Friday, November 21, 2014

Kick First...Ask Questions Later


As a farmer, living in the heart of Ag country, "In the Land of Black Cows", as it were… 
 …I have an embarrassing admission to make.

Black cows freak me out. 

Well, okay, it’s not that bad.  It’s not debilitating or anything…and it’s not like I have a lot of personal contact with cows anymore anyway. But, it is somewhat embarrassing.

And, it's not steers, not bulls.  Just black COWS.

These “issues” go back to my childhood. 

The summer I was six Dad had a bunch of stocker calves that he kept in the field between the house and the barn.  (stocker calves are generally weaned calves somewhere between 300 and 500 pounds…honestly, these seemed WAY bigger) Since I was always looking forward to an opportunity to go to the barn, I wandered through the calves fairly often.  Most of them didn’t even notice me. 

Except this big heifer with the eartag #566. 

She was big. She was frightening.  …and she wouldn’t leave me alone.



She would walk along behind me, her breath hot on my bare legs.  She would snort and toss her head, and I would flee pell-mell for the barn.  (or back to the house)  She didn’t do this to any other family members.  Maybe it was my red hair.  Maybe she knew I was scared. It was suggested that I call her bluff.  Maybe she was just playing. (oh yeah, right)  I was pretty sure she was just evil. (after all those Sunday mornings in church, I was convinced her tag number should have been 666…the mark of the beast) It got to be a real pain to go to the barn.

One day things got really scary.

I don’t know if she was hungry, in heat…or just in a REALLY bad mood.  She bellowed and charged me.  I flipped out and started running and running.  And screaming.  She chased me clear to the bottom end of the property where I reached the creek.  I leaped across and cringed next to the fence in fear of what would happen next.   She just stood there, bellowing angrily at me from the other side. Certain that she would jump the creek as well, I must have closed my eyes in terror, because I remember opening my eyes to two faces. Alongside the evil, angry, bellowing cow was my equally angry mother puffing from the exertion of tearing down the hill after the two of us.  I don’t remember what my mother said, but it wasn’t pretty. 

…and that was the end of my trips to the barn for a while.

I was really glad when that heifer ended up leaving for the stockyard. (although it would have been sweet revenge to have eaten her, I must admit)

Until we moved to the Valley, we didn’t have any opportunity to wander with cows, black or otherwise. But, if you’re going to have milk and eat beef, you need cows. 

My milk cows were always the beautiful brown-eyed Jersey girls, and they were more like pets than farm animals. No worries walking with them.  Ever. You can read about the Jerseys Here. But, without the option of AI-ing the cows, we used the neighbors’ Angus bulls on occasion. 

That meant the calves eventually turned black.  …and I found that I really do have an issue with black cows. Which makes the next part of this story somewhat ludicrous…



Someone suggested that the cross between the Jersey and the Angus would make for a hybrid cow that might just have some resistance to milk-fever. Since we were having such issues with the malady, it seemed worth a try. When we asked Ol’ doc Snowdy what he thought, he recollected his momma milking a black cow back in the day.

 So, we decided to keep a heifer calf and see how that worked out.

…completely overlooking my “issues” and the old adage that

“angus cows kick first…and ask questions later” 

Angus cows are great mothers, attentive and alert. But, they will kick and/or butt if they feel threatened in any way.  ...and you never know what might make a cow feel threatened.

The heifer took a little trip across the lane and got bred without any issues. (that was a plus) Then, we began working with her so she would learn the whole milk-cow routine of coming in the barn. (as long as she didn't walk behind me...everything was fine) But, she was incredibly flighty.  Once the headgate squeaked as I closed it in place to start her training. She jumped and landed on my foot. I could hear the flesh rip as 1000 pounds of bovine met my little toe. Man, did that hurt! On the upside, I could predict the weather with great accuracy for about two years following that incident.

If this wasn't enough, she would not or could not stand still for milking. She would kick and buck and jump all around. (just getting a pail under her was an action worthy of a combat medal) The Boss tried hobbles and he also tried poles between her back feet.  If she couldn't kick, then she would attempt to fall over.  You could see her leaning and listing to one side.  The thought of 1000 pounds of bovine landing on my head as I sat milking was a little more than I could take.   Maybe it was time to reconsider this plan.

As if to drive the point home, she developed a habit of a sneaky little sidekick as she went out of the barn.   You couldn't even see it coming...then, wham! ...it landed just above my knee-cap. I had more than a few bruises on one leg and I couldn't get a drop of milk out of her and into the bucket.

It was time to go back to Jerseys! But, this experience led us to Gracie-the-cow (and ultimately her calf, Penny), so all's well that ends well.



And, we ended up with LOTS of very tasty Angus-Jersey meat in the freezer!

                             (but, I still steer clear of black cows.)

Lesson Learned: 
Some issues from childhood never really go away.

There is a definite difference between beef and dairy breeds.

Some suggestions are better off NOT taken.

 Ol’ doc Snowdy’s momma must have been some kind of woman!

Nobody likes a reactionary...cow or otherwise.

I'm not the only one who thinks this way...check out this book. (and show on National Geographic)

the incredible Dr. Pol







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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Reduce, Re-use, Recycle

Did you know that farmers are probably the best recyclers out there? 


And, I don’t mean just making sure that all those feedsacks get in the mixed paper bin at the dump, either.

Farmers do a LOT of recycling.  And care deeply for the environment.

As part of our efforts to be good stewards and care for our environment, we are ever mindful of waste. So are all our farming friends.  That’s why most farms have a “junk pile”.  You know, all that stuff that’s just too good to throw out, but looks like it has some potential…?  Some of that stuff is worth its weight in gold.

Shortly after the chicken massacre, the little wheels in the Boss’ head started turning.  He had a great plan for a new, secure, but yet mobile chicken house.  But, he needed a few things.

Rather than head out to the store, he first checked the Bulletin Board.  (You must understand that this was back in the days before widespread computer use and Craigslist had yet to be invented.) 

The Bulletin Board is a local bi-weekly publication where you can find all sorts of stuff, neatly listed in categories. I do mean ALL sorts of things.  The girls and I used to find great amusement in reading some of the more “interesting” ads out loud at lunchtime…complete with dramatic voice-overs. Alas, the days of amusing lunches are long gone, and the Bulletin Board lost a great deal of its popularity (and usefulness) with the advent of Craigslist.

But, back to my story.

He found that someone was selling the axle used to haul a mobile home for next to nothing. With his plan firmly in his mind and something like 20 bucks invested, he was ready for the next stage.

One of our neighbors is very handy and used to do tractor/truck repair work on the side.  He always has bits and pieces of odds and ends that look useful and made it clear that “if ya ever need anything…”   Somewhere in all the stuff, the Boss found a frame that would work for hooking to the chassis to make it “pull-able”. He worked and welded and thought a little more. 

The frame went into the shop, where he built the chickenhouse on top. He even painted it the same color as the house and used leftover house shingles for the roof. I really, really didn’t think it was going to fit back out the door.  But, it did!




VoilĂ !

Once placed in position, the hens were safe, the pen portable and the eggs easy to gather (the house even had little flaps that opened to the nestboxes)


The piece de resistance of recycling/re-purposing.

But, that wasn’t the end of it.  Not by a long shot.

When it became obvious that we needed a bigger henhouse, (yet another “recycling” project…did you read All the Modern Conveniences?) the cute little henhouse sat in the backyard for a while before becoming a shed.  Parked down by the hoophouses, it was a great place to store all the bundles of electro-net and soaker hoses during the off season. It really didn't matter that the tires went flat and the whole thing fell into a state of disrepair.

the "shed" is about to be re-purposed

But, those little wheels were turning again.

You know…that would make a great brooder!
looking fairly rough


Once again, I really didn’t see it…but, years of experience with the Boss’ brainstorms have taught me to wait for the finished project and be impressed.

A new floor and some lights and we had a great new brooder.  One that allowed headroom for standing upright.  Believe me, this is important when catching chicks to put out on pasture!

new floor
some windows


By now, the henhouse was on life #3, but improvements were in the works again.
one of the barn kitties checking out the project

extreme brooder cleaning.


After years out in the elements, the plywood sides were showing their age. Those little flaps for nestbox access were really unnecessary. And, it was just a little dark inside.  It was time for poly-carbonate panels.  
you can actually check the chicks without opening the brooder

the poly panels allow for lots of light

These allow daylight to pass through, warming the chicks and brightening the house (heatlamps are still used to maintain a steady temperature). It also allows us to check on the chicks without opening the door….and it looks very cool (and slightly weird) at night.

the brooder at night

All of the various incarnations of the henhouse/shed/brooder may have been the best example of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle  I have ever seen!



Lessons Learned:

THINK, THINK and THINK again before you throw that “junk” away. (although I promise my daughters I am not advocating hoarding)

LOOK for potential.

NEVER underestimate the Boss.

The bumpersticker on the vet truck is right.

        “Farmers were the first environmentalists!”



This quote is attributed to Al Gore and you can read more about it HERE.  






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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Lucky Growin' Up Like That

*a "not so wordy" Wednesday*




I can't help but smile when I look back…

‘cause I was lucky and I didn't even know it… growin' up like that.

                                                                                                                             -Rodney Atkins





I've done more than my fair share of second-guessing when it comes to my parenting skills and decisions over the years...

But, when sorting through old photos, I see that our girls had experiences and learning opportunities growing up on the farm that they wouldn’t have been afforded had they grown up elsewhere.

canning tomatoes

processing chickens

rides in the tractor bucket


cow riding

plantin' taters

watermelon on the front porch


learning how to roto-till

planting scallions
just walking a calf

Farmers' Market friends

house construction fun


inventive games


Those little girls of Homestead Hill are now grown-ups.  Both are responsible, married homeowners.  One has her own business and the other has a baby on the way.  They are both known for their reliability, resourcefulness and willingness to lend a helping hand.

And, we are proud to say we had a part in that. 

Thanksgiving '13


Lessons Learned:

Children need to learn how to work.

Farm life is great for kids!

Learning opportunities abound on a farm that don’t exist elsewhere.


Rodney Atkins is right. Click here for the song.







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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Home, Home on the Range


“Free-range chickens” 


Somehow, this gives the mental picture of hens out on the open prairie, foraging through the tall grass in some sort of chicken paradise, laying eggs in secluded little nests and raising their chicks under the bright blue skies.

…and customers feel duped, ripped off and sometimes angry when they find out that is NOT what is guaranteed (or specifically implied) by the description.

Believe me, they’ve told me.

But…

That's not what Free-range means! 

The wild and free, life in the open air ain't all it's cracked up to be for the chickens, either. And, personally, I'm not a big fan of Free-range.  At least not in the truest sense of the word...the way so many folks seem to understand it.

Before anyone calls for my lynching or tells me I don’t know what I’m talking about…hear me out.
while we don't use this model anymore
this is an example of free-range hens
(see the red hens on either side of the pen TRULY free-ranging?
they became something's supper shortly after the photo)

Chickens need some sort of protection and confinement. (meaning housing and fencing) Mostly for their own protection. So, free-range (meaning NO type of confinement) isn't the chicken paradise that many envision.

Predation is a very real problem. All sorts of critters…foxes, coyotes, neighborhood dogs, hawks…even ‘possums are all out there looking for supper. Carnivores need meat to survive. Chickens, being flightless, (and not the brightest of birds) are easy prey.

Chickens are indeed prey animals.  Which means they have no natural defenses against those other animals in the food chain, the meat eaters. Without plenty of protection, chickens will become supper for something out there…almost guaranteed.  Occasionally, this happens even with protection. (Our neighbor had a fox walk inSIDE his door-less henhouse and quite methodically eat every single hen over the course of a few days!)

Years ago, we used a very "open-air/free-range" system.  There was a hut (with boxes for egg laying) surrounded by electrified netting. The whole thing could be relocated fairly easily when the chickens needed fresh grazing.  Similar methods are used elsewhere in the world of pastured chickens.

But...I was doing chores on a foggy Saturday morning (the Boss was gone to Market) when I discovered carnage in the chicken pen. Serious carnage.  Something had massacred a great number of hens.  And, I don’t use the word massacre lightly.  There were decapitated chickens all over the place. I had to get a wheelbarrow to clean up the half-eaten, headless birds.  Later, I found the heads in another part of the enclosure. It takes a lot to gross me out…but, that did it. 

The remaining hens were scattered and frightened, affecting egg production for some time. Despite intense investigation, we never did figure out what caused the mayhem.  It was gross and disgusting and more than a little unnerving. Definitely NOT the way to start the day.

The experience sent us scurrying to find a better, safer model…one that would close securely at night. The Boss devised, designed, scavenged and built.  When he was finished we had a portable henhouse that was safe and portable. No more worries about predators!


Not to put too fine a point on the predation problem…but, as I began typing this, the dogs were pitching a fit at the gate at the top of the lane.  I walked down the drive to see this. 


A fox in the neighbor’s field.

There is an active den on another neighbor’s property and we often hear the vixen calling in the night. That's more than a little creepy, too. THIS link details one of my forays into the night and includes a video link to fox calls.

Free-range hens (in the very literal sense of the word)  simply cannot survive here on the hill. (or anywhere else indefinitely)

Not only do we have the pressure of predation, then there are the elements.


this poor thing got left outside in the snow

The hens need some sort of protection from the freezing cold and the blistering heat. There is also some concern over parasites and disease carried by wild birds and other environmental issues.  But, that's a discussion for another time.

By definition, “free-range” really doesn't mean wild and free like most folks imagine.  It simply means that the hens have access to the outdoors.  Here is the definition of free-range  from the USDA.

Free-range. This label indicates that the flock was provided shelter in a building, room, or area with unlimited access to food, fresh water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle. The outdoor area may or may not be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material. This label is regulated by the USDA. 
 Check the USDA here.  

AND, it really doesn’t mean they and (or should) wander freely through the countryside.  Not only would they risk becoming supper for some predator, their eggs can be virtually impossible to find.
hens in henhouse
















Hens are protective of their eggs and hide them quite well.  Hunting for eggs can be somewhat fun when you have a small flock in a very small area, or if you have young children, but not so much when you have a large number of birds (or wide, open spaces) and many other farm chores.






the hens seek out the dark nestboxes in order to feel safe laying their eggs

Hens instinctively look for a dark, safe place to lay their eggs.  By providing nestboxes inside the henhouse, we work with the hens’ natural tendencies and keep the eggs safe and clean and the Boss has easy access for daily egg gathering. (nothing worse than an old egg!) The nestboxes have this handy little “roll-out” feature which means once the egg is laid it rolls into a little collection cup.  Again, this keeps the egg clean and safe.  Yes, I did say safe. Did you know some hens will eat eggs?  Their own eggs? (once a hen becomes an “egg-eater”, there is no hope for rehabilitation and she needs to go in the stewpot…but, I digress)


With plenty of access to the outdoors, and protection from the elements and the predators, our hens’ needs have been more than adequately supplied.  That is the definition of free-range.

cleaning up the garden

The hens thrive in this environment and they show their “appreciation” with plenty of eggs!



Lessons Learned:
Everyone loves a good chicken dinner.  Especially predators!

The hens’ safety and welfare are our biggest concern. 

Animals produce better when their basic needs have been met adequately.

I am beginning to repeat myself a fair bit, here's a link to a piece from 2012 about egg labels. Read this.






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Monday, November 17, 2014

Here Chick, Chick

chickens are considered the "gateway" to livestock ownership
I'm here to tell you
it's true!

I distinctly remember getting locked in the henhouse as a small child and the only way out was the tiny “chicken door”.  I didn’t think twice about slithering out that little opening and ending up face first in the chicken pen.  I was pretty proud of my creative thinking and didn’t mind that I was indeed covered in chicken poo.

hanging out in the henhouse

While I wasn’t keen on our children repeating that particular performance, we did want them to have the fun and learning experiences that a flock of chickens can offer. So, when the girls were quite little, we (the Boss) built a new henhouse and got some pullets. The girls were in charge of our small flock and watched over them as they grew.   A game called “chicken restaurant” was invented where the hens were trained to come and take offerings from small outstretched hands.  This could entertain for hours.  Apparently, the hens were appreciative of this treatment and provided us with more eggs than we could use.  We would sell the extras to folks in our homeschool group or at church.

Unfortunately, those hens stayed put when we made our move to the Valley.  We left them with the new owner who was fully prepared to have his own little homestead and he envisioned himself with mountains of eggs. I think he was a little disappointed to find out that each hen would only lay one egg each day. He hadn't read this.


Shortly after our arrival, we got some black Australorps from a neighbor. And “Rhoda”.
"Rhoda"- the Rhode Island Red barn chicken
I know there’s a story behind “Rhoda”. But, alas, it has been forgotten over time. As I recall, she had at least one other poultry friend, but, again…ancient history has been forgotten.  I do remember the Australorps (and Rhoda) were quite possibly the worst egg layers in history.  I don’t think some of them EVER laid an egg.  And, while they did add to the ambience of the barn, and we weren’t raising eggs for sale (yet) the lack of eggs was frustrating and costly. They made me wish we hadn’t left our old flock with the new owner of our old home!

But things were about to change.

One of the ventures we decided to pursue was to sub-contract eggs for a neighbor who had sales accounts with white-tablecloth restaurants on the other side of the mountain.  Demand was beginning to outweigh his supply and he was looking to expand.  It seemed like it would work out well for all involved. He’d be able to meet demand, and we’d have some steady income. The hens would be  the "centerpiece" our our very diverse operation.

300 day old chicks are in those boxes


Soon, 300 day-old Rhode Island Reds arrived at the Post Office.  (a big jump from the dozen we had in the past!) They were tucked into the newly finished hoophouse, which had been built specifically for winter hen housing, and we were on our way.
chicks at 3 or 4 days

By early spring, the pullets were big enough to go outside into their pasture pens where they would be moved daily to new grass. 
taking chicks to pasture

pullets in a field pen

A number of things escaped our notice when we first considered this venture. 

field pens on "chicken hill"
The first being our hilly, hilly terrain.  Moving field pens could be a nightmare.  The pens were heavy and unwieldy, the land unforgiving with its hills and hummocks. (eventually, the Boss added retractable wheels, making the job somewhat easier)

In order to keep the birds safe, the pens needed to sit flat on the ground.  This was next to impossible. Any sort of gaps exposed the entire pen to predation.

…and predation can be problem. A BIG problem.  (More on that in another post)

barrels for chicken feed had to be hauled and filled
and then hauled back to the hill


We also didn’t allow for the fact that the projected earnings were just that…projected.

Or all the time and effort that was going into procuring chicken feed and transporting eggs that could have been directed elsewhere on the farm.









Our egg sub-contracting days came to an end when we realized that the rate of return wasn’t anywhere near what we had figured when we first started the project.  As a sub-contractor, we were bound to follow the model, use a specific feed ration and sell at a set price…that was understood, but it ultimately didn’t seem the best use of our small space and it was time to branch out in new directions.

hens over-wintering in the hoophouse
While we couldn’t imagine the farm without chickens, they just weren’t going to be THE focus of the farm. When it was time to replace the flock, we chose to down-size instead, thus starting the evolution of henhouses, more chickens and even more lessons to learn.

To learn a little more about our chickens, read this.

Lessons Learned:
Some breeds of chickens lay better than others. When you are in the egg business, it is important to have a consistent, quality supply. At present, the one that works for us is a brown egg layer/sex-linked breed. (A sex-link breed means different colors for each sex, in our case the hens are red and roosters white)

Personal experience is…well, personal.  What works for one may not work for another.

There is a big difference between a “backyard flock” and a commercial enterprise. (even a small commercial enterprise) This is not a bad thing.

Eggs are an amazing source of nutrition, especially protein…and a very “hot commodity” at the Farmers’ Market.










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