Pastured Poultry Benefits

0

Posted by Jennifer on Tue,02-14-2012 | No Comments »
Posted in Current Blog 2012

After the last blog post you’re probably wondering why we’re still running chickens year round in our pasture (hopefully you’re recognizing too what a value pastured chicken is at our current prices).  All summer long we drug our coops over drought ridden, bare, and dusty pastures.  It was hard to imagine life ever returning to our fields, but those chickens were applying a super rich fertilizer.  As soon as the rain did come (which I could still use less of at a time), proof of the chicken fertilizer benefit was realized.  Now, all my pastures look green but there is a big difference between where the chickens have been and chicken-free areas.

Pasture with some green

Chicken Manure Free Pasture

 

Pasture with lush green

Pasture Graced by Chickens

The above photos were taken on the same day – just in different parts of the my pasture.  Both are good representation of the normal in each the non-chicken and chicken pastures.

Many areas of my pasture are covered with tasty-looking dandelion plants, which the chickens, horses, and cows love.  Some areas actually have grass again too – no small feat considering it’s February and we have not planted any winter grass.  In many places the grass is still short but healthy and green.  There are some tall patches too and we’re hoping to graze those first by using electric fences to create daily grazing paddocks for the goats and cows.

Tall Grass

Milo Mingus Shows How Tall the Grass Is

Cows take a certain number of bites per minute (JJ is such an insatiable eater that her bite/minute rate is probably two times that of a normal cow!) and, since cows only have one set of teeth, they have a special tongue wrapping and then chomping grazing technique.  Because of this the height of the forage determines how much food they’re getting per bite.  Ergo, the taller the forage, the more usable it is to a cow.  Goats, sheep, and horses all chomp without the tongue wrap, so they can get more out of shorter forage (preferably though a goat would only eat browse and not be on a typical grazing pasture).  This is why rumors of sheep and horses eating the roots abound – they can overgraze a pasture much more easily than their bovine friends. To prevent parasites it’s important not to graze grass shorter than about 2 inches – parasites are small and possibly lazy so they won’t climb any higher than that.

Cow eating

JJ Knows How to Graze, But Not to Chew with Her Mouth Closed

In a perfect world, and eventually in our pasture, forages that can be stored in the field will dominate.  By steering away from Bermuda based grasses, such as the Tifton-78 we paid good money to sprig several years ago, a farmer can potentially “store” enough grass for winter and summer months without having to bale hay – the cows graze the “dead” grass straight from the pasture.  Bermuda grasses have short nutritional life spans so they must be baled to preserve quality. That means diesel to run the tractor up and down the pasture, time spent baling, storage space, etc.

Pic of hay bales

Hopefully Bales of Hay Will Soon Be a Thing of The Past

Rain, extreme cold, extreme heat and wind are all issues with pastured poultry, but, if we can go from dirt to lush green during the winter, running chickens will be worthwhile. I’ll still hold out hope for more cooperative weather but will continue on regardless. Weather aside it is truly amazing to use such wonderful inputs on the pasture and have such a tasty, high-quality product at the end. So next time you’re enjoying one of our chickens, you will now know how much that bird contributed before making it to your plate.

Dry Pasture Picture

June Pasture

Lush Green Pasture

February Pasture - Thank You Chickens!

Rain. Again!

2

Posted by Jennifer on Mon,02-06-2012 | 2 Comments »
Posted in Current Blog 2012

When I type a blog post about some farm event or crisis it’s several weeks, or even months, after the event. With that much distance even the worst crisis doesn’t feel so bad, plus the receptors in my brain numb some with each crisis so I’m feeling less and less emotion each time something bad happens. This time I sit here at my kitchen table typing only 36 hours after the most recent event. Needless to say this post may not be quite as sunny as my normal ones. And why so gloomy you ask? Rain.

Remember that whole drought thing we had going on this summer? I was so elated to see rain during those arid months. No more. We are completely saturated. Our rainy season started months ago here when our temperatures dropped seemingly early in the fall and rain poured down simultaneously. We were not at all prepared and ended up losing 175 birds in one afternoon. That’s something I don’t aim to repeat so it means sleepless nights whenever rain is falling or even forecasted.

Pic of dry pasture

Drought Stricken Pasture

Pic of green pasture

Pasture in FEBRUARY!

Our coops are equipped for cool weather and we run our birds on fairly level pastures not been prone to flooding; at least not in the past. Most of the rain we’ve gotten has lead to multiple coop checks around the clock and use of our portable propane heaters. Sure I’m tired the next day (the rain seems to come only at night), but that’s about it. Last week was different. All of the winter’s rain had left us pretty saturated and even a little shower results in quite a bit of run-off. About 10 days ago we got nearly 5 inches of rain in about an hour’s time. We were prepared with pallets and hay in the coops to enable the birds to get up off the ground. A little shifting around of birds, turning on of heaters and we were as set as possible. I felt triumphant and a little cocky about our ability to handle the inclement weather.

Chicks around heaters

Young Chickens Basking in Front of Heater

And then my personal weatherman sent me an ominous prediction that this past weekend’s rain was going to be worse than the mainstream meteorologists were predicting. He was right – at least here. On Friday night we got another near 5 inches of rain, while friends of ours in Lexington (20 minutes away) only saw a ½ inch of rain result from the storm. We got a full-blown storm system complete with high winds, lightening and so much rain that our pastures flooded. There were even streams of rushing water across our fields. Fortunately though it was warmer than usual out, as this probably saved our ass.

Rain gauge

Rain Gauge Next Afternoon

Two coops in the very back of the pasture experienced the worst flooding. There were over 6 inches of rushing water in each and the birds were all huddled on their pallets, standing on tippy toes. We had to evacuate over 100 birds via crates. As you may imagine it was a muddy mess out in the pasture but I ran (literally) up to the processing shed/brooder building to grab the four wheeler and crates. It was there that I discovered two other problems: 1) the four-wheeler was damn near out of gas and 2) the brooder was flooded.

A couple of the brooding bays were dry and, fortunately, we had a WWOOFer here so, I hollered at him to move the soon-to-be-swimming-chicks to higher ground. Luck was in our favor in the brooder too – we had just switched to rice hulls for bedding and they were so absorbent the top layer of bedding in the completely flooded brooder space was still dry.

Pic of chick

Cute but Not Michael Phelps

I tossed every crate we owned onto the four-wheeler’s trailer, put it in “AWD” and headed out to the pasture. There were a couple of iffy spots where water was over half way up the four-wheeler’s tires and some really slick places too. I stayed on the gas, steered through the slides and managed to make it to the back coops without getting stuck or running out of gas. Harry then helped me shuck chickens into crates and load them onto the trailer.

Pic of ATV

A True Workhorse

Once those birds in the worst coops were situated on the trailer we tackled the two coops that had only four inches of water in them. To accommodate those birds we moved one coop to higher ground, made a big floor out of pallets, turned on the heater and then consolidated the two coops into one. The birds were crowded but warm and dry in about 30 minutes.

We hopped on the four-wheeler and, after a little mud running with chickens, managed to make it back to the processing shed. Well, almost back. The four-wheeler ran out of gas about 30 feet from the door but we were delirious enough to find this funny. All the crates were carried and stacked on the dry floor. Nearly all of the birds in the crates were at processing weight, so we made plans to process most the next day.

Processed Chickens

Evacuated Birds Taste Good AND Have a Story To Tell

After that the birds in the field, brooder, and shed only required checking on. Everyone feathered was fine. At the 2:00am-ish pasture check we discovered the little pigs required some attention though. They were wet, shivering and bunched up. We made plans to move them into the laundry room shed and devised a plan to get them out of the pasture. Since the four-wheeler was out of commission we had to call on the ol’ diesel, our trusty four-wheel drive pick-up, to do the mud running this time. The trip to the pasture was successful, however the first piglet squealed and carried on so much when we put her in the transportation cage in the truck bed, the others were having no part of being caught. We ended up opening up a round bale, pulling hay off of it and transporting hay to them in the back of the truck. Once adequately hayed in their area, they nested down with the two bigger pigs and were warm the rest of the night.

Open Hay Bale

Hay Was Nearby & Handy

Truck

Our Work Truck

Tire Tracks

It Was A Slick Drive

Safe & Sound Piglets

Safe & Sound Piglets

Saturday found us making deliveries, doing routine farm chores, processing about 90 of the evacuated chickens, and preparing for Sunday’s farmer’s market. Needless to say we were exhausted by the end of the day, so we went to bed early.

Not exactly refreshed this morning (Sunday) but in better shape than yesterday. However, the temperature outside has dropped considerably and it is raining AGAIN. So I sit here at my kitchen table, with my jaw clenched, and shoulders tensed worried about the work ahead.

What’s the Big Pig Deal?

0

Posted by Jennifer on Mon,01-23-2012 | No Comments »
Posted in Current Blog 2012

Way, way too often, I’m referred to as the “chicken lady” (Hi, my name is Jennifer. Oh, you’re the chicken lady) and pasture raised chicken is our primary product. However, it seems impossible to call the farm sustainable and be a monoculture of poultry only. Animals work best in symbiotic relationships with other animals and with our pastures.

And so we decided to add in pigs about a year ago. Fortunately we were buying pork from Peach Creek Farm in Rosanky, and Rose Page, Peach Creek’s premier farmer, was very encouraging. So much so that she gave us our first two pigs. She even put the girls in with her Berkshire boar for a month. Keep in mind we were not at all set up for pigs and had no idea what their requirements were. There’s lots of garbage out there about animal husbandry that doesn’t apply in a pasture setting.

When I finally picked the girls we hoped they were bred but months later, when there were no piglets and Lullabelle was exhibiting some very unlady-like behaviors (I’ll spare you the details but there was a barrel involved), we determined they were not in fact bred. We’re smart like that.

Those first two sows, Lullabelle and Pigot, showed us the pig keeping ropes and demonstrated how easy pigs are to handle and deal with in a pasture environment. Harry has pig-keeping experience but it was always in a backyard pen setting; he’s still amazed pigs actually graze and love to eat hay.

Pic of pig in pasture

Pigot Was Happiest When it Rained

Once we were comfortable keeping pigs, we added Maxwell and Wilbur to the drove. They’re both tasty looking Duroc/Hampshire crosses from Harry’s cousin Steven’s pigs. We sold half of Wilbur to Ward and Jill Taylor and plan to process him for personal consumption (not for resale) in another 6-8 weeks. Maxwell was going to be our breeding boar but somewhere in between getting these boys and now we discovered we’re way better equipped to raise pigs for pork only. Since we have an over abundance of food for the pigs and overfeeding a sow is terrible for her health, the eat-everything-in-sight feeder pigs work better with our farm.

Pigs at work

Maxwell (red) and Wilbur at Work

Pork requests are rampant so we now have two other little pigs coming up right behind Maxwell. They are so, so cute. Hamboline and is my favorite of the group because she is the feistiest. We have a couple of pigs that belong to a friend in with our pair right now so there are lots of pig romping, playing and piglet games going on. They love to tear around their pen (we keep them in until they’re big and tame enough for pasture life – this group will probably go out next week) and do turns on the haunches that would put any cutting horse to shame.

Piglet

Hamboline

Piglets

Passel of Pigs

Piglet

Are Cameras Edible?

Pig on the Move

Cutting Horse Moves

Well enough about the pigs – let’s talk about what the pig becomes: pork. About two weeks ago we sent one of the original sows to slaughter. And then we learned pigs can fly. Off of the freezer shelf that is. In just three days we sold completely out of pork from that first pig. Her sister is scheduled for processing on February 10th, Maxwell will be next, and then there are the two newest piggies coming up behind him.

We’re very happy to have pigs on our farm and it gives us great joy to add pork from truly happy, well loved pigs to our list of products.

2011 Recap and 2012 Plans

1

Posted by Jennifer on Sun,01-08-2012 | 1 Comment »
Posted in Current Blog 2012

There is way too much to report on in depth from 2011 (this post is long enough as is) but I thought a post about what was accomplished and some stats from the past year might be fun.  Also, 2012 has kicked off with a bang and I’m really excited about what the next year has in store for the farm.

While we did have chickens before and were testing the pastured poultry waters, we didn’t officially started raising chickens out in the pasture on a considerable scale until May so I’ve broken the 2011 stats into pre and post chicken farm.

 

2011 Slow Food Farm Stats

Pre-Chicken Inundation
(January 1st – April 30th)
Post-Chicken Inundation
(May 1st – December 31st)
Meat Chickens on Farm ~144 ~7,577
# of Chickens Processed ~140 ~5,912
Feed Purchased 6,000lbs 65,500lbs (seriously!)
Vodka Consumed ~1.39 gallons ~16.01 gallons
# of Blog Posts 11 12
Hours of Sleep/Night 8 5.42
# of Nervous Breakdowns 0 2.5
# of 100+ Degree Days 0 97
Times Pooped On 2 69.28
# of Times Jennifer Cleaned the House 28 2

No doubt we had a hell of a year and, assuming we find it impossible to block out the memories from 2011, it will always stand out as the year of the chicken.  And drought.  And heat.  Here is the full farm scoop broken down by animal:

Meat Chickens

2011 Recap:
At some point in 2010 we decided raising chickens out in the pasture in Central Texas would be a good idea.  In 2011 we started getting about 50 meat birds every three weeks until May.  Then we started getting in 200 meat birds per week until we increased to 250 per week at the end of September.

An amazing amount of infrastructure to support the pastured poultry operation was installed, including the brooder (which is being overhauled in 2012), processing shed, 12 portable coops.

Somewhere along the way we went from all-night processing to being able to knock out 100 birds in an evening.  We figured out how to keep birds alive in the heat and now we’re figuring out how to do it in the wet and cold.  Our personal chicken consumption has sky-rocketed and we’ve both been covered in more blood, poop, sweat and all kinds of other gross things than we ever thought imaginable.  Some tweaking was in order but it feels like 2011 was just one big, flawed crash-course in pastured poultry production.  Our learning curve will always be vertical but 2012 is promising to be a much better year in regard to the chicken.

2012 Plans:
We’re excited to have friends/farmers/co-conspirators Ward & Jill Taylor entering the meat bird world this year and we’re finding our groove in the market together.  This year we can be found at The Mercantile at Dyer Dairy, our first commercial customer and a loyal one to boot, who carries our chicken in Georgetown.  Bastrop Producers Market stocks it in Bastrop and now we have chickens available retail in Austin at Boggy Creek and Green Gate.  Anyone preferring to buy direct from the farmer can find Jill or myself manning our booth at the Bastrop Farmer’s Market on Saturdays from 10am to 2pm or at the Lakeway Common’s Market on Sundays from 9am to 1pm.  Of course we also have farm direct sales still.

Organic certification is on the horizon too for the early part of 2012 thanks to the help of a friend kind enough to tackle the stack of organic applications/paperwork. New for this year too we’ve switched to soy-free feed at the prompting of some of our favorite chicken consumers.  The birds we’re processing now are soy-free feed finished and in about six weeks any Slow Food Farm bird will be soy-free.

Packaged Chicken Pic

Laying Hens

2011 Recap:
Our poor ol’ layers have had a rough year.  All our younger birds were excessive free rangers and they insisted on trespassing onto the crazy neighbor’s property (these are the people who called the cops about the chickens in their pasture), so we placed almost all of them in homes.  The only ones left are still pissed about the lack of grass plus they’re menopausal anyway, so they’re not laying at the moment and all have a date with the stew pot.

2012 Plans:
When we started pastured poultry we were given bad advice that the egg market was saturated.  That has shown to be anything but true and we have plans to start adding in SMALL flocks of layers in the spring.  I know many of you doubt we can do things on a small scale but I’m determined to ignore the obnoxious part of my brain that usually talks me into jumping off of preverbal cliffs.

Friends Hoyt and Kim Todd started Big Huffy Eggs at the end of 2011 and we’re looking forward to working with them as they rev up production this year.  While Ward & Jill are a consistent wealth of information, we’ve already learned a lot about getting started in pastured egg production from Hoyt and Kim’s start-up adventures.

Rabbits

2011 Recap:
The rabbits have been pretty boring.  Heat was brutal this summer and we did lose a couple of bucks and some older kits but I gave the rabbits a misting system and was able to pull everyone else through although all breeding halted.

2012 Plans:
Hopefully the girls are all bred – the boys certainly have a good work ethic, so we’re hoping the does “took” and are “with kit.”  Keep your fingers crossed we figure out how to consistently produce these tasty little cuties.

Currently the girls live in large cages in their still not-quite-finished rabbitry but I’ve been really intrigued by the idea of running them in colonies.  Dorsey Barger a brand new friend, and owner of what might be the coolest urban farm ever, wants to raise rabbits and she got me rethinking cage-free rabbit living. Next week she’s going to start an experiment with two of our does to see if colony living and free-range rabbit is feasible or not.

Pic of bunny looking out of cage

Dominique is ready to leave her cage behind

Beef Cows

2011 Recap:
We sold most of our beef cows even before the drought hit.  Only JJ and her granddaughter Sha-nay-nay make up our beef herd pair right now.  JJ gave us a wonderful calf, Randy, this past Spring and he’s in the freezer now.  Between the beginning of December and now we’ve sold almost all of the beef from him and are looking forward to another Spring calf from JJ and maybe one from Sha-nay-nay too.

Our pastures were beyond devastated by the drought but we were fortunate enough to get some hay and the cows are munching away on a Certified Organic bale of timothy and alfalfa from some incredible farmers up in Iowa.  These farmers donated hay to TOFGA to help out the drought stricken farmers down here.

2012 Plans:
We have what may be the best ever pair of WWOOFers here this week. WWOOFers Kyle and Jason are diligently working on creating two pastures in our big 30 acre field.  Yesterday they tuned up the chainsaws and pasture weed eater for some serious fence clearing so they can continue running electric wire along the existing perimeter fence and then across the middle.  For now this will allow us to separate the horses and cows (necessary when feeding hay because of the way we feed) and will be the shell for future rotational pastures in that field.

Pic of cow

The tractor is rearing to go too so, if time allows, we hope to resume fence construction while the ground may still be soft enough to dig post holes in.

 

Gulf Coast Sheep

2011 Recap:
These creatures are probably the ones I’m asked about most because everyone wants to know what happened to them.  My standard response is that the sheep hit the fan.  Unfortunately the mischievous and super cute little ewes we got from friends Garth & Kim Travis gained access to feed which caused them to bloat and die.  Rumor had it that Gulf Coast meat is tender even if they die under distress and we were able to put one of the girls in the freezer.  True to the claim she has been incredibly delicious and I appreciate she wasn’t completely wasted.

2012 Plans:
Even though we’re itching to add sheep to our program, we have no plans to obtain more Gulf Coasts in 2012.  If the weather is better AND we’re fenced properly we’ll get sheep in 2013.

Pigs

2011 Recap:
Pigot and Lullabelle, our original sows courtesy of Peach Creek Farm, didn’t farrow but we were happy to keep them on and have truly enjoyed having these incredible animals around.  However, part of farm life is eating such animals and we did take Pigot to the butcher at the end of December.  I had planned to take Lullabelle first but she wouldn’t load in the trailer and Pigot wouldn’t get out. I had no choice but to head to Westphalia (the slaughterhouse) with my favorite pig in tow.

We opted to use a State inspected processor so we’d be legal on the resale of the pork.  Our first batch of pork should be back in about a week.  Westphalia Slaughterhouse was kind enough to allow me to watch the whole process. Now I can sleep at night knowing Pigot passed into the pig afterlife as humanely as possible.  Still I’ll really miss having her around.

Also at the end of 2011 we added in two feeder pigs.  Both had to be kept in a reasonable size pen until they were a little bigger and tamer.  Recently they moved out to the pasture and are working to clear brush around a huge oak tree.  The tree is so covered in thorny vines it’s hard to even begin clearing around it mechanically but the pigs are already making paths throw the vines.

Vine covered tree

Oak Tree?

Brush Hogs

Brush Hogs

 

2012 Plans:
More pigs.  I love the pigs – they’re funny, they talk, play, cuddle (I really wish I could get a picture of Wilbur and Maxwell spooning together), root, wallow, and eat lots of chicken guts.  Currently we plan to focus on feeder pigs because we have an abundance of cheap protein for them.  Overfeeding a breeding sow is bad for her health; therefore going with these little disposals makes more sense.  We give them hay, pasture, certified organic feed from Coyote Creek and guts from our organically managed chickens.  It may sound less than appealing to some but the end result is some seriously good, GMO free, scrumptious pork.  And pork is hard to argue with.

Pic of bacon

mmm...bacon

Goats

2011 Recap:
Sandy, our little red Spanish goat, died in a hay bale feeder accident so only Simone and Patches remain.  Both are fairly useless and they spent 2011 living in the same exploited 2 acre pen they’ve been in.  At the end of the year they journeyed out to the pasture with the pigs and are staying within the electric fence boundaries.

Goats in Bramble

Goats Earning Their Keep

2012 Plans:
I haven’t finalized plans for the goats yet.  If they start earning their keep we may keep ‘em around.  If not…think goat sausage?  We still plan to try our hand at what we’ve coined “a year of sustainability” during which time we would try to produce at least 90% percent of consumables on farm.  That may mean the addition of a dairy goat, but nothing is set in stone.

I’m sure there are things I’m forgetting to tell you about but that is the recap of 2011 and what we’re looking forward to in 2012. As we go forth into 2012 I’ll do my best to keep you posted on the farm happenings and mishaps.