Catching up

We’re in that place in the seasons where we’re feeling like it’s a bit of a race to keep up with everything. Since I posted about the farm just over a month ago, we’ve covered a lot of ground, and can’t really say the end ribbon is in sight yet.

First off, my computer succumbed to a virus, so no pictures for a while till I get it back from the fix it guys. In the meantime, I’m limited to the computers at work.

We got 150 broiler chicks at the end of July, and now have portable, modular wooden sides for the brooder set up in that house – a huge improvement over the cardboard I’d been using for the last 3 years. 150 chicks is double what we raised last year and involved a learning curve in brooding yet again. We specifically chose to raise two batches at once (I consider 70 to be a batch, as that is what fits in the field pens), thinking that with the warm steady weather we typically get in August, brooding would be easy, and their first week on the field would occur before the rain usually starts around the end of the month.

Well, we guessed pretty well with the weather, and certainly keeping them warm wasn’t an issue. However, double the number of chicks in the same amount of brooder space required a LOT more carbon material (wood chips in my case), and it was a constant battle to keep this in sufficient ratio to keep them dry and things smelling OK. Also, we barely had enough chick feeders, and by the second week found ourselves having to replenish these every couple of hours. The whole family was trained to go check chicks every time they came or went anywhere. In that first two weeks, we had planned to build the second field shelter that we had bought all the wood and sheet metal for, but off farm work and family stuff got in the way, and by the middle of the third week, we still just had a pile of lumber and a stack of sheet metal. So to relieve the pressure in the brooder, we put half the flock out in the one shelter we already had, leaving about 75 in the brooder, which definitely helped on the number of visits we needed to make through the day, but meant that we were now tending chicks in two places on the farm, as well as doing other chores, as well as trying to tackle the new field shelter.

We got the second field shelter finished last week, and the rest of the birds have been out on the field for about 5 days. There are still 4 in the brooder – a runt that is about 1/4 the size of the rest of the flock, one that I injured moving a pen, and 2 other small birds that I originally kept back to keep the runt company. They’re all growing quite well without the pressure from the rest of the flock, and will probably join the field birds when the rain stops this weekend.

Building the field shelter was something else – you’d think that living in the Pacific Northwest, where we are forests as far as the eye can see, that getting quality lumber relatively inexpensively would be a no brainer. Not so. My options were to get good quality, very expensive wood that was meant for indoor, finishing work, or to go out in the yard and get what the trade apparently calls SPF – for Spruce/Pine/Fir – except that it’s not pine, and not fir. Don’t ask me why they don’t just call it spruce. Whatever it is, it’s crap wood. Warped, twisted, full of knots, and splits when you gouge it with a fingernail (well, almost). We asked for exterior grade fir. Can’t be had – it’s all exported. Two days of working after work got the shelter built, but the truth is, it’s unlikely to last as long as the one we built three years ago – the wood is just so bad. We paint our shelters, by the way – we get so much wet weather here, that paint is a way of holding them together a bit longer.

One of the reasons for doing 150 at once was to economize on the processing day. Running up-island with a rented vehicle costs about $150 round trip (includes the rental and the gas). Last year we made the trip twice, different months, with 75 birds or so each time. It made sense to put them all in one load if we could, and this had the added bonus of giving us the volume price break at the processor as well – instead of $4.10/bird, we will only be paying $3.85/bird. We have also had to invest in more poultry crates for this to work, which were not cheap (about $60/each), but they should last us decades, and we considered them an investment. The birds go to the processor September 17th, and then the chore roster will seem pretty empty.

Lessons learned in the brooder were many. If I’m going to brood that many again, I need to have a much deeper layer of carbon down before the chicks arrived (my initial layer was only about 2 inches)…they were producing so much moisture the existing layer couldn’t absorb it and it was probably pooling at the impermeable (lino flooring) layer. I also need a source of much smaller shavings than what my feed store can provide – the big shavings just don’t do the job. I now have enough chick feeders, unlike when we started. The plywood walls worked well. Brooding in early August worked well. Double the number of chicks means double the quantity of feed (I was frequently caught short, and rushing into the feed store 2 minutes before they closed to grab another 4 bags…). I would say that 150 is my maximum brooding capacity for the configuration we have right now.

It might seem from this that broilers are the only thing happening here, but in fact the pigs are growing steadily, and providing challenges themselves. While we were cutting the metal roofing for the field shelter, the high pitched noise of the saw drove the pigs berserk, and they rampaged around their paddock, taking out a whole chunk of electric fence in the process. Fortunately, this was not their first fence fiasco, and there is enough permanent fence up to keep them contained, so we didn’t have to chase them down. Unlike the first time they got out a few weeks ago, when we got back from dinner out, to see the pigs greeting us on the driveway (about 30 feet from their paddock). This was my own fault, as it turned out they’d performed a trick I’d watched them do more than once – simply pulled out a few of the portable fence posts that hold the electric wire (they grab the foot thing at the bottom of the post with their mouth and wiggle it back and forth till the post is loose enough to pull out), and stepped out. Four hours later, at midnight, we stood back and admired the new permanent fence (well semi-permanent – 7 ft metal T posts hammered in 2 ft with hog wire) that cost us nothing much worse than a lot of time and a mashed finger (not mine). In daylight the next morning, it was clear the line we’d chosen wasn’t exactly straight, but it does keep pigs in, and it survived the rampage last week.

The 4-H lady we bought the piglets from had told us to just borrow the scales from the fairgrounds (across the road from us) when we wanted to weigh them, but this requires a truck, which we don’t have, so I did the string measurement method a month ago, and learned that the pigs at that point (Aug 3) were about 155 lbs each, give or take. They are getting processed in early October, so they’re about on track. The string method of weighing sounds like something out of Lilliput, but according to Walter Jefferies of Sugar Mountain Farm,  my “go to” guy for all things pig, it’s pretty accurate.

The pigs enjoyed the dropped plums a month ago, and though I fretted about the pits (which aren’t good for them), they seemed to mostly spit them out, so I relaxed.  Now we’re into dropped pears and apples, and there is a lot of hopeful pacing by the fence when I go by with a 5 gallon bucket (in case it has good things in it).  We’re having a really bad year for wasps, so this ability between the pigs and the chickens to keep getting rid of all the drops is really helpful.

We had family from Ontario visit the second week of August, which was fun and made a nice change of pace, since with so many critters on the farm, getting away for camping or the beach really hasn’t been possible. We got to do a couple of touristy things, eat out, and chat up a storm, about things not related to pigs or chickens. Just before they came, younger daughter and I did a volunteer stint up the fairgrounds weeding and sprucing up the beds in front of the main buildings, along with a cadre of other volunteers – a mix of farmers, gardeners and retirees, we enjoyed a bunwich supper afterwards which was full of interesting local gossip.

The laying birds (about 55 or so) have been a ruddy pain in the neck.  Before the broilers came, I was working on mending some of their fences, but I had to drop that task when the chicks in the brooder took over my life.   The reason I was mending fence is because the layers live in a permanent house with four large runs through which I rotate them, with access to a fifth from three of them (consider it my stockpile paddock).  This is not an ideal set up, but I’m a bit stuck with it in the short term, not least because it has power and water hooked up, making me reluctant to give it up (no other barn or outbuilding has this).  Our long term plan is to transition this flock to two eggmobile type structures, only small, so that I can move them myself – with electronet around them, so that I can pasture these birds out on the hayfields.  This would be better for the birds, easier on my fencing abilities, and improve the fields – BUT – when we are going to get the construction on those shelters done, I have no idea, and we will also continue to need somewhere for them to live in the winter (the fields are far too wet Dec-early Apr).  Hence the permanent chicken house continuing.  Anyway, to get back to the topic, the fences between the runs are full of holes, and the chickens have learned that if they push hard enough they can create a hole almost at will.   So instead of resting three runs and using a fourth, the hens are basically free ranging over all 4, as well as the lawn, the garden and occasionally my neighbour’s garden.  A lot of time is wasted chasing them back from places they shouldn’t be, and a lot of eggs are lost to nests deep in blackberry thickets.   Moreover, when things got busy with broilers, I got behind on chicken house maintenance and the nest boxes ran low on hay.  Eggs broke, which led to egg eating, which is bad.  Because now the birds have developed a taste for the eggs, and despite getting back to better nest box maintenance, the damage is done, and broken eggs are a constant find.  This has led to collecting eggs 3 or 4 times daily, using up more time no one really has. I would do this flock in in 2 seconds if I could realistically get a new flock up and laying before Christmas, but I refuse to buy point of lays around here as they come from the commercial side of things, always debeaked, always ISA Browns, often in poor condition, and I’ve missed the hatchery deadline for layer chicks. So, we’re just going to have to make the best of things, and make do with this flock for now.

One of the escapee hens turned out to be broody, as we discovered this week, when she appeared out of a blackberry bush with 2 wee chicks.  The odds of this happening were incredibly low – first off, the rooster is my lame “Rusty” – who, let’s face it, is no longer quite as assertive as he used to be, and is also the lone rooster with 55 hens.  Also, these hens are hybrids, bred for laying (Red Sussex), so though we’ve had a few go broody, I wouldn’t have expected a lot of dedication to seeing the job through.  It’s rained every day since those two chicks hatched, and she was down to 1 within 24 hours.  Since then, I’ve managed to pen her and her chick, mainly to keep them safe from the many predators around just now (the cat, eagles, ravens), and also dry.  I don’t quite know what I’m going to do with one lone chick, which given the sort of odds with egg hatching, is most likely a rooster – in the long term, he’ll either replace Rusty or get eaten, but meantime housing him once the hen is done being a mama is a question mark. One of the kids suggested we get serious about letting all the broodies set and see what we can get in replacement birds that way, but assuming this worked, we’d be dealing with chicks till Christmas – and I think I’d lose my sanity.

The World Youth Climbing Championships took place the 15th-19th August, and both eldest daughter and I were volunteers, she as a judge for the lead/difficulty climbing, myself in registration and as a backup timer for speed.  It was an amazing experience to be part of something international like this – 35 countries participating – almost 500 athletes.  It was the first time this event has been held in North America, so there were large Canadian and American teams (47 from the US!), as well as the usual strong representation from Japan, Russia and France, where sport climbing is better established.  For me, registration really brought home what it entails for a family to support an international caliber athlete – I registered 2 youth who were each the sole representatives of their countries (Slovakia and Serbia).  Each had a parent as their coach, and were familiar with the European competition circuit but had not travelled off their continent before.  With none of the sponsorship or government subsidy that youth from larger countries got, these families paid for the competition, spent months getting visas from Canadian embassies beset with rotating strikes and work to rule situations, and paid for flights and hotels.  Just so their child could have a 4 day opportunity to compete at this event.  Neither of the two athletes I’m referring to here had podium finishes, but the youth from Slovakia managed to get into the semi-finals for lead climbing, and I felt almost as proud as his own parents must have felt.   There’s a lot of footage and photographs on the web for the event, but here’s a highlight clip:

And that’s the kind of month August was. With school for the younger daughter beginning in less than a week, and the midway being set up across the road at the Fairgrounds as we speak, summer is starting to feel over. I have buckets of pears to can, buckets of blackberries to make into jelly, and in the background, as one of the committee fondly dubbed “The Feasties”, I am starting to gear up for the community harvest feast taking place in less than a month. When we sit down to enjoy all that turkey and fixings, I will know we’re heading into fall.

The Good Old Days

Jerry AppsAuthor, retired professor of agriculture, former farm kid.

I kept trying to write a post that explained how much I’ve appreciated his writing, his insights into his past, not just his own life, but how it was typical of how North American agriculture was shaped over the last century.  After a few unsuccessful drafts, I realized:  Jerry speaks pretty well for himself.

Go find one of his books at the library or online, check out his PBS series, buy one of the DVDs if you feel so inclined, and let his gentle way with words seep into your mind and heart.  It’s uplifting and realistic at the same time.  Enjoy.