Summertime Happenings

It’s hard to believe that summer is almost over. I’ve started doing some major mowing and weed trimming in order to tidy up the property now that the worst of the growing season is over. In the woods the forest of stinging nettles is starting to fall and views are opening up again. I love how the whole look of those woods changes with the seasons. We’ve only been here through two summers now but already it feels like a continuous cycle of changes, with each new season bringing back memories of last year. There hasn’t been much done in terms of projects around the place – money was a bit tight this summer and we focussed on the livestock and garden. Hopefully come fall things will pick up and we can tackle some of the bigger stuff on our wish list – like putting in more fencing.

The pigs are getting huge and we’ll be booking a date for them to head off to “Freezer Camp” soon. Last year we basically randomly picked various cuts of meat and processing types and we learned what we need more and less of. Ground pork features prominently in the adults’ diet, and my son enjoys my homemade sausage patties. Both kids love sausages, and we’ve found a wonderful local sausage maker whose gluten-and-dairy free offerings are perfect for my son’s special diet. We’ll be sending him a huge batch of trimmings from our pigs so he can turn them into a freezer full of sausages for us. We’ll also be getting much more bacon this time around, and now that I’ve learned how to make pulled pork from roasts we’ll keep those in the order as well.

Our home-grown chickens are simply delicious – juicy and meaty and full of good stuff. Today we picked up a new batch of meaties, cute little chicks who will require another freezer in 8 weeks’ time. It was so easy this time around with the brooder and chicken tractor all ready to go. Raising your own meat couldn’t be easier when all is in place. Here’s hoping our experience prevents us from losing as many chicks as we did the first time around (normal for newbies – the little guys get stressed so easily!). We also didn’t bring them into the house this time, being more confident about what they need. They are in the garage for now.

In the garden the tomatoes have been enjoying the heat (finally!) and I harvested my first meal-sized batch of them today. I have a selection of varieties but don’t ask me to name them all! Their ripening has coincided with my pot of basil growing to harvesting size, so all I need is a batch of mozzarella balls and we’ll be enjoying some yummy Calabrese salads over the next few weeks!

Chickenomics

Our chickens were processed this past Thursday and we netted over 81 lbs of meat among our 18 birds. Tomorrow night I’m going to roast one of them and we’re all looking forward to tasting our first home-grown chicken.

In going over the costs involved, I’d say it was definitely worth it. Each chick was $1.87 for a total of $33.66. I’m not counting the birds we lost in the first few days, hoping that with experience we’ll not have so many losses, plus the Hatchery is giving us a coupon for lost chicks (the process of transporting them is very stressful and they are extremely prone to sudden death in the early days if conditions aren’t exactly right). We went through about 5 bags of feed over their 8 weeks, with each bag costing about $10 (the ones that died did so early enough that they didn’t consume a significant amount of feed). The processing fee was $3.95 per bird, with the total after taxes coming to $79.63. Thus, in total, we spent $163.29 which works out to $2/pound.

The cheapest chicken you can buy at our local big box store sells for about $2.50/lb. This is the lowest quality meat that is fit for human consumption, coming from birds who never saw daylight, lived in confinement cages, and ate nothing but the cheapest feed. I don’t consider any animal raised under such conditions to be anywhere close to optimal health, but if they are free of disease they are considered edible by the Powers That Be (personally, I will only feed this meat to my dog). I wouldn’t be surprised if these bargain basement chickens were lame or otherwise rejected by the “prime” chicken producers.

At the local farm where we usually buy whole chicken (not any more, woo hoo!), the animals are free range (and yes, they really do go outside) and their diet is supplemented with fresh plants, bugs, and anything else they can find. The farm has its own store on-site, open 24 hours and run under the honour system (you take your bird, you leave your cheque). That way you can also see the chickens and the nice life they lead. The chickens are delicious, the fat nice and yellow as it is supposed to be, and this is had at the very reasonable price of $3.15/lb. If you go to a farmer’s market, or a retail outlet that sells ethically raised birds, you’ll pay more. In our old neighbourhood, miles and miles away from the nearest farm, I paid over $6/lb for farm-raised, pastured chickens.

The work in raising the meat birds was minimal. As chicks they didn’t go through feed too quickly, but even as adults I set things up so I only needed to tend to them once a day. I’d move the chicken tractor to a fresh patch of clover, and as the chickens dug in to eat the lush leaves and peck at bugs I’d refill their two feeders and two water buckets. In all it took me less than 30 minutes each day to tend to them (mostly because the feed and water is not close to the field). Anybody who has a bit of land could do this for themselves, and I’m quite certain the taste and quality of our meat will make it all worthwhile.

I’m planning to do another batch of 25 before the season is over. Assuming we lose a few I’m hoping to end up with about 40 chickens in the freezer when all is said and done. Since going on the Paleo diet we’re eating a lot more meat, and this means we will be able to enjoy chicken 3x per month throughout the next year. A big roasting bird goes a long way, what with fresh roasted meat, chicken salad, not to mention wonderful soup stock. So definitely a plus for the food budget!

I built a Chicken Tractor!

I am so darned proud! Before this the biggest construction project I ever undertook was when I made my square-foot garden beds. This (the photo above) is my chicken tractor (I’ve since covered one end with a tarp to provide shelter from the rain). You can see the handles at the near end; at the far end are a pair of lawnmower wheels. It has no floor, but is covered on all sides with 1×1 chicken wire, with an added skirt (which I later weighed down with some rocks) to deter the digging predators. The back half of the top is actually a hinged lid, secured with slide locks. This allows me to get inside to change water, etc. The chickens have access to green stuff, bugs and worms, and within minutes of being moved into their new home they were scratching and pecking and running around with bugs in their beaks while their littermates tried to snatch them away. It feels really good to see the chickens outside in Nature, doing what chickens are supposed to do!

The idea is to move the tractor every couple of days (daily when they get bigger) so they always have access to fresh food and their manure fertilizes the ground they left rather than becoming a waste product that needs to be dealt with. They still get their pelleted feed, and I did move the heat lamp in there as it’s a bit cool in the evenings right now, but now they can have fresh air, sunshine, and some variety to their diet. The handles and wheels make it relatively easy to move, but I’m glad Hubby is coming home tonight as it’s a bit of a walk from the patch of grass they are on right now and the big pasture and I could use some help moving the tractor over there (and making sure nobody gets squished or escapes!). After that it will be easy for me to move it myself a few feet to a new patch of greens.

The chickens have been growing at a (frankly) freakish rate. They must be at least 3 times their size after only 2 weeks. The brooder was moved into the garage last week after I felt sure they were all doing fine (and the smell got too much for me). I’ve never had chickens before but I’ve heard these meat birds make quite a mess (they eat and drink copious amounts, so I guess that makes sense) and these guys were clearly out-pooping their brooder’s capacity! Tonight is their first night outdoors and I keep checking on them, worried they’ll be cold. They are about half-feathered right now but between the heat lamp and the company of others I am hoping they’ll be fine.

We have Chickens!

Today I went to the feed store to pick up our chicks. I was cursing myself for having turned down a perfect-sized box the last time I was there, certain I would have no trouble finding another. But I forgot that Husband would be away for business, and that my kids were scheduled to come down with chicken pox (due to us having attended a Pox Playdate two weeks prior). I had little opportunity to run any errands, as bundling unwell kids into the car was something I wished to avoid. Consequently I found myself heading to pick up 25 chicks with nothing to house them in.

However, it wasn’t a big deal. We had a few bits of scrap lumber and plywood around and I made myself proud by grabbing a drill, some screws, and a circular saw and fashioning a pretty decent abode for the little peepers. The floor is plywood, approximately 5′ by 3′. Two thin pieces of composite board made the long side walls. I attached them to the floor via some 2 x 2′s I had attached along the bottom, then joined them across the width at each end with some a 2 x 4 that I cut in half lengthwise. Out of plywood I found some pieces of flooring leftover from when previous owners had done one of the rooms. These were the kind that lock into each other, and I was able to cut and stack them to cover the ends. When it was finished I had a very functional, if not elegant, brooder box. The chicks seem really happy in it, too.

As I walked around the property this afternoon, on a gorgeous summer-like day, I was feeling a bit frustrated with the overall look of the place. It’s not what you would call “attractive”. The fencing in the back yard for the dog looks shabby, our mobile home is ugly, and I have zero time to do any aesthetic gardening. The little lawn out front needs mowing (which irks me: I don’t want to have to mow grass – it’s a waste of time and fossil fuels) and the edges of our field are indistinct, given the area an untidy, overgrown feeling. The pig’s enclosure has stacks of logs and other debris in it (not enough to bother the pigs, but it makes the place look untidy). And of course there are other debris piles around the property. In other words, as Husband put it, it’s looking a bit “hillbilly” around here now that everything is growing like crazy.

And then I saw the piglets. They came running out from the bushes to see if I had brought any food. I looked at them and was struck by the thought that our place may not look attractive, but it was pretty darned productive right now. Four pigs’ worth of pork, twenty-five meat birds, and a vegetable garden that is steadily growing. The truth is, you don’t need a picture-perfect homestead to provide your family with the best quality food you can grow. There will be plenty of time for landscaping, earthmoving, and building a new home in the years to come.¬†For now, I thought, at least we have our priorities straight.

We have Piglets!

Aren’t they adorable? I must confess, I love piglets. So much so that Husband and I are considering breeding them ourselves some time in the future. These guys (well, three are boys and one of the black ones is a girl) are currently about the size of a large cocker spaniel. The spotted one in front appears to be the “boss”. They move around in a little pack, and are often hard to spot since they really enjoy hanging out in the woods (they are forest creatures, after all, and that is very evident to us this time around). We often find them sleeping in a heap under some brush. They are slowly figuring out that humans = food and are starting to come slowly and tentatively when we show up with a bucket of pig feed or scraps. They also seem to be getting a great deal of yummy stuff from the ground, as they are already rooting effectively and churning up the soil. They seem very happy with their new digs. It’s great to have critters around again!

Pigs and Chickens (and Veggies), oh my!

We got a surprise this past Friday – our pigs are ready to come home! Either we miscalculated the time, or they are from a slightly earlier batch of piglets, but they were ours as of Saturday. As much as we wanted to pick them up right away, we had to ask if we could wait until the following weekend because we had already booked a 3 day holiday and did not want to leave less than 24 hours after bringing the piglets home (and Husband – who needs to complete the wiring for the electric fence – was leaving for the mainland the day after we got back). Thankfully, the farm was very accommodating and we’ll be picking them up together, with the kids, this Sunday.

The farm, by the way, is Sloping Hill Farm located in Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island. They sell their product to some of the top restaurants in Vancouver and elsewhere and we are very pleased to have developed a good relationship with them. When we bought piglets from them last year they informed us they’d never sold them before! But when Husband contacted them they just happened to have some extras. They were very particular about how the pigs would be housed and treated (which aligned with our plans exactly), which only raised our respect for them. We kept in touch regarding how they fared, they apparently approved, and so now we are regular customers!

In other unexpected good news, the chicks I ordered will be ready a week ahead of schedule. They arrive next Wednesday! Setting up a brooder won’t be hard – I can pick up all the supplies at the farm supply store. Then I’ll have two weeks to make the chicken tractors for when they are ready to move outside. I need to find a good set of plans (by browsing through the dozens on BackyardChickens.com) but we have the lumber and the chicken wire so I don’t think it will be too much trouble to put something together. Meanwhile, our field is dense with clover and other yummies, so I hope the birds will be happy during their brief stay with us.

With things moving a bit faster than planned, some aesthetic details are being overlooked for now. I won’t have the pasture looking as neat as I’d hoped – some of the wood piled around will doubtless not make it out. It really doesn’t matter as they have a 1/2 acre to roam and they’ll likely dig up a good deal of it anyways. We won’t have the new roof for the shed done, either, though we can certainly work on that after they are here. My garden won’t get any better-looking in terms of fencing, either, but it’s functional for now and appears to be keeping the critters out. But planting more seeds won’t take long, thanks to the beds being pre-dug last fall, and so I should be able to add to the summer harvest soon.

I’ve been thinking about how much I want to have a nice-looking farm, but really the most important thing is growing the food. For that, all you really need is the land (and the right zoning, I suppose). An open field, nothing fancy, will support our chickens. Another chunk of land supports the pigs (and really, they did fine with the portable electric fencing we had last year, it was just a bit more work for us). The garden fencing was inexpensive and relatively easy to put up. Sure it looks ugly, but it keeps the critters out. Don’t get me wrong, I want a nice-looking place, too. But that can wait, and it’s really cool to realize that it’s not a barrier to having a freezer full of chicken, pork, and veggies (assuming there are any leftover from the harvest that we don’t eat fresh and that will freeze well). Once the pigs and chickens are here and settled, and the rest of the veggies are planted, I can devote other sunny days to sprucing up the place (and may even get around to mowing the dandelion-and-weed jungle growing in front of the house). In the meantime, we’ll be enjoying having animals around the farm again and knowing that we are supplying our family with the healthiest and best food you can grow!

 

 

The Planting Begins

It’s Spring here at the ol’ homestead and a number of projects are well underway.

You may recall last fall when I spent hours and hours hacking away into our rocky soil to create a series of six 25′ garden beds. I only got five of them done before I pooped out. My plan was to seed them with small-seeded fava beans to serve as a cover crop over the winter. However, I left it too late and a few days after I scattered the seeds it snowed heavily. They never germinated. This at least solved the problem of me having not completed the fencing around the garden – I got three sides of it planted with poles (small diameter trees, mostly alder, from our early land-clearing adventures) before winter set in and never did get it enclosed. Thus the deer and other animals were free to trample the soil.

Then, about a week or so ago, the weather passed some critical temperature threshold and everything in our field shot up at once. We are knee-deep in grass now…

…a far cry from what we started with. It looks lush and lovely. However, it also all but buried my “raised” beds (which, without the benefit of a cover crop, became sunken beds over the winter). Accordingly, I was feeling rather discouraged, and the late planting season encouraged me to procrastinate. But now especially that we are eating so many greens, it just seemed silly to be buying salad at the grocery store when it’s so easy to grow. And so I forced myself to stop procrastinating by attending an organic plant sale at a local farm. I’d bought tomatoes from them last year which, before the deer and elk ate them, were looking really good! So I went and bought 5 tomato plants, as well as some lettuce, broccoli, chard, and parsley.

I knew bringing them home that I would have to get them in the ground as soon as possible (only the tomatoes were in pots) so the next day I headed to the farm supply store. I got a few bags of sea soil to make up for the loss of “raised bed-ness” in my garden, and a couple 100′ rolls of chicken wire for the fencing. While I was there I noticed a (very) few remaining packets of West Coast Seeds in stock, so I grabbed some basil, boc choy, and salad mix. My first task was to trim the grass around the garden area, which I did using a gas-powered weed whacker. Then I went to work on one 2′ x 25′ bed. I had this grand idea of digging up all the soil, putting it aside on a tarp, and filling the bottom of the beds with some rotted wood, Hugelkultur-style. Lord knows we have tons of rotting wood around, and I hoped it would raise my beds up sufficiently. However, after the first few back-breaking shovelfuls I realized this was biting off way more than I could chew. I decided to save the Hugelkultur experiment for another season, when I would get a guy with a digger to come and help me out. Instead, I used a pitchfork and fluffed up the soil. Then I spread my sea soil on top and raked it in with some complete organic fertilizer a la Steve Solomon. Finally, I planted my seedlings. Here are the Before and After shots.

My next task was stringing chicken wire around the poles. I’ve never worked with chicken wire in my life, and this city slicker was in for some frustrating moments trying to unravel what turned out to be a factory error. I didn’t know this, of course, and assumed all chicken wire came tangled up around the roll like this. It wasn’t until my Husband calmly suggested I try the other roll that I learned the first one was faulty. The second came away like a dream and it was easy work to put it up.

I folded the bottom foot of the six-foot tall roll outwards and weighed this skirt down with heavy slabs of wood (leftover bits from when we had our logs milled). This is to keep out the rabbits and other digging critters. I’m also going to attach some ribbons of flagging tape to increase visibility for the deer, and also string a line of twine about 6 inches above the top of the wire, to discourage the more adventurous jumpers. I managed to get three sides done before I ran out of wire, but I’ve since exchanged the faulty one, so when it stops pouring and I can get outside again I will put in the remaining posts and finish the job. The trickiest part will be building a gate, and I haven’t quite figured out how I’m going to do that yet but I have some ideas. Meanwhile, nothing seems to have gotten to the seedlings yet, and my fingers are crossed that they won’t notice this little bit of haute cuisine amongst the lush field of clover and grass before I can get things sealed up. I’m also planning to “refresh” another bed, since it actually didn’t take long at all, and plant the seeds I bought as well as pick up some more as I come across them. It feels really good to know that all that hard work last fall was not in vain. Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever do that again (I’ll happily hand over the money for a man with a Bobcat), but it was a good learning experience.

In other news, Husband has started wiring up the pig pasture, and I’ve been going out to clear away logs, poles, and other debris from the pasture area. The pigs are due here in about 3 weeks and we’re eager to see some little critters running around here again.

And, in other exciting news, when I went to the farm supply store to get stuff for the garden, I enquired about ordering meat birds (chickens). Turns out there’s a 3 week turnaround time, so I put in my order for 25 Cornish Cross chicks. I now have a deadline to get a brooder set up, and two weeks beyond that to get the chicken tractors constructed. With our increased meat consumption it will be wonderful to have a freezer full of broilers by end of summer.

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