We're into fall now and one of the wonders we get to experience is watching the newbies in the flock. Some of the "new girls" are beginning to lay - some start small with eggs that are perhaps 3/4 the size of a standard chicken egg, some start right off with a regular size egg (ouch!). The newbies are adorable. We have a trio of pullets that are highly inquisitive, being the first out the door when moved to their new location and the first on the scene if we arrive with a special treat. I like the range of personalities, from the bold ones that walk right up to us to the girls that seem fully engrossed in their own affairs. We also have a few new roos, one of whom is son of our senior rooster. It's astounding the way the two have arranged their turf. From the moment we brought the son down from the hill there has not been a cross word between the two. I haven't even seen them directly approach each other, or ever get in each others' way. They have co-mingled a bit, with junior's flock getting mixed in with senior and his flock, and have had zero confrontation. They seem to respect each others' hens/pullets and have equal leadership abilities within their groups. I am incredibly pleased with both roos and have high hopes that they are able to fair well through winter. I'll try to get some pictures soon!
Well, we know grass fed poultry is yummy (and according to Jeff, cures what ails you). Finally we have a half a grass fed beef in our freezer, from our own fields :) We're very excited about this and have already done a taste test. It's fantastic! Raising grass fed beef fits into our goals in a number of ways, but I have to admit that I was wondering what the taste would be. Even my parents grain finished their Hereford bulls for butchering, and I've considered them to have been pretty progressive farmers for their time - rotational grazing, direct marketing and staying small during the push to "get big or get out" in the 80s.
So yes, we could have/should have tried some grass fed beef before committing to it ourselves, but we figured no matter what it tasted like we were going to eat it because our overall goals were that important. We wanted a larger animal to graze the pasture ahead of the chickens (to make it a more desirable height for the birds), and we wanted to continue with returning nutrients to the soil without constant mechanical clipping - fossil fuels, you know? We still need to do that from time to time but the heifers do a great job of utilizing the taller grass that the birds have a hard time with. And then, of course, there's the idea of becoming a little more self sufficient and the very reassuring feeling of knowing where our red meat is coming from.
What a great treat that it's SO GOOD! The meat is pretty lean with very, very slight marbeling and FRESH! Yes, it's in our freezer, but there is that indescribable something that makes it stand out from meat at the grocery store. Even beyond that, I am optimistic that we have chosen one of the best breeds for pastured beef. The Shorthorns are historically known for their ability to efficiently convert grass to beef, bred and popular at a time in history when feeding grains was expensive and impractical.
Now, if we can only get our two remaining heifers bred we'll be on our way!
Much has been going on this summer, but I haven't had time or energy to keep up with posting, as usual. This year we haven't been working on so many big, visible projects but more on a large number of little things like perfecting our pasture rotation and modifying the fence, plus experimenting with free ranging hens with their hatched chicks (and what type of shelters would be best for that).
So on to the big news! My best hen, Dina, has just hatched five chicks. That's no record, especially if you've heard how many bantams can hatch, but it's the most we've gotten from any of the Dark Cornish hens. I've started each of the Dark Cornish with six eggs, which seems to be about the number they can adequately cover, but inevitably a few would be lost on the way, either the egg didn't develop, or in some cases they just didn't make it through hatching. Every time we've ended up with four chicks, but Dina managed to get five hatched. It's also exciting because now I refer to Dina as the hen that "has it all"... she's good looking, large, great personality, and also broody! She was the very last hen to go broody and I was convinced she wouldn't. Because one of our goals is sustainability we wanted our hens to have that instinct.
We did not do trap nests this year (catching the hen when she goes in to lay an egg so you can verify which eggs come from which hen) but I strongly suspect a few of the older chicks hatched under our hens are from Dina judging by appearance. In any event, the rooster we chose paired with our Dark Cornish hens have made some amazing birds - large and consistent, much more so than the "mail order" birds from the hatchery. It's made us believe even more in our direction of sustainability.
We now have three hens setting and two have hatched chicks! Rosie (daughter of a very fine Partridge Rock hen who hatched chicks for us last year) had three, possibly four, chicks doddering around this morning and has one egg yet unhatched. She isn't amused by my constant peering into her little nest area but the little chirps and whistling were too hard to resist. Rosie has behaved just like her mother and I trusted her through the whole hatch for all the details - for instance when let out of her hut for a daily break she would come back in a timely manner so the eggs didn't chill more than was safe. Also, I put a few worms down on a board for her to "feed the kids" beyond the mash they have. She clucked a bit but wouldn't come out while I was there. I glanced in the skylight a few minutes later and the worms were gone :)
Foxy, a big Dark Cornish we raised from a chick last year, had one little peeper this morning. Foxy is an unknown but has been consistent through the hatch, not leaving the nest for too long. One of her eggs got broken early on. She's a big girl and I suspect she accidentally broke it. Some yolk got on a few of the eggs so I removed the worst and left her the remaining three. We were unsure if any of the eggs would produce a chick after that but I'm happy to say she at least has one. She is being very attentive and motherly, all the appropriate clucking at the right times. I'll try to get some pictures soon.
The Sunday before last we brought another heifer home. We picked this girl up from the same woman we bought our other two from. Turns out she still had the heifer I'd had my eye on last year but couldn't bring myself to choose as she was a tad more high strung than the ones we settled on. Since then Jeff has not only gotten used to having bovine around but has grown a real affection for them, in particular our "pet" Charlotte. I figured even if this new girl is a little livelier we'd be o.k.
The trip went fine, all be it long. The loading was uneventful, the trip home was equally uneventful. We made really good time getting back, everything was smooth. I tended to the dog, cat and chickens, making rounds to get everyone checked and fed and Jeff backed the trailer up to unload. Everything was set and I put our two heifers on the outside of the barnyard to keep everyone separated initially. Jeff asked if I was ready and I said "yep". Oops. I wasn't ready.
That heifer came shooting off the trailer in a streak. Hens went squawking and flying and the dog started barking. It seemed like time was moving in slow motion as my eyes started to note all the things that weren't quite right... should have shooed the hens out of the heifer's path, maybe should have run the other heifers up on top of the hill, definitely should have spaced those boards closer together up in the corner of the barnyard... that last one was the thought I had as the new heifer stuck her head between the boards and pulled the rest of herself through after, busting down a board in the process. Worse yet, she proceeded to get bumped maybe all of once by one of the other heifers before deciding she hadn't gone far enough. She stepped through one set of electric wires and was off, climbing directly up the hill and leaping through two more sets of electric wires (which were VERY hot, as Jeff can attest to).
We spent a little over two very strained hours, mostly keeping her from making it all the way across the hill and onto the rest of the farm. At one point she barreled into the brush between the hill and the road - thank goodness she deemed that uncomfortable and came back up the hill. She made multiple attempts to run right at us, toward the open fields on the other side of the hill. If she'd made it, that would be another couple hours, at least. There are MANY more options for an animal to run on that side. I'm thankful 1) neither of us tripped at any critical moments running along to keep her from going further 2) that we'd made that bathroom stop on the way home 3) that the heifer was tired and panting and 4) for all the brush, trees and crazy terrain that probably prevented that heifer from running for MILES.
We finally coaxed her to turn back the way she came. Instead of going through the open gates and down the lane, she slipped back through the same electric wires she came through and back in with the other heifers, who, little wonders that they are, were hanging out in the same location. I got some grain and called the other girls into the barnyard and they ushered the "new girl" in with them and Jeff rushed up to close the gate behind.
After all that we barricaded the heck out of the barnyard - new boards where she broke through and cattle panels behind all the gates that looked like a head could fit through if forced. We checked her repeatedly until dark and barely slept that night.
Next day she was still there, which was all I was hoping for, and we went out to feed the critters in the morning. As Jeff was putting hay down in the pen for the heifers the chickens were, as usual, rummaging around in the barnyard for a morning snack of bugs and hay seeds. Our new heifer, dubbed "Ella" (though I had another name in mind after all that running...) was mesmerized by the chickens. The other heifers went about their morning business of eating but Ella was just standing there, eyes fixed on those funny little birds. Jeff suggested perhaps we should have taken a chicken up on the hill to bait her back when she escaped, or at least to hypnotize her, which is what it looked like the hens were doing. I guess I can see her fascination... come to think of it I probably had the same look on my face that first year we had birds. I suppose Jeff and I could both confess to still having that same hypnotized look every now and then when checking out the birds :)
As the days get longer we rush around, trying to squeeze "one last thing" in before dark. Then we find ourselves rushing even more to get everyone tucked away for the night. Last night I came from the field to find Jeff frantically searching.
"We're missing a hen!" This was followed by twenty questions of "did you look here" and "did you look there" all the while knowing that it was too dark. That hen was either GONE or settled in so quiet for the night that we weren't going to find her. I checked the hen house, tallying which hens were there, and determined that the missing hen was Gertie. Whether it was Gertie 1 or Gertie 2, I wasn't sure, but either way I knew it'd be sad if she didn't turn up because both Gerties were showing signs of becoming broody. We finally resigned ourselves to the fact that she wouldn't be found, at least not at that hour. Trying to remain calm and optimistic, I turned my mind to wrapping up all other chores.
In all the chaos the heifers still hadn't gotten their evening bale, so I opened the shed door and shined the light on the bales for Jeff to grab one. And there she was! Nestled between two bales and resting peacefully despite all the commotion we had just been making just outside the door, was Gertie. Jeff gently lifted her and beneath her was her egg for the day. After a very late night snack and drink (I figured she'd been in there since late afternoon when I'd last gotten hay for the heifers), she finally found a spot on the roost next to her flock. Whew. That's one long day for a little hen.
Pastured Poultry - this doesn't mean the same thing to everyone so I'll explain what we do. Our birds are put in bottomless pens in our grass/legume mix field at between three and four weeks old. The pens are roughly half enclosed steel and half hardware cloth (like chicken wire only a finer mesh). The pens are moved by hand daily at sunrise, and twice daily if necessary. They are moved at sunrise so the birds can start their day with fresh bugs and forage on "clean" ground.
Our Dark Cornish are most active in the morning and they really make the most of those early hours and the fresh forage. After the pen is moved we refresh their supplementary grain. What we noticed when we raised the Cornish Rock cross commercial-type bird on pasture was that the heritage breeds tend to eat the fresh grass and bugs first and eat grain second. The Cornish Rocks go directly to the feed trough and fill up on grain first, then eat grass. The heritage breeds also regularly polish off all edible grasses and legumes while the Cornish Rocks tended to leave more forage untouched or, sadly, cover it with manure.
The reason we move the pens by hand, which some would see as unnecessary manual labor, is that we need to move slow enough so birds don't get legs caught under the edge of the pen and if birds get frightened we are able to see them while moving and can stop to let them settle. The more likely event with the Dark Cornish is that they will escape under the edge of the pen if it's lifted too high. You can't catch five escaped chickens with an ATV anyway (well, maybe you could but I have my doubts), so for the minute it takes to roll the pen along by hand it's the most efficient and practical way. Being on foot also allows us to view the birds a little more each day to assess how they are doing.
We've read about a few different ways of pasturing young birds. Another distinct model is "day ranging" which involves allowing the birds out in a more extended area, enclosing them only with fencing and leaving their shelter in place for many more days at a time. Though at first glance the pastured pens may resemble confinement, we prefer this method for a few reasons. One is predators. We have hawks, eagles, coyotes, raccoons, skunks and possums. Those are just what we know about. The pens give them access to forage, sun and fresh air, but also a higher degree of protection from predators and an efficient shelter for shade and protection from rain and wind. Another reason is that we can be assured that the birds are on "clean" ground every single day while they are young. This is important because it lowers the birds' exposure to their manure, which can carry protozoan parasites that young birds can be particularly vulnerable to.
When the birds are between 14 and 16 weeks old we sort out any birds we think we'd like to keep as part of our laying/breeding flock and the remainder are processed for table birds. Those birds that we keep are brought down from the field to the hen house, closer to our house. From there they are "free range". For us that means the door to the hen house is open at first light. The hens and rooster are allowed to range as far as they can or want to walk in a day. This means that their exposure to predators increases but fortunately the area around our home and theirs has plenty of trees and brush which provides protection they don't have in the open field.
The birds we keep form a more cohesive flock with just one (or two, as we have now) roosters who do a pretty good job of alerting everyone if they sense danger. We provide the hens nest boxes in the hen house so they are exposed to them early on to "get the idea" to lay their eggs there. Sometimes they get their own ideas and we find eggs in other locations, but no one's perfect, right? In the evening the flock naturally heads for the hen house, having already become familiar with it as a safe place to roost for the night. We close the hen house at last light and after a few coos or occasional quiet but high pitched "rrrrrrr" from the rooster, everyone settles in until morning.