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All About Eggs, Part 4: Predator Problems and Solutions

31 Oct

Raising hens on pasture has unique problems. Predators being a major one. In our area, these can include foxes, raccoons, coyotes, domestic dogs, hawks, and eagles. Most pastured eggs producers use mobile electric netted fence to keep their hens safe. It works well for predators approaching by land, but most of our problems have been from predators in the sky. A mobile fencing system will not work for air predators unless you are able to cover the top of your enclosure. Nearly impossible. Additionally, our farm has very few level spots which make mobile fencing challenging.

Last year we had major losses to our flock from hawks and bald eagles; and there is not much we could do to protect them.

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This is what was left after a bald eagle attack last year, basically feathers and feet!

Enter livestock guard dogs, Anna and Elsa.

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Adorable, huh? But not too ferocious in this picture.

We got Anna and Elsa in September 2015. They were promptly named by a certain “Frozen” crazed 3 year old.

Anna and Elsa are Great Pyrenees, a breed known for being well suited to guarding livestock. They have been a wonderful addition to our farm. The breed is slow to mature and they still have training to do, but we love their gentle nature and protectiveness.

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Elsa, on the left. Anna on the right, sleeping on the job.

Our first challenge was to discipline ourselves into treating them like working dogs, not pets. We are dog people and this was hard. Livestock guard dogs must be trained that the chickens are their “tribe”, so ours live with the chickens 24/7. Even in winter, they stay with the chickens in the coop. It is quite a symbiotic relationship.  I have witnessed the chickens “grooming” the dogs by pecking burrs from their coats.

The best part? We have had no losses due to flying predators this year. 
Thanks Anna and Elsa!

 

 

All About Eggs; Part 3: Chicken Behavior and Other Miscellany

23 Sep

Since raising backyard chickens has soared in popularity, there are many blogs about chicken behavior. A lot of that is different when you are raising large numbers of birds and moving them between homes in summer and winter. We are constantly learning how best to deal with our chickens.

Winter is not a fun time for chickens. They don’t really like getting out and about if there is too much snow. Because of this they spend a lot of time with the coop doors open, but very few venture outside. This can cause some stir crazy chickens. When chickens get stir crazy, they start pecking on each other. (Think of your kids being cooped up in the house too long.) Pecking can quickly get out of hand. If blood is drawn on a chicken, everyone joins in and can peck a bird to death.

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Inside the winter coop.

We have tried many things to keep our chickens entertained in the winter, some kind of silly, but the best seems to be having scratch grains available all the time. Enter; barley. We have been feeding free choice barley for the past year and sprouting it in winter for fodder, and have had very few pecking issues.

When spring arrives and we move chickens from their winter home to the Winnebeggo, they are really befuddled. We prepare to move the chickens in early spring, by parking the Winnebeggo next to the chicken coop the day before, then wait until dark when the girls have roosted for the night. Andrew and I then don headlamps, catch sleeping chickens, and put them in the Winnebeggo. Early the next morning, we move the Winnebeggo and accompanying gear to pasture. We have to make sure to move the Winnebeggo far from the chicken coop, or the chickens will find their way back to the coop and we will spend much of our summer trying to catch chickens in the coop and shuttling them back to the Winnebeggo. It doesn’t matter to the chickens that living conditions are far better on pasture; they are creatures of habit.

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Winnebeggo’s maiden voyage.

One of the first issues we encounter when moving to the Winnebeggo, is that the first few days in it, the chickens are clueless about where to roost at night. They figure out the nest boxes fairly quickly, but when night falls we are faced with chickens roosting mostly under the Winnebeggo. We spend several nights crawling under the Winnebeggo, catching chickens and putting them inside. In an earlier post I explained there is usually a manure buildup under the Winnebeggo, therefore, catching these chickens is not a pleasant job. Luckily, after a few nights of doing this they start to figure out we would like them to roost inside.

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Chickens roosting under the Winnebeggo.

Egg eating can be another problem. Like us, chickens love the taste of pasture raised eggs. If an egg breaks, which they do sometimes, they will race to eat it. This can develop into a habit of chickens breaking eggs themselves and eating them. We try to control this by keeping next boxes very dark, so they can’t see the eggs. They prefer dark nest boxes to lay in anyway, so this seems to keep egg breakage and eating to a minimum.

Because they are allowed to free range, our chickens like to find other places besides nest boxes to lay their eggs. I spend a great deal of time trying to figure out where they might have lain their eggs and have found clutches of eggs in some unbelievable places. These eggs can’t be used for human consumption, so when this happens, our dogs usually get a treat. We had a chicken hatch 8 chicks last summer because she hid her nest too well in an abandoned pig waterer.

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Broodiness, or a hen trying to hatch a clutch of eggs, is a problem we deal with regularly in spring and summer. When a hen “goes broody” she doesn’t lay eggs, neglects her own health, and takes up space in the nest box. Some breeds are more prone to broodiness, so we take that into consideration when choosing a breed. We have tried many methods to try to break a hen’s broodiness, but what seems to work best is Chicken Prison.

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Chicken prison is built with a small mesh wire floor to allow for maximum air circulation. When chickens are broody, their chest/breast area is very warm to the touch due to hormonal changes that prepare them to incubate their eggs. The theory is that if you can cool them down and not allow a comfy dark space to nest, they will get over being broody. Usually a week in chicken prison will do the trick. We also use chicken prison for injured birds.

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Someone on this farm is a comedian.

 

Last in the Series: Part 4: Predator Problems and Solutions

Kahlua Pulled Pork

15 Sep

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Although we love smoked meats, our time in the summer is very limited, so we take shortcuts. If you have the ability to smoke your pork in a smoker, this recipe is not for you. After searching and trying several pulled pork recipes, we have come up with one we think is best, and easiest. The recipe uses liquid smoke, but before you discount using this “fake” ingredient, remember all liquid smoke is not the same. It is possible to get a more natural product.  Read all about liquid smoke on Serious Eats website:

www.seriouseats.com/2013/11/pantry-essentials-liquid-smoke.html

Here is a shortcut to get some delicious pulled pork.

One 3# pork roast ( shoulder and fresh, uncured ham works best for shredding)

2 tsp Hawaiian sea salt

2 tsp liquid smoke

  1. Pierce pork all over with a carving fork. Rub salt then liquid smoke over meat. Place roast in a slow cooker.
  2. Cover, and cook on Low for 16 to 20 hours, turning once during cooking time.
  3. Remove meat from slow cooker, and shred, adding drippings as needed to moisten.
  4. Serve on buns with your favorite barbecue sauce.

Cooking time can be shortened by cooking part of the time on the high setting. Also, recipe can easily be doubled. […]

All About Eggs; Part 2: What Makes Our Eggs Different?

7 Sep

Aside from the color variations of the shells, most people who try our eggs notice their bright yellow yolk and rich taste. This is due to our chickens being out on pasture as much as possible.

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(Our eggs on the left, other nameless “free range” eggs on the right.)

Additionally, studies have shown the superior nutrition of eggs from chickens raised on pasture. Mother Earth News conducted such studies and here is what they found. Compared to commercially raised eggs, pastured eggs contained:

• 1/3 less cholesterol

• 1/4 less saturated fat

• 2/3 more vitamin A

• 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids

• 3 times more vitamin E

• 7 times more beta carotene

And 4 to 6 times more Vitamin D

 

To maximize our ability to keep our hens on pasture, Andrew designed and built what we call the “Winnebeggo”.

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Winnebeggo on the right, me and Chuckwagon in the middle. Bullit in the foreground.

This is a mobile home for the chickens where they live from the time pasture first appears in the spring until their water starts freezing in the fall. The Winnebeggo has nest boxes in which the chickens lay their eggs and roost bars where they roost at night, allowing us to lock them up and keep them safe from night time predators. It has no lounging area which forces the chickens to do their lounging out on the pasture, thereby encouraging them to eat more bugs and grass. This is what produces the bright yellow yolk color and rich flavor.

I have seen firsthand, farms who call their eggs pasture raised where chickens roamed around in a single fenced dirt paddock. In all fairness, those paddocks may have been grass in the beginning, but a chicken’s natural behavior is to scratch the ground and they can turn a grass paddock into a dirt paddock very quickly. If you buy your eggs elsewhere, be sure to ask if the hens are on actual pasture or in a dirt yard.

We move the Winnebeggo once every two days to a fresh piece of pasture.  It is moved so often is because the floor of the Winnebeggo, under the roost bars, is a wire floor, which allows chicken manure to fall through to the ground below. When chickens wake up in the morning, the first thing they do, before moving from the roost is…..you guessed it, poop. If we allowed that manure to build up on the ground for more than a couple of days, the concentration of fertilizer would burn up our pasture. By moving them regularly, we spread natural fertilizer on our pasture and have no chicken house to clean out. Win – Win!

Chickens cannot survive on pasture alone, so they are provided free choice feed while out on pasture. Because we keep the Winnebeggo far away from the barn and the food and water sources,  Andrew devised what he calls the “Chuckwagon”, a mobile food and water system.

Once the chickens’ water starts freezing in the fall, and the pastures become dormant, we are forced to move the girls into their conventional chicken house. They are still allowed unlimited access to the outdoors during the day and locked up at night.

Because we believe in the value of the chickens eating green stuff all year, last winter I started growing barley fodder to feed once they were moved to the chicken house. Fodder is made by sprouting and growing seed indoors under grow lights. We sprout non-GMO barley we grew on out farm last year. Producing enough fodder for 400 plus chickens is very labor intensive, but I must admit it is fun seeing how much the chickens enjoy seeing me arrive in the morning with their winter “pasture”. They flock” to me. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

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This photo shows fodder about half way through the growing process. Once it is ready to feed, the growth looks like a thick lush carpet of barley grass. The chickens also eat barley unsprouted, free choice year round in addition to their regular feed.

Up next: Part 3: Chicken Behavior and Other Miscellany

All About Eggs; Part 1: What Kind of Chicken Lay Those Eggs?

26 Aug

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We get so many questions about eggs, I decided it was time to do a series of posts on them.

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Let’s start with the chickens. There are three basic types of chickens, meat birds, dual purpose, and layers. Although meat bird breeds lay eggs, the birds are not long lived and the number of eggs they produce are not conducive for using them for egg production. Dual purpose breeds can be used for egg production or can be butchered for meat. They will not lay as many eggs as breeds in the layer category, and won’t be as heavy as a meat bird, but serve backyard farmers well. Laying breeds tend to be smaller bodied birds that require less feed, but because of their smaller size are not desirable for meat production. We keep mostly dual purpose chickens, with a few layer types acquired for other qualities we desired which I will explain later.

When considering what breeds we want as layers, there are several factors to consider. Since we use pasture based system, we want chickens that are good foragers. Because we live in Minnesota, we also need to think about how they fare in a cold climate. Do they lay well during the winter? Do they have large combs, which may lead to frostbitten parts? Are they gentle? Also, because we are in the egg “business” their tendency to broodiness is important. When a hen is broody, she is trying to hatch eggs. She doesn’t lay for many weeks, neglects her own health, and takes up space in the nest boxes so other chickens can’t lay. Egg size and number is also breed determinate.

We currently have 3 breeds of chickens that seem to work well for us. Our main breed is a Rhode Island Red. They are a gentle, dual purpose, hardy, brown egg layer, that does well on a pastured system.

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We also have Ameraucanas. These chickens lay the blue or green eggs you see when you get a dozen of our eggs. They don’t lay as well, but forage well, endure our winters and are gentle. We put up with fewer eggs and their tendency to broodiness because we really like having diverse colors of eggs.

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(Note: All three of these chickens in the foreground are Ameraucanas. They have extremely diverse coloring.)

Our third breed is the dark Leghorn, which lays white eggs. White Leghorns are typically used for industrial egg production. We chose the dark Leghorns so their coloration wouldn’t make them as much a target for predators while out on pasture, but also because Leghorns are very nervous birds and we hoped they might act as an alarm system for the rest of our flock.

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We are adding a fourth breed to the line up for next year’s eggs. It is the Cuckoo Maran, a breed that lays a dark chocolate colored egg. This will expand our color variations even more. Think of how cool this would be for natural Easter eggs.

Our Cuckoo Maran are not laying yet. On average, it takes about 6 months for a chicken to start laying.  Chocolate colored eggs beginning this winter, folks.

Did you ever wonder why sometimes all the egg vendors have a lot of eggs and not many at other times?  There are several reasons for this.

Most hens lay efficiently for two laying cycles. However, after two years, there is likely to be a decline in productivity. Once they start, good layers will keep laying for about 60 weeks in their first cycle and then perhaps 50 weeks in the second cycle. Between those cycles they will molt (lose their feathers and grow new ones), during which time laying ceases or drastically reduces. The molting cycle can last anywhere from 4 – 12 weeks.

During winter, once daylight drops below 12 hours, production can decrease and may stop altogether. To prevent this, some farms install lights in sheds to maintain light for 12 – 14 hours a day and trick the birds into thinking its still daytime (so they keep eating). That’s not a farming practice that we think is appropriate. Daylight in Minnesota starts increasing early in the spring (March) and decreasing early in the fall (September). So natural egg production stinks between the months of September and March.

Stay tuned for Part 2; What Makes Our Eggs Different?

 

 

 

Big Cathy’s Barbacoa

19 Jul

First of all, I need to explain the name although I’m unsure of the whole story. I acquired the nickname Big Cathy when my two oldest kids were in high school. Supposedly the name was a term of endearment earned from their friends, although I’m not sure whether to believe it. Those of you who know me or have met me at market know the name doesn’t quite fit my stature.

If you are a lazy cook these days, but like good food, this recipe is for you. Long days of farm work don’t leave much time for me to spend in the kitchen, so slow cooker recipes let me have the best of both worlds. My latest discovery is slow cooker barbacoa.

Most of you recognize barbacoa from the Chipotle menu. This is very similar. It’s not authentic barbacoa, but an Americanized version.

In the U.S., barbacoa is often prepared with parts from the heads of cattle, such as the cheeks. In northern Mexico, it is also sometimes made from beef head, but more often it is prepared from goat meat (cabrito).

Uh, no thanks. I prefer a grass fed beef roast.

Barbacoa

Ingredients:

• 2-3lbs Beef Arm Roast
• 6 Tbsp Water
• 3 Tbsp Apple Cider Vinegar
• 1 1/2 Tbsp Lime Juice
• 2 Chipotle chiles in Adobo
• 2 Cloves Garlic, minced
• 2 tsp Cumin
• 1 tsp Oregano
• 1/2 tsp Salt, Pepper

Directions:

Add all ingredients to slow cooker, cover and cook on low for 6 hours.

 

Serve on tortillas or in a bowl with beans, rice, lettuce, salsa, cheese, sour cream, tomato, avocado…..you get the gist.

Keep in mind your tolerance for heat from the peppers. The heat level in this recipe is fairly mild. If you prefer more heat, increase your chipotle peppers, but be careful of getting is so hot you lose the beef flavor.

This works well when you need food for a crowd. Or you can even portion out leftovers and store in your freezer to use at a later date.