May 29, 2009

week from hell

This past week has been one of those weeks that has made us question why we're doing this.
For starters, we're broke. This time of year we have to get a half ton of chicken feed every week which costs about $400 and there's no money coming in because the first batch isn't ready to butcher yet. We have a total of 700 birds who need to be fed 2-3 times a day. We are extremely lucky to have some family who really believe in what we're doing and have helped us financially. But that doesn't feel very good. We know we will eventually get there but we want to at least be pulling our own weight.
So last week we got low on chicken feed. Getting feed is not a simple process. First, we have to drive to a local farm to buy roasted soybeans. Then we bring them back to the farm and weigh out what we need for the batch of feed. We then weigh out the 6 different minerals which go into the feed. All of this gets loaded onto the truck and taken to the feed mill where they grind it with their corn and oats. Then we bring it back to the farm and unload it.
Now, 2 things can severely interrupt this process and those would be rain and lack of money. The fact that it rained all last week and the fact that we were low on money forced us to put off getting feed until the last minute. Once Nate finally got feed and brought it back to the farm, we noticed that it looked different. It seemed lighter, fluffier and like it had too many oats. I should mention that our poultry have very specific nutritional requirements and exact calculations of protein percentage are taken into account for every batch depending on which type it's for (layer, meat bird, turkey). So Nate called the feed mill and asked the guy if he remembered exactly what he put into the feed. He thought he may have added 30 extra pounds of oats but didn't think it was a huge deal. This particular batch was for our new little laying hens who are just a month old and who, by the way, we love very much.
So we gave them the feed and 24 hours later, disaster hit. First we noticed that one hen had an anal prolapse so severe we had to make the decision to cull/euthanize her immediately to end her pain. We have never seen anything like that before and we just thought it was a fluke. A few hours later we see that a few of them were being pecked at and had bloody spots where their feathers were pulled out. So we started grabbing them and treating them with a natural ointment. They also seemed frantic and were making lots of noise for some reason. Then we noticed that almost all of them were bloody and some looked really sick. We looked at each other and immediately it clicked... it was the feed. They weren't getting enough protein so they were trying to eat each other's feathers (which are primarily made up of protein). Once chickens get the taste of blood, they start habitually pecking eachother. Plus, we found out that too many oats can be really bad for their digestive systems which is what happened to the poor little hen we had to kill. We quickly grabbed the feeders and pulled them out. Nate weighed all of the feed he had gotten and realized that we had 200 more pounds than we should have, meaning that the feed mill added 200 pounds of something extra which seriously affected the protein percentage. At this point we had run out of broiler feed also so we had given some of this feed to the meat birds. So we ran and pulled those feeders out too. Since we didn't know what the extra ingredient was, we couldn't correct it so we have 700 pounds of feed which we couldn't use. We gave everyone feed from our adult laying hens for the night and Nate was able to go get a new batch the next day which they didn't charge him for, but only after a few hours of trying to get the truck to start. I scrambled a bunch of eggs to give them a protein boost and we put salt in their water to break the pecking habit and all is well with them now.
One person's mistake could have cost us our entire flock. For this reason, we want to buy our own grinder and eventually grow our own grains so we can do it all ourselves..... but that is thousands of dollars away.
While all that was happening, it was down pouring meaning several trips in the rain to put the sides of the chicken shelters down. We had just moved the lambs outside permanently and they haven't quite figured out that they should go under the shelter to get out of the rain. So they're standing there soaking wet looking terribly sad and pathetic. It took all I had to not run out there and scoop them up in a fuzzy towel and bring them inside. They're sheep, after all, and have been living outdoors for thousands of years. Tough love.
We were scheduled to slaughter our first batch of meat chickens on Thursday. There was much to be done to get set up and ready for that but we were dealing with feed and a rain crisis instead. So on Wednesday, we're scrambling around to get everything done in time; set up and clean equipment, set up awning over equipment, set up hoses, sharpen knives, get aprons and gloves organized, clean chill tanks, make ice, check propane for the scalder, fill the scalder, etc. Plus, we have to catch and crate all of the birds the night before to get them off of feed. So it's 10:00 at night and we're out in the dark catching birds, hauling heavy crates onto the truck which of course, wont start again. After a few tries and some cursing, it starts and we make it home by 11 at which time we have to feed ourselves and get some sleep. We spent all day yesterday butchering and were very grateful to have some help but it was a long, long day and we got home at 10pm. We still have another 80+ birds to slaughter on Sunday. And then we have to move the next batch outside to make room for the 3rd batch which arrives next week. By far, the butchering process is the hardest job. It takes so long and is so much work. After they're all slaughtered and processed, they have to be shrink bagged, weighed, labeled and frozen. Oh, and then we have to clean the mobile processing unit, deal with the leftover chicken "stuff", lugging it over to the compost pile. We HAVE to find more help for those days otherwise we wont be able to keep this up. We do this once a month until May-October.
At this point we're wondering if maybe we should rethink things and not have poultry be our main 'thing' since it costs so much to feed them and it's so much work. I would love it if we had enough other money making stuff going on that we could just do a few batches of meat chickens a season instead of 1600.
We got home late last night and were so tired we could hardly stand and we ached so badly from being on our feet all day. Our hands sore and almost numb from gutting 126 chickens. We're starving having eaten nothing but a few random handfuls of snacks and.... it starts to pour. And I mean POUR. I'm standing in our kitchen with tears streaming down my face praying for the rain to stop so we don't have to run out and save birds.
Someone was on our side as the rain soon subsided and everyone was dry and alive this morning.
No money, no feed-then the wrong feed, sick and traumatized birds, truck problems, weather-related stress, rushing to meet deadlines...the list goes on. The stress was palpable to put it mildly and it was all we could do to keep it together and try to support each other.
Today is another day and so far, no crisis. Why can't all of the animals give us a day off and find their own food and keep themselves alive?

May 23, 2009

why we do things the way we do. . .

Some of you might be wondering how things work around here or why we do things the way we do. I thought I should fill you in a bit. Be prepared.... some of this info is not for the faint of heart.
Free-range eggs
Our hens spend their days happily roaming around foraging for bugs and grass in the fresh air and sunshine. We supplement their diet with a custom ground blend of local grains and minerals. No hormones, antibiotics, medications or anything unnatural. At night, they head into their 'Eggmobile' and we close the doors keeping them safe from predators. Because of their grass consumption, the eggs are super yummy, the yolks are bright orange, the whites aren't runny, they're high in Omega-3's and they are very low in cholesterol. In fact these eggs are rich in CLA, an essential fatty acid, which can help lower your cholesterol.
Unfortunately, the conventional method for raising laying hens is in confinement. Sometimes eight hens to a cage, their poop covered eggs drop onto a conveyor belt. Sunshine and fresh air are but a mere dream for these ladies. The conditions are so unhealthy that there are often sick or dead hens in the cages. They HAVE to administer vaccines and antibiotics just to keep them alive. Ironically, the white leghorn, the standard for conventional confinement operations, are the most active and are the best foragers. They de-beak the hens because they often resort to cannibalistic behavior when forced to live in such confined conditions.
Right now, we have 89 hens and most of them lay an egg a day. We have another 105 little hens who will start laying in about 4 months.
The Eggmobile
The Eggmobile and some very happy hens
These are the meat birds. This breed is conventionally raised by the thousands in horrible warehouse conditions never allowed to see daylight. Same conditions warrant the same need for drugs. The goal is to grow a chicken as fast as possible. Lights are kept on 24 hours a day so they eat all the time. Believe it or not, they even put arsenic in their feed to encourage them to eat more. And yes, that arsenic is passed along to the eater, of course.
Poultry are very susceptible to stress and it’s affects can be devastating. We’ve often heard people rave about the difference in the taste and texture of our chicken. We believe it is due to the lack of stress in their lives.
We do all of our own butchering here on the farm. In conventional operations, butchering is done mechanically, often causing the intestines to break in the process contaminating the chicken. These chickens sit in a chill tank with all of that feces. The chickens then go through up to 40 chlorine baths to get them clean before they are injected with dyes and flavorings, bagged and ready for your consumption. This is why we decided that we want to see these birds all the way through to their end. We can’t guarantee our product otherwise.
We choose to raise our meat birds outside on pasture. It’s harder work for us but the result is a healthier bird with no need for any drugs. We also feed them a custom ground mix of local grains and minerals.
This is how the baby chicks arrive. They are shipped Priority mail and the post office calls us in the morning to let us know they’re in and we go pick them up.
We count each one as we unload them. They stay inside the brooder for the first few weeks where they have heat lamps to keep them warm and cozy.
After 3 or 4 weeks, once they’ve grown feathers, they get to move outside into our field shelters. These shelters are bottomless and offer them the best of both worlds. They can forage grass and bugs while staying safe from predators and weather. This breed is not quite as smart and self sufficient as our layers so they need a little extra care. We move the pens by hand twice a day to a fresh patch of grass. Their manure is an excellent fertilizer and the grass grows back unbelievably lush and green.
Field shelters
Field shelters
Our turkeys are raised the same way as the broilers except that they eat so much more grass, we often move them several times a day. We love raising turkeys. They’re lots of fun.
Kristen moving the turkey pen last year.
Kristen moving the turkey pen last year.
Our lambs are raised organically and are 100% grass-fed. Sheep are ruminants and like cows and goats, are meant to eat grass. Feeding grain puts such a strain on their systems that again, health problems arise and drugs are needed. As a result of the extensive use of antibiotics in animals, people are becoming immune to their effects are are now needing new stronger ones. There is, of course, more than one school of thought on this which is why some farmers feed grain. More info to come on grass-fed meats…
Doing things this way only makes sense to us.
Some resource links:
Grass-Fed basics at
Home-grown vs. Agri-industrial chickens

May 19, 2009

out here in the sticks

Farming has totally changed our lives in may ways. One of the biggest changes has been how we view weather. We have learned, (the very, very, very) hard way, that weather can have the power to seriously break us.
Let's take the 2 major offenders for us....rain and wind. I love rain and I love how it makes things turn green, grow and flourish but too much rain can be a bad thing. If it rains hard enough,the movable pens (to be explained in more detail in a future post) will flood requiring us to get straw to lay down inside the pens. The straw is enough to get the chickens up and away from the water. That has happened a few times and of course, always at bad times like when we had plans to go somewhere or when it's late at night. And now we have the lambs who are outside during the day. So, while in my previous life, if I heard it start to rain, I might wonder if my windows were down or maybe if I'd left something outside. These days it's more like *grab all of the laying hen's feeders and put them under the shelter, *Run across the road into the other paddock and put the tarp sides down on the broiler pens and make sure they're spaced well enough so any water runoff from one pen doesn't run into the pen below it, *run and grab the lambs and corral them inside, *make sure windows in brooder are closed so the baby chicks don't get wet.
Knowing that you are responsible for all of those lives is a pretty intense feeling. We would feel terrible if something happened to them and of course, that's money sitting out in that field getting wet.
Ah yes, then there's Wind. I'm still adjusting but at the moment, the wind and I don't have a very good relationship. 92 mph winds picked up, flipped, crashed, and destroyed our 'Eggmobile' (portable hen house). This happened on 2 different occasions. It was devastating because Nate had spent so much time building it and around here, time is valuable. It was a huge setback. In addition to the Eggmobile carnage we had some damage to our field pens and were out in the crazy winds trying to stake down the tarps.
I can't explain the feeling I get when I hear heavy rain or high wind. We have since built a shorter, less flippable Eggmobile and I am beginning to forgive and learn to work with Mother Nature. However, I still hold my breath every time a huge gust comes through here. Having so many living things who are depending on you and living outside where they're vulnerable can be scary. Take, for instance, the other night...
Nate was in town for a friend/art event. At 11:00 pm I was awaken by a pack of barking, howling dogs. I sat straight upright in bed immediately flooded with fear. I couldn't tell how far away they were but they sounded pretty close. I could tell there were at least 4 or 5 of them. They were going crazy. We have heard that there are coyotes around here and Nate thought he heard some a few weeks ago. All of our animals are either inside at night or locked up in pens or in the eggmobile but I was afraid the dogs were harassing them trying to get into their pens or something. I was alone and didn't know what to do. If it was coyotes or wild dogs, what could I do? If they saw me would they come after me?
20 minutes later, all of a sudden, they were all quiet. The next morning, everyone was fine and there was no sign that anything had happened.
I have since learned what that comotion was all about and you will not believe it. I had no idea at the time but I was experiencing my first "Coonhound Night Hunting". Um, yeah. It's an actual sport. A group of guys have a contest to see whose dog can chase the most raccoons up a tree. The dogs are specailly trained for this. They don't kill the raccoon, they just scare the livng crap out of it. Sounds like a humane sport, right? I am slightly disturbed to learn this but at least the coyote theory was put to rest..... for now, anyway.

May 13, 2009

we quite our jobs to start a farm. Here's our story. . .

We're both Pittsburgh natives....well sort of. I'm actually from Northern Virginia but have spent a large part of my life in Pittsburgh. Nate and I were living in England where he worked for a company designing toys for children with special needs. Nate became bored with his job. He enjoyed the concept of his work but was not allowed the freedom he felt he needed to really design well. The weather was awful there. It rained or was gray for what seemed like 90% of the time we were there which didn't help with homesickness and missing friends and family. I was unable to find work there which made things difficult. We did however, make some lovely friends whom we still think of often and miss. Man, it would've been rough there without them.
We had both always been very health conscious and felt that the world's food system was broken. During our time in England we began to learn more about the horrors of factory farming, confinement operations, and genetically modified foods. We decided that we no longer wanted to support that industry so we became vegetarians. After a while it became clear that Nate's body was not a fan of the no-meat diet. Despite being extremely protein-conscious, he lost weight and suffered headaches and fatigue. So we decided to begin adding meat back into our diets but found it very difficult to find natural, humanely raised meat.
Around this time we returned to Pittsburgh for a much needed visit. While we were here my mother, Jeannette, and her partner, Gerry, enthusiastically told us of the local food movement that was starting to happen here in the region. We began discussing the possibility that there was an inevitable economic collapse on the horizon and that we'd all like to be more self sustainable. We were also trying to think of industries that would be the least affected and that would be in need if such a collapse should occur. Gerry had just been to visit Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm in Swoope, VA and he showed us his book "You Can Farm". Gerry suggested that we become farmers. We glanced at the book but honestly didn't think too much of it. None of us knew it then but Gerry had planted a seed.
We flew back to England and neither of us could stop thinking about the idea. We were looking for a life change and wondered if this could be it. We Googled Joel Salatin and saw this video. We were truly inspired. He spoke of an alternative farming method of raising poultry and ruminants naturally, on pasture.... like nature intended. Like our ancestors did because it only makes sense. That is until the giant, money-hungry agricultural industries entered the picture. We immediately ordered all of his books. The first book I read was "Pastured Poultry Profits". I would read all day and when Nate came home from work, I would tell him what I learned. We became really excited at the idea of being able to change the way animals are raised while healing and improving the land. Not only could we grow our own food but we could provide quality, natural food to other people like us who care about what goes into their bodies and the bodies of their loved ones. We kept thinking of Mahatna Gandhi's quote "Be the change you wish to see in the world".
We brainstormed with our family and received tremendous support. My mother and Gerry told us that if we moved back to do this, we would have a place to stay and some financial support to get on our feet. Within a week, Nate walked into work and told them he was quitting and we were moving back to America to start a farm. You can imagine the responses he got but overall, people were supportive.
We moved back in December, 2007 and immediately started researching farming. We attended the annual PA Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) conference in February where we learned more than we could have imagined and met lots of good contacts. Following the conference we posted an ad in several places looking for space on a farm to use. We knew we could not buy a farm so our hope was to find a farmer willing to share a small part of their land.
To our surprise, we got a call from the past president of the board of PASA inviting us to come out to his farm. The farm was incredibly beautiful, they were incredibly kind and we worked out an arrangement to start up our farming operation on their land. We couldn't believe how generous they were and how committed they were to helping new farmers. We were even lucky enough to rent a house just 400 feet down the road from the farm.
And so began our first year of farming. We decided to start with poultry and work our way up. In our first season we raised over 1200 meat chickens, 26 turkeys and 100 egg-laying hens. Our first year was filled with stress, mistakes, overwhelming responsibility, HARD work, weather-related chaos, the loss of our social lives, the learning experience of working with your spouse 24/7, and the general adjustment of "city kids move to the country". However, I must say.....WE LOVED IT!
We absolutely love our jobs now. We work for ourselves, we work outside, we work with animals, and however small it may be, we are trying to make a difference. We raise all of our animals naturally, on grass and in the fresh air and sunshine. We never use any antibiotics, growth hormones, fertilizers or pesticides. We love our animals and treat them with respect. To quote Michael Pollan (author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma"), "Our animals have very happy lives with only one bad day".
So here we are starting our second season. We are in the process of looking for a farm of our own where we can really expand our operation. But for this year we plan to raise 1600 broilers (meat chickens), 50 turkeys, we have another 100 laying hens, and we just got 6 lambs.
You are invited to follow us on our journey...