Poultry


We occasionally get asked the question, “Since brown eggs cost more at the grocer, are they more nutritious?” The answer is “NO!” Commercial egg producers often try to set apart eggs with labels like “free-range” or “cage-free” by having brown egg laying hens. They look different, so, to the average consumer, they must be different, right? It’s just a brilliant marketing ploy, and nothing more.

I was making deviled eggs the other day, and thought it was a good example. Notice in my photo, I have all sorts of colored eggs….brown, white, cream, tan, green, bluish, speckled, you name it! The color is only tinting and only on the outside of the shell. In fact, if you scrub, most of the tint will come off! Once peeled, you can’t tell the difference. Even the yolks look the same. The grey on the outer edge of my yolks simply means I steamed them a bit too long.

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Now, I should mention that there ARE differences in the make-up of different type of poultry eggs.  For example, a duck egg is well known for being better for baking, while a turkey egg has a milder flavor.  Like chickens, however, the differences in nutritional content have nothing to do with color of these birds or their eggs, but everything to do with diet and management factors.  In fact, to my knowledge all turkey eggs are the same color, as those birds haven’t been so carefully selected for egg tint like chickens have.

So there you have it. An egg is only as nutritious as the hen’s diet. If you want more nutritious eggs, buy from a pastured poultry supplier….whether it be chicken, duck, turkey, or whatever.  Even in winter, we give our hens leafy green hay to keep up their chlorophyll intake, which contributes to those nice looking yolks and healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

If you read my last post about our new, open-ended, tarp-covered, layer hen hoop house, you may have wondered how we sheltered them for winter.  One option is to move them into another shelter for winter.  We didn’t like that idea, though, so we opted to kill two birds with one stone (but we didn’t kill any hens, don’t worry!).  We chose to recycle some old hay bales someone offered us, and use the natural heat supplied by the sun and by compost to protect our girls through our bitter winters.

When the temps got cold enough and the grass died off enough, we pulled the Hen Hut up to a spot near the barn, and parked it for the winter.  We then brought in around 120 bales of old, moldy, rotting, otherwise useless hay and straw.  Unfortunately, we were so busy building the structure, I totally forgot to take photos, so the “after construction” photos will have to suffice.

First, we jacked the skids of the hoop house about a foot off the ground, to allow us room to build up deep bedding over the course of the winter.  Next, we stacked the bales in a rectangular shape around our hoop house and feeder, and secured them with cattle panel and t-posts to ensure they didn’t fall on any chickens as they decayed over the winter.

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The winter fortress, as viewed from the outside. S is walking towards it, for scale reference. The peak is actually the top of the hoop house inside.

On one end, we left a small gap between two hay bales for a chicken and dog-sized entrance, and then stacked a few more bales around the hole to provide a wind block.

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The chicken entrance, hidden under these bales, allows our hens to still come and go as they please through the winter, while still protecting them from the elements.

Then, we added a man-sized door made of scrap lumber to the other end, so we could easily get in and out to tend the birds and collect eggs.

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The man door, open, with the view to the inside of the winter “solarium.”

Finally, we built a simple rafter system out of scrap lumber, and covered it in plastic sheeting–nothing special, just some scrap stuff we had in the barn.

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The simple plastic roof can be seen here, spanning the distance between bales.

The layers did absolutely awesome with this design!  We added fresh bedding about twice a week, and watered the old bedding down a bit every other week or so to keep it just damp enough to compost.  The combination of composting deep bedding and composting bales, kept the interior of the fort-style structure a very comfortable 60+ degrees F on even the coldest (negative temps) winter nights.  The plastic sheeting provided a small amount of insulation to keep the heat from escaping out the roof, in addition to allowing solar heating during the day.  In fact, on warmer winter days (over 20 degrees F), we had to actually open the man door to ventilate the structure, or it would reach over 85 degrees F in there!  In addition, the large expanse of clear plastic and the white roof of their hoop house allowed them to get as much natural light as possible during the winter months, which is critical for egg laying.  As a result of the heat and insulate qualities of this design–ugly though it may be–the hens layed steadily throughout the winter.  There was about a 3 week period in January and early February where S added a solar-powered light (seen in the photo above) to give them a couple more hours of lighting, as a result of our egg count declining somewhat.  This popped it right back up where we needed it to get us and a few customers through the winter, without going overboard.

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Happy hens (most are outside free-ranging when this photo was taken). Notice the heated waterer hanging from the ceiling–which never froze once, and thus never had to be plugged in! What a waste of $40!

When winter was over, we simply disassembled the structure, recycled the bales once again to build water-retention berms on steep slopes in our pasture, and hauled the coop back out to pasture.  The system worked so great for us, that we are already working out a source for old hay/straw for this winter!

Last year, we increased our number of layer hens to roughly 100, and plan to increase further over the next few years.  We needed a new coop!  Once again, S returned to the drawing board to come up with a design, while I jotted down my thoughts of things I had and had not liked about the previous, smaller designs we had built over the last few years.

We finally had a plan and set it in motion.  We decided to build a hoop-house style coop, with open ends.  Since we have guardian dogs, we don’t need to close our coop up at night.  Since S had oak available from his lumber mill, that’s what the coop foundation and roosts were built with.  Yes, oak is very heavy, but we had our team to move it, so heavy wasn’t a big deal.  Oak is also sturdy, so we didn’t have to worry about the weight of all the chickens piling onto roosts at night.  We used cattle panel to form the hoop shape.  We had some wood scraps and thin plywood pieces we used to build the nest boxes, which were designed to be removable.  We ordered the cover custom made from a company specializing in tarp-type covers for farm buildings.  It was far more secure and sturdier than standard tarp material.

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First, we built a solid, stable foundation on skids, and bolted the cattle panels between wood layers.

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Next, we added end pieces and upright supports to maintain the shape of the panels.

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Next, we added roosts and the removable nest box sections (4 total, though only 1 is pictured here)

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Finally, we painted it all to protect it, and added the custom made cover.

The next step was to build the feed and water station.  We decided to make this a separate structure, which could be attached and towed along behind the hoop house.

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The feeder was built out of scrap lumber and plywood.

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Next, we installed a linoleum-style cover inside to help the feed slide down the sides into the side openings where the hens could eat. We also built the platform for the waterer, which is a 30-gallon drum with a gravity-style water bowl. We painted it all up and added a roof.

Finally, we put it all together, hauled it out to the pasture, and when the weather warmed enough, we moved the hens from their winter quarters to the new Hen Hut.  They totally approved!

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Happy hens!

We now have roost capacity to easily house around 170 hens, and more if they pack in a bit snugly.  When filled, the feeder holds the equivalent of about 2- 50 pound sacks of feed and lasts 100 pastured hens about 4-6 days (depending on bugs and other available feedstuffs).

Stay tuned, and I’ll tell you how we winterize the Hen Hut soon!

We looked at our budget and chicken expenses for the last several years, and we looked at our goals for the future.  One of our big animal expenditures was purchasing layer chicks each year.  It was also one LESS thing we were doing that moved us toward God-sufficiency in our lifestyle.  Thus, we decided to take the plunge into hatching our own chicks.  Instead of purchasing our planned batch of layers this spring, we used the money to buy a nice, 50-egg incubator.  After lots of research (what else is new?) and a number of phone calls to ask questions, we settled on the Hova-Bator incubator with circulating air fan and egg-turner.  Next, we stole about 21 eggs from our layers over a few days.  One Saturday afternoon, we placed them all in the incubator.  The below photo is actually the day before they hatched, so the egg turner had already been removed.

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After 5 days, we candled them, using the incredibly inexpensive, all-purpose, highly modern…..flashlight.  Whatever works, right?  We were able to see the air cell, the yolk, and in most cases, a little chick embryo.  2 eggs were clearly not fertile, and 1 egg had an early demise (indicated by a reddish ring around what started as an embryo).   That left 18 eggs.

We then candled roughly once a week, added water to the humidifier tray every 2-3 days, tried to maintain a constant temperature, and hoped for the best.

On day 20, about 4 in the morning, we heard peeping.  One perfect little chick had hatched, but was very weak and clumsy.  He couldn’t stay upright.  We tried a few things, but eventually moved him out and into the brooder, where he later died.  I think he was, literally, a premie, who just couldn’t thrive.

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On day 21, as scheduled, 16 eggs pipped (made a hole in the shell to start the hatching process).  One at a time, they began hatching.  This lasted over 24 hours.  Finally, around mid-day on day 23, we removed all chicks from the incubator.  The final result was 15 healthy, happy chicks, 1 chick that died after pipping, 2 chicks that died about a week before hatch (they still had their yolk sack attached).  The kids had a fun biology lesson cracking those 3 open to see what was inside.

If you look closely, you can see of the other eggs that are pipped.

If you look closely, you can see of the other eggs that are pipped.

This was several weeks ago, and the 15 chicks are still alive, well, and beginning to feather.  We have no idea yet if we got hens or roosters, but I am assuming it will be a standard 50/50 for the most part.  We did learn, however, that the feathered-leg trait is dominant.  Our rooster is a feather-legged Dark Brahma, and the hens were a mix feather-legged and clean-legged breeds.   All chicks are feather-legged.  We found it interesting. We also got at least one pure Brahma (our favorite), though it is a cross between light and dark.  We are looking forward to our next hatch, and quite thrilled that we had about a 78% hatch rate (15 out of 19 fertile eggs), which is apparently above the desired 70% that the “pros” consider ideal.

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Our first meat birds of the year moved out of the brooder and into the chicken tractor this week.  It was a greatly desired move, as meat birds just smell, and short of adding fresh bedding to the brooder more than twice a day, there isn’t much else we can do about it.  They still smell a bit on pasture, but the breeze, the daily moves to fresh grass, and the natural soil decomposition process helps control it much better.

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These chicks are only about 3.5 weeks old, so it is still a bit cool outside for them be able to regulate their body temperatures.  They have more muscle than standard breeds at that age, which helps, but it is still a big risk.  To minimize our risk, I installed heat lamps in the tractor temporarily, and we give them fresh straw or hay under the lamps to give them a dry place to lay in wet weather.  In addition, if it is windy or cool, we have a clear plastic sheet over most of the open front to provide a bit of greenhouse-effect heating and reduce any chilling by wind, while still allowing sunshine to penetrate.  The sides are left partially open to ensure plentiful ventilation.  So far, so good.  The chicks seem very happy, and since this move also means they are being watered via our 5-gallon bucket gravity-drip system, it means I am also very happy to have my twice daily water-container cleaning chores eliminated.

If you are concerned about the crowded look of this tractor, this is actually planned for several reasons.  First, meat birds don’t walk and move around like standard breed chickens.  The eat, sleep, and poop, and not necessarily in that order.  They usually lay down as they eat, and they poop where they lay.  They get up only when they have to.  To encourage some exercise, we position their water, food, and the heat lamp in different areas, so they are forced to move around if they want sunshine, food, water, or warmth.  It’s like trying to get the worst couch potato you know to exercise!! No easy task.  They simply don’t need a whole lot of space to move.  We also supplement that limited space by moving them daily to new ground.  By moving the tractor to fresh ground each day the birds always have fresh air and sunshine, green grass, bugs, and soil to scratch and peck at, as well as clean lounging areas.  These frequent moves mean we don’t have to use any type of preventative antibiotics or “crutches” to keep the birds healthy.  We simply supply them with a well-balanced diet and some grit, and nature provides everything else they need. The fresh bugs and greens also encourages them to walk around a bit more than they might otherwise.  Because there are currently almost 70 chicks in the 36 sq ft tractor, it will become crowded quickly.  Right now, in the cool weather, it is safer to keep them together for increased body heat.  In the next week or two, however, we will be splitting them into 3 groups, with each group getting 36 sq ft.  This will allow their personal space to expand as they grow, further ensuring health and exercise.

 

Over Labor Day weekend, we harvested our first meat birds and rabbits since we moved.  We actually decided, based on our future goals, to go ahead and invest in a Featherman Pro poultry plucker.  Oh, that is worth its weight in gold!!  Not just because I may never have to pluck another chicken, but some of its features make plucking and clean up so much easier than the Whiz-bang version we used last year.    We are hoping to rent it out a bit in addition to using it around here to help pay for it.

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We harvested 25 chickens, start to freezer, in 3 hours.  I know that’s pretty bad compared to the pros, but considering we were having to figure things out and use a lot of make-shift and new equipment this year, as well as a new location entirely, we were pretty happy with it.

In addition, S and JR harvested his 5 kits born shortly after we moved.  JR has watched many times, and assisted a few times.  Since the rabbits are technically JR’s venture on the farm, S decided it was high time he take the next step in his little rabbit business.  So, S instructed JR on the first rabbit, and, except for the dispatching, JR did the next 4 almost entirely by himself.  He was so proud, and being the perfectionist he is (yeah, he gets that from me), he did an excellent job!

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Hanging and cutting around the vent

Skinning was a little tough....

Skinning was a little tough….

...but JR got the hang of it pretty quickly.

…but JR got the hang of it pretty quickly.

Nothing makes a boy feel like a man more than eviscerating.  Good thing I'm a woman, as I am more than happy to hand that job off to the men!

Nothing makes a boy feel like a man more than eviscerating. Good thing I’m a woman, as I am more than happy to hand that job off to the men!

The finished, frozen results of the day--shrink bags full of chicken (on left) and rabbit (on right).

The finished, frozen results of the day–shrink bags full of chicken (on left) and rabbit (on right).

Although we stayed small this year due to all the changes, we hope to increase our chicken and rabbit raising and processing venture substantially next year.  I am thrilled to report that it looks like we FINALLY have found an organic rabbit pellet, which we now have on order, so our entire farm will be only grass or all natural/organically fed.  We will work on all the necessary permits over the winter, but at this point, we are planning 3 separate batches of chicken, a batch of turkeys, and at least 5 batches of rabbits.  Based on inquiries I’ve already had, I am hoping they will all be pre-reserved quickly.  If you are local to our area in IL and are interested in reserving some for your family, let me know via the comments feature, and I will get in touch with you.

At Red Gate Farm, we value every single life.  We treat our animals with love, respect, appreciation, and stewardship.  Even those designated to be our dinner one day are given the best life we can manage to ensure their health, happiness, and allow their instinctive behaviors.  That being said, we are also a practical, frugal farm.  From that perspective, everything must be designated a monetary value that helps determine it’s value to us.  This helps in the rare times a medical situation arises.  If a vet bill would cost more than that animal’s designated value, then we don’t call the vet.  I either use home remedies, or we put the animal down humanely to eliminate suffering.

Recently, we were losing some of our chickens–both big layers and our smaller replacement pullets.  Leftover feathers suggested they were being taken when they ducked under the fence to forage in the woods, and the dogs can’t protect them out there.  One day, I walked into the barn to discover Iris, our livestock guardian dog, with a young pullet between her front paws.  The pullet was just laying there, and looked as though it had been licked a few times, but as soon as I called Iris off, the pullet ran off and began acting like a normal chicken.  Upon closer inspection, however, we discovered the skin covering the pullet’s entire breast was ripped completely open, leaving her crop and breast muscles totally exposed.  There was no blood, and nothing hanging out.  It was like a skilled surgeon had sliced open the skin from top to bottom, an incision about 3 inches long, gently peeled the skin back to each side, and there was the breast bone, muscles, and crop all sitting there, ready for the next step.  It was completely bloodless.  My first thought was that we were down another chicken, as there wasn’t much I could do for such an injury.  Around our farm, as much as we like our animals, a chicken is valued at a maximum of $20 (what we sell good layers or meat birds for).  Seeing as our vet charges almost $50 just for the farm call, we don’t call a vet for a chicken.  Instead, I stood there watching this pullet for a bit, as she ran around the barn, pecking for food, drinking water, and acting completely normal.  It didn’t look like she was suffering at all.  I knew such a wound was wide open to infection (literally), so even if the injury didn’t kill her, the infection would.  I also had trouble with the idea of dispatching her since she seemed fine otherwise.  Then, I remembered some stories I had read years ago in the James Herriot (a British veterinarian) books about crude home treatments that had worked.  I figured I had nothing to lose but a chicken, and it could be invaluable learning experience.

Now, mind you, I believe God blessed chickens (and a few other animals) with fewer pain receptors than humans.  I’ve never read anything to support that, but chickens seem far more vulnerable to having a heart attack from fright than reacting from pain.  I went into the house and got a sewing needle and some cotton thread (in the hopes cotton would be easily dissolvable by the body).  I got some Scarlet-X antiseptic spray I always keep on hand for injuries to the larger animals.  JR held the chicken, I cleaned all debris out of it’s open chest, sprayed the muscle with the antiseptic spray, pulled the skin together, and proceeded to sew it up.  Unfortunately, I didn’t think to take any pictures until after I was finished.

You can just see the vertical line where the skin joins together, a bit of proud flesh at top and bottom, and if you look really closely, the pretty pink cotton thread.

You can just see the vertical line where the skin joins together, a bit of proud flesh at top and bottom, and if you look really closely, the pretty pink cotton thread.

Amazingly, the pullet just layed there for the entire procedure–never struggling once.  I thought sure she’d be dead by morning.  Nonetheless, as a precaution, I sprayed a bit more antiseptic on her wound after I finished suturing, then turned her loose to run with the other chicks.  Roughly 3 weeks later, the pullet is still foraging happily in our fields. Only the closest inspection, in just the right spot, will reveal any sign of what she went through.

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I am still puzzled as to what transpired the day of her injury.  Although Iris looked awfully guilty, she has never killed, or even played with one of our chickens before, and I know we were losing them to something in the woods.  We have had one other episode where a full-size hen was attacked by something (again no marks, but lots of feathers on the ground indicating a struggle) outside the fence, ran back into the pasture, and died.  All I can figure is one of two scenarios.  Either Iris decided to play with the pullet, and possibly ripped the skin with her dew claw, or perhaps the pullet was attacked by something outside, ran back into the field, and Iris found it and was protecting it when I found her.  I guess I’ll never know, but I can’t believe my home treatment actually seems to have worked so beautifully!  I think I will be ordering real suture material if possible with my next supply order.  You never know what might come up!

It has been another few weeks of busy-ness around here.  Sorry for the absence.  I realized I haven’t even taken any photos!  To catch you up a bit, though…

Building:  I built more shelves.  Lots of shelves.  I will die happy if I never build another shelf, but unfortunately, I have at least 3 more to finish, which means planing, installing, painting, you get the idea.  I got a little help on a couple of projects from an in-law who lives close by and is very good with construction, I finally have desks, shelves, and a reading closet in both the girls’ and boys’ room, plus a new “activity counter” with 2 more desks and some shelves in our loft.  I promise photos soon.  I have a little more tweaking to finish it all.

Unpacking:  I’ve been slowly unpacking for almost 4 months.  Every move in the past has taken 2-3 weeks, tops.  Every house in the past, though, has had shelves and not been a farm when we moved in.  This house had almost no shelves, hence all the building.  Trying to move a family of 7 with a large homeschool library into a 3 bedroom, 1900 square foot house with little storage was challenging to say the least.  I’m getting there, though.  My upstairs still has paths, but the paths are widening by the day.  I’m almost there.

Visiting:  Nana (my mom) heard my inner plea for help, and came to stay for a while.  She has been here about 2 weeks so far, and has been a tremendous help.  She is filling my normal domestic and mommy role to a great extent, while I focus on finishing many of these necessary outdoor and construction projects.

Homeschooling:  We started our school year the last week of August.  N is K4, A is K5, M is 2nd grade, and JR is 4th grade.  And I still haven’t taken their annual school pictures.  Add that to my list of “to-do’s.”  We are doing Abeka Academy again this year, and loving it.  N and A take a lot of focus, which Nana is mostly handling right now.  Once she leaves, the first half of my day will mostly be spent sitting beside them as they work.  JR and M are totally independent, though.  R is always into things, so that’s why God gave mommies (and Nana’s) eyes in the back of their heads.

More visiting:  S came home!!!  Only for a quick visit, but it was great!  I had a short list of projects he worked on for me, the kids got their “daddy-fix” while wrestling, jumping on the trampoline (oh, yeah, I spent 2 days assembling that thing!), and just being with him.  Then I got my time with him when Nana agreed to watch the kiddos while we headed over to a Bed and Breakfast for the night.

Goats:  I’m trying to sell my 2 remaining goat kids, but I’m finding dairy goats are not as popular here as they were in CO.  It’s a much harder sell around here.  In the mean time, I have had to move poor Pride (our buckling) out with the pigs, to ensure he doesn’t breed Caramel (our too-small doeling).  To reduce my workload, I’ve also gone to once a day milking.  I’m not exactly sure how the milk will hold up, especially since I’m considering milking through rather than breeding this fall, but I’ll just play that one as the time passes.

Cattle:  Red Bull finally went home.  He was sweet and never gave me a days trouble–unless you count the time he somehow got into an adjacent paddock to the cows, the other time when he bred my dairy heifer without permission, or the time when he decided to scratch on an old fence and succeeded in knocking it down, releasing all the cows into the pig forest.  No biggie, though.  They were still inside the perimeter fence.  I just set up a water trough down lower in the pasture so they had to come out of the woods periodically so I could check on them.  It actually made my day easier temporarily, and started some clearing in the next section the pigs will move to.  That all being said, the day finally arrived for the sweet bull to go home.  As soon as he saw his owner approaching with the halter, he turned into a beast.  He completely mangled a 5 foot cattle panel as he lept over it (trying to get AWAY from his owner), then easily cleared 3 hot wire fences.  Watching a 1,000 pounds of pure muscle soar gracefully over a fence without hardly touching it is a very impressive sight indeed!  I was finally able to halter my jersey, Abbigail, and lead her to a stall in the barn, and that finally got Red Bull distracted enough to follow her so he could be confined and caught.  Once caught, he walked out of the barn and hopped up in that trailer with a grace and timeliness that would shame any horse.

Chickens:  While S was home, our biggest project was harvesting our 25 Cornish Cross meat birds.  We used our new Featherman Pro chicken plucker too.  Can I just say, THAT.  WAS. AWEWOME!!!!!  Expensive, yes, but totally awesome.  We may decide to rent it to other home poultry raisers to try to help pay for it.  Otherwise, it’ll take like 50 years to pay the thing off.  But, then again, when I consider the fact that I will never have to pluck another bird, I realize it is priceless!  We did 25 birds in about 3 hours, but that includes all the stops and distractions we had with the kiddos and lack of preparation here at this new farm.  The replacement pullets are growing well.  They still live in the barn, but free-range the pastures all day.  Our layers are also doing well.  We’ve had one go broody on us, so I got smart and decided to get some fertile eggs from a friend.  Unfortunately, at the same time she went broody, another has become an egg-eater.  I have no idea which girl it is, but in addition to eating 1 or more of our eggs each day, she has also destroyed 6 of the 8 fertile eggs.  I’m not sure any will survive to hatch.  Other hens are randomly kicking the broody hen off her nest each day to lay their eggs, and one of them is eating some while doing so.  I tried moving the broody hen into the barn, but she refused the new nest, and after 24 hours, I released her, only to have her run straight back to her original nest in the coop.  Oh well.  I guess she’ll just have to go through the natural cycle for a while, and then we’ll try again next year when our new roosters can ensure all our eggs are fertile.  In addition to losing eggs to an egg-eating hen, we are also losing a few chickens lately.  The girls–both the older ones, and the younger replacement ones, have begun doing some foraging deep in the woods, outside of the main pasture and perimeter fence.  There are openings on one side of the perimeter where the hens can get through, but the dogs and other animals can’t.  Obviously, the dogs can’t protect the girls on that side of the fence, so some of them never seem to make it back up.  I remain hopeful that one or two may have gone broody and are just hiding down there.  Realistically, though, I’m pretty confident they were some wild critter’s lunch.  We’ve lost 4 older hens and 5 little ones.  There isn’t much I can do about it right now, except hope that the remaining ones will learn and stay in the fence.  Only time will tell.

Rabbits:  Nothing too new there, other than the fact that we harvested our summer litter.  That takes us back to our one mature doe, 2 mature bucks, and 2 young does that that we brought with us from CO, and will be ready for breeding in December.

Donkey:  The only farm vehicle I have around here is a 4-wheeler.  I use it to haul supplies down to the pig paddocks, to move my portable shelters, to haul wagon loads of dirt, to haul fence posts, and to have fun.  Before we left CO, S and I decided that Shiloh, the donkey would help earn her keep by becoming a work donkey.  We bought a little homemade driving cart to start out with.  After we moved, I ordered her a custom donkey harness.  With the number of projects I had this summer though, I never really had a chance to teach Shiloh to drive.  Then, my 4-wheeler–long over-due for a tune-up and basic maintenance–essentially died on me.  While it’s waiting for a ride to a shop, I’ve had to get creative.  There are still water buckets, feed, dirt, and fencing that has to be hauled.  Time for Shiloh!  I reviewed the basics of long-reigning I had taught Shiloh in the past, spent a few days reviewing all her basics and getting her accustomed to her new harness, and then took full and total advantage of her being a calm and laid back donkey rather than a flighty horse, and hooked her up to the cart.  Since Nana was here at that point, she offered some assistance for safety in the early stages, but Shiloh took to it with ease.  She still has a little trouble turning in the cart, but that is likely due in great part to the fact the shafts on the cart wound up way too big for her.  Now, I have my first real equine-power on the farm.  I can hitch her up to the cart, and then use the cart to haul all the buckets, feed bags, materials, etc, she can drag small logs, and more.  Eventually we will get new shafts that fit better, but I use these in the mean time.  Pictures will follow as soon as I get the chance.

Dogs and cats:  Due to the unintended and unexpected increase in cats around here, I wound up rehoming our barn cat, Katie, and her litter of 6 kittens.  A new farm was looking for a whole slew of cats to stock their barn with, and they jumped at the chance when they heard about her.  That leaves us with Sarah and her litter of 5 kittens, and she is much better mannered as a house cat, so I have a better chance of keeping her indoors until she can be spayed.  The only cat outside at the moment is Shadow.  Callie is still inside, as always.  Will, the house pet, has loved having all these cats around.  He has discovered there is always a dish of cat food sitting around somewhere, and has become quite adept at finding all my hiding spots.  As a result, he has gained somewhere between 5 and 10 pounds over the last 6 weeks.  At this point, my hiding places are getting higher and higher up on shelves, in an attempt to keep them accessible to the cats, but well out of Will’s reach.  Iris and Athena are doing great.  In fact, Iris has entered her fall heat cycle, and I am debating breeding her this fall or waiting until spring.  I finally found the (hopefully) perfect stud dog.  He is in the next state, so quite a drive, but he is of the Colorado Mountain Dog breeding and quality I am looking for, and has already proven himself as a guardian and homestead-type dog.  As usual, we’ll see how this plays out.

Pigs:  The pigs are growing well on their forest forage diet.  I continue to supplement with excess milk and eggs (though the eggs are few and far between with an egg-eating hen on our hands!), and occasional organic grains.  I am working on setting up their next paddock this weekend.  I estimate their weight to be around 100 lbs. now, so I think they are growing well.  I should research and find out averages for this breed so I have something to compare to.  Whatever the weight, they are big enough now that the kids don’t really go in the paddock unsupervised.  The pigs are very friendly, and in their quest for attention, plenty big enough they could easily knock a child down.

That pretty much brings you up to speed for now.  There’s never a dull moment around here, that’s for sure!!

S decided we should raise meat birds this year.  Since we’ve lived in the higher altitudes of CO for the last few years, where cornish hybrids don’t survive well, we have only raised heritage type breeds so far.  The problem with them, though, is they eat.  And I have to feed them for about 6 months to get any actual meat out of them, and even then, they dress out to about half the carcass weight of a cornish hybrid.

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So, as much as I am not thrilled about the hybrid versions, I wanted some actual meat with really big, juicy breasts to make the effort worth while this year.  Due to their growth rate, they also only have to be fed for 6-8 weeks and then they are ready to harvest.

Source: Internet Stock Photo

Source: Internet Stock Photo

To encourage good grazing and reduce their consumption of organic chicken feed a bit, spread manure, and decrease the stink and maintenance required from these birds, I decided to house them in a portable chicken tractor.  After researching several versions, I decided to go with a type based on the model used by Polyface Farms.

I took some scrap lumber S had cut with his lumber mill (so it is untreated), and cut it into 2×2 boards, each 6 foot long.  Then I cut 8 2×2 pieces 30 inches long.

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I assembled these to make a 6 foot long x 6 foot wide x 30 inch high frame.  Then I cut and installed braces for the corners out of scraps, most of which were around 1×1.5 inches.  Finally, because this unit will be dragged across pasture on a daily basis, I also put larger braces around the top section, just to give some extra stability (though I forgot to take a photo of that part).

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I should mention that the original intent was to have a top-open panel, but I didn’t think through the 30″ tall really well, and it wound up far too tall to conveniently work in the tractor by bending over.  So, since the chickens are primarily M’s job anyway, I decided at the last minute to build her a little door.  It simply required one additional 30 inch “stud” in the frame, and then I used more scraps to build a little door.  I just used a simply hook-and-eye closure for the door.

The door.  Look on the top, and you can see a large top brace I put in and forgot to photograph.

The door. Look on the top, and you can see a large top brace I put in and forgot to photograph.

Then I installed all the chicken wire, using staples and U-nails, followed by the galvanized roofing and siding.  I used barn roof screws with neoprene washers to install the metal.

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To ease the job of transporting a bit, I installed an eye-hook on each front corner, with a rope tied to each to help a single person lift it.

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I also installed a bike hook on each rear corner, which made a lovely handle-of-sorts so a single person could easily lift a back corner and stick a skid or whatever underneath.

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Finally, I had ordered (only because I didn’t have time to hunt down the individual parts, though it would probably save a bit of $$ if you have time) a 3-nipple gravity-fed chicken waterer, connected to a 5 gallon bucket that just sits on top of the tractor.

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The chicks seem to love all the open space to roam.  They are only 2 weeks old, so technically a little young to be out yet, but since our temps are over 90 in the day right now, they seem fine.  I have a heat lamp tied up in the corner that we still use at night, though, as they do get a bit chilled at night without it.  In addition, due to their age and size, we put them on freshly mowed pasture, so they don’t strain their legs trying to manuever through tall grasses, and if there is a threat of rain, we pack straw or hay in the sheltered area, to ensure they have dry bedding to climb up on and get off the damp ground.

The yellow chicks are the cornish cross meat birds.  The other colors are our replacement layer pullets.  They will be added to the chicken coop when they get big enough, which will also give the meat birds room to grow in the tractor.

The yellow chicks are the cornish cross meat birds. The other colors are our replacement layer pullets. They will be added to the chicken coop when they get big enough, which will also give the meat birds room to grow in the tractor.

I actually like the design.  All the scraps I used were hard wood, though, and once the siding was added, it wound up quite heavier than expected.  A shorter size and less dense wood would have been lighter, but I wanted the tractor to be versatile in its use.  In this size, I have the option of raising turkeys, weaning goat babies, letting rabbits out to exercise, or whatever else won’t push through my chicken wire.  I still need to build skids for it to move on, and will just be dragging it in the mean time, with a little help from the kiddos.  The birds seem really happy, though, running all over, going from sun to shade at will.  M even opened the door and let them out yesterday to graze outside the tractor, which they seemed to enjoy.

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There is an idea out there regarding grazing animals that is quite literally so old, it has become new again.  This type of grazing has many benefits, both for the land and for the animals.  Think about a wild herd of grass-eating animals….the herd comes through, stops and grazes an open prairie for a day or two, and then moves on.  Think too, on what occurs during this grazing time.

Wild buffalo herd grazing and moving across an open prairie.  Source: internet stock photo

Wild buffalo herd grazing and moving across an open prairie.
Source: internet stock photo

Benefits to the land include:

  • Animals “massage” the land, rather than decimate and damage it.
  • Animals manure and urinate all over, thus fertilizing the land.  Since they stay such a short time, they do not poison or overload the land with their nutrient-rich waste.
  • Animal manure contains seeds from the previous pasture, which then grow in that pasture.  Because they generally prefer to eat only healthy, palatable forages, they are thereby distributing seeds from these plants, rather than weedy, less palatable ones.
  • Each time grass is grazed down, the roots die back slightly, and the grass then regrows.  This cycle keeps the grass in a fertile, nutrient-rich, growth state, unlike grass that matures, turns tough, stemmy, and fibrous, and goes to seed.
  • Each time animals pass through, the land is naturally torn up a little–but not too much.  This serves to aerate and churn the soil a bit, making it healthier for all the organisms within as well as the grasses.
  • Between the tearing up, churning up, and eating down of grasses, the pasture is left in a healthy, growing state, which prevents wildfires, flooding, erosion, and other problems often associated with abandoned, overgrown, bare, and/or unhealthy pastures.

Benefits to the animals include:

  •  Animals always have fresh grass and forage to eat, increasing weight gains and access to nutrient-rich plants.
  • Animals do not graze manure-soiled grounds, which prevents re-ingestion of parasites.
  • Wild animals usually graze in groups, which creates a competitiveness among them, resulting in faster eating.  This also increases nutrient consumption.

One study I saw showed that one season of mob-stocking (large-group intensive grazing) a large open area with a large group of sheep  for a short period of time, resulted in a 50% increase in forage the next year.  That’s pretty incredible if you think about it!

Because God has designed nature to work a certain way, to the benefit of all, we wanted to model after the natural order of things.  One of the big plans we had in mind for raising grass-fed animals on Red Gate Farm was the concept of rotational grazing.  We studied Joel Salatin, Alan Nation, and other livestock managers who practiced intensive grazing and rotational grazing techniques.  Everyone we studied did it a little differently, ensuring there was no, single, “right” way to do it, but there were some points to consider that were pretty standard to get the most benefit:

  • Animals eat the best, most palatable forages the first day, and each day thereafter the quality of the feed decreases a bit.
  • Animals graze best with competition to push them.  We needed more than one animal.
  • Forage is most evenly grazed with a selection of animals, as each species tends to prefer different plants.
  • It takes most fly larvae about 4-7 days to hatch in the manure.  It takes most intestinal parasites 1-3 weeks to hatch and need a new host in order to continue the life cycle.  Therefore, if possible, the animal should be moved from a grazed area before 4 days to avoid the worst of the flies, and preferably not return until after 3 weeks to prevent re-infestation of parasites.
  • Grass takes 2-4 weeks (depending on the season, temperature, and rainfall) to go from an immature (freshly grazed) state back to a healthy, nutrient rich, “adolescent” state.  Re-graze too early, and you risk damaging the plant permanently because it is too immature.  Re-graze too late, and the plant may reach maturity and be less palatable.

Based on what we learned, we came up with a plan.  Again, everyone does it differently, but the following is what we do.

While cows, horses, and hogs can be fenced in with a single strand of electric wire, this is not the case with goats.  Due to the fact we were planning a variety of animals of all sizes and some with reputations for escape (i.e., goats!), we decided to first fence our perimeter with a solid, 2×4 woven wire fence with wood fence posts.  Good fences make good neighbors, and we do live in a neighborhood of mostly retired folks looking for the quiet life and a nice garden sans the neighbors’ loose livestock.

S and his brother, M, working on a section of perimeter fence.

S and his brother, M, working on a section of perimeter fence.

Then, inside our roughly 7-acre pasture perimeter fence, we subdivided.  Now, this was our biggest concern.  We weren’t sure (and still aren’t) how to best graze our limited acreage with as many animals as we plan.  Of course, it forced us to get more efficient with our animals, as we had absolutely no room for extras.  To get an idea, we first used electric poultry netting to train the animals, and moved it around for a couple weeks to get an idea how much forage they ate in a 24-period.  We then calculated their consumption, averaged it for almost-year-round grazing, and set up semi-permanent paddocks that are roughly 80 feet x 90 feet.  This gave the animals room to move around and frolic a bit, avoid bullies, and still have plenty to eat.  After more experimenting–mostly in an effort to figure out how to keep the goats in the paddocks (little escaping stinkers, they are!), we settled on 3 wires.  The top strand is a highly visible white poly-rope, while the bottom 2 strands are standard galvanized electric wire.  You can also see the portable shelters here.  I will do another post on those later.

You can see some of the paddocks we were setting up.  It looks a lot tidier nowadays, but this gives you an idea.

You can see some of the paddocks we were setting up. It looks a lot tidier nowadays, but this gives you an idea.

Once the paddocks were set up, we stocked one with animals.  Talk about a variety of complimentary species!

One donkey, 6 goats, 2 cows, and 2 calves.

One donkey, 6 goats, 2 cows, and 2 calves share a paddock.

Our goal is to rotate every day by next spring.  Right now, however, we don’t have all the animals we intend to have next year, and we are at the end of the spring growth, so the paddocks last my animals 2 days.  I am literally building a paddock on each move day.  Some graziers roll out a line and set up a new paddock in about 15 minutes.  With our setup, though, I don’t have time to do that long term, I’m not able to move my electric wire charger around as much, the goats don’t pay attention to a single wire anyway, and my watering system is not set up yet.  For those reasons, I decided to set up more permanent (but easily removable) paddocks, with a 10 foot alleyway down the middle of rows to make moving critters and water easier.  This setup actually gives me an extra paddock in the alleyway itself.  Whether the grass will continue to grow there long term, I don’t know, but for now, it is very useful.

A single cow grazed about 30% of our alleyway in 8 hours.

A single cow grazed down about 30% of our alleyway in 8 hours.

One of my favorite parts of this whole system is looking back at “yesterday’s” paddock when we move the animals to a fresh pen.  Moving is simple.  I simply drop the wires between pens, call the animals, and they have already learned that fresh forage awaits!  The next photo was taken after the animals had been on a paddock for 48 hours.  The brownish line down the middle is where I used a trimmer to remove growth under the wire.  The short grass on the left is the grazed paddock, and the long grass on the right is the new, ungrazed paddock.

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Joel Salatin always says that if it’s done correctly, you will see a “quilt-square” type effect, where each square of paddock is in a different stage of growth.  I think we’ve almost got it!

The short grass in the middle is the most recently grazed, the long grass at the bottom is the new paddock, and the brighter green section to the far left is a paddock we grazed 2 weeks ago.

The short grass in the middle is the most recently grazed, the long grass at the bottom is the new paddock, and the brighter green section to the far left is a paddock we grazed 2 weeks ago.

If everything goes correctly, then we will raise all our cows on this lush grass, which should be become healthier, less weedy, and more nutrient-dense with each passing season.  The goats are also grazed on this, supplemented with only a bit of grain at milking time.  What I didn’t go into here, but you can see evidence of in the 3rd and 4th photo is that our portable chicken layer coop follows about 4 days behind the other animals, so the birds can pick through all the manure, scatter it into the soil, and eat all the bug larvae and hatching parasites.  This is such a neat system, and so far, I am really liking it.  I will be tweaking it a bit here and there over the next year or so, I’m sure, but this gives you an idea what we are doing now.

Boy, when people ask what we farm, I am trying to come up with a good answer….”I grow soil (or grass)” just causes more questions.  “I raise livestock the old-fashioned way” just gets a mis-understanding nod.  “I use a polycultural symbiosis to raise a myriad of species on lush silvopasture” sounds like I’m really smart, but results only in blank stares.  Thus, “We have a little God-sufficient homestead, where we grow what we can for our family and sell the excess” is my current one.  It seems to be widely accepted so far.

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