Happy New Year

It’s been a while.

When did I last post, anyway?  Definitely sometime before Christmas…

So I’ll go back a little, to November when we had some really good blows – up to 100km/hr.  We’re inland from the water by a few km, so it could have been worse.  We never lost power either, for which I was grateful, with a freezer full of chicken and three pigs outside being contained with electric fence.

I was surprised to see the heron on the dairy roof in mid November, in all my years (decades) here, I’ve seen one on the farm maybe once.  This heron preceded the storms by just a few days.  The hawk is a regular unfortunately – I see him almost daily, and maybe I shouldn’t say unfortunately, since he does do his bit with rabbits and mice, but he also hangs around the chickens way too much.  Late November was the first time I was able to have the camera ready to hand when he showed up.

Big Leaf Maples are native to these parts, and they’re beautiful graceful trees in their prime.  Sadly, as they age they tend to rot inside, and eventually shed branches.  We have a few of these on our property, the largest, at least 100 years old, in our front yard.  It has provided sheltelr, shade, climbing and grace to the front of our house for the better part of a century, but sadly had been succumbing to the rot in the last few years, causing us some concern for the roof of our house quite close by.  In the last storm, one of the biggest branches let go, on the side away from the house fortunately, and so it was time for our friend Mike (he who prunes my apple trees and takes payment in chicken) to come and do his thing.  It was over in half a day, and though I don’t have a picture of the result, the tree has had the equivalent to a buzzcut, just the main trunk and a few short stubs of branches sticking up and out – the theory being that it will work something like pollarding, as the big leaf maple is very prone to forming a new tree from suckers/shoots.  I hope so, because right now it looks pretty stark.

One nice thing that came out of all that cutting was the big pile of logs that was left behind.  I didn’t have time, equipment or energy to deal with it, but an acquaintance from church who does his daily early morning walk past our house stopped one morning when I was out there and commented on the wood.  I explained and he offered to come and cut it all into firewood for me. I offered him half the wood in payment and we had a deal.  A few days later, this guy showed up with an axe and a pair of gloves.  One swing for every piece, he just drove that axe through each log as though it was butter.  He’s easily in his late 60’s and wasn’t even puffed when he was done 20 minutes later.   Turns out he’s been cutting wood since he was 8.

Christmas rushed upon us.  Anyone who remembers my frustration with Christmas lights last year will be glad to know that when I turned them on this year I got about 10 seconds of light from them before they quit – well, all but 6 of them.  I know when to give up, and this was the time.  I now have two strings – one 150 m of regular sized lights, one 50 m of small lights, both LED. And they BOTH WORK.   It was a lot of ladder work to replace the 10 old strings with the two new ones, but totally worth it.

The older daughter was house sitting in the nearby village over the holiday, but came over first thing Christmas morning, complete with the dog she was looking after and spent the day with us.  Sula was a delight – we’ve not had a dog around for more than a year, and it didn’t take her anytime at all to show us how much we were no longer dog proofed.  Our poor cat was outraged and didn’t show up again till midnight.  Dinner on Boxing Day was at our place, with a free range turkey from my buddy Bryce, and was followed by a rousing game of Scattergories, a very successful Christmas gift.

A day or so after Christmas, we got the last mileage out of our annual passes to Butchart Gardens by going down to see the Christmas light display.  This is much the same every year, and we try not to miss it.  The gardens with not much growing this time of year are an extravaganza of light and creativity, with all the 12 days of Christmas featuring throughout.

New Year’s Day we went for our annual stroll at nearby Island View Beach, on an absolutely fabulously bright, beautiful first day of 2016, and I of course did not take the camera.  You’ll just have to take my word for it.  I’ve posted pictures of Island View in past years, if you’re super keen to go looking for them.

A family birthday always winds up our Christmas/New Year’s season, and we celebrated with a visit to the Royal BC Museum a favourite haunt, where we thoroughly enjoyed the Nature Photography of the Year exhibit from the Natural History Museum.   Chocolate cake rounded off the day nicely.

Not a lot of farming stuff in that long litany…because there’s not much happening.  The pigs are gone, the hens are being grudging about eggs, there is a lot of mud around, and it’s always dark before I get home from work these days.  Outside work has been sporadic on weekends thanks to the weather and the festivities.  Oh, there was a cougar.  I never saw it, but the older daughter was just coming back to the house from shutting in the hens when her flashlight caught a pair of eyes.  She assumed deer and scanned to double check – not a deer.  A dog maybe? Nope,  definitely a cougar.  It loped off at a leisurely pace and that was the last we saw of it, so hopefully it was just travelling through.

Resolutions?  I don’t usually make any, but goal setting – well – I’m working on it.  Something about balance, I think.  Between family, farm, work.  Do I grow the farming business?  Maintain the status quo?  Drop the pigs or broilers?  Hire someone part time whether for cash, barter or whatever? What is it I want out of farming?  What’s the plan for the farm 5 years down the road, 10 years?  Meanwhile, what about family plans?  Work, university, school, health, recreation, togetherness.  Our home – paint, maintenance, cleaning, decluttering, redecorating.  The garden? Travel?  And so on.

So here you go, the few photos I took in November/December:

Broiler Lessons Learned – Last lesson !

I cannot do this alone.

This probably should have been listed as lesson#1.   I would have had serious issues with animals running out of water this summer were it not for the fact that the younger daughter was at home most of the time and was therefore able to check all the waters around mid afternoon.  That one thing alone turned out to be a weak point in the whole set up.

I actually went into the summer knowing it would be an issue, but just didn’t create a contingency plan to deal with it.  Last year, when I was still working at the local library branch down in the village, it was a 3  minute drive home – plenty of time on my lunch break to nip home, throw jeans on, add water to all the pens, and whip back to work with time to spare to swallow a sandwich.  Now that it’s 15 minutes one way, it’s still possible, technically, but not super practical.  Yet this was the thought in my head at the start – if no one was home, that’s what I would do.   And when I did have to put it in practice a few times, I quickly realized how unrealistic the plan was.  15 minutes each way, plus 20 minutes doing all the waters, plus 5 minutes to find a parking space again when I got back to work – it was a tight race.  If I ran across an issue while I was doing the waters what was I supposed to do?  Ignore it and get back to work on time?  Call work and say I had an issue to deal with?  My supervisor is incredibly supportive of my farming activity and has said more than once that I can do just that, but I don’t want to abuse the privilege.    Planning to handle it on my own was not a good plan.

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Younger daughter now has a job herself that will likely involve way more hours during the summer months.  She’s not an option I can rely on next time.  So what should I do?  What is the real issue?  Do I need a person to be there at midday to do the waters?  Could I set up the waters so that they don’t run out?  My other daughter has suggested having two waters per pen, at least during the day, a practical suggestion that should be simple to implement.  It might mean reducing the number of birds per pen a bit because of the space, but I believe it would be worth it.

It’s not just the water.  During brooding, the chicks need checking several times daily.  When it’s butchering day, catching the birds goes a lot faster with two people, and I’m not strong enough to lift a poultry crate with 8 birds by myself, so someone has to be up at 4 in the morning to help me catch and load 20 crates worth of birds and unload them a couple of hours later at the processor. On customer pick up day, with fresh chicken and the need to keep it chilled, there is only about a 2 hour window between pick up at the processor and having the chicken in my customers cooler or fridge.  Some customers come direct to the farm to pick up, and about half meet me in town to pick up, which means one person stays at the farm and one person goes into town.   Astute readers know that I don’t own a truck, so transporting the birds to the processor has meant either renting or borrowing one – borrowing is cheaper (1 chicken or a small ham) but means that I’m depending on someone for yet another aspect of this enterprise.  I’d love to get a truck, but the reasons why I haven’t done that yet are numerous, so I’ll spare you.

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Even more important than the physical requirement for an extra set of hands and muscles, however, is the benefit of companionship.  Someone to talk over the issues, brainstorm for solutions, commiserate over the bad stuff that sometimes happens.  Someone to crack terrible chicken jokes with, who will enter into plans for improvement and sees things from a different angle, but can still see mine as well.  This of course applies not just to broilers, but to life – although maybe not the part about chicken jokes.

So I’m not completely sure about long term prospects for the broiler enterprise.  My plans to expand this enterprise are all well and good, but without a second person available at least at certain points, it will not work.  Whether I tap into my local community and neighbours for that, or rely on family, or hire someone, that second person is essential.  Part of this depends on scale – like any small business.  I could affort to hire someone for an hour/day if I was producing enough to pay for them.  To produce that much I need to hire someone.   Part of the reason for working my way through my lessons learned in such detail (sorry, but thanks for sticking with me!), is to determine whether I’ve mastered enough of the basics to be able to take a big enough step up in scale to hire someone to help.  The answer at this point is – I think so.  Do I want to do that?  Still thinking about it.  What would you do?

p.s. Sorry for all the recycled pictures from previous posts for this series – I simply didn’t take very many pictures this summer, and didn’t want to post such long screels without decorating them in some way :)

Broiler Lessons Learned-#4

Bedding in the brooder.

Again, I think this is one of those lessons I’ve been trying to master for more than a few years, and this year was the first time I feel like it went as it should.  I try to practice deep bedding, but whether it’s my brooder set up, or the wood shavings I use (about all that’s available here, at least through the feed stores), or my management techniques, I am usually in a desperate and losing battle to keep the bedding in the brooder from feeling soggy.  These little birds excrete a LOT of moisture and it takes a lot of wood shavings to absorb it all.  Others around the world are using different beddings, and some sound like they work much better.  I’d really like to source a finer grade of wood shavings, as I believe it might absorb better, but I’m not sure how to go about that, so it may not happen soon.  Ideas, anyone?

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In the past I’ve tried removing half and replacing (a lot of work and it panicked the birds) it with new shavings.  I’ve tried adding shavings daily and stirring them in.  I’ve tried adding shavings twice a day.  This year, I was adding bedding in the mornings, quite a bit of it each time, over the whole floor space –  a few centimetres deep.  Didn’t stir it, just let it sit on top.  I also made sure the place was always ventilated (even at night), thinking that perhaps the moisture was building up overnight because the shed is insulated.  And I think that may have done the trick, because for the first time since I’ve been using that building, the bedding got damp, but not soggy, I didn’t get any respiratory issues with the birds (a problem in the past),  Having that window open 24/7 (it’s away from the brooder, so no draft, and it has mesh, no rats) did rely on the hot dry weather of August, so this is another point in favour of starting chicks end of July.

Another factor of course was that this was the shortest time I’ve ever kept the broilers in the brooder – 12 days for most of them (I kept a few inside for a couple more days), and I know in the past the weather has compelled me to keep them inside the brooder for a week or so longer.  They start getting big after week two, and their size has a big impact on my ability to keep up with the bedding.

Key take aways on brooding.  Be religious about adding a good thick layer of fresh bedding at least daily.  Try and source a more absorbent non-dusty bedding material.  Ventilation, ventilation, ventilation.  Get the birds outside as soon as possible.

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As a sort of postcript to all this, I let a broody hen from the layers set a batch of eggs this summer – 9 of the 12 hatched, and she raised all 9 successfully.  Her own body temperature was all the heat they got, and even when the ground got damp from rain, the chicks always thrived – her own body heat and the thick pad of hay they had for a nest seem to have sufficed.  She had them venturing out of the brooder within a week, and by the end of week three, they were going through tall grass, and under brambles, scrambling over and under and around to keep up with her.  Watching those chicks while I was providing all my careful TLC to the broilers across the yard in their brooder, I am aware as never before of just how fragile we have bred them to be.

 

Broilers Lesson Learned #3

Consider the local weather/climate conditions in relation to the stages of growth of the broiler chickens.

This is really a past lesson learned that I’m quite pleased to say I conquered this year, as I think it went better than it has done in some time.  Maybe I had a little luck, but let’s go with learned lessons.

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old picture, but it looks much the same every year. This is from 2012.

I have finally learned to work with the seasonal temperatures instead of against them.  Instead of trying to brood chicks in the early spring, when I have to keep the heat lamps going for a couple of weeks, and delay putting birds out on pasture because it’s just too darned wet, I now brood them when it’s super hot out – I can turn the heat lamps off for chunks of time in the middle of the day and help the birds acclimate comfortably to living without that red glow.  When I do that, the ground is automatically drier, the hay has been taken off weeks before so that there is new grass growth, and the birds can go out on pasture when we’re still not getting much rain.  They are going out on pasture younger, so are quite happy in the heat still, and by the time they’re a few weeks older and liable to suffer from heat stress, we’re getting cooler nights, and they day temperature comes down a notch or two.

Believe me, this took a lot of hard lessons before I got it figured out.  We lost more than 50 birds one May due to a surprise cold snap – we had a sub 0 C night, and I had eased up on the temperature in the brooder as I started acclimating the birds in readiness for going to pasture later the next week.  Half the batch got chilled, developed pneumonia and died – a needless waste of life, and a costly way to learn.  Another time, we had such a wet spring, the hay couldn’t be cut – I had birds in the brooder that didn’t make it onto pasture until 8 days before processing – and my brooder was most definitely not big enough to hold them properly when they were mature sizes.  I’ve had years where brooding went fine, getting out on pasture went fine, but then as the birds got close to butchering weight, they started to keel over from heart attacks due to heat stress.

Recognizing that only raising birds at the end of the summer season limits production, there is possibly more lesson learning to be done here though.  There is also the factor that twice now, I’ve had difficulties with processing so late in the season, because the processor is switching over to turkeys – Canadian Thanksgiving is the second weekend in October, and they do turkeys for about 10 days before that, plus time to recalibrate the equipment.  I’m debating doing a small batch in June/July, and then doing my main batch as usual.  Or maybe doing 2 batches Aug/Sep, but staggered so that they don’t overlap on the field (I only have two shelters and I don’t want to be moving 4 at once every morning anyway).  That would require a degree of planning that I’m clearly not currently practicing, so we’ll see how we go next year on that front.

Broilers-Lessons Learned #2

Follow The Recipe

Anyone who follows this blog probably has an inkling of my die-hard devotion to Joel Salatin’s farming methods, as demonstrated on Polyface Farms.  I have almost all of his books, well thumbed, and read repeatedly.  I’ve been to two workshops when he has been up in my corner of Canada.   I didn’t realize it in the beginning, but I’ve come to understand that farming is a lot like cooking.

When you are trying some new kind of technique or a food you’ve never cooked before, you probably should follow instructions or a recipe pretty closely.  Once you understand how the ingredients work together, or why the order of things is the way it is in the recipe, then you can start tweaking or adapting for your own tastes, ingredients, etc.  Farming can be like that.  I knew nothing about broilers when I began raising them.  We had been keeping a laying flock for a couple of years, but the guy who used to cut our hay way back then warned us that broilers were a different thing.  I did some reading, bought Salatin’s Pastured Poultry Profits, and we launched.  Fortunately, we took Salatin’s advice and kept to low numbers – 25 that first year, and 40 the next.  We had a ton of learning to get through in those early years.

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Joel Salatin & Michael Ableman Foxglove Farm 2012

We made the mistake back then of not following the recipe very closely.  We skipped over the parts in the book about building the pasture pens – like almost everyone out there raising broilers, I initially believed the pens would be too heavy and cumbersome, they looked like they wouldn’t hold a lot of birds, and we didn’t think we had the skills to build one anyway.  Instead, we put together a pasture pen out of pallets and a lot of chicken wire.  It was 8 x 10 ft, smaller than a Salatin pen, and 4 ft high, thanks to the pallet dimensions.  We had to keep a stool near the pen so we could climb in and out to do the feed and water.  It weighed a lot more than the roughly 200 lbs that a Salatin pen weighs.  It took four people to move it, so needless to say, it didn’t move daily like the method calls for.  Obviously, we didn’t think the method was too wonderful, given the poopiness of the bird’s living conditions.  We nearly packed it in, but there was no denying the difference in the grass where the pen had been – the fertility the birds were adding to the soil of that old hay field was almost magical.

With a lot of thumb bruising and sailor language, we eventually built a Salatin pen, following the very basic guidelines in Pastured Poultry Profits and the hand drawn schematic provided on a blog called A Daring Adventure.  We did pretty well, and it was amazing how spacious it looked compared to our 8 x 1o white elephant.  We realized almost immediately that we had improved on our previous pen, but still had a distance to go, as we had skipped a few important details in the design.

It took us another four years to finish getting the pens right. We got Hay Guy to build the dolly right after the first season when we tried to make do with an awful little moving dolly.  We put a loop handle on the closed end of the pen that winter too.  And built a new pen the next summer, so we had two.  The third summer, I finally got around to putting loop handles on the open ends of both pens, and the result was a pretty efficient pasturing system this past (fourth) summer.

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September 2013

There is a standing joke in my family about a dish called “Oregano Chicken”.  The joke is because the first time I made the recipe (and this is a true story), I didn’t have chicken on hand, so I used fish.  I also didn’t have the white wine it called for, so I used red.  Wine is wine, I figured.  The fish looked a little purple, but I figured the taste would still be good.  I also didn’t have oregano.  I substituted sage.  You won’t be surprised to learn that the meal was not a success, and it was years before I went back to that cookbook and gave it another go – with chicken.  I cannot blame the chef who created the recipe for the terrible meal – I was the one who made all the substitutions. To this day, if I have gone off the page with a recipe, I will warn the family  “this is Oregano Chicken” and they know what not to expect.  At the same time, I’m a far more experienced cook nowadays, and I have a much better idea  of how ingredients interact in different dishes, allowing me to occasionally create new, tasty versions of a basic recipe.   I see a lot of evidence in other blogs of people who have given broilers a try, and who then blame the farmer who developed the model they were “following”, when in fact, they followed the model about as well as I followed that recipe.  Frankly, it’s not the fault of the farmer who developed an efficient production model if the people who copy him don’t use the same ingredients.

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Now, don’t get me wrong – there are other cooks out there, with different recipes for the same cake.  There are easily a dozen versions of pasture pens for broilers out there on the web.  Some of them look better than others to me.   Fundamentally I’m saying : find a cook whose style appeals to you, and follow their recipe as close to the letter as you can.  Adaptations can come when you have more experience.  Trust me, I’ve been there.