Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Snow Days on the Farm

We recently had three great snow days on the farm. More than anything, these days were the silver lining in an otherwise cloudy situation. For two days of the week, I didn’t have enough gas in the car to make the 45 mile drive to my internship in Holland. On the third snow day, the weather was so bad that my supervisor instructed me not to make the drive. So, I lost valuable internship hours and was unable to spend valuable time with clients. Because of the circumstances, it was quite embarrassing.
However, since Jenn was home all three days, and we home school the three youngest children, we were together as a family with three days of unscheduled opportunity. So what happens on a farm during snow days? Well, since we have plenty of food in the house, we didn’t need to shopping or anything like that so we were able to stay home and enjoy the snow. Of course, we had to feed the laying hens and the eight barn cats, but other than those chores, we were able to build snowmen, make full family dinners, do a lot of reading to each other, clean our bedroom, write content for blogs, create art, engage in Bible study, shovel snow together, rescue chickens caught in the snow, feed suet to the winter birds, listen to a music by diverse bands like The Crossing, Talking Heads, and Mudhoney and Motorhead, Taylor Swift, and Parliament.
Snow days are a good time to take naps, and tell stories about infamous blizzards of the past. All of our children were born during winter, so we had snow stories for each birth of the youngest three children. We remember broken arms caused by huge icicles, sledding accidents caused by huge trees, and hockey game cancellations caused by huge storms.
A great thing about blizzards, however, is something rarely talked about on our farm or by others, for that matter. The great things are that we are in a warm place with food, heat, hot water, transportation, and most of all, each other. That is a blessing that many people don’t share. That’s why giving, especially the sharing of time, can be such a blessing to others.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Sandhill's experiment with Broilers

OK, back to farming. One of the new enterprises that was undertaken at Sandhill was the addition of broilers to our ongoing farm experiment. We had raised layer hens for a few years, but we have never raised them for meat (except for culled roosters) until this past year. We decided to try two rounds of fifty broilers each. We followed the suggestions laid out by Andy Lee’s book entitle Chicken Tractor (There is more to the title, but I can’t recall it offhand) and commenced to building the pens that would hold the chickens.

The materials we purchased for the two 8’ by 10’ cages (three feet deep, two deep would have been better) cost us about $80 each, using 1” by 2” boards, chicken wire, and a rather expensive composite plastic corrugated covering. We fastened the sides and top, and the chicken wire with staples and three inch screws. We kept each panel separate in our basement where we erected them until the snow melted and we pieced each side together with zip ties and reinforced that with screws.

Next, it was time for the broiler chickens. We ordered the more marketable White Mountain crosses, which are bred to grow to five or six pounds (or more) in eight weeks. We are still not sure about ordering dual purpose heritage breeds for this year, which grow slower but are more in tune with our farming philosophy). At any rate, when you order fifty chicks of any breed, you have to brood them from one-day-old to the point where they are hearty enough to stand against the cold and other elements. Not having a brooder, and having eight barn cats in our garage, we made the decision to brood these first fifty chicks in our house because the May weather in Michigan last spring was still very cold, especially at night. First, I’d like to state that many people we have spoken with in our community have brooded chicks inside their homes. Secondly, I can tell you that each of us have reported that this is a most unpleasant experience. After brooding the chicks in a plastic swimming pool last season, this year we will build a brooder (To purchase one costs about $290 - $350)and place them in the garage with appropriate protection from the cats. You will never feel the need to clean as thoroughly as you will after having livestock in your house. (On the other hand, 10 or so layers, even 25 layers, are not as bad to brood in the house, as there is less waste to deal with).

Once they were hearty enough, we transferred the chicks out to the chicken tractors, and began to move them to fresh grass every day, and fed them broiler grower twice a day. We fed them a lot, but took seriously the instructions to keep them on feed for twelve hours, and then remove the feed for twelve hours, to reduce complications arising from over eating. We went through approximately 15 bags of feed in eight weeks costing around $13 a bag.

We faced two problems with our two sets of broilers. First, we lost nine chickens to the late July heat, not because they didn’t have enough water, but most likely because they didn’t have proper shade. One thing we know, the broilers will not walk more than three feet to drink water, so, if there is not proper shade, they will be overwhelmed by 90 degree heat. This was a tragedy around our farm, as we felt that if we would have been on the farm instead of working outside the home, we could have better protected the animals. An tarp solved this problem. The other problem was predators. We dealt with them severely, shooting two raccoons that had stolen two chickens from us, and one skunk that had killed two chicks. Predators always return to the scene of the crime, because they know it will be easy pickings. Raccoons, however, tend to come within four hours of darkness, and I only had to wait for a few hours before shooting them an hour apart with a twelve gauge. The skunk took some thought, however, as I was concerned about the release of musk. Skunks come in the morning, and I decided to use a .22 caliber rifle for the skunk. It worked, with minimal smell resulting. Many folks, especially Quakers, are concerned about the hunting of predators, as opposed to trapping them. In rural areas, once predators feel safe enough to approach human homes, they will continue to do so wherever they are released from live traps. To release a raccoon into another homes range is to give other home owners trouble. Also, when we tried a live trap in Ohio once, the raccoons were smart enough to steal the bait from the trap, then proceed to raid our barn for chickens. I am not about to live trap a skunk. As for pacifists having guns on the property, the reality of coyotes, small predators, injured game, and sick and dying animals is a reality of rural life, and hunting weapons, while not absolutely necessary, are a solution to such problems.

Back to chickens. Finally, after eight weeks of feeding broilers, it was time for butchering. There are many ways to prepare a chicken for butchering. I prefer to shoot them in the head while holding them upside down, as it is quick and painless. Killing cones will be added this year, because as the birds flap after death, the wings can break due to the force of the spasms. After they bleed out, I remove the head, then we scald them in 155-degree water that we have added dish soap to in order to ease the removal of feathers from the carcass. Picking a chicken by hand is a time consuming process, and for this year, we hope to build our own chicken picking machine ( A new chicken plucker from a manufacturer costs more than a thousand dollars). It will reduce the time to prepare a bird for butchering from 10 minutes per bird to 20 seconds for two birds. Once the bird is plucked, it is ready for dressing, which, after four or five birds, takes about three minutes or less. However, the first one might take as many as fifteen minutes. It simply takes practice. After dressing the bird, we clean out any remnants from dressing the bird in a water bath, then age the bird for a day or two in a refrigerator before freezing. Our shareholders can pick them up cold or frozen, either way. We have not received one complaint about our birds, and we love them ourselves. They taste great, even better when you raise them yourselves.