New Life

It’s been a while.

Our busy season has begun.  Pigs came 2 weeks ago, broiler chicks came today, layer chicks come next month.

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Youngest daughter, back from her building project in Nepal (the picture was taken during the Holi festival in Bandipur), is graduating from high school at the end of this month, and all those years of school activities, volunteering, meetings, etc will be done.  Her?  Yes, she’s pretty pumped about being finished with school, despite being academically inclined.  New involvements will no doubt arise, but I’m not going to borrow trouble just yet.  And yes, we have the dress (gorgeous), the shoes, the hair appointment, the tickets for the ceremony, the dinner/dance and the dry aftergrad…if we’ve forgotten something, don’t burst my bubble now, I don’t have time.

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Eldest daughter turned 21 in April, and we somehow got a family garden tea into her crazy schedule to celebrate.  Halfway through her teaching degree, she has a job this summer preparing and leading 6 summer camps at our church with a small team of other interns.  Her favourite appears to be the Hero Camp in August, complete with jungle climbing, lazer mazes, a visit from superheroes and more.  I’m frankly envious.  In the middle of all that, she is heading down to the Dominican Republic as part of a team going to work on a construction project in a small village.  In July, in tropical heat.  Not envious of that.

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The pigs were born April 10th, so they are exactly 2 months old today.  In the pictures they may look big to you, but they’re still below my knees – and probably weigh around 50 lb or 20 kg each. While officially they are named B, L, and T, they have become collectively known as the Trio of Trouble.  They go everywhere together and are curious beyond caution.

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The broiler chicks, 156 of them, arrived by Canada Post this morning, having left Edmonton, AB two days ago after they hatched.  The local sorting station called me around 0730 and they were under the heat lamps by 820, thirsty and hungry and ready to explore their new world.

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I went out to do a couple of errands after the chicks were settled and returned two hours later to discover the heat lamps had thrown the breaker and they were without heat :(.  There is a freezer that’s operating in there right now, which I’d forgotten about, and can’t unplug immediately, so the chicks are down to 2 heat lamps and my afternoon project will be transferring the contents of the freezer to one of our other freezers so I can unplug the one in the brooder building.

And that’s what’s up around here.  No veg garden this year, something had to give and I decided that would the thing.  Hay Guy came and chisel plowed it for me a while back, but I’ve since decided not to get it tilled – I am already stretched to capacity and don’t need the guilt of that garden going to thistles again this year.  I’m surrounded by some fabulous veggie farmers here, and can buy more, better veg and fruit from any of them.  Totally not letting the no garden thing bug me – not at all.

 

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.

Broilers-Lessons Learned #1

This is the first in a series of posts that reflect my post season thoughts on my tiny broiler operation.  I’ve been raising broilers every summer for about a decade, and while some things go quite smoothly for me now, I feel like I’m still on the learning curve.  For the last five years, I’ve been working intentionally towards setting myself up to run broilers more efficiently, and therefore more profitably, with a view to this becoming a larger enterprise for me.  I’ve included pictures of my 2015 broiler season, in which I raised 145 broilers, put them out on the field at 12 days old, and processed 139 when they were 6 1/2 weeks old.  We kept 25 for ourselves, and sold out of the rest, which is typical.  One issue I don’t have is selling these delicious, pasture raised birds.  The pictures start with the day the chicks arrived, and finish with a picture of the pens a month after the birds were in the freezer, if you look carefully, you can see the darker green patches of grass where the pens moved each day on the field.

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Currently I raise about 140 broilers at a time.  This is mainly due to the size of my brooder set up, which has been a work in progress for a couple of years, and which at the moment, I’m  fairly happy with.  I also have two Salatin style pasture pens, the dolly which makes them work so well, a trailer for the lawn tractor which allows me to haul several bags of feed down the field at a time, and hundreds of feet of hoses that allow me to run water down the field from the main tap in the back yard.   Over the years, we’ve acquired 20 industry standard poultry crates, which has made transporting birds to the processor MUCH easier, and better for the birds.  The plan has always been to raise multiple batches of birds as the way to grow this enterprise, but so far, I’ve only been doing one batch a year, due mainly to some of the lessons learned which I’m going to cover in the next couple of weeks.

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A lot of things have improved and are going quite well with the broilers.  But every year, something happens to make the season feel difficult.  Sometimes, it’s just a once off event, perhaps due to weather or predators or a family crisis.  Some years, like the season I just finished, the reasons the broiler enterprise ran less smoothly than it should were more about me than any external factors.  What follows is probably the number one issue I have with any and all of my farming endeavours.  If this one was conquered, things like planning and processing would happen a lot better.  As it is, they’re coming up in later posts.

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Lesson Learned Number ONE.  Pick up the phone and make the call.

True story.  I hate making phone calls, except maybe to my immediate family.  I do it as part of working at the library, but that feels different, like it’s not really me making the call, but the person I’m acting as.  I have no idea why I’m like this. It’s not about chattiness.  You can tell from the blog that I’m a talker.  Anyone at the library will tell you I talk plenty.  I just don’t do it on the phone.

How does this relate to the broiler chickens?  I have to order the chicks by phone.  I have to phone potential or past customers, I have to phone the processor to arrange a processing date. I would rather muck out a chicken house after a winter of deep bedding.  Or butcher roosters.  Or do laundry.  OK, maybe doing the taxes is worse, but not much else.   Does anyone else procrastinate on things they don’t like doing?  Here’s the lesson about phone calls – if you procrastinate too long, you can really mess up your schedule, your family’s schedule and perhaps end up not getting any broiler chickens.

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That almost happened to me last year, when I found out the hatchery has a last hatch date (which made sense when I thought about it), which I only just managed to get some birds from, and not as many as I wanted, so I was slightly better about phoning on time this year, but not by much.  And phoning the processor?  Wow.  It’s possible he doesn’t like phone calls either, because it took 4 messages from me and ultimately a Facebook message (which he didn’t reply to, but did trigger him calling me back finally).  (As an aside, it’s fascinating to me how much of the farm world is still very much phone and paper oriented, vs social media/electronic.  Of the 4 or 5 processors (for pigs and chickens) I’ve dealt with in the last few years, ALL have phone contact only – most have no website, and only one has a Facebook page.)  Back to this year – then I had the issue of a processing date a whole week earlier than I wanted – not a good thing when a week makes as much difference in growth as it does for broilers.  In the end, it pulled together, but it was unnecessarily stressful, and partly due to the fact that I put off ordering chicks till it was quite late in the season.

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I have options here.  I can continue squeaking by with this last minute scramble of phoning to get broiler chicks, to book the processor, and to line up customers, but it’s super inefficient, and keeps my stress level elevated longer than necessary.  I have enough other stuff to stress about, I don’t need more.  Increasing the number of broilers I raise and sell would be relatively easy in some respects – a lot of the infrastructure is in place, and requires no additional effort.  In fact, ordering birds for more batches can happen with just one phone call.  Ditto for the processor; I can book processing for multiple batches in advance, which means more birds does not mean more calls.

So, what’s stopping me?  I am done with phone call phobia, and I’m moving on to phone call efficiency.  Next year, dear readers, you have my full permission to be on my case by June if I’ve made no mention of ordering chicks before that.  You can call me on that.

Crescendo e decrescendo

I knew it was coming, the busy part of my farming season. I remembered the rhythm of it from last year, and knew what to expect, but it still hit hard, I think because of the heat we had this summer.

We started quietly enough, just the layers we have had for more than a year. In May, the two piglets arrived, and chores increased slightly. Things were still pretty easy though – the piglets were small and easily contained for a month, eating enthusiastically, but nothing like what they would consume in just a few months. In early July, the 75  new layer chicks arrived and we were tending the brooder as well as the pigs and layers. We butchered a few layers over the course of a couple of weeks, in preparation for giving the hen house and runs a rest before the new flock was to occupy it in the fall (that would be now) fully intending to get the rest of them a couple of weeks later, which never happened. By now, the pigs had been out on pasture for a bit, and daily fence checks were required. They were eating a lot more, growing fast.

At the end of July, just as the really hot part of the summer hit us, 150 broiler chicks arrived and we were hopping. We had 225 chicks in the brooder, in different pens, and it was a nightmare trying to keep the temperature right in there, keep on top of bedding, etc. Chores were now four or five times a day. We left for our anniversary jaunt to Pt Townsend for a couple of days, and the girls were exhausted managing everything on their own in the heat. Once we were back, the broilers went out on pasture and I thought things would settle down, but the heat meant the birds were drinking far more than they usually do out there, necessitating 3 visits daily to keep the 5 gallon water jugs topped up.

The fortissimo moment…One of the pigs had an allergic reaction in early September, causing a lot of anxiety and a vet visit, though by the time the vet saw her, the pig was her normal happy, assertive self. “Something she ate”, the vet suggested. Probably. The broilers went to the processor in late September, and the pullets immediately left the brooder (yes, they were still in there – and not happy about it) and took over the field pens. Things got calmer, even though I was still moving pens daily. The pullets handle the heat better, and in addition, the nights were cooler. The pigs got loaded up last Saturday night, and left Sunday morning for the abattoir – I was too sick to go, and felt very forlorn as hubby and Bryce departed up the driveway, one of the pigs gazing at me in puzzlement through the lattice on the back of the trailer. To suit my mood, the rain began that day and continued for about 4 days.

And suddenly, Autumn has arrived. A new season. I feel hope and optimism again, after months of feeling like I was just barely holding things together, rushing from water jug to bucket to hose, keeping gardens and animals hydrated. I’ve cooked two good meals in the past week after a season where I barely cooked a single meal – using the kitchen mainly to preserve fruit or throw my stuff down as I grabbed a cup of coffee. The pace is so different. My focus is on cleaning up and putting away, trying to think how I will want things in the spring. There’s paperwork sitting waiting for another rainy spell.  As I putter away at my quiet, mundane cleaning up tasks, I’m pondering next year – should I scale up?  Should I scale down?  What went well this year, what needs to change?  I’ve been reflecting all summer that my body had a tougher time physically than in years past – it’s only been the last month where I haven’t been falling into bed aching from head to toe.  Now that I finally feel physically adjusted, the need for all those adapted muscles has ceased, and it has occurred to me that maybe I should get into a strength training class or something so that I maintain some minimum level of strength for next season.

It’s not over precisely – those darn old layers are still hale and hearty, escaping all over the place and grudgingly producing 5 or so eggs a day (18 birds). I don’t have much longer before the serious wet weather begins, and I must have the pullets off the field by then. Garlic needs to go in the ground, and I’m still dithering about exactly where that spot is going to be this year. I picked my last bucket of tomatoes today so that I can dehydrate them, which will be an evenings work tomorrow night.  I have a few rows of potatoes left to dig up.   The pigs bedding needs to go out on the field, and I want Hay Guy to come and harrow the pig pasture a couple of times to level it a bit, so that I can throw some seed on it, and he can harrow it again. There’s some fence mending as well. And if the weather holds, I need to try and finish the eaves on the west side of the house. So it’s not over. But it has slowed down, and feels more peaceful. I’m ready for a bit of pianissimo.