PREDATOR: 1 LAYING HEN: 0
At market I get asked, "Are your chickens free-range?" at least once a week by an egg customer.
"Yes, sometimes a little too free-ranging," I respond.
While I like to keep my poultry as contained as possible while still keeping them on pasture (electric poultry netting, large fenced paddocks, Hoop Coops), there's always an errant hen or two who absolutely insists on pushing their limits, much to my neighbors' dismay.
Unfortunately, as I walked out toward the pasture this morning I could see the 'feather bomb' before reaching the body. Something had taken out one of the little red hens during the night.
On my poultry advertising at farmers markets, I list "Predator Friendly" as one of my selling points. Occasionally, someone asks about it. It simply means that I do not make it a point of killing natural predators such as hawks, owls, raccoons, opossums, weasels, minks, skunks, etc., as many of my neighbors and fellow market vendors do. Despite being a federal offense to maim or kill a bird-of-prey, increasingly I've heard many of my fellow farmers brag about killing raptors who are biting into their bottom line as well as their birds.
If I look and listen long enough, I often realize that they create an imbalance on their farm which leads to excessive predation. For instance, free-feeding with large hoppers of food, while it may be a convenience--especially to those who have increased their flocks to several hundred birds--is also a huge draw for vermin such as mice and rats. Similarly, improperly storing feed will support a larger rodent population than normal.
When the rodent population explodes, that's tantamount to ringing the dinner bell for those higher up on the food chain. And that's where the problems begin.
If you were a predator, which would you rather eat---a rinky-dinky little mouse or a nice, big, fat, juicy hen? Forget those little nuggets, they're going to go after the bigger piece of protein, which I might add, are much easier to catch.
"I've shot six hawks this season and they're still harassing my birds," lamented a local grower whose flocks have increased in size along with the number of farmers markets he attends. So much for sustainability....
A few months ago I lost a laying hen inside the fence to a raccoon. How did I know it was a raccoon? Through one of the sites that help chicken enthusiasts figure out what's pilfering their poultry like this one.
Instead of staying up half the night with a flashlight duct taped to the barrel of a shot gun, I simply put my Great Pyrenees in with the layers for a few days. The raccoon never returned.
But last night's victim still had her head intact with her guts ripped out instead meaning chances were it was either an opossum or a skunk.
When it comes to predator prevention on the farm, nothing beats a Livestock Guardian Dog. Mine are worth their weight in gold several times over and they're big dogs. But there are other ways to deter predators such as roosters and adequate shelter. One poultry farmer I know swears by his Nite Guard, a blinking red light and others opt for folk remedies such as dog hair, human hair and even human urine.
But in reality, sometimes Mother Nature wins against Domestication and in this case there's only one thing left to do--salvage what's left either as compost or in the case of the errant laying hen who fell victim to a marauder last night, a treat for the pigs. Nothing ever goes to waste. By the way, the entire carcass was completely gone--feathers, feet & all--in less than five minutes. Pigs are the ultimate in body disposal. Kind of makes you wonder why Tony Soprano and his gang always hung out in the sausage shop.....
Thursday, September 05, 2013
It's hard to believe that it's been twelve years since the first Goat Roast was held here at the farm. I think about two dozen brave souls turned out to try goat meat. I also remember having lots of leftovers which led to the addition of smoking a turkey or two as the tradition repeated itself each Labor Day. Over the years, I've also served roasted pig, sausages and yes, yak burgers from that nasty Tibetan Yak of which I had great dreams of milking that went up in the flames that cooked those tasty burgers. And throughout the years, Mother Nature has blessed us with mostly good weather whether it be holding off to pour until after the ice cream has been served or cooling off the stifling heat with a brief passing shower, as was the case this year. But whatever the circumstances, there two things that have remained constant--great food and wonderful friends.
The first goat roasted here was the first born male of the farm, offspring of my beloved Peaches. Throughout the years, some of the goats have been 4-H projects from friends' children as well as ones from the farm. Often I had them processed at a local butcher shop or by friends, but this year marked the first year that I was fortunate to partake in the entire process of feeding my family and friends from conception to serving platter--100% of the process, including the slaughtering, burning off the hair, putting on the spit and roasting. flame-thrower!
Thanks to the skin being left on, stuffing the belly with aromatic fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices is much easier. This year I used ripe figs, peaches, nectarines, limes, jalapeno peppers, basil and thyme with a white truffle balsamic glaze. In roasting a goat, there are two things I cannot do without--a Kane BBQ with Kane Klamps and turkey lacing pins. The Kane Klamps are these lovely little gadgets that keep the carcass secure on the spit so it doesn't slip while roasting. And if you are going to stuff the belly (this includes for lamb and pigs, too), I recommend using those simple metal pins you get for lacing up a turkey. Place them across the slit and then lace like a football--none of that awkward sewing with a wire. Plus, when the time comes to open the belly, you simply just pull the pins!
In roasting whole animals, this is another trick I learned as the years have rolled by. Secure the animal to the spit before lighting it. For years I braved the heat trying to set the bar in the pin and motor while the coals were roaring. This royally sucks. Instead I now secure the goat on the spit and then remember that flame-thrower? It's awesome for lighting either the charcoal or wood, whichever you decide to use. I don't even take the charcoal out of the bags. It's that easy...honest! Heck, I don't even take off the feet and head anymore either. One of the goat roast guests is from Nigeria and that is his treat to take home from which he makes the most delicious traditional African Pepper Soup.
As I strive to practice what I preach, several years ago I gave up buying sodas and commercial drinks, especially those with high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners. At first I wondered what the reaction of my guests would be and it turned out to be quite positive. Instead of a cooler full of cans & bottles, I now get out jugs & pitchers and enjoy setting out an assortment of fresh water, lemonade, iced tea and everyone's favorite, homemade Sangria!
The tables are set up and ready for the guests to arrive and begin setting out the goodies for the feast! Friends who have arrived early to help set up visit while getting ready.
And then there are those who arrive at the Goat Roast in style!
It's a time for the neighbors to visit.
It's a time for family and friends to spend together.
And of course, doggies are always welcome. This year's doggy treats were fresh chicken heads!
Wait! That's not a dog...it's a Goon with a Goat!
Plenty of new faces this year.
And lots of familiar ones who have come out year after year.
Believe it or not, this year's home made ice cream started with a dozen fatty stewing hens harvested for their golden globs of fat perfect for making schmaltz and matzo ball soup as the Jewish New Year began the day after Labor Day this year. Several of my customers at market had asked about them and so I planned to have them available as requested. As the processor began dispatching and cleaning the hens, out came the immature eggs from within, all sizes from ready to be laid to just beginning to grow. Did I want to keep them? Oh, absolutely! And I knew just where they were to be used...making an insanely rich custard that would then be churned into ice cream at the 12 Annual Painted Hand Farm Labor Day Goat Roast and Picnic--only the very best for my guests!And as it turned out, this was by far the BEST fresh peach ice cream I ever made.
Thursday, August 22, 2013
Saturday, September 14, 2013
Hoop Coop Workshop at Painted Hand Farm
This is never a pretty sight to wake up and find in the morning. Yes, that's what a 4 AM raccoon raid on a hen house looks like. I heard it happen, that's how I know when it occurred. All hell broke loose in the barn yard--hens squawking, roosters raising the alarm, guineas screeching, calves bawling, goats screaming and the dog barking, but not before the culprit drug off the body where the head was consumed and all of the organs were removed via the hole in where the neck used to be....a most gruesome way to go.
And it's not just wild animals that can wreak havoc on poultry. Just a few days ago a fellow farmer bemoaned the loss of close to a hundred chicks and turkey poults to a domestic cat which brought back memories of my beloved merciless mouser, Megs, as she was somehow able to reach through the poultry wire and take out a dozen poults before I could fortify the brooder.
And let's not forget those pesky predators of the skies---hawks. Here at Painted Hand Farm I've chosen to employ roosters and Livestock Guardian Dogs as well as the Hoop Coop.
So just what is a Hoop Coop?
It is a versatile portable structure constructed of inexpensive materials that are easily purchased from your local hardware and farm supply stores including wire feedlot panels, 2"x4"s, chicken wire/hardware cloth/welded wire, rope, hose, tarp, hinges and hasp along with screws, fencing staples and wire. Depending on the materials chosen, the cost ranges from $100-200 in materials and takes a day to construct.
What all can a Hoop Coop house?
Over the last twelve years, my Hoop Coop has been used for:
- Even children!
- A full day of hands-on Hoop Coop building from start to finish.
- A full set of plans and directions for building a Hoop Coop, including a materials checklist, optional modification suggestions and references for additional information about pastured poultry.
- Hands on experience with pastured poultry. We will be putting broilers out on pasture with the completed project.
- Losing a single laying hen means the loss of 15 dozen eggs a year. Given that free-range eggs at farmers markets average $4 a dozen, that's $60 per hen.
- The average cost of raising a broiler to five pounds using organic feed is $6. Add on the cost of the bird and your time....how many birds can you afford to lose?
- Heritage turkey poults cost $7-12 each. Do you really want your pet cat eating your Thanksgiving dinner?
- Commercially available pastured-poultry coops that are not as versatile as a Hoop Coop cost significantly more (FarmTek ClearSpan $439, Walmart PlumStruck $499, Amazon Green Coops $844)
- Durable--I've been using the same Hoop Coop for 12 years with minimal maintenance
- Storm-proof--won't blow over even in the fiercest of storms.
- Easy to move--no wheels or dolly needed
- Can stand inside--makes for catching occupants easier
- Works as a great quarantine pen that can be moved to an uncontaminated area and quickly sanitized.
"I believe that true sustainability comes from the ability to build portable equipment that will serve the farmer in raising a variety of products as opposed to specialized and costly infrastructure." ~Sandra Kay Miller
Friday, July 19, 2013
It wasn't even ten in the morning and already the hens had gathered in the dirt patch under the shade of the locust trees where I had sprayed down the ground in which they liked to dust themselves knowing full well that on what was predicted to be one of the hottest days of the year they would congregate there in an effort to keep cool. Instead of leisurely pecking and scratching from their morning feeding, the little biddies quickly gobbled up their grains and headed off to find some relief. With their wings held away from their bodies as if in mid-flight suspended animation, they scratched off the dry layer of dirt until finding the cooler, damp earth over which they hovered while furiously panting, their beaks open and their tiny pointed tongues bobbing back in forth in unison with each breath.
I knew the impending markets of the coming weekend would bring disappointment to my many egg customers as they would find out that the availability of their weekly staple would be greatly reduced. Those hens had little interest in laying eggs inside a coop in this oppressive heat. Those who chose to exercise their cloacae, instead sought out the comfort of an impromptu nest hidden in the grass making egg-gathering more of an egg hunt.
Later in the afternoon as I made my rounds ensuring everyone had access to plenty of shade and fresh water, a panicked call came in from a fellow farmer fairly new to raising fowl not far from Painted Hand Farm.
"Are your broilers dying in this heat?" they asked, adding "Mine are falling over dead left and right. I've lost half of my birds since yesterday and each time I go out more are dead."
I could hear the disappoint and frustration in their voice not only for the suffering of their stock, but at the financial loss that was rapidly increasing with the death of each bird. It had been a while since visiting their farm and with everyone watered, shaded and at a stand-still here, I decided to take a drive over to see what was going on. This also gave me a luxurious respite from the triple digit heat as I blasted the air conditioning in my car.
Arriving, I found my farming friend walking in from the field with a bucket full of dead chickens.
"Help," they squeaked out as the tears spilled out from under the rims of their sunglasses.
Heading back out to the field, it took me about ten seconds to see what was wrong.
"Do you have a down jacket?" I asked.
"Yes, why?" they replied cautiously wondering where my odd question was leading. Maybe it was the irritation in my voice.
"Good. I want you to go put it on, make yourself a big mug of hot tea, come back out here and sit in that chicken tractor for the rest of the day." I know it was a mean thing to say, but sometimes I just wonder where people's common sense is when weather becomes extreme.
"Are you saying I'm roasting my chickens?"
Despite the investment into building Polyface-style chicken tractors, my friend had used black metal roofing. The moveable coops were smack dab in the middle of a lush pasture being beaten into solar submission. Furthermore, the waters where the galvanized steel variety and were in also in direct contact with the bright sun glaring down on them heating the water to the point the chickens refused to drink it.
At the edge of the pasture, a couple hundred feet away stood a big ol' shady oak tree and some shrubs.
Time for a Hail Mary.
"We need to get the birds cooler water and into the shade." Reaching for the dolly that assisted in the moving of the pens, my friend began to grumble about the distance and lack of good pasture under the trees, but I had other plans as I removed one of the waterers and headed for the hydrant to refill it with fresh water. Then much to their horror, I lifted the tractor just enough that the birds could escape and began walking toward the trees carrying the waterer with the birds in toe as if I were the Pied Piper of Poultry, the remaining birds battling furiously for the cool water.
"What are you doing?" they shrieked "You're letting all my birds loose."
"Think of this as a hurricane, a forest fire, a tornado--these birds aren't stupid. They'll go where it's safe and when it cools off later today, just take a bucket of feed out and sprinkle it under the tractor. They'll go right back in," I assured.
"But what about predators?"
"Listen, do you want to go eat a nice, hot pizza today? Heck, even I don't cook in this kind of heat! Hunting exerts energy. Do you sweat when you run? There's no way anyone wearing a fur coat is going to be out hunting in this heat, let alone eating. THINK!"
With my point taken, I didn't stick around long as I didn't want to give my vehicle a chance to fall the same fate at the chicken tractors and I wanted to get back to my generous neighbors' lovely swimming pool they graciously allow me to use despite the fact the water had hit 92 degrees yesterday and felt more like a bathtub, it still brought sweet relief from the stifling heat.
So next time you encounter extreme weather conditions, put yourself in your livestock's environment and THINK!