Butterflies & Rainbows- or The Down & Dirty of Farm Life

ImageOften people think living on the farm is a kind of enchanted life. You get to go out, commune with the animals,  pick flowers and vegetables and…go about the happy life of a farmer. A lot of this is because having chosen to be a farmer at this stage in my life, I’m pretty much in love with what I do. I’m not carrying on any family tradition of farming and I didn’t marry a farmer. My husband and I both had “normal” careers before this stage of our lives. And in fact, my husband still straddles both worlds- working in the high tech industry and working on the farm. Both are full time pursuits. So, when people ask me about farming I have lots of great stories to tell- and they are generally the feel good, life has never been better, don’t you wish you were a farmer- kind of stories.

Except when they aren’t. There is a down and dirty side to farming and it’s not just the mud and manure. Raising livestock on a farm takes on a whole new meaning of responsibility. The animals under our care rely on us for food, shelter, safety and our promise to keep them from suffering. Generally the food, shelter and safety are easy goals to reach.  As farmers, we are constantly surveying the pastures, making sure there isn’t anything left behind that they might swallow leading to hardware disease and possibly death. We make sure we pick up the twine that goes around the hay bales, pick up nails as they drop, keep fences secure and the list goes on and on. But, being animals they do tend to get themselves into tricky situations from time to time.

Just this morning as I was milking cows, my biggest girl- Snow, decided to lift her leg backwards and loop it over the side chain that keeps her on her side of the stall. She’s never performed this trick before, and neither have any of the other cows. It was something I never expected to see. The weight of her leg on the chain made it too tight for me to unhook. She was getting spooked and was starting to thrash around. I had to get some slack in the chain before she slipped and broke her leg. Thinking quickly, I dumped another scoop of pellets into her bucket. This made her lunge forward and I had just enough time to un-clip the chain. She was free and I was relieved. I don’t like to think about what I could have found had I walked away to tend to a quick chore while she was still in the stall. These are the kinds of things that can come up out of nowhere and take you completely by surprise.

Yesterday I was in the back field, tossing hay to calves and sheep. I usually take a quick count while I’m doing this to make sure that all of the critters are present and it gives me a chance to do a visual wellness check. I was missing one ewe. Hmm. It was too soon for her to be lambing. I scanned the field and still didn’t see her. This wasn’t good. The sheep stick together and when it’s haying time they all come running over in a group. I finished up and headed out to find her.

My fears were confirmed. She wasn’t in good shape. I found her laying on her side by a gate. It looked as though she had been there since the night. A quick assessment and I knew she wasn’t going to make it. This is where the part about keeping your livestock from needlessly suffering comes in. It fell on me to put her down. I could have left her there- nature would have taken its course eventually. But the ewe and I had an agreement. She would graze and fertilize my fields and provide me with lambs. I would feed her, shelter her, keep her healthy and- when the time came, I would prevent her from suffering. It was that time.

(Warning: Some may find the following picture graphic)

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(The injury on her head is how I found her. I still don’t know the source of that injury)

Animals get into all kinds of situations. I have no idea what caused the injury to her head- it’s how I found her that morning. It almost looked like she had been grazed by a bullet. The sheep pasture is in the middle of our farm, not a place where I would expect to have wayward bullets flying. In the end, it didn’t matter. I had to reach down deep into my farmer guts and end her suffering with my own bullet.

Farming, it isn’t always butterflies and rainbows. There is a down and dirty side to it too. But like anything in life, you can either focus on the hard times and lose site of the good, or you can take the hard times in stride and know that there is a rainbow right around the corner.

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 (Target practice. A good aim is another skill for the responsible farmer)

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Burning down the (Chicken) House

It’s that time of year for me again. Time to start raising chicks so that we’ll be rolling in eggs come June. The last few months have had a lot of ups and downs with my laying hens. I usually start a new batch of chicks towards the end of the summer. If I start in early August then I’ve got a good chance of having eggs by February. And the late summer start is really beneficial to the fragile little chicks that need the warmth so they don’t become stressed. We start our chicks off in large brooder boxes that my husband built. Very sturdy, heavy lids so I don’t need to worry about wind flipping them open, or a marauding raccoon coming in for a late night snack. Starting chicks in the summertime, a few heat lamps suspended above is all I need for warmth. As the chicks grow and begin to feather out, the lights only come on in the evening. And the boxes are plumbed with automatic watering bowls to make that chore even easier. Then, as they grow I’m able to move them out to a larger area adjacent to the older hens. Eventually the older hens which have slowed down in egg laying will be culled for the stew pot and the young pullets will take their place. Easy peasy.

Settling in. 150 mixed chicks.

Settling in. 150 mixed chicks.

But, things haven’t been so easy peasy getting this latest batch settled in. First, the original batch of replacement layers that I had ordered back in August were picked up at my post office by a different farmer. It’s a long, sordid story and ended with me waiting for a replacement  batch to arrive at the end of September. The Barred Rocks were on back order with my favorite hatchery and I wasn’t willing to take a different breed. Part of my chicken management involves switching between breeds with every new batch. That’s the easiest way for me to know on sight the age of my hens. An important piece of information to have when you are determining which chickens have another season on the farm and which ones are due for harvesting.

By starting the last batch of Barred Rocks at the end of September, I had completely thrown off my schedule. By the time the chicks were fully feathered out and ready to move to their next location, we were on the verge of experiencing a weather extreme at the farm. Freezing temperatures, cold wind, frozen and subsequently broken water lines etc. Unfortunately their new home was not set up to handle those conditions. Remember, we were running almost two months behind schedule. That’s a lot of time in chick development. So I did the best I could to keep them comfy during that time period. In the end we had 3 surviving pullets out of the original 100. Things were pretty dismal.

I was faced with cutting my losses and having no eggs of our own for the coming season. But that just wasn’t going to work. I’ve been spoiled with my own eggs for the past five years or so and in my opinion, nothing compares to an egg fresh from the “backyard”. And we sell eggs to a loyal customer base that has been suffering withdrawal right along with us. So it was time to jump back in to the chicks again.

Fast forward to the end of January. It pushes my egg start out to mid-June,  but at least we’d have our own eggs. My husband had to make some modifications to our brooder boxes to keep the heat in for the chicks. He stapled plastic and a type of insulation around the outside of the boxes and across the lids. This would work to keep heat from the lamps inside the boxes instead of seeping out. The chicks arrived and I got them all settled in. But I wasn’t happy with the temperature in the boxes, still a bit cool. I added 3 bags of bedding to keep the heat trapped inside. Almost there. Then I lowered the heat lamps off the hooks and just twisted the wire around the top of the frame so that the lamps were closer to the chicks. Perfect. The chicks settled in, spread out and quieted down. A sure sign that things were well in chick-ville. Noisy, bunched up chicks are an indication of too cold temps.

I went out to milk the cows and daydreamed of cracking open my first egg later this summer.

About an hour later I became aware of smoke in the air. Not at all unpleasant, kind of like a campfire. Around here lots of people are burning wood stoves for heat, or just burning “stuff” outside. More daydreaming about summer, camping…then as I headed up towards the house I saw some pretty thick smoke that was too close to my house…maybe I’d better go check on those chicks.

The chick house was on fire. Or at least smoldering heavily. I threw open the lid and inhaled entirely too much toxic smoke. The chicks were going berserk. I dumped out their water jugs to put out the “fire”, unplugging the heat lamps at the same time. Then waited for the smoke to clear. The chicks appeared to be fine. I guess being so low to the ground they weren’t as affected by the smoke as I was reaching down into it.

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Apparently one of the heat lamps that I had “rigged” up to provide a closer source of heat had slipped out of the loop that I made and was nestled on the bedding. The heat from the bulb caused the bedding to ignite. No one has to tell me just how lucky I (and the chicks) am that I caught it when I did. Surely it would have killed every chick and no doubt spread to my house. The brooder boxes were recently moved to within feet of my house, under a window so I could keep an eye on the boxes during the night.

We always hear about barn fires from overturned heaters or even from heat lamps like I was using. If you use a source of heat like this- and all of us who raise livestock do at one time or another- please, please be careful. I never should have hung those lamps the way that I did. No matter that I’ve been doing it like that for many, many years.  My chicks are rehoused, bedding swapped out and heat lamps are appropriately secured.

I’ll tell you what- that first egg when it finally gets here is going to be the  best egg ever. The most expensive, anxiety inducing,stress producing egg I will ever have eaten- but totally worth it.

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Egg Shortage

Eggs. I have such a love hate relationship with eggs. I love having them on hand to use whenever I want, however many I need. Never having to think about running out. The only running involved is running out to the nest boxes when my counter top bowl gets low. Until the hens stop laying and suddenly I’m out. How did that happen? I ask myself. It seems that it was just last week I was complaining about so many darn eggs. I was dreading the daily or twice daily gathering of the eggs.

I keep a flock of over 100 layers. Most of those eggs go to our customers who love having a source of healthy and humanely created eggs. People rave about the thick whites, the dark orange yolks. The freshness of the egg. Honestly, people go on and on about the virtue of our eggs. I could write an “Ode to the Egg” using comments from our customers. For the past 6 years, I haven’t had to buy a single egg from a grocery store or even from a fellow farmer. Until just now.

So many eggs!

So many eggs!

I finally used up the very last egg that I had stockpiled to get me through the seasonal egg shortage. Somehow I didn’t set aside enough eggs this time around. Starting in September, when I supplement daylight for the layers, I begin setting aside an extra carton or two each week.  I don’t wash those eggs. Just tuck them away in a carton and keep in a cool, dark spot. Each week when I go out to add another carton, I take a minute to flip the older cartons upside down. Rotating them in this manner keeps the yolks centered in the shells. It’s not necessary, unless you are making boiled eggs and want a centered yolk. But I do it anyway, one of those traditions that just keeps going until you forget how it started.

So there I was- staring at that empty egg bowl. It was time to face the ugly truth. For the first time since I’d started farming I was out of eggs for good. Earlier, when my egg supply was dwindling and I saw that my layers were molting and it was costing so much more money to feed chickens that weren’t ever going to earn back the cost of their keep I had confidently announced, “That’s it. I’m done. We’re culling these chickens for the stew pot.”  I ordered up a batch of new chicks that would be laying eggs by early Spring and added “Stew Hen Harvest Day” to my calendar. I’m sure I smiled and gave a huge sigh of relief because managing a flock of laying hens in the winter is at the top of my least my favorite farm chores. I was feeling good. Until faced with that empty egg bowl.

It wasn’t supposed to work out quite this way. But those hens stopped laying eggs before I had time to stock up on the extras. I knew that I would have to find a source of eggs. I figured I’d buy some at the store. I’d buy the organic, no soy, no corn, GMO Free, cage free, certified humane, NON vegetarian fed, free ranging…happy healthy version offered at my local store. Only there weren’t any. Not at the local store in my farm’s town. And not at two or three of the other stores I checked out. Sure, there were versions of the egg I was searching to find. But not a single carton that matched all of the descriptions I needed to see on an egg carton in order for me to feel slightly less guilty about feeding them to my family. Things were looking bad.

Finally I decided I just needed to buy the best ones available so I could move on with my life. I had chores to do, and brownies to bake. I was at an impasse and just needed to  break through. There I stood, staring at the egg choices. Reading labels. Ah-ha! I’ll take that one. It was organic, certified humane and raised cage free. I wasn’t going to let myself debate over the truth in those labels. I was just going to buy it. All of them. I was going to buy every last carton of that brand of egg so I could stock my fridge with enough eggs to get me through until my chicks were laying in the Spring.

Except the spot on the shelf was empty. They were gone. Some other savvy shopper had beat me to it. Hmm. There must be more in the back. I asked the employee who was stocking next to me.  “Do you have any more certified humane eggs in the back?” I get a blank look. “You want eggs?” “Yes, the certified humane eggs.” I stare back. This was getting personal. I needed those eggs. “Ok, let me go check”. Please, let there be a pallet of eggs. Of good eggs. Happy, healthy eggs.

I see the employee on the phone. I’m wondering if I look crazed and she’s calling in for help. I move closer so I can listen in..”do we have any inhuman eggs?”  she glances at me. “No- the non-humane, I mean human eggs…” She looks at me again. I’m motioning to her through the little window in the door. Clearly I’m making her uncomfortable. “No- the certified humane raised eggs!” I call out, trying to smile and look like a normal shopper.

“Sorry. No eggs. It’s a national egg shortage.”

What? I feel my smile crumple. I’m defeated. No good eggs? A national egg shortage? How can this be happening. Does no one else understand the beauty of the perfect egg? Sure, there were still lots of eggs on the shelf. But none of them were as near as good as the eggs my hens had been laying all year long until they stopped.

Next year will be different, I vow. I will plan better. I will appreciate all of those runs to the nest boxes. In the meantime I’m ordering up a second batch of laying chicks. And I might even write an “Ode to the Egg Shortage.”

pastured chickens

pastured chickens

A Brief Moment of Sanity

Most days I love being a farmer. I get to work outside, usually by myself or with a faithful dog or two tagging along. I keep my own pace and follow my own schedule, within reason. I understand my cows who like to keep to the same routine, day in and day out. Things go smoothly that way. And life is peaceful.

And then, some days I think it would be better if I weren’t a farmer. Those days when the morning starts off iffy and heads downhill picking up speed before you realize you should have gotten off when you first had the chance.

It started as soon as my car cleared the top of the driveway before the sun was even up. I could see the light was on in the milk shed. It should have been off, because I turn it off each night after haying the cows. That meant one of the cows, probably Violet,  had pushed her way through the stall, snapping the chain and forcing her enormously pregnant body into the stall. When I didn’t show up to give her a treat she used her tongue to flick on the light. Signalling me that I’d better hurry up and feed her. Sometimes she will use her tongue to flick on the switch that turns on the pump. Kind of like Pavlov- treats happen when the pump is on. If I turn on the pump I’ll get treats. Cows are clever that way.

So I parked the car and jogged out to the shed. Sure enough, the chain was snapped and she had left me a huge calling card in the stall. Luckily I keep extra hooks on hand for just such an occasion and I was able to quickly fix the chain. Score one for the farmer.

But wait- what is that snapping sound I’m hearing? Electric wire. Electric wire that is now wrapped around and under the giant metal hay feeding ring. The cows had pushed the feeder to the very far corner and then flipped it partially up, just enough to get it tangled in the electric perimeter fencing, before dropping it back down. Hmm. This one is tricky. I look down at my shoes. I look over to where I need to unplug the wire. A lot of mud between here and there. And a lot of grumpy cows who now can’t eat their hay. I’ll be back.

A few hours later I glance over to my raised beds. The garlic is coming up nicely. I spent hours planting it over the last few weeks. Already there are lots of green spikes poking out of the dark soil.  I look again, is that a calf? Two calves? Are the stinking calves really in my raised beds? How did they get over there…the hot wire is supposed to keep them out.

Jubee ate the Bok Choi

Jubee ate the Bok Choi

Now I’m stomping mad, because the calves just look so darn happy running all over the place. I arm myself with a section of PVC pipe so I can shoo them back across. Only it’s not that easy. When they broke through the hot wire on their way over they got a good shock. It wasn’t enough to keep them on the right side but it was enough to make them hesitant to go through again. So there we were. Two calves with no sense to stay on the paths and out of my beds. And the farmer who had had just about enough cow antics and nowhere near enough coffee.

Around and around we went. Me chasing, them dancing, the dogs barking. Me praying no one would drive by and see me completely losing my cool, jumping up and down, waving my arms and yelling at the two cute little calves. I couldn’t get them out of that area for anything.

That was it. I’d had it. I was long past questioning why I had decided to keep the pair. My husband had told me they were awful. But I thought I was the calf whisperer. They just needed training. They needed more time to get used to me. They needed to get out of my garden.

I finally called my husband needing him to tell me how to load the gun so I could put them down. At some point on my way back to the house to fetch the gun, after I lost my cell phone, I had a brief moment of sanity and realized the last thing I needed in my hand was a gun.

So I took a few deep breaths, punctuated with a few well-chosen words and stopped. I stopped torturing myself thinking about the damage they were causing. It really wasn’t all that bad and I was making it worse by chasing them. I stopped shouting because it was really starting to worry my dog. I just stopped everything. And instead of a gun, I put a steaming cup of hot coffee in my hand and welcomed a brief moment of sanity.

trouble 2012

Trouble, faithful companion.

Poop Happens

Dairy cows are funny creatures. They like their routines. Same time for milking twice a day. Same order to file in to the stalls. Same person milking them. You get the picture.

But every now and then one of the cows gets to feeling a little impish and decides to throw off the routine for their herd mates.

Today it was Bessie. Bessie is a Jersey and the low cow on the totem pole. She is the last one to come in for milking, the first one to get pushed out around the hay feeder. Usually she doesn’t seem to mind. She will wait patiently for everyone else to eat their fill. Bessie hangs back and watches. Once the coast is clear she makes a mad break for it, just in case another cow decides to go back for seconds before Bessie takes her place.

Bessie (1)

Every day, twice a day, Bessie has to wait for Snow White to finish in the milking stall before she can go in. Snow White is a Brown Swiss and an amazon woman in the dairy cow world. She is simply a giant. And she is always the first cow. Always.

So early this morning, when Bessie was feeling a bit puckish and decided to race Snow for first place, Snow did what any self respecting dairy cow would do in the same situation. She backed up and pooped all over Bessie’s side.

Poop, it’s a language the cows use to express their feelings. Waiting too long for a treat? Stamp the foot and poop. Getting nudged too much by an eager herd mate? Lift your tail and poop. Another cow challenging you for first place? Yup. Poop.

poophappens

Poop happens. A lot.

One Little, Two Little, Three Little Piggies…

Little pink piggies

Little pink piggies

“Hey- I found a guy with some pigs I want to take a look at.”

This was the beginning of our pig raising venture. At the time we were still living in a typical suburban neighborhood and waiting to close on our farm. The only farm animals in this neighborhood were the ones I was hiding in my backyard. And if you’ve never tried to hide two goats and more than a handful of chickens then you really can’t imagine just how desperately I needed a farm.

My husband is always the practical one. “Why do you want to look at pigs when we don’t have the farm yet?”

Well, I had to look at these pigs because I’d spent the last week or so researching every aspect of pig raising imaginable. I was ready. I knew what I wanted, what breed, how many I needed. I was already deciding what cuts of pork would be filling our freezer in the next 6 months. And now I’d found the pigs.

We arrived at the pig farm. The farmer took us out to the back where the pigs were being raised on pasture (this was good- I’d read about it) in wooden huts with a “yard” enclosed with electric wiring. This was good too, the pigs were already trained to hot wire. After showing us around for a few minutes, I pointed to a large Duroc sow “I’ll take that one.”  I turned around, pointed to one of the other huts and said, “and 5 of those wiener pigs” and then, before my husband could say a word “And can you get the sow pregnant for me?”

This was late August. I had no idea what I’d just gotten us into. We were still waiting to close on our farm, so no place to house the pigs. The farmer agreed to keep them at his place until we were ready to pick up as long as we paid to feed them for the duration.

None of the books I had read mentioned that I just set myself up for the worst pasture raised pig scenario possible. I would be taking home 5 wiener pigs to raise on pasture at the end of summer and heading into the hard winter. It normally takes 6 months to raise a pig to market weight, if you know what you are doing and you are doing it before the weather turns bad. Along with that, I was bringing home a grumpy sow that would farrow in December. On pasture.

We did end up closing on the farm that weekend. And we immediately moved pigs, goats, and chickens to their new home. It was a crazy time. We had to learn about fencing with electric wiring, building huts, setting up automatic waterers and the list goes on.

Lucy the sow farrowed in December. She gave us 11 piglets. The 5 wiener pigs escaped the electric fencing every chance they got. On more than one night we were catching pigs with headlamps and nets in the pitch dark. Those 5 pigs never did make a suitable market weight. But we were more than happy to have the mobile slaughter guy come out late January to take them off our hands.

Since that first experience with pigs we have learned more than any book could ever cover regarding raising pigs. There are some things that you just have to jump in and do on your own because you really won’t know until you do it yourself.

Farming is like that in many ways. You can talk to all kinds of people, read all kinds of books and blogs, but still- until you do it yourself you can’t truly appreciate what it’s really like. At the same time, there is a certain rhythm in farming. There are good reasons that old time farmers had their pigs farrow in the spring, not the end of the summer. It’s good to try out new ideas, but also to remember how things were done in the past.

Chicken Feet Stock…It’s What’s for Dinner

Fresh Chicken Stock right off the feet

Fresh Chicken Stock right off the feet

I finally did it. By “it” I mean I finally made chicken stock from feet. After five years of hemming and hawing, researching and hesitating and staring at bags of chicken feet in the fridge it was time. The husband was butchering fifty Cornish cross chickens and it was now or never.

If you have always wanted to make home-made stock from chicken feet read on:
First you have to source your chicken feet. For me that meant telling the husband to save the feet. No tossing them out to the livestock dogs. So get yourself some feet. I ended up with twenty-four pairs of feet or 4.5lbs. Rinse them under cool water. Our chickens are raised on pasture so they walk around on dirt, grass and even chicken poop. You might be able to skip this step depending on where you source your feet. Being the farmer I get to work with the real deal.

chicenfeetsink-1

Next fill a pot with water and get it simmering. You’re going to swish the feet in the water a couple at a time. Don’t let it boil, you don’t want to cook the feet.

Now is the fun part. Pull the foot out and either rub or pull the skin down all the way to the toes. It should peel right off like a glove. If it doesn’t peel easily just dip it back in the simmering water and swish it around again. Once it’s peeled you need to decide about the toenails. You can leave them on or pop them off. To pop them off just give a little squeeze. Pop! Kind of like popping bubble wrap…I told you this was fun.

After all of the feet are peeled you’re going to dump them into a stock pot. You do have a stock pot, right? Add enough water to cover the feet. I used five quarts. Add two TB of vinegar for every four quarts of water. I used white vinegar but cider vinegar will work fine too. The vinegar will help pull the nutrients out of the bones. Let it rest for about thirty minutes.

Chop up an onion, a few ribs of celery, a handful of garlic cloves- we eat a lot of garlic so plan accordingly, toss it all into the pot with the chicken feet. Throw in about ten peppercorns. Bring the pot to a boil, then immediately turn down the heat to a simmer. Let it simmer for at least twelve hours. Every now and then stir it around. Towards the end of the twelve hours you will see the feet have pulled apart, releasing lots of fat.

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Remove from the heat and strain off the solids. I worked in batches using a slotted spoon and mesh strainer over a bowl. Once the liquid has been separated you have to decide if you are going to keep the fat or skim it off. I kept the fat. To skim it off, put it in the fridge overnight. In the morning you will be able to skim off the top layer of fat. For storage, you can freeze it or pressure can it. I opted to pressure can because I love to hear the lids ping.

I ended up with four and a half quarts of the most amazingly rich, and dark stock ever. It looked nothing like the pale stock that you buy at the store. And even better- no sodium, no preservatives, no garbage. Just succulent stock from pastured chickens. I like using my stock to boil potatoes or as a base for soups. It’s nice to be able to season my stock for individual recipes.

So there you have it. Chicken feet stock- it’s what’s for dinner.