blood and guts and feathers and smell. I hate it all! Except the part that results in super good, healthy, humane, delicious meat... but the rest of it - HATE! At the end of the day, I told Dave that I don't want to do meat birds again next year. We'll see if that sticks or if I have a change of heart after I eat some barbecued chicken. Mmmm... barbecued chicken...
Remember these little guys?
Our first batch of Cornish Cross meat chickens is *almost* ready to be processed - we're going to do it slowly over the next couple of weekends (time is a luxury we don't have these days!)
It's definitely getting to be time for them to become food - they're barely walking around at all, just lugging themselves from food to water and back, and they look almost uncomfortable to be alive. Next year we're definitely doing Freedom Rangers instead - these crazy franken-birds are just too... gross. One of them broke their leg on Friday just by existing and being so fat, growing too much meat before its bones could catch up. We had BBQ chicken Saturday. It was delicious, but I want more natural meat birds next year! That being said, here's batch #2 of the Cornish Cross - they hatched last week:
They're cute when they're little...
The Broad Breasted White turkeys are the Cornish Cross equivalent in turkey breeds, but I like them MUCH better! They were cute as babies too:
But they're still cute as adults (for a turkey anyway, hehe)! And they act MUCH more naturally, actually eating the grass that's under their feet and going crazy when a bug crawls in for a tasty treat (I watched a juicy earthworm wiggle over the Cornish Cross' toes this morning, and they didn't even move from their grain stupor).
Those guys will be ready to be processed in about 5 weeks, and I can't wait! I LOOOOOOOVE turkey (almost as much as I love bacon). Our heritage breed Bourbon Red turkeys are timed to be ready for Thanksgiving, and they arrived from the hatchery last week:
They're ever so tiny and ever so cute! I lost 2 in the first night - turkeys are supposedly super fragile in comparison to chickens, so it wasn't unexpected (and the hatchery refunds any losses in the first 48hrs). Surprisingly all my Broad Breasted Whites are healthy and vigorous, didn't lose any. The rest of the Bourbon Reds seem to be doing well, all 13 of them!
Yesterday we also moved our replacement layers outside - the Easter Eggers and Speckled Sussex. Those are both dual-purpose breeds, meaning they're good for eggs or meat, so the girls will go to the coop and lay for me, while the boys will go to the freezer. Sadly I think they're almost all boys! I bought them "straight run" - un-sexed. But my 50-50 odds aren't looking too good. I might have 1 Easter Egger hen out of 10 birds. So much for more blue eggs!
(forgot to take a picture of them outside, so you get a cute baby pic instead)
In other news, I have a broody hen again this year:
That's Bufy's angry, fluffed-up, broody butt in the back of a nest box! She spent a whole week going from nest box to nest box, sitting on eggs in one on Monday, then moving over to another clutch laid by her flock-mates on Tuesday, then moving again to a new clutch on Wednesday. In other words, she has egg A.D.D. and is a horrible broody! She definitely lacks the commitment required to sit on the *SAME* clutch of eggs for a full month, so I've been just removing the eggs from underneath her every day. She's not giving up though, and as of yesterday, one of the blue-laced red wyandottes has decided to sit on eggs too. C'mon girls, as Dave says, we have ENOUGH CHICKENS!
We do not have enough Whittle photos though:
Julep and her puppies are all doing really well! The chubby little pups are starting to open their eyes and are wiggling their way all around the puppy pen. So cute!
(That's Cosmo - don't you just want to smoosh him?!)
The laying hens are all loving the beautiful weather we've been having - dust bathing, eating bugs and *gasp* mice, and giving me about a dozen eggs every day. The meat chickens are happy being outside, and I'm happy to have the barn back! The little replacement layers are growing up... I'm a little worried that all of the Easter Egger chicks are boys, but we'll see in a few more weeks. The baby turkeys are getting huge, and there's still one turkey poult with an identity crisis who keeps trying to join the chicks:
The bacon is doing fantastic! Yesterday they managed to tip over the barrel reservoir for their water and catch their waterer nipple so that it was stuck open - they created a wallow for themselves! They had a grand ole time in a giant mud puddle during the 90 degree heat :)
The gardens are also going well so far. We're getting a crap-ton of asparagus, and I finally made home-made pesto from our basil - dear god. I don't really like pesto, generally speaking, but I ate approximately all of the pasta with pesto and LURVED it! Mmmm. Most of the garden is planted, but we still have to put in pumpkins, various squash, watermelons, corn, a couple more varieties of beans, and some miscellaneous things (2nd round of salad greens, kale, kohlrabi, cabbage...). The tomatoes are absolutely beautiful:
That's a row of them about a week ago right after transplanting - they've perked up and gotten about a foot taller each. Cannot wait for fresh tomatoes and salsa and sauce!!
And in other news, Perrin and Tia are still looking for their forever families! We're REALLY hoping they can find homes before the puppies get much bigger - soooo much work, I really don't have time for the farming stuff plus that many fosters plus my full-time job. So please spread the word that 2 awesome pibbles need homes!
The meat chickens moved outside to their hoop house tractor on Saturday:
I put a tarp over the top too, so they're protected from the rain and shaded from the hot sun. They seem pretty happy out there though! I know I'm happier - the barn was starting to stink! Supposedly if you put enough carbon (pine shavings in our case) under them, their manure won't stink because of science or something ;) But I put a lot of dollars worth of pine shavings under them twice a day, rotated them twice a day, and it still stank to high heaven in there! They're seriously poop machines!
It certainly doesn't help that we ended up with 76 of them in this first batch - 31 (out of 75) survived the original shipment disaster, so we almost doubled the amount we were planning on keeping (the rest went to friends). Future batches are just 30 chicks each, and that will definitely help with the odor issue!
The future-layer chicks and the baby turkeys are still inside the barn:
The turkeys are getting huge! They'll be ready to go outside in another week or two. The layers are still so tiny and fluffy - I'm guessing it could be another month before they're ready to brave the weather. One of the turkeys is having an identity crisis - every time I go into the barn, I find him/her in the layer chick stall. They share a half-wall between their stalls, and this little guy seems to prefer being a chicken. Maybe he knows his fate is not as sweet as theirs...
In other news, we made a lot of progress on the garden on Saturday before I came down with the plague on Sunday! We laid down soaker hose and landscape fabric, put in the wire cages, and planted 2 varieties of peas and 2 varieties of cucumbers. We also transplanted the tomatoes - all 11 varieties. I know, it's too early to move tomatoes outside in Vermont, and we're taking a risk there, but I started them too early inside (thinking that our lack of winter would lead to a ridiculously early spring), so they were just too big. They needed to go in the ground. And our window box salad is doing marvelously. Oh oh oh!!! Asparagus!!! I harvested our first asparagus yesterday - 11 delicious stalks :) Hooray for spring!
Our meat chickens (and this year, our turkeys too) live on pasture in moveable, bottomless pens/coops called chicken tractors. The idea is to move them to fresh grass whenever they've either eaten most of what's underneath them (or covered it in poop!) :) So tractors are supposed to be light/easily moveable, durable because they're outside, predator-proof so nothing gets in there for easy chicken dinners, and easy to work with (feed, water, and catch chickens in). Last year, Dave built 2 tractors that failed pretty miserably at most of those traits!
Our first tractor was made out of an aluminum frame (nice and light) that he welded together and covered in chicken wire (pretty good against predators). Then for shade/rain protection, he put a roof and 3 wooden sides on half the tractor, thereby making it waaaaay too heavy for me to move by myself. Dave couldn't even drag it around by himself because it caught on the ground too. It was also awkward to work with - being on about 3 feet high inside, I had to practically crawl around in there to fill their food and water. It cost about $25 to build because we already had all of the supplies on hand other than the red paint and hinges. It survived the winter well, so we're keeping it as a back-up for now!
To make that tractor better, I'd put hardware cloth around it inside of chicken wire - no predator can rip through hardware cloth (but it's expensive)! And instead of heavy wood, I'd use light plastic panels - then I'd be able to move it around :)
After realizing how heavy the first tractor was, Tractor v2.0 was made out of PVC pipe as a frame (super light), poultry netting to cover it (easily ripped apart by predators), and a tarp for shade/rain protection. The whole thing was really light and easy for me to move around myself. It was still at the awkward 3' height. And it turned out to be *really* flimsy! We had a huge rainstorm, and the tarp gathered about a billion pounds of rain on it, and the whole thing collapsed. Blerg. Because of all the PVC pipe and fittings, plus a big new tarp, this tractor probably cost over $200. *nauseous*
To make that tractor better, I'd do hardware cloth and make the roof at an angle - I think that'd work really well! But it's still not exactly the most cost-effective design.
This year, we're building 2 new tractors - hoop houses! The frame is light 1x4s and 2x4s, and 2 cattle panels made of woven wire are bend to make the hoop. Then it's covered in poultry netting. Each one has cost under $100.
So far, I'm in love! Relatively cheap, attractive, durable, and I can walk right in without bending over! We're going to put a tarp over the top for shade/rain protection, and we'll attach a pull rope to the front so I can pull it around. *love* Only thing that would improve it would (once again) be hardware cloth insead of poultry netting.
For our first year of sugaring, we ended up with just under 1,000 taps, and our woods now look like something out of the Matrix:
It'd be almost creepy if it wasn't so delicious...
In other news, the chickens are pretty pissed about the snow. After such a strangely un-white winter, we got about a foot of snow last week, and the ladies have been refusing to venture outside since. Remember when you were a kid and you pretended something on the ground was hot lava, so you and your friends couldn't step on it or YOU WOULD DIE *arms flailing*?! That is how chickens feel about snow:
Thankfully, part of their run has a roof over it and can protect them from a molten fiery death.
I don't have anything to say about this picture, except that I love the weathervane on our barn:
Earlier this summer I bought 4 beautiful young pullets - 2 cuckoo marans and 2 Araucana/Ameraucana mixes (also known as Easter Eggers or EEs). One of the EEs was lost during Hurricane Irene (thankfully the only bit of "damage" we had was her running off into the woods never to be seen again as the storms started). The other 3 colorful egg layers have been taking their sweet time, mooching off us, without laying a single egg :-P Until last week!
Here's Bunny - our Araucana mix/EE:
Yes, she's supposed to be shaped like that, teehee. Araucanas are rumpless, bearded, and tufted, originating from South America. They have giant black eyes and gray legs. Aaaaand... they lay blue eggs:
See it?! Isn't it fabulous?! Yes, yes it is. See its majesty among the boring old white and tinted/brown eggs (and one kinda cool speckled egg)?! Yeah. Awesome.
And here's one of my cuckoo marans (Marans is the breed, Cuckoo is the barred color pattern):
Marans originated in France and are relatively new to the US, still not actually a recognized breed here. They lay "chocolate" colored eggs - kind of the color of an Advil pill, but ideally much darker. The eggs get darker as the chickens get older and are darkest at the end of their laying cycle (just before they molt). So theoretically their first egg is going to be the lightest egg they ever lay... and this was my first ever marans egg:
It got scratched up on the poop board (yes, she laid it on the poop board underneath their roost). The dark color is actually just a coating on a normal brown egg, so if it gets scratched at all, the darkness goes away. But hooray for chocolate eggs! Is it Easter yet? Cause I'm totally ready :)
Last week Dave and I worked on the coop to get it ready for winter. Can you see the light streaming through the spaces between the boards? That's a problem...
So we put battens on the outside, and now the coop is draft-proof... and stripey!
Some people say that coops should be insulated and/or heated so the chickens don't get cold or get frostbite. I'm of the opinion that if the coop is draft-free but also ventilated, then they'll be fine. It also helps to have fluffy, cold-hardy breeds, which I (mostly) do.
I *am* supplementing their daylight though - as the days get shorter, chickens lay less frequently or go into molt and stop laying altogether. Since I sell eggs (and eat them too), I wanted to avoid this, so there's 2 lights in the coop that come on at 5am and go off at 10pm. That might be a bit overkill, but it's keeping their production nice and high, so I'm happy!
I also had one other thing to do for the chickens to get them ready for winter... take a look at Pippi:
Sasquatch and Little Boy Blue are very... amorous. And because Pippi is a hybrid production layer, pretty much all of her energy goes into making eggs instead of taking care of herself. So she's had a really hard time growing her back and wing feathers back. I didn't worry about this during the summer, but I don't want the poor girl to freeze, so I made her a saddle (aka "apron"):
I won't lie - she kept it on for about 2 minutes. But I think if I just make it a little more secure, she won't have a choice - she will have to wear her saddle/apron/sweater :) I'm not crazy... it's entirely for warmth... so I don't lose my best layer... for economic reasons... and um... yeah, I think it's adorable!
Jen & Dave Paul, owners & operators of Old Post Farm