Archive | July, 2012

NASCAR Chickens vs. Heritage Breeds – Butchering Day

31 Jul

We finally got all the broilers slaughtered, processed and delivered.  We only a little over 50 broilers this year, and that was pushing it, since we had to pluck them all by hand.

The Commercial Cornish-Cross chicks were just 6 weeks old when they got big enough to butcher. The roosters weighed in at just over 6lbs live weight, which put them a shade over 4lbs dressed out.  We got really lucky in that we only lost one chicken to the heat. The commercial broilers are notorious for having serious problems surviving in high heat.


This is what they look like side by side. On the left we have the “Heritage” cornish-cross rooster (Dark Cornish x White Orpington) at 2.85lbs dressed weight. On the right is the Commercial cornish-cross weighing in at 4.45lbs.

Our largest Commercial broiler was 4.66lbs dressed, and the smallest was around 3.4lbs. They averaged about 4.1lbs.


The largest Heritage broiler was 2.85lbs and the smallest was a diminutive 1.75lbs. The Heritage birds averaged about 2.0lbs.


The Commercial Broilers were super easy to pluck. We were joking that they were already half-plucked because they just don’t have half the number of feathers that a normal chicken does. The white feathers (and shafts) make it even easier.

The Heritage Broilers were quite a bit more work to pluck. Their feathers were more grown in at 13 weeks old, and despite having pure white mothers, they all had very dark plumage. This meant that it took quite a bit more work to make sure that the carcasses looked clean, as most people aren’t used to seeing little flecks of pigment under the chickens skin where their feathers used to be.
Skin color varied from yellow to white, with yellow, white and green-tinted feet. All of the heritage birds (especially the pullets) had that deep-yellow fat that you hardly ever see in a Commercial Broiler.

We’ll see how they taste here in a few days. We’ll have to cook two of them up and do a side-by-side comparison.

All in all, I’d say that the first year of chicken breeding has been a learning experience. Is that euphemistic enough for ya?
We really missed the mark on growth rate and carcass weight; I was prepared for that. The plumage color was all wrong, and that’s the first thing on the list to fix, the low-hanging fruit as it were.

If we’re going to make the heritage broilers work, they have to be easier to process, and they have to grow a bit faster.

We’ll see how we do next year.

*Edit* – We’re making a few changes to our homegrown broilers for 2013.

Drought: a photo tour

25 Jul

Well it looks like we may actually get some rain this evening or tomorrow.  The weather report says 30%-40% chance, and that’s as good as it’s been in quite some time.  Data from the University of Missouri shows that we got around 2″ of rain in June, leaving us 3.5″ short of the average (and that’s just for the month of June!)

Take into account that we only got about 1/2″ of rain in all of July and we’re in pretty bad shape. So in case you were wondering, here’s what a drought-stricken pasture looks like.


And that’s what the tall stuff looks like. No green in sight. Most of the pastures are quite a bit shorter as they’ve been grazed more. Here’s Cinco showing off some pretty typical looking pasture.


The fescue (a dominant forage around these parts) went dormant in late May when the temps started getting up over 90 degrees. Tall fescue is a cool-season grass, and that means what when the weather heats up, it pretty much shuts down. When it cools back off again, the fescue will perk back up and grow some more, provided we get a little rain.

The dormant fescue pasture gets really scary when you find the areas with the poorer clay soils. The higher the clay content, the more contraction there is as the soil dries out.
When you see the 1″ wide cracks, you know you’re there.


Up on top of the hill things look quite a bit better. The soil up there is pretty good, this ground was cropped until it went into CRP about a year ago. Since it was in CRP, it wasn’t grazed at all until only 10 days ago when the NRCS implemented some “emergency” measures. It was also seeded in a legume-heavy mix, and the legumes seem to be holding their moisture better than the grasses.


The cows appreciate all the new alfalfa.
Nom nom nom.


Like I said, the grasses aren’t looking so good.
Exhibit A: Orchard Grass.


Exhibit B: Timothy (all the brown stuff around the bottom was some early variety of clover)


And finally, we get back to the farthest field which was cut for a meager amount of hay back in mid-June. Like every other hay-field in the area, nothing has grown back at all except for the red-clover. Even that has only grown back about 8″ or so. (pocketknife pictured for scale)


While driving around, you can easily spot any field that was cut for hay. Just look for the fields that look to be populated only by red clover and wild carrot (queen anne’s lace).

The Pitfalls of Animal Feed

21 Jul

In the past few days I came across a few posts that I’ve mentally bookmarked as case-studies in how farming can go wrong in a hurry.  Both hinge on skyrocketing feed costs, which Bruce King covers pretty thoroughly here in his post from last week.

First up we have a lady named Chris Chinn who raises hogs here in Missouri. Chris was one of the panelists in a particularly maddening radio program that I wrote about a while back. Their farm is a pretty typical hog operation and they are getting absolutely hammered by rising feed costs and a flooded hog market. While I might not agree with her on many things, I can only imagine the terror of seeing so much of your hard work and investment evaporate almost overnight. I’ve heard that the past few years were good times for hog producers, as pork prices were pretty high, and feed prices reasonable.  I only hope that the good times were good enough to outweigh the next year or so, as I think it’s going to put more than a few farms under.

Next up, in a completely different setup, we have Soul Food farm, a small farm right outside of San Fransisco, California.  They supply eggs and chicken to a number of ritzy customers such as Alice Water’s famous restaurant; Chez Panisse. Even with the advantages of direct-marketing, affluent clientele and lots of community supprot, they couldn’t overcome their reliance on purchased feed.  Chickens eat feed, and chickens are all that Soul Food Farm raised.

“Looking back, the hardest thing to overcome was our lack of diversity. I didn’t have the time or the understanding that a farm has to have diversity. We should’ve planted fields, had vegetables and other animals, so there would be rotating plants and crops. That was a huge mistake, but a part of learning.”

Hindsight is 20/20 and Monday-morning quarterbacking ain’t too difficult either, but I’d like to avoid these kinds of mistakes on my farm. For now the pigs are easy because I don’t have any.  In another year, I’ll be trying to follow the example of guys like Bruce King and Walter Jefferies, raising pigs on pasture with as much non-commercial hog feed as possible.

The chickens are especially interesting (and challenging) for me right now. Soul Food Farms raises Freedom Ranger Broiler Chickens (Label Rouge if you’re French) which I’m thinking about trying for this fall.  Ideally, we will be able to skip buying chickens all together if the great chicken breeding experiment starts paying dividends.  But even chickens that you breed on the farm have to eat and nothing we can do will change that.  We can put chickens out on pasture, which will reduce feed consumption up to 30% (per Joel Salatin). We can also diversify away from just corn and soy, though in a drought this prolonged and widespread it’s doubtful that it’d do much for the bottom line; but every little bit helps.

Future Farm? – the Offer

17 Jul

I took a little trip up to Minnesota this weekend with my folks, and had a look at a farm.  We liked it.

We really liked the fact that the owners seemed open to renting the farm to us for a year, and then selling it to us.  More time to sell the Missouri farm and move it Northward that way.

We had ourselves a family meeting when we got back home and decided to make an offer on the place.

I’m hesitant to say too much yet, as it’s very early in the game, but I will drop this hint.

It starts with a “Z” and ends with an “umbrota.”

Weather report: Crispy

12 Jul

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Yep, the USDA showed us at a moderate drought level last week.

On Friday, however, we got upgraded to Severe drought.

7-12 Drought

The pastures are dry, if not downright crispy. The fescue has long gone dormant because of the heat. There isn’t a whole lot of forage out there to speak of. At least we aren’t row croppers. All of the corn around here looks dismal.  So bad, in fact that the Governor just declared almost the entire state an agricultural disaster area.

It’s already too late for the corn crop, it’s history.  The beans could be saved if we were to get some decent rain in the next few weeks, but that isn’t looking likely.  After a week of relief from over-100-degree temperatures, it looks like we’re headed back into the 100’s for a while.

On the bright side, the NRCS (the government entity that oversees the CRP program) has released land enrolled in CRP to be grazed or cut for hay because of the severe drought.  Normally you can’t graze or cut CRP fields but once every three years, and then you are allowed to graze/cut after July 15th.  For the privilege of grazing or haying your CRP payment is reduced.

We have 40 acres that was recently enrolled in the CRP program.  When it was enrolled, it was planted in a mixture of alfalfa, red clover, white clover, lespediza, timothy, orchard grass, and several other species that I can’t remember off the top of my head.  In short, it looks like excellent pasture.  Since it was only recently enrolled we wouldn’t be able to graze it for another few years, but due to the drought, we can (and will) graze it this year.

Hopefully we’ll get some rain in time to stockpile some fescue this fall for our winter grazing.  If not, it’s going to get mighty interesting around here.


In other news, I haven’t been able to blog a whole lot on account of all the stuff going on.  We’ve just moved out of our house and into the basement of my in-laws for a few months before we depart for Minnesota. We picked a lovely 107 degree day to do the moving too!

We’re all moved in, but still living out of boxes and getting used to the rural-limited-internet-access thing.

We’re also less than a month away from Callina’s due date.

Oh, and if you’re real lucky I just might have another dispatch from Minnesota for ya this weekend…



Farm Rap

5 Jul

So it would appear that there is a burgeoning new genre of music; Farm Rap.

The first entry into this category is the Yeo Boyz from the UK, with their viral hit “Yeo Valley”

Next up, from this side of the pond we have the Peterson Farm Brothers with “I’m Farming and I Grow It.”


In the interest of retaining my dignity, I will not be attempting to cash in on this latest musical trend.  While these videos are at least mildly embarrassing to the featured parties, they are garnering quite a bit of attention.  In case you were wondering how this “viral marketing” stuff works, this is it.

Make something funny or awesome (or both) that people want to tell their friends about.  The next few million views just sorta take care of themselves.

Future Farm? – Red Wing

3 Jul

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So this tour is a bit second-hand. You see, my wife and parents went up to Minnesota without me in April, and they were the ones who looked at this farm. They were nice enough to take plenty of pictures for me, and give me a good verbal walk-through of the place.

This farm is about 5 miles outside of the town of Red Wing, Minnesota. You know, the one with all the shoes.


The Pros:

  • The biggest farm we’ve looked at so far at 157 acres.
  • Reasonably priced at $4300/acre.
  • Plenty of paved road frontage for a farm store.
  • Good buldings: House, newer pole barn, old barn in good shape.
  • Spring on property

The Cons:

  • 45 miles from Rochester
  • Non-compliant septic in the house
  • The Neighbors

This farm, like the last one, already has buildings on it! There’s this old farmhouse which appears to be in pretty decent shape.


And there is a newer pole barn.


And then there is this low-lying area between the buildings and the road. There is a natural spring that originates on the farm here and flows on into Spring Creek. Spring Creek is fed by at least two other springs from other farms and it feeds into the Mississippi River in Red Wing.


Now the spring is really great and back in the 1890’s it must have seemed like a great idea to put a house just uphill from this spring. Fast forward a few decades and all of the sudden the DNR doesn’t like the idea of a septic system anywhere near the spring. It’s grandfathered in until the property changes hands. At that point the septic system becomes non-compliant and will have to be torn out. Options are as follows: A.) Build pump station to pump sewage uphill to a new lagoon or leach-field. B.) Tear down house and rebuild elsewhere.

Anyway, the rest of the farm purports to be 105 acres of tillable ground, with only 32 acres of woods. It sure looks like a lot more woods to me on the satellite picture. The land rises at a pretty good rate as you get farther from the gravel road. Up on top of the tallest hill (the biggest cropfield with the contour lines) there is quite a view.


Unfortunately, there is also quite a smell. This is true not only up on the hill, but also down near the road by the house. A quick check of the map shows where the smell is coming from: two huge hog confinement barns and one huge liquid manure lagoon. Hooray!


Oh, and I almost forgot, being 5 miles from Redwing also puts this farm about 6-7 miles from the Prarie Island Nuclear Power Plant and well within the “plume exposure pathway zone.” (the 10-mile evacuation zone if the nuke ever goes all Fukushima) Hooray again!

Future Farm – The Wish List

2 Jul

So since we’ve been looking at farms recently, it would probably help if I go ahead and define exactly what we’re looking for in a new place. Sure would help put some context to all that real estate.

  1. 40 minute or less commute to Rochester.  Callina (my lovely and very pregnant wife) got herself a job in Rochester at a little place called the Mayo Clinic.  She starts in October and would really like to spend less than 90 minutes of her day commuting.  Fortunately, Mayo and the city of Rochester have a bus system that runs to almost all of the outlying towns.  Being near a town that has a bus-stop would be ideal.
  2. Proximity to local markets & processors. The biggest local farmers markets are Minneapolis/Saint Paul, Rochester, Lake City, Northfield and Chatfield. Most of these are North and East of Rochester.  There are fewer markets and smaller towns to the South and West of Rochester. This NE and SW differential also corresponds to the land types.  Land to the South and West tends to be flatter, larger parcels and row-cropped.  To the North and West land is smaller, hillier and more likely to be in woods or pasture. The biggest cattle sale-barn is in Zumbrota, 30 miles North of Rochester. Most meat processors are to the North and East, in Winona, Millville, Lake City, Wanamingo (near Zumbrota) and Chatfield.
  3. Minimum of 50+ acres pasture/tillable and 5+ acres woods. 50 acres is the minimum for being able to carry 40 head of cattle in an intensive mob-grazing situation. 100 acres or more would be better, but with land in Minnesota fetching $5000-6000/acre, it can get too expensive very quickly.  I would like enough woods to be able to heat with wood in the winter.  If you figure on getting 1 cord/acre, then 5 acres of woods ought to more than cover it, plus it leaves more wildlife habitat for hunting.
  4. Possibility for On-Farm store and second buildable site.  We really like the idea of an on-farm store, having seen a few other people who do it.  This requires close proximity to a city, and preferably frontage on a paved road with electric and water access.  The second buildable site is so that both my parents and myself can have our own homes on the property.
  5. Character of nearest town.  The nearest town is going to be “home base” and we would really like to have a good one.  It seems that the small towns (<2k population) don’t usually have enough going on, while the big ones (>10k population) have too much.  We really don’t want to live in a dying small town, but would rather live in a place that has an active and engaged community.
  6. The Lay of the Land.  This is the intangible of the lot, impossible to describe, but you know it when you see it.  Desirable features include: Springs, creeks, rivers, ponds (especially ponds at relatively high elevations to gravity-feed water to stock-tanks). Renewable energy possibilities are also a consideration (solar, wind and hydro).  Rolling hills and paved-road frontage are big pluses.


The vision for the farm:

  • 30-50 head brood-herd of cattle. More finishing cattle in addition to the brood herd, numbers fluctuating as they’re finished and sold.
  • Farrow-to-finish hog operation. Still undecided on numbers and breeds, but I love bacon, ham and sausage far to much to not make this a reality.
  • Pastured laying hens. Following the cattle in rotation with cattle to distribute manure and eat fly larvae. Hopefully hatch our own Rhode Island Red x Delaware (Red Sex Link) Layers.
  • Pastured Broilers. Add lots of fertility to pastures.  If I have to buy fertilizer, I’d prefer to buy it in the form of chicken feed. The plan was to have our own Cornish x Delaware cross birds, but that’s looking doubtful (more on this later).
  • Pastured Turkeys. Turkeys are a heck of a lot of fun, and the demand seems to be quite high. Raising them with chickens seems to eliminate a lot of the stupidity that turkeys are so famous for.
  • Asparagus & Strawberries.  These two crops are relatively easy to grow, and because the quality of fresh produce is so high, demand nearly always outstrips supply.
  • Value-added products. It’s almost always more profitable to add value to your products rather than increase your output. Jams, jellies, BBQ pulled pork, breakfast burritos, bread and salsas are all ideas that are floating around for getting more money for the same amount of product.