Tuesday, March 31, 2009

First turkey / Turkey brooding

This poult is about 3 minutes out of the egg, all wet and wobbly, peeping a little.

I've found that turkey poults are more challenging to raise than chickens. So here's the regimen I use to minimize turkey poult loss:

1) I hatch my own. Shipping losses from hatcheries last year were 30% out of the box, and that sucks when they cost $9-12/each. No shipping means no shipping stress, better survival.

2) They stay in the brooder until they're warm and dry, usually 12 hours after they hatch. Starting warm and dry is pretty important.

3) The lights in the brooding bin are set close enough to make the wood chip surface 103 degrees. The turkey poults will move into this "hot" area and out of it and regulate their own temperature. So there's a 1 square foot area of "hot" and the rest of the area is various levels of heat less than that.

4) For the first two days I put a layer of newspaper over the chips. Turkeys will eat the chips, fill their stomach with it, and die. The newspaper prevents them from eating the chips. Yes, you do run a risk of spraddle, but I've never lost a turkey to spraddle and i've lost quite a few to wood chips. You remove the paper after the first two days or if it gets wet or slick.

5) I have chickens, and I supplement a high-protein chick starter with crumbled hard boiled chicken eggs. In my opinion, turkeys cannot have too much protein.

6) In the feed, and the water, I put a handful of clear glass marbles. The type people put in vases to hold flowers up. The turkeys are irresistibly attracted to shiny and they peck at the shiny marbles, and their beak slides off and into the food and water. They get the the idea faster this way.

7) as I put each turkey into the brooder I dip its beak into the water.

8) after all of the turkeys are in the bin, I tap on the food. They run over to see what the tapping is, and they try to peck my finger, and then the food. This seems to help them get it.

9) I put two or three chicken chicks in with each group of 20 turkeys. The chickens understand the food and water situation, and the turkeys watch them, and figure it out based on that. Yes, you run the risk of losing turkeys to blackhead disease but my experience has been ok so far.

If I do all of these things, I'll only lose 2-3% of the turkeys in the first 4 weeks. If I skip any of these steps I'll lose a progressively larger percentage. If I treat these little turkeys identically to chicken chicks, I'll typically lose 30-40%.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Haggling over prices

I talked to a fellow on friday about selling him a pig. He asked for a large pig, and I said I might have one, depending on the results of pregnancy testing. Most of the pigs I sell aren't "big pigs", they're either weaner pigs or porkers, slaughtered at 250-280lbs. He was clear that he wanted a big pig, 300lbs or bigger.

One of my gilts, the white faced pig, is a purebred berk gilt, but she's been here 20 months and hasn't gotten pregnant. In that time, her sister, shorty, has produced 2 litters. So the white faced pig is on the menu, and I asked that he come down to the farm to look at her to see if she'd fit the bill.

He came down friday afternoon and I showed him the white faced pig, and he agreed that it looked good, and asked what the price was. I said $1.25/lb live weight, which for her estimated size would have been $437.

He objected, and said that I'd said I'd sell pigs for $1/lb on the phone. I didn't recall saying that, but showed him smaller, younger pigs that I'd sell for that price. (I've got a couple of culls that aren't gaining weight like they should, and to get rid of them I'll make a deal. ) But he wanted the larger pig, and explained that he could drive 80 miles and get a large pig for $0.80 a pound, which would have valued the pig at $256.

I explained that the piglet costs me $75 at a minimum, and that it takes 1,000lbs of feed to produce a market-weight pig (250lbs), and that at current feed prices, that means that my hard cost to produce a smaller pig is $225, leaving me $31 to pay the mortgage, tractor diesel, labor, and all of the other assorted farm costs like fencing, bedding, and so on. I went on to explain that if I didn't sell her, I'd like to eat her, as she's my first purebred berk to come up for slaughter, and I like berkshire pork a lot.

But none of this swayed him, and he threatened at that point to walk away. At this point I thought that we wouldn't do the sale, and I said goodbye. He paused, and then offered $1.10 a lb. I thought about it; that would value the pig at $352; leaving me with a $125 or so profit, and agreed to his offer. I took a small deposit of $20, and we talked about the arrangements for the slaughter. Where it would happen, materials necessary, time, and I repeated a couple of times that I wanted him to call if he wasn't going to come, and that if he didn't come, the deposit would be forfeit.

Note: For this price we agreed he could kill it on the farm, leave whatever he didn't want to keep with me, and that I'd help him with my tractor and tools if he needed it. So it wasn't a we'll-put-the-pig-in-your-trailer sorta deal, it's a little more involved.

All of these conversations were through his 8 year old son, as he spoke mostly ukrainian, and I am only fluent in english.

So I cleaned and oiled the gun, and figured out which sheet of plywood I'd use, and make sure we had sawhorses that were serviceable, and put the knives in the truck on sunday, and got up early (for me, anyways) today to drive out to the farm to meet him. An hour before I'm supposed to meet him I get a call from the 8 year old son, "my dad is not coming. "

Ok, I said, would he like to reschedule? "no, he says that if you cannot sell for $1/lb he doesn't' want it". Ok, I said, I thought we had already settled this, and had agreed on a deal that I wasn't thrilled about, but thought was fair. "yes, but he wants $1/lb". No, i said, I'll eat the pig myself. "what about the deposit?"

I keep that. Thanks for calling though. Goodbye

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Hatching eggs and pinching pennies

We use the black plastic garden trays to transport chicks when they hatch. Here's cuckoo marans and barred rocks that hatched today, ready to go to the brooder tub. I've been setting eggs in groups of 20-30, and usually get the newly hatched chicks out morning and evening. When they first come out of the egg they're damp, and the hatcher dries them out and keeps them warm so they're comfortable when they go into the brooder.

The chickens are mostly an incubator test, to make sure that everything is set right. My primary goal with my incubators this year is Turkeys. After spending so much on poults last year, I decided that I'd carry over a breeding flock of each breed of turkey that I liked. So I kept my eye on craigslist, but didn't see any more incubators come up, so eventually had to buy a new one.

I chose to start hatching and raising turkey poults because they're so darned expensive to buy. Narragansett poults are $9.80 each, including shipping. It's pretty easy to spend $2,000 on poults in a year, particularly if you'd like to have a decent quantity to sell. The trouble with poults however is that the mortality is terrible. My first two years, I averaged 50% mortality from delivered poult to sold bird. i lost them at every stage; right out of the box, a week or two in, three months old, and so on. The darned cows stepped on turkeys feet all last year until I started kicking the turkeys out of the cow pasture for their own safety.

So right now I've got three incubators full of turkey eggs and I'm hoping for a good hatch. I've hatched turkeys before, so I have reason to be hopeful. The economics seem to be good; for the price of a ton of feed I'll get 800 turkey poults, some of which I'll sell, some I'll raise.

The goal here is to cut the costs of producing heritage turkeys down so that I can offer them at a lower price this year. I enjoy growing hard-to-get foods, but it sucks to have most people be unable to afford them. So by keeping my eye on the bottom line if I can produce it for a little less, I can sell it for a little less, and widen the market a little.

I watch the hatcheries to see how much backlog they've got. The hatcheries with better websites are sold out for at least a month in advance for most varieties of chickens.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Using the harley rake to lay out driveway gravel

yes, its not an animal post, but I've been getting questions about my harley rake, so i took pictures of my brothers driveway that we're using it on.

The project summary is to make a circular driveway in front of my brothers garage. So the tractor bucket got used to pull up the existing slab and break it up. (get bucket under the edge of the slab, lift, hit the slab with a sledge hammer, slab breaks, repeat)

Then we dug out some dirt and tossed the riprap into the hole, and then dumped some 2-4" quarry spalls and did a rough grade with the bucket.

You can see a pile of 2x4 quarry spalls to the left. On the right is a pass from the harley rake, and then another pass. Quarry spalls are big rocks; they are hard to spread with something like a box blade, but the harley does a pretty good job of it. The thing that the harley does not do is compact the rocks after the pass. The surface is pretty level, but if you were to drive a car over it you'd get pockets because of the rocks shifting to "lock" themselves in. The goal at this stage is to get a rough level 4" or so below the level of the blacktop. So we're not using the grading wheels on the back of the harley rake, we're using the roller. You do that by tightening the toplink on the implement.

These two pictures show a pretty typical run with the rake. I'm dragging a half yard of the 2-4" quarry spalls behind me at this point but leaving a 7' wide smooth bed of them. Look at the position of the dirt pile in the background and you can get an idea. These shots taken while the tractor is moving forward at 1mph

Could I get results like this from a box blade? I couldn't. The quarry spalls tend to get under the blade and lift the box blade up; it requires constant up-and-down for a box blade to leave a rough level. The harley does it in one pass, but this isn't really where the harley shines.

Here's a look at the bed after this pass. Notice that there's a 'curb' on the right side of the picture where the edge of the rake was. I was cutting down to the level we wanted the finished grade to be. You can spread, take up, or drop gravel with this tool.

Here's a truckload of 3/4" clear gravel that will be the finished surface. The bucket drops small piles over the work area and the harley rake will spread it.

Here's the finished gravel spread over the area at a uniform depth of about 4". There were a few quarry spalls that stuck up through the gravel. I used the harley rake to rake the big rocks out of the small gravel and drop them in a low spot nearby. That sort of sorting on the ground is where this tool really shines.
This is the finished grade. 4-6" of quarry spalls on clay with 4" of clear on top of it. Eventually he'll want to pour concrete over the clear, but he wanted to drive around on it and compact it for a few months. so we left it in a pretty good place. No more dirt into the garage.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Can I slaughter my own pig?

This is a question that I get every couple of weeks in email, so I think it's worth a blog entry.

"I'm interested in knowing more about where my food comes from, and towards that I'd like to slaughter my own pig and butcher it. Can I do that on your farm?"

For my farm, the answer is a qualified yes. But there's a simpler option at the bottom of this posting that you might want to look at.

1) you'll have to kill it in a legal way that I approve of. This post talks about slaughter issues and has a link to the humane slaughter laws in Washington state.

2) You'll have to spend the time it takes to finish the task in a day; you will probably need a couple of friends to make the work go faster.

3) If you want to scrape your pig, you'll have to bring at least a 3 gallon propane bottle to heat water. If you want to skin it you don't need the propane.

4) I can supply the tools and space to do the work, but you have to do the work; I cannot legally slaughter your animal. I will give you advice and general direction, but you must approach it with the mindset that you'll be doing all the processing.

That's the summary. Now lets talk about what it really means in detail

Start early
A pig is a bigger project than a chicken, or a turkey, but smaller than a cow. Because I'd prefer not to work on things after dark, I'd like you to start the process early in the morning. Preferably at 8am. That means we shoot the animal at 8am. You're at the farm gate at 7:30.
This gives you plenty of daylight to get the pig broken down and gives you an ample margin for error.

Skin or Scrape
It takes three people about 90 minutes to scrape the hair off a pig. You do this so that you can keep the skin on the finished product. If you want to make prosciutto out of the hams you'll want to leave the skin on, or if you're going to BBQ the whole pig, or you have some other plan to eat the skin (which is quite tasty, by the way).

If you're going to scrape the pig you'll need 3 gallons of propane to heat 15-20 gallons of water to near boiling. I use a 35 gallon galvanized trash can and a crab cooker to heat the water. Once the water is boiling you ladle it onto the dead pig. As the skin is scalded the hair rubs off. We use flat metal bars to rub the hair off. It comes off pretty easily. It takes 90 minutes to do this because you want to get every single hair off the pig. When we're almost done you use a small propane torch to scorch the hair off the ears and face, both place that are hard to scrape.

Skinning is faster, and if you're going to do a traditional ham cure you don't need the skin on it. But skinning an animal like a pig is a craft, and it's going to take some time as well. it's just faster than scraping. The goal is to leave as much of the fat on the animal as you can. It's not complicated; you cut off the trotters, and then skin each leg down to the torso, and then make a shallow cut along the belly, and slowly work the skin down either side of the pig until it's only attached at the back. Then you hoist the pig and pull the skin of the back. Done property, only the skin will be dirty, the meat will be clean and hanging.

Gutting (aka "field dressing")
I've posted pictures of this process on the blog.
The basic task here is to get the guts out of the animal while minimizing the chances of contamination. Basically it means you take care to not puncture the guts and get the whole mass out of the animal.

You split the animal into two 'halves' to make the subsequent cutting easier. You can do this with a power saw or a hand saw, taking care to split the vertebra evenly. You usually start from the rear of the pigs and then split the head with an axe or cleaver.

At this point you'll end up with a half or whole pig that can be delivered to a meat cutter and they'll cut it up further for you.

You can do all of the above OR
we can schedule in a farm slaughter guy, who will shoot, stick, gut and halve the pig and transport the halves to a meat cutting shop were they'll cut it into the retail cuts per your instructions for $.60/lb, or roughly $70, for a total cost of $85 per half.

I may be able to get the meat shop to let you be there during the cutting of your pig if you'd like to watch or participate. I haven't approached one of these guys with that request before, but I'm pretty sure we can arrange it.

Further breakdown
You'll find links at the bottom of my blog for websites that have pictorial step-by-step instructions on how to break a pig down from a half a pig into the various retail cuts. They do a much better job than I can do here, and I'm glad they're there. I'd estimate that breaking a half a pig will take you about 4 hours the first time you do it, provided you have all of the tools, but you make your own call.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Pinky farrowing

Pinky had her first litter of piglets today. She got her name because she's a perfect pink pig. She's a little vocal, being the loudest gilt (now a sow).

She's in the other farrowing stall that I constructed in this post and has about a foot of hay underneath her, to absorb liquids and provide dry bedding for the little pigs.

She's dug quite a hole in the hay.
The piglets nurse, and sleep, and cuddle up to her belly. Every now and then they'll wander around a little -- which I always find amazing at an hour or two old. All is well.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Managing a breeding chicken flock & sexing chicks

Pic: Rhode island red rooster

I got this question from a posting I did in February.

"How can you tell roosters from hens? I was under the impression we just had to wait a few months and then we will know. We just bought 20 chicks last week, is there a way to tell right off? Or do you buy them already sexed?"

If you're producing chickens for your own use, the roosters are what you'll probably end up eating. 50% of the chicks that hatch will be roosters, and you only need a rooster for every 5 or 10 hens for fertile eggs, but you'll want two or three roosters. Roosters will put themselves between the flock and predators, and they tend to get killed more frequently if you have predators. They also turn up infertile. So if you're counting on your flock to breed its own replacements, make sure you've got a backup.

If you're selling chicks, you'll probably find that you can get a better price if you can sex your chickens and sell hens to the folks who can't have roosters. Around here, locally produced straight-run chicks are $2-3, where hens will sell for a dollar more, and roosters 50 cents less. That's day old chicks.

For my own operation, I make a market in meat birds for folks who really want an authentic Coq Au Vin or other dish that wants a true heritage bird, and to the local ethnic community that prefers a non-cornish cross bird to eat. By the way, this coq au vin recipe is pretty darned tasty. I highly recommend it.

So I don't sex the chickens that I hatch at all. I raise them all identically, and at about 6 weeks of age I can sort through the chickens by sex characteristics if I have a customer who wants hens specifically.

The chicks that I order I usually order sexed to ensure that I get the mix I'd like. I raise a batch of black australorp roosters every year for chinese customers who prefer a solid black bird to eat. White birds are apparently not as tasty. Personally if I was limited to one breed of chicken, I'd probably pick the barred plymouth rock. Good size chicken carcass, good egg layer, calm disposition. If I were to pick an egg laying breed I have to pick the white leghorn. You cannot get more eggs from a chicken than that bird produces.
Pic: Black australorp hen

You can produce chickens that are easier to sex by doing hybrids, which have different feather patterns based on the sex of the chick (colors of feathers, number of feathers in the tip of the wing, etc) or by vent sexing the chick. You'll find a brief description of both methods here.

pic: Delaware hen

Monday, March 23, 2009

Pinky in the farrowing pen

This is pinky. She's a young sow having her first litter. She was pretty agitated today, wandering around, ignoring the electric fence and generally not acting "right". I've been watching her for a few weeks now, and figured that this behavior was because she was close to farrowing.

So you can milk a sow. At this point in their pregnancy that WANT you to stroke their belly and nipples. So it's pretty easy to check to see if she's producing milk, and today she was producing a little milk, which usually means farrowing is in the next 48 hours.

I put her into the 2nd farrowing stall, next to red n black, who seemed delighted to have company. The piglets were interesting; pinky laid down next to the center divider, and all of the piglets and red n black started mouthing her back through the hog panel. I hadn't seen them do this before. Maybe it was to comfort her, or the piglets were trying to nurse off her. I don't know. She quieted down as we put a couple of hog panels over the top of the pen to make sure she didn't jump out before she has her piglets.

The buckets have a little food in them, but are there mainly as pig toys, to give her something to distract her.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Swineherding, airedales

Red, the Airedale puppy, is showing promise as a herding dog. Both he and his mother, Cat, are proving helpful in moving the pigs around. Here Cat is at the center, and red is at the far right.

They'll work as a team, bunching and herding the pigs, circling the herd, keeping them together. With my minimal electric fence, the smaller pigs slip out, and the dogs are pretty clear about the rules: If the pig is outside the white electric fence, it should be back inside. They patrol the open areas around the current field and take their job very seriously.

I don't know much about training herding dogs. I think it's time I looked for someone to take some herding classes from. It'd be useful if the dogs could cut a pig out under my direction.

I've been slowly moving the pigs into a three acre wooded area on my property. The goal is to have them clear some of the area so that they can have shade in the summer, and I can get more use out of my land. So far it's working well.

Goose eggs vs Chicken eggs - taste and texture

I was loading the goose eggs into the incubator and accidently cracked one. Cracked eggs don't ever hatch for me, so I decided to cook and eat it to see what a goose egg tastes like.
Here's the goose egg, and a chicken egg I used for comparison.

I scrambled the eggs in seperate bowls, and then coated a teflon pan with a little bit of butter. On medium heat I cooked the eggs seperately until they were just a little raw, and then onto a plate. My experience is that you take the egg out of the pan before it looks "done" and it finishes cooking on your plate.

The shell on a goose egg is quite a bit thicker and stronger than a chicken egg. I'm a little surprised i could break it by accident. The yolk of a goose egg was very firm, almost custard-like. When raw, the yolk had a similar texture to crisco shortening. Much firmer than the chicken yolk.
The lighting really doesn't show the color very well. The chicken egg was a sunny yellow color, the goose egg paler. One goose egg is about 4 chicken eggs by weight.

The goose egg scrambled had a firmer texture, definitely firmer than the chicken egg. The taste was eggy, mild, and a little "dryer" than the chicken egg. It was yummy. If I had an equal supply, I'd probably switch to goose eggs for scrambling. Chicken eggs are so available and the difference wasn't that great, so I probably won't eat the goose eggs in the future, preferring to have more geese.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Goose eggs!

Since snohomish county is convinced that my farm is killer whale habitat I figured I might as well start adding some waterfowl.

The goose egg on the left is massive. It's very heavy, feels like a pound or so. It is easily twice as heavy as the turkey egg in the center, and maybe 4 times the weight of the large chicken egg on the right.

This is where those emu/ostrich incubation trays really shine. Here's a picture of the goose eggs sharing a tray with some chicken eggs.

I hatched a batch of call ducks last year and they really worked out well. There's plenty of water around the property for them to play in and they forage very well. Unfortunately they like ripe tomatoes. but I like roast duck, so I guess we're even.

Friday, March 20, 2009

GQF incubators, buying used, converting for chickens & turkeys

I've been buying the emu/ostrich incubators, gqf model 1527 and 1536 from various craigslist sellers for $150 or so each. They're so cheap because no one is hatching emus or ostriches, and people don't know that they work great for other eggs, too. The trays are horizontal rotation, vs the other tray style by gqf, the vertical rotation.
All you have to do to make this tray work for other types of eggs is cut a piece of hardware cloth that is a little wider than the top of the tray, bend it into a C shape, load your eggs and then secure it with zip ties, as shown in the picture. Click on the picture for a bigger version. When the eggs are done with the rotation period, you cut off one side and remove those eggs. So for $5 worth of hardware cloth (the metal mesh covering the eggs) you've got a $1,000 incubator! ($639 for the box, plus $119 for 3 trays...)
Each of these horizontal incubator trays will hold 75 large chicken eggs or 60 turkey eggs, and there are up to three trays per incubator, for a total capacity of 225 chicken eggs or 180 turkey.
If you buy a used GQF incubator, what you need to check is that the unit will make and hold temperature -- you'll want it to be at 100.5 or so most of the time. Have the seller plug it in and have it warm up for a couple of hours before you look at it. Check that the tray rotation mechanism isn't frozen. If it is frozen you can usually take off the rear cover of the hatcher and tap the lever with a hammer to free it up, but sometimes the mechanism is so crudded up that it either burns out the motor or is glued permanently. If that happens the replacement parts will be relatively expensive, so don't pay more than $300 for a used GQF incubator or you'll run the risk of the repairs costing you more than just buying a new unit.
The emu/ostrich/goose models (1527 & 1536 have little plastic gears that break if they're manhandled, so be careful pushing the tray back into the incubator. The temptation is to grab the tray and use your hand to align it by moving it up and down, but do that gently so you don't break the plastic gears in the tray. If you do, you can buy them from GQF for $5 each, but it takes a careful 30 minutes to take one of these trays apart, replace the gear, and then put it back together.
It is worth it to buy the humidity bucket setup sold by GQF if you are going to use your hatcher a lot. Instead of having to open the hatcher every day you pour 5 gallons of water into a bucket every other week and you're good to go. Makes hatching pretty painless.
I have no connection with Double R Supply other than as a satisfied customer.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Eastern wild turkey tom

This is my oldest eastern-wild turkey tom. He's a really beautiful bird and pretty much fends for himself most of the time. I love his plumage and he takes meticulous care of his feathers. He's also pretty convinced he's top turkey, and has spent most of his time making sure all of the other turkey toms know that, too.

Now that I've penned the turkeys for the laying season, he's decided that each pen must be something special -- and the hens in it are his, too. So recently he's spent every daylight hour staring down the other turkey toms in each pen.

Here he's staring down the blue slate tom in the pen -- you can see the blue slate's head through the calf domes' bottle port. Hours and hours, pen to pen, every single day. This tom is a dedicated bird.

So tomorrow he'll go into a pen of his own for the laying season, with four beautiful hens and all the food he can eat. It'll probably be a relief from this constant staring.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The pigs have decided: National turkey free day

When it's laying season I pen the turkeys into these calf domes.

Each calf dome is 5' tall, about 7' in diameter. We use them as portable shelters for pasture farrowing, covers for sacks of feed, confining laying turkeys and (gasp) even their intended purpose of bottle feeding calves.

put a 30 gallon garbage can with some hay in it as a nesting box (turkey hens are big animals, and a 30 gallon can is about the right size), and string this recycled construction fence across the entrance. You don't need much of a barrier to keep turkeys in. The orange fencing is mostly a visual barrier.

The orange fencing is also known as pig dental floss. They love it. So yesterday three of the smallest pigs I've got slipped out of their electric fence, and over to the turkey domes, and proceeded to let every single turkey loose. They pulled the orange fencing off the front and out came the turkeys.

This was such a success in the eyes of the pigs that they decided a roadtrip was in order. So these same small pig terrorists chewed the power cord off the electric fence, and then proceeded to lead the entire herd out of the pasture and onto the road. And then down the road. And then over the bridge. All in all, about a mile down the road.

So when I got to the farm, I was stopped at my gate by a neighbor who'd seen the pigs down the road, and the dogs and I herded them back over to the property, only to discover when I got there that all 70 turkeys were out. So I spent 4 hours chasing and netting turkeys, fixing the fence, netting more turkeys, herding pigs back in, and so on.

Moral of this story: Good fences, particularly perimeter fencing, is worth its weight in gold. Guess what my next project will be.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Turkey hatch milestone

Set the first whole tray of turkeys to hatch today. I usually get a 90% hatch rate, which means I'll probably get 30 turkeys poults out of this batch.
If you click on the picture for a bigger version, you'll see a date that's on each egg. This date is the date that the egg should be moved from the rotation area of the incubator into the hatching portion. Rotating the eggs a little each hour makes sure that the chick or poult doesn't stick to the inside of the egg. Removing the egg from rotation means that the chick can orient itself and peck a hole in the top of the egg.
The settings we use are 100.5 degrees F, 68% humidity for all eggs - chicken and turkey and bantam. Chickens get 18 days of rotation and hatch on day 21. Turkeys get 20 days of rotation and hatch on day 23.
To make life easier I set hatches in batches the size of a tray. So I'll collect eggs until I've got 36, and then set a whole tray at once. Fertile eggs will actually keep pretty well at room temperatures; I've held them as long as 10 days and still gotten good hatches. But optimally you're setting them the same day you're collecting them, but I just don't have that many right now.
After the majority of the eggs have hatched we look at the ones that didn't -- sometimes the chick is stuck to the egg and a little careful work with some warm water to soak off the shell will save the chick. Other chicks just get close, but don't actually hatch.
If your humidity isn't high enough you'll dry the eggs out and the chicks cannot escape the egg. So watch for a hatch where you get a little beak hole but the chick doesn't get any farther. That's a sign of low humidity.

This is the full hatch I set today. One batch of chicken eggs, one of turkey, and one mixed tray.

Just a note: If you buy heritage breed poults from a hatchery they're $9 each, which is valuing a dozen turkey eggs at around $90, figuring some incubation loss. So one way to figure it is that the tray of turkey eggs I set there are worth $270, and an incubator full of turkeys is worth $1620!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Can I get a better price if I buy a dozen?

I was talking with a fellow today about weaner pigs, and he asked me if he'd get a better price if he bought a larger quantity -- in this case he wanted 2, but could go to 6 for the right price.

And I found myself instantly conflicted. Part of me wanted to make the larger sale -- more volume, little less profit, pretty standard business practice.

But the other part of me, which I took a while to figure out, said NO. Pretty strong no, as well.

I've run across this from several small producers; like when I was buying tuna from a fisherman on the Washington coast (you can get GREAT locally caught albacore tuna for $1.83/lb, bled and frozen on the boat, btw) and I asked the other side of this question -- can you make me a better price on the fish if I bought more. He surprised me by saying no.

The fisherman, like me, has a finite supply of fish to sell. He knew that he'd sell all of his fish at the price he set. If he sold the fish to me at a smaller price, he'd forgo the profits he'd eventually get. The cost of letting the fish stay in his freezer for a few more weeks or a month wasn't really an issue.

I'm at the same place with pigs. I've got a small supply of pretty good quality weaner pigs that are carefully hand raised. I guarantee their health -- I'll replace them or refund your money if they die -- and I'm pretty sure that I'll sell them all. So I set a price that I can make about $20 a pig, figuring that's a fair profit margin, and that's my price.

But if I don't sell a pig, there's a good chance I'll sell it as a barbeque pig this summer, for $80 profit. Or if I don't do that, I'll sell it as a whole pig for $120 profit. Or as cuts at the farmers market and make $200. So the cost of keeping a pig a few weeks or months longer isn't an issue. This is the first business I've been in where the output I can produce is very strictly constrained. It takes me 6 months to come up with a weaner pig; a year or so to come up with a baconer, 7 months for a laying hen, and so on. I pretty much have to lay out the quantities of what I'd like to have available for sale set 6 months to a year in advance.

So when this fellow asked for a better price for a larger quantity, my answer was "no".

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Bees and beekeeping, farming calendar

Today was cool and sunny; and the bees were out of the hive flying around. From the looks of their legs on the return trip something is producing pollen nearby. Pollen is a high-protein food for bees, and is used to feed both the bees and their larvae.

If you've considered beekeeping, now is the time of year to make your decision. The easiest way to start is to find a local apiary supply place nearby. I'm sure they'll be happy to help you. I've been patronizing the beez neez in snohomish, but there are many suppliers around. Packages of bees are only available once a year -- so you need to locate and order them NOW to have bees this year. More about packages further on in this post.

On a sunny day like today is when I open the hives for the spring check. I'm looking to see which colonies have survived the winter and which haven't, and what their relative strengths are. I'll open the hive, heft the super to see how much honey remains, look at a couple of frames, and then switch the top box of the two to the bottom. Over the winter the bees will have gravitated up into the honey, and by reversing the two boxes it allows them to gravitate up again as they grow during the spring.

Modern bee hives consist of standardized boxes referred to by their size. a "super" is about 6" tall, a "deep super" is about 10", and each holds a number of frames that the bees will build their comb on. The comb is used to store honey, pollen and to raise and brood young.

In my climate, the basic hive consists of two deep supers on a bottom board, with a roof. Later in the year I'll add additional supers that the bees will fill with honey, and anything above the first two deep supers is what I'll harvest. Between the harvested honey and the original deep super I'll put a queen excluder, which will prevent the queen from laying larvae in the top supers to keep the honey pure. A deep super that's full of honey weighs around 100lbs. A super weighs about 60lbs. A hive will produce 120lbs of honey on a good year here; in some areas with longer nectar flows and warmer weather you can get 200lbs of honey in a season.

At this time of year the hives are at low ebb; they've been living on stored honey all winter, and the bees are as old as bees ever get. The bees that are born in the fall end up living through the spring, usually around 6 months.

My winter losses this year was 15%. Not bad, not great. Average. The hives that survived have lots of bees, still have some honey, but not much. So I'll feed them a little sugar syrup, 50% water and 50% sugar by volume, for a month or so.

I'll also be ordering packages of bees from beez neez. A package is 3 or 4 lbs of bees with a queen. They're only available early in the year, which is why I'm suggesting that you make your decision now about whether you want bees. When the package bee season passes you're out of luck. A 3lb package should cost you around $75, give or take $10, a 4lb a little more. If this is your first beekeeping exercise, buy the 4lb package. More bees means that they have a better chance of producing some honey for you this year even if you make some mistakes.

In this area there are several different varieties of bees I can order. My opinions:

Italian bees: Sweet, good natured bees. You can work them without protective gear or smoke, even. I do it every year. But susceptible to mites and have a low survival for me. I keep trying them, but they're just not working for me.

Russian bees: Angry little bastards, but they produce honey, lots of it, and are surviving well for me. I cannot work these guys without protective gear, and in fact, there are times when I cannot walk within 10 feet of their hive without getting stung. That said, most of my hives are now russian because they've survived well.

New world carnolian: Somewhere between russians and italians. Survive better than italians, not as angry as the russians. I don't get stung by these guys randomly.

Minnesota Hygenic: I've had mixed luck on these guys. They seem to do well against mites, but their winter survival for me isn't as good as russian or new world carnolian. Production is roughly the same as carnolian.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Antibiotic use and our food, nytimes article, vet visits

A recent nytimes op-ed article about a small town doctor who noticed terrible rashes on his patients and then linked them to industrial hog farms on the outskirts of town was interesting to me.

here's the quote:

"So what’s going on here, and where do these antibiotic-resistant infections come from? Probably from the routine use — make that the insane overuse — of antibiotics in livestock feed. This is a system that may help breed virulent “superbugs” that pose a public health threat to us all. ".

There's a link to the full article at the bottom of this page.

For a small farm, veterinary visits are prohibitively expensive. If you've got a small pig that's not doing well you have two choices; either you treat it yourself, you kill it, or you let it die. A $150 pig isn't worth a $225 vet visit. It's a choice that I've had to make several times this year.

When you have laymen (and I include myself there) making treatment choices about animals, I often have no idea which treatment to use, or how much, or even if the treatment that I do decide on is efficacious. That's the reason that a veterinary goes to school for all those years.

So I've gone the complete other direction. I never treat any animal at any time. Two reasons: We use antibiotics too much now; and I have no trusted way to determine proper treatment. Yes, you can find information on the internet, but since anyone can write anything they'd like and post it, I cannot depend on it for life-and-death decisions. Students have even been failed for using wikipedia as a source.

When someone buys an animal from me, it's on that has never been medicated. No withdrawal periods, no wondering about doses, no issues with allergies or resistant strains. They're safe to eat at any time.

For lower cost animals, like chickens, this is pretty easy. It gets harder when you're talking about a sow that you've had for a couple of years. It gets even harder when you're talking about your beef critter, and I can't imagine the quandary when you're talking about your pet horse.

I also make this same choice about antibiotics in feed. I don't feed medicated chick starter, I don't feed medicated feed of any sort. It's precisely that sort of low-level antibiotic use that a major contributor to this issue.

It's a philosophical point, and I think an important one. It's time that we realize that antibiotics are a pollutant in our food supply that is causing side effects that are killing people now, and will only get worse.

Let me be clear -- holding this line means that I have to put down animals that I might otherwise save. That costs me money and heartache. But having looked at the alternative, I've decided that that's the way I'm going to go.

This isn't different from my previously stated viewpoint that animal welfare is top on my list. Part of my concern about welfare is human, and if livestock practices put humans at risk, my choice is pretty easy if I take a long view. Not so easy when I'm looking at the critter.

Ethics only count when it hurts. When I'm standing there with the gun and hating this I know I'm on safe moral grounds precisely because it does hurt me but I do it anyways, with no one watching.

you may have to register for free to read the following links.

nytimes article
Dr. Kristof's blog

Friday, March 13, 2009

Spring flush

It feels like spring already. I think that the chickens have already decided that it is. Here's today's lay from the chickens. The majority of these eggs are a light brown to pink. The two darkest eggs are from cuckoo marans, which look a lot like a barred rock but lay much darker eggs.

The turkeys are producing, too. from the left: Bourbon red turkey egg, Narragansett turkey egg, upper brown is a barred rock, lower white is a pearl white leghorn, small egg is a bantam egg, and a cuckoo maran egg finishes this list, in the lower right hand corner.

Most of these eggs will go into the incubator. We'll probably produce 500 chicks and poults this month. I notice that Murray Mcmurray hatchery is again sold out for at least a month in advance. I'm pretty happy that I'm mostly producing my own chicks this year.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Pigs and bucket

The piglets are getting pretty big. They've been eating an increasing amount of solid food and should be ready to go in a week or so.

A bucket is a pretty interesting item to the piglets. I had just used this bucket to fill the feeder and noticed the piglets trying their best to eat the bucket. They're straining as hard as they can go get their mouths on the bucket.
Of course, if one piglet sees another piglet doing something, especially something as interesting as a bucket, why, it becomes a group activity. Now they're all jostling one another, shoulder-to-shoulder to get to the tasty bucket. The bucket is empty, by the way, and they're after the bottom of the bucket anyways. The key to this is that it's novel and they want it.

So if one bucket is fun, why, two buckets will be a a true source of piglet joy! It's always fun to play with the piglets. Have to watch out for the sharp little teeth though; they don't mean any harm, it's their nature to explore the world with their mouths. So many interesting textures to them.

Cat (the airedale) comes over and says hello to the piglets too. It's peaceful little moments like this that make farming so satisfying.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The turkey easter-egg hunt

This has been a really cold, snowy winter. The turkeys don't really take cover from this sort of weather. They just sit there and get covered with snow. It seems to be ok -- I don't lose any. I think that it's mostly because they've got all the food that they can eat, and good feathers, but I have to wonder sometimes. They've got plenty of places they can go and get out of the snow; under trailers or buildings or vehicles, but they'd rather stand around in big groups and gobble at each other.

While I was throwing bales of hay to the cows and sheep, I noticed this bourbon red hen walking down the driveway. I noted that, and finished throwing the hay. Then I collected the eggs from the chickens, and put them into the truck. All of the eggs that are laid on the farm are fertile, and we incubate the ones we don't eat.

So I get a little mystery. I followed her tracks down the driveway, into some long grass.

And there her egg is, still warm from being laid. I waited a while to allow her to lay her egg before I tracked her down. Now that I know where her nest is I'll put a couple of golf balls into it, and collect the turkey eggs as she lays them. If you take all the eggs out and leave nothing she'll notice and pick another nesting spot.

While I'm out here, I notice another turkey track. So I follow this one to a bunch of grass not too far from the first one.

And find another perfect turkey egg. I guess it's time to pen them for the laying season, can't depend on snow every day.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tilling and the harley rake

A cold, blustery day today. Temps in the 30s, mixed rain and snow.

I purchased this harley rake (the thing on the back of the tractor) to grade and rehab land, both for myself and for others. It works very well to spread materials (like gravel, for instance) or on relatively dry dirt, provided there's no long grass. But I'm an optimist, and I did a couple of passes over a part of this pasture I'm tilling for the neighbor. The wet dirt pretty much glued itself onto the action part of the harley and it really didn't do much.

So I got my tiller and tilled it. Using a tiller isn't as fast as using a plow, but it's a little more controlled in this small space, and chops up the grass and stringy stuff so that I can do a pass with the harley rake without the harley getting gummed up too much.

This is what it looks like after a pass with the tiller. The sod is chopped up into fine particals and it's tilled about 4" down from the surface; for the gardening that they want to do that should be fine. The next step is to go back and till the higher parts deeper, maybe 8-10 inches, and then use the harley rake to make it golf-course smooth.

The dollar bill is in there for scale. Dollars are 6" long, so the depth of tilling is about 4".

When I till and harley rake my pastures I do it so that the mobile pens for the chickens are flat on the ground, to prevent predators from getting in, and chickens from getting out. I've also found that depressions can lead to mass smotherings of young birds. They don't tend to pile on top of one another if the ground is flat.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Bourbon red turkeys

The bourbon red turkeys have been popular with the livestock thieves this year. Maybe they read the reviews that said that bourbon reds were the tastiest heritage breed, or maybe they were just the slowest ones, but I've lost 6 toms and 7 hens. So I've penned the remaining bourbon reds far away from the road, and was happy to see them start laying today.

The hens weigh about 15 pounds and the toms around 20. They're pretty hearty and survive well here. When I started I purchased poults of 17 different turkey varieties. I've now settled on 7 varieties that I raise. For my farm, the eastern wild turkeys are the easiest to raise -- they pretty much fend for themselves and are excellent at foraging. In fact, they tend to teach the other turkeys how to eat blackberries and strip the seeds off the top of grass stems.

The bourbon reds are somewhere in the middle. They're fairly intelligent (for a turkey), docile birds with a nice color pattern. They're calm in disposition and are curious. The one thing about bourbon red turkeys is that they usually hate Andrea. Not sure why, but every year there's been two or three hens that have decided that Andrea should be chased, and they do chase her.