Friday, April 17, 2015

When Farming/Homesteading Ain't Pretty

Sometimes you walk outside and all seems right with the world.  Birds are chirping, animals frolicking, plants growing, a gentle breeze blowing and rainbows are overhead.

And then...  Then there are times that things aren't exactly that pastoral and nice. There's mud, poop, foul smells and disappointment.  We believe in the 9th Commandment which states, "Thou shalt not bear false witness," so today we're posting the truth.  Life is a learning experience.  Just when you think you have things figured out, events have a way of coming along and humbling you.  I firmly believe that it is when you are in the midst of situations like that, character is built, resolve is tested, and faith is strengthened.  It's not fun, though.

Let's talk about it a bit, shall we?  We've posted in some "By the Numbers" posts we've done that we get on average 60 inches of rain each year.  My rain gauge has shown that in the past 9 days we've gotten over 8 inches of rain.  Yep, almost 14% of our annual rainfall in 9 days.  That's not all. The next two days show > 80% chances of getting more of the wet stuff.  It ain't over!

I walked slogged out to the chicken tractor yesterday through the mud and gathered up 3 dead birds to add to several more that had gone to the great chicken ranch in the sky just a few days before. These birds were 2 weeks away from butchering and they 'up and died' on me.  Why?  In a minute, we'll talk about it.  This isn't "our first rodeo" with raising meat birds.  We haven't changed our process materially from prior years, but we're certainly having, um, challenges this year.

Dead Meat Birds - Not Pretty
In a great ACRES USA article I have, entitled "Creating a Farm Life Your Children will Treasure - Family Friendly Farming," Joel Salatin writes:
"A farm has to be beautiful.  Here is a little rule of thumb.  If you take people around your farm an you have to apologize more than three times, you've got serious problems.  If you're embarrassed about it, think about what your kids feel like when their friends visit.  Our farms have to be beautiful, aesthetically pleasing places where our children love to entertain.  If it is smelly, dirty and noisy, and a dead animal gets hauled out by the barn, and the tomatoes have blight, it's a problem."
Further in an interview with The Sun Magazine, about his book, The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer, Salatin goes on to state:
"If it smells bad or is not beautiful, it is not good farming.  A farm should be aesthetically, aromatically, and sensuously appealing. It should be a place that is attractive, not repugnant, to the senses. This is food production. A farm shouldn’t be producing ugly things. It should be producing beautiful things. We’re going to eat them.  One of the surest ways to know if a wound is infected is if it is unsightly and smells bad. When it starts to heal, it gets a pretty sheen and doesn’t smell anymore. Farms that are not beautiful and that stink are like big wounds on the landscape."
Ouch!  That hurts.  I understand exactly what he's saying and I try my best to keep things beautiful, but animals produce poop and poop is going to stink.  8 inches of rain in 9 days produces mud and wet, smelly animals, and ultimately, death.  And it's not pretty.  Here is a flock of wet, miserable, stinky meat birds.  Look at the water, mud, and poop beneath their feet.  If you could smell their aroma, you would be the first to admit to me that it is not sensuously appealing.  We're trying our best, but things aren't working like we anticipated this Spring.

Foul Fowl
Now these birds can roam and they are on grass.  In fact, here they are outside of the chicken tractor, still wet and smelly.  They have heat lamps they can get under. Even though the temperature range right now goes between upper sixties to low eighties, the Cornish Cross chickens get wet and cold in the rain and, I assume, get hypothermia.  Very frustrating!

Mad as a Wet Hen!
Just look at the two pictures above of how miserable they look.  In the next couple of pictures, I'm panning across the same pasture, on the same day, at the same time. Look at the laying hens and roosters.  They are running around, eating, oblivious to the weather conditions.  None of them die.  In fact the laying hens are thriving.

In fact, they still look beautiful.  They are pretty, even in nasty circumstances (while the ugly meat birds look on).  There's a lesson for us, right there, that we can learn from a hen!

And this is just my opinion, but this is one of the major drawbacks of a Cornish Cross Meat Chicken. They are a hybrid 'monster' chicken, bred to put on a lot of weight, real fast.  They are the plump birds you are used to seeing in the grocery store.  Trouble is, even if on pasture, they don't seem to me to be a 'natural bird.' They are a freak of nature.  Because of the genetics that allow them to put on rapid weight gain, their bones can't maintain the weight on their frames and they often have leg problems. Even when they are fine, unlike a laying breed, they primarily eat, sit down, and poop. They don't move very much at all.  Birds that eat, sit, and poop aren't aesthetically pleasing.

Additionally, with this batch of birds, there are wide ranges in growth with some chickens being in excess of four and a half pounds and some only one and a half pounds.  Some of this is because these are straight run birds, meaning they aren't sexed.  A rooster will grow faster than a hen.  Also we've noticed with this batch of birds, and this is REALLY not pretty, is that about 5% of the birds have a prolapsed vent (rear end). Think hemorrhoid, but uglier!  This is a problem prevalent in Cornish Cross birds, but we've never had the problem before this year.  In fact we haven't had a meat bird crop that has gone this badly before.  Was this just a bad batch of birds? Genetic problems?  I don't know.

What I do know is that we are re-thinking things.  In Our "Where did the Roosters Go?" Post we showed you how we butchered our young Barred Rock roosters a month or so ago.  Barred Rocks are a dual purpose (egg layer & meat) breed of chicken.  While the cleaned carcass isn't as plump and doesn't have the fat breasts we've become accustomed to seeing on a broiler, the flavor is incredible!  We had a homemade chicken noodle soup the other night using one of them that had such a rich flavorful broth, it would make Campbell's shut the door in embarrassment if they tasted it.

We're looking at our current production system and we may raise a small batch (25 birds) each year of the Cornish Cross birds, but move toward a combination of hatching our own eggs and butchering the roosters of the hatch or switching to the Red Ranger breed.  Red Rangers forage more and seem to be a more 'natural' bird. We're not giving up!  Not by a long shot.  We're just adjusting our strategy.  I guess with the Cornish Cross, I keep waiting for "the ugly duckling to turn into a swan" and it's just not meant to be!

Why are we having such problems?  I think it has something to do with this:
Then to Adam He said, "Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, 'You shall not eat from it'; Cursed is the ground because of you; In toil you will eat of it All the days of your life."  Genesis 3:17  

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Annie The Nubian Goat - Pregnant?

Earlier in the month IN THIS POST we talked about how all 3 of our Jersey cows are pregnant.  All three should calve before the year ends, giving us 3 calves to keep or sell and lots of fresh whole milk!

What we didn't talk about is another animal that we suspect is pregnant - Annie, our Nubian Goat. We brought Annie to some friend's who live on the Atchafalaya River who have a Nubian buck named "Iron Man."  Annie was on a long 'date' with Iron Man that spanned the time between December 3, 2014 through January 4, 2015.

Annie the Nubian Dairy Goat
While we don't have any definitive proof that she's pregnant, we do notice (we think) a mysterious bulge in her belly.  Goats' gestation period is 150 days.  If we count back to the earliest day that she might have bred to the latest, we get a range of due dates from May 2nd to June 3rd.  So that means she could be the first momma out of all of the animals on our little farm to give birth this year.

Annie looks just like her mother, Nellie,  with almost the exact same coloration. Now Annie was a single kid, but twins are pretty common in goats.  Goats can have from 1 to 5 kids, with twins being the most common.  At this point she just doesn't look that big, though.  If she is pregnant, it just doesn't look like she's big enough to be carrying twins, but what do I know?

Now Annie appears to be in great health.  Although the cows aren't very fond of her, she likes to go out into the pasture and graze with them.  She also really likes to get on her knees, poke her head through the hog wire and nibble on weeds growing just outside the fence.  There's lots of fresh clover that the cows can't reach and she capitalizes on her dexterity to reach it.

We'll start keeping our eyes on her very closely and ensure that she's getting the very best of goat pre-natal care.  We give her snacks of alfalfa pellets and then I've been cutting privet, oak and pecan tree branches to give to her.  She really likes eating the tender new leaf growth.  Hopefully, she is pregnant and will give birth to at least one healthy little one.  We're looking forward to her freshening with milk so that we can once again enjoy fresh goat kefir smoothies made with fresh fruit for breakfast.  We haven't had any of those since we lost Nellie in December.

We'll keep you posted and will of course show baby pictures when/if Annie kids.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Making Pecan Butter

A few weeks ago we roasted the few peanuts that we harvested from our first peanut crop and made our own peanut butter.  Good stuff.  Hopefully our peanut crop will be a lot larger this year and we'll be able to make more.  We shelled lots of pecans from the trees in our yard and we have gallons of them put up in the freezer for making pecan pies and other delicacies.

We also soak a bunch of them in salted water overnight and then dry them at low heat in our warmer. They make a tasty, healthy, nutritious treat and we just snack on handfuls of them.  We showed you the process we use IN THIS BLOG POST.  Here's some that we have soaking now:

Pecans Soaking
I've seen all sorts of nut butters and figured we'd try to make some pecan butter with our pecan inventory, so I enlisted Benjamin's help.  He loves peanut butter and I figured he'd enjoy making some pecan butter with me. We took 2 cups of the crispy, soaked pecans and put them in the food processor. After about 30 seconds of processing, they looked like this:

Chopped pecans
After about thirty more seconds they looked like they were getting a little chunky and 'oily.'

Beginning to get mushy
About a minute or two later, the pecans were now converted into pecan butter.  With peanuts, you have to add a little oil to make peanut butter.  Not so with pecans.  I scraped down the sides of the processor and we both took a taste.  Mmmm...

Pecan Butter!
Then I got to thinking and wondered what it would taste like if I added a tablespoon of Steen's Cane Syrup?  Tricia makes pecan pies with Steen's Cane Syrup.  So we added that to the processor...

Steen's Pure Cane Syrup
While we were at it, we looked on the spice rack and spied a few more additives.  We added a little cinnamon, nutmeg, ground ginger, and Kosher salt.

Spicing it up
We turned on the processor for a little while longer and the pecan butter balled itself up, begging to be removed from the processor and put in a jar (and sampled!)

Ready to Eat
I scooped it all out of the food processor and the 2 cups of pecans converted into exactly 1 half pint of pecan butter once we crammed it all down in there with a rubber spatula.

Well, it almost all fit.  The pecan butter that wouldn't fit in the jar, we gobbled up with a spoon.  It was almost like eating pecan pie.

A lovin' spoonful...
I would highly recommend this addictive product.  It's perfectly fine to eat with a spoon, but you can also use a knife to spread it on hot rolls or make a PB&J sandwich (Pecan Butter & Jelly).

Because there's no preservatives in this pecan butter, it's probably best to refrigerate it since nut butters can go rancid.  I don't think we'll have to worry about that happening since this half pint will be gone lickety split!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

"Country" Eggs

As the green grass suggests in the picture below, Spring has Sprung!  I look at the last sign of Spring being when the pecan trees start to put on leaves and all of our pecan trees have bright green leaves popping out on the previously barren limbs. It's here - and it's about time.  I'm sure those in the north would agree and are anxiously awaiting Spring to come to them.

In addition to getting the garden in, Springtime signals the on-set of a huge increase in egg production from our flock of laying hens.  We have probably 65 layers, 7 roosters, and then 23 pullets that have not laid their first egg yet.  All but the pullets are roaming free over their 3 acre pasture, rooting around for bugs and worms, scratching through cow patties on a quest for tasty morsels.  Oh, they think it's heaven.
Spring Green
Like people, they enjoy their freedom.  They can stretch out and go where they like, do what they like, and when they like.  All within reason, of course.  We have one Aracauna hen that shimmies her way through the hog wire and she's gotten into a bad habit of scratching the mulch away from the base of our blueberry bushes.  I've got to break her of that habit somehow.

Over the winter, the reduction in protein and nutritive quality of the forage coupled with shorter daylight hours results in a drastic reduction in egg production.  Oh, we could keep lights on in the hen house and purchase laying pellets to supplement and feed the girls, but we're trying to do things a little more naturally and abide within the seasons and cycles of life as God intended.  This practice also extends the productive life of our laying hens.

Anyway, the fresh, tender grasses of Spring, bugs, worms and other goodies and longer days, flip the hens' "switch" and they begin to lay eggs abundantly.  Let's look in on one of their nesting places in the hen house:

One vacant nesting box
The hens, at their appointed time each day, mosey into the hen house, or barn, or chicken tractor, or hay bale, or any other various and sundry places they decide to lay their eggs, and they'll sit in the soft, clean hay and produce some of nature's finest and most quality protein of any food available. 

Hard at Work
Once done, they'll sing a little song.  It's a happy tune and although I'm not conversant in the Chickenese language, I would assume that they are proudly exclaiming that they've just done a good thing - just as you do when you finish mowing the lawn or completing a project that you are passionate about.  Then they plop down and scurry back out to the pasture to chase bugs.  Now that's REAL "fast food!"

A solitary brown egg
That one egg quickly becomes a beautiful collection of eggs of all shapes, sizes and colors, representing the collective work of Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, Black Stars, and Aracaunas. And though each egg might look different, they are all delicious.

A nest of assorted fresh eggs

It's Benjamin's job each afternoon to grab his wire bucket and head out to the pasture and gather eggs before he goes to track practice.  Egg gathering requires lots of skills.  One must be curious as a detective, careful as an archaeologist, have the keen eye of a surveyor and the sure, steady hands of a surgeon.  Okay, maybe I exaggerate a little.  
A tisket, a tasket, a red wire egg gathering basket
The basket full of eggs is brought to the back patio where they'll be sorted and packaged.  On beautiful dry days, Benjamin just puts them into the cartons.  You really don't want to wash them because the chicken puts what's called a "bloom" on her eggs and this, in effect, seals the egg and keeps bacteria from entering the porous egg.  

On wet, rainy days, however, the eggs require some clean-up.  You see, when the chickens jump up into the nesting boxes, their feet are muddy and they tend to step on the eggs, making them dirty. Friends and family members give us their egg cartons and we use them again and again to package some good old country eggs in.

It's nice to have delicious eggs in abundance.  If ever the words ring out, "What's for supper?" and nothing's in the pot, eggs provide a quick nutritious, versatile protein to start the conversation. Although the color of the eggshells doesn't affect the flavor of the egg, free range, pastured chicken's eggs are far and away better tasting than the 'factory eggs' you purchase at the grocery store. There's no comparison, really.

Monday, April 13, 2015

In The Garden

I don't know where I got it in my head that growing roses was difficult.  Maybe it's because there are Rose Societies and other Rose organizations and that's given me the mistaken impression that rose growing is only for the erudite.  Erudite, I am not!  Anyway, a couple of years ago, we purchased 3 rose bushes - a yellow one, a pink one, and a white one.  We planted them in the flower bed in the back yard in direct sunlight and do essentially nothing to them other than fertilize them and prune them once a year.  They respond by giving us loads of beautiful flowers that we cut from time to time and place in a vase to brighten the window sill in the kitchen or the table.

The First Yellow Rose of 2015
It was a Saturday morning and Tricia and Benjamin were in Houston visiting Tricia's mom.  I woke up a little later than usual and walked around outside alone. There was a heavy dew on the ground and as I walked through the backyard in fashionable style (crocs with socks), the dew soaked my feet. But then something caught my eye.  Little droplets of dew dotted the leaves of the roses, put there by the hand of God.

...While the dew was still on the roses...
It reminded me of the old hymn we sing in church written by Charles Miles in 1913.

I come to the garden alone,
While the dew is still on the roses,
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses.

And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

He speaks, and the sound of His voice
Is so sweet the birds hush their singing,
And the melody that He gave to me
Within my heart is ringing.

I’d stay in the garden with Him,
Though the night around me be falling,
But He bids me go; through the voice of woe
His voice to me is calling.

There is beauty to behold right outside your back door when you take the time to observe.

Too many times I don't.

And as the song says, if you take time to listen, He'll speak to you.  He'll walk with you and He'll talk with you and He'll tell you, you are His own...

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The 2015 Meat Birds - Eight Weeks Old

Well, here we are at eight weeks.  The meat birds have grown and we'll weigh in to see where they are.  Remember, we try to shoot for a 6 pound bird as that will yield a 4 and 1/2 pound clean carcass. In the past, we've achieved this weight and butchered at 10 weeks.  Before we weigh them I'd like to show you something that the chickens give use in addition to meat.

We push the chicken tractor each and every day.  That gives the chickens an opportunity to forage on fresh grass and keeps them from sitting in their poop. They eat a lot and generate a lot of poop.  This poop fertilizes the pasture and makes the grass grow thick and green for the cows and chickens to eat. If you look closely in the photo below, you can see the trail where the chicken tractor traveled. It is a darker green color.

Dark green trail (running diagonally from left bottom to right top)

The chicken poop is very strong and will initially turn the grass yellow and will look like it is going to kill the grass.  But the grass comes back with a vengeance, growing lush and green, fueled by the chicken poop to grow vigorously.

Grass is initially 'burned' by the chicken poop
Here are the birds in the tractor.  You'll notice I'm using a pvc rain gutter as a feed trough.  It is a cheap alternative to purchasing a trough.  The roosting bars are made using branches cut from the woods.  However, the meat birds are too fat and lazy to use them.  They are there for when the laying hens where in the tractor prior to the meat birds moving in.

Time for the weigh-in.  I grabbed a Red Ranger and a Cornish Cross and put them in the 5 gallon bucket and bring them into the garage.

A bucket of mixed chicken
Now remember the Red Rangers mature 4 weeks more slowly than the Cornish Cross birds.  We'll weigh him first.

Not really a flattering pose
This week the Red Ranger weighs 2 pounds 4 ounces, a gain of 7 ounces over last week.

Red Ranger 2 lbs 4 ounces
Now it is the Cornish Cross chicken's turn.  He just sat down on the scale in a lazy fashion.

This week the Cornish Cross weighs 4 pounds 2 ounces a gain of 9 ounces over the 3 pounds and 9 ounces last week when we weighed him.  

Cornish Cross 4 pounds 2 ounces
We'll check them again next week to see if they are on target for butchering at 10 weeks.  We're experiencing lots of rain right now and actually lost two birds yesterday when they got wet.  The birds piled up on top of each other and two of the smallest were crushed under the weight of the larger birds.  This is late in the game to be losing birds, but is part of the deal.  You win some, you lose some, but you keep pressing forward, learning from mistakes and trying to better your process each year.

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Most Important Investment of Your Life

"With children you can't just feed them and hope they turn out okay.  It's a constant investing.  You know, you invest it now, you give yourself now and then you reap the fruit later once they're adults.  Or you don't invest it now and you pay for it later.  Kinda like a plant.  You work the soil and put the right minerals down and make sure it's gonna grow just right or you can take a chance and throw it and end up with a crop failure and all that time was wasted. It's better to just invest it in the beginning.  Give it your all."  - Dawn Gotreaux
What a great quote!  Brian and Dawn Gotreaux are friends of ours that have a farm in Scott, Louisiana.  They are an interesting and inspiring couple.  You can visit their website HERE to learn more about them.  They have ten adopted children and grow nutrient dense food for their family and the community.  They have a CSA, they sell their products from their farm store as well as farmer's markets in Lafayette, they raise tilapia, chickens, turkey, eggs, and vegetables.

While they work very hard raising all sorts of crops, they would tell you that the most important thing they are raising is... THEIR KIDS!  I became aware that Victory Gardens Edible Feast videotaped an episode that featured the Gotreaux Family along with a farmer's cooperative in Mississippi, gardening tips from Paradigm Gardens and finally, Chef Donald Link demonstrates cooking a delicious looking dish.

The Gotreaux's all pitch in to get the work done around the farm after their home-schooling is done. Each has their own specific job to do, much as in previous generations when the size of families was much larger.  They needed the farm labor to feed the family.  There is a particularly poignant part of the video at the end at which they all sit around the supper table, hold hands, and thank God for His provision.

The entire video is 24 minutes long, but if you don't have that long, the portion that highlights Brian & Dawn Gotreaux and their family begins at the 7:35 minute mark and ends at the 13:03.  I guarantee you that it is an efficient use of five an a half minutes of your life.  In addition to discussing life on their family farm, they delve into the important principles of teamwork, learning, and having a sense of purpose. I thought it was fantastic and wanted to share with you.  Click on this link to view the video: Victory Garden's edibleFEAST Video

I hope you enjoy as much as I did.
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