Thursday, December 16, 2010

Small farm new math: If (chicken tractor), then (pig plow)

A couple of weeks ago, I drove to Sedro Woolley, a small town north of Seattle. It's beautiful farm country there, literally at the foot of the Cascade Mountains. I visited Woolley Farms, a lovely organic farm, to buy some Tamworth pigs to add to the two we've been raising this year. The 11-week-old pigs were somewhat bigger than I expected; it was a challenge getting the three of them into the two dog carriers I had brought, but finally they were tucked in and settled for the three hour drive home. Like the first two times I've brought home Tamworth piglets, these cuties slept pretty much all the way home.

Last year we decided to diversify our small farm by adding two pigs. Although I had done quite a bit of reading on the subject, I felt just about as ignorant as I had prior to starting with poultry. I was also excited, though; it was something new and different.

I had heard that the Tamworth breed was particularly noted for its rooting ability. Never having been in close proximity to pigs, other than at the county fair, I had only a hazy idea of what that actually meant in real life. Well, as far as the Tamworth is concerned, it means they will plow up pretty much everything in reach of their long, strong snouts. Watching our first two weaners, we were amazed at how quickly and efficiently such little pigs turned a grassy pasture into loose soil.

We haven't had our rototiller out of the shed since.

You might be wondering what pigs have to do with poultry. Well, as I said, our first motivation in getting pigs was to diversify our farm operations, a major factor in the success of small farms. (I also love to cure prosciutto, pancetta, bacon and other cured pork products, and at least in our area, there aren't many choices in commercially available pork.) We figured, if chicken tractors, why not pig plows? 

David and I decided that, since these pigs wanted to root all day long, by golly, we'd put them to work doing what they love. There is a large area to the east of our main house, between the shooting range and the large peat bog; in the summer, this area is 7 feet deep in reed canary grass. It is also the largest plot on our property that could potentially be turned into good pasture. The water table is high there, making it essentially self-watering. It's flat, gets good sun in summer, and unlike most of our 40 acres, it has no trees. As we watched the piglets happily tossing large clumps of sod in the air, the wheels started turning. What if we could transform this previously unused acre or so into prime grazing land?

We just moved our two older pigs off of this area, as it has gotten fairly wet down there with the rain and snow we've had lately. They have done their job beautifully, though, and have left behind an expanse of thoroughly tilled, peat-rich soil' all it needs is a bit of leveling and it will be ready to plant. With the water table being high there, I will probably opt to plant ladino clover and possibly timothy, both crops that can deal with having wet feet at least some of the time. We are looking forward to seeing that field transformed into lush pasture over the next season or two.

In the meantime, the pigs are happily plowing up their new yard. The three little pigs (I know, I know) are in a separate yard temporarily, while we train them on the electric fence; they also are enthusiastically rooting and grazing. They all look happy and healthy, and appear to be enjoying their typical routine: Eating, rooting, grazing, and napping.

Such is the cycle of Tamworth life.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The best laid schemes of ice and menus...

"But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft a-gley..."

(Robert Burns, To a mouse, on turning her up in her nest with the plough, November, 1785)

Normally our first holiday turkey slaughtering is planned for the Monday and Tuesday before Thanksgiving. This year I spent extra time in planning and organizing this event. We were expecting several people to come up and help with the slaughtering, some of whom were going to process the turkey they were buying from us. We were also listening with some apprehension to the weather forecasts: The barometer was falling, as were the temperatures. The chance of snow falling, on the other hand, was rising. While the predictions were for "snow showers," with possible accumulations of 1-3 inches, we both felt it would be prudent to have a Plan B in case conditions worsened either before or during the slaughtering.

On Sunday, November 21, it snowed lightly here most of the day; by the time the snow quit in early evening, we had maybe an inch on the ground. It cleared up that night, the temperature dropped to the mid-20s, and it was still clear when I got up Monday morning. "Great," I thought, "No more snow overnight. People won't have trouble getting up the hill." ("Snow showers," I reminded myself, "1-3 inches.")

Well, about 7:30 that morning, it started snowing again. A little before 9:30, our friend Giles drove up, bringing with him a large turkey he had raised and planned to slaughter here. At that point it was snowing harder, and there was about 3 inches of snow on the ground. We were pretty busy then, finishing the final preparations: I had a big pot of homemade minestrone on the stove, a kettle of water keeping hot for coffee and tea, the woodstoves were stoked. Outside, the tent was set up with the plucker and a table inside, and gloves, paper towels, knives and sharpeners, and cutting boards in place. The 20-gallon scalding pot was heating up on the propane burner outside the tent, and a large bucket of ice water stood ready for cooling the freshly-scalded birds prior to plucking.

This is our third year raising and slaughtering turkeys, and this was the first time we have had snow to deal with. It's usually cold, and of course the days are short, which is why we have previously done the processing over two days. This time we hoped to get all 12 turkeys slaughtered on one day, since we were expecting helpers. We had also done most of the setup on Sunday, thinking we would get an earlier start on Monday.

Shortly after Giles arrived, we started getting phone calls. It was snowing just as hard in Sequim and Port Angeles, and in the end (not surprisingly) Giles was the only one who made it to the farm. By late morning, it was getting windy, and the visibility was very poor. Because of the conditions, the guys decided to get three turkeys ready for eviscerating at once, instead of doing them one at a time. (We usually do the killing, scalding and plucking outdoors, then bring the birds inside to do the eviscerating.) The snow was piling up fast at that point, and I had to keep knocking it off the tent about every 10 minutes. The footing was very slippery, which slowed us down, too. Finally we took the three turkeys inside, grateful for a chance to warm up (the high temperature that day was 22F), get a bite to eat, and get out of the snow for a while.

While David and Giles worked on cleaning the turkeys, I gulped down a cup of tea, then headed back outside to check on the birds' feeders and drinkers. It was snowing pretty much sideways then, and the feeders and drinkers were accumulating snow, although they were under shelters. I also had to top off the drinkers with warm water, as the water freezes fairly quickly when it's this cold.

While I was outside, noticing that the snow had piled up to nearly 12 inches, I thought I had better go knock the snow off the tent again. I looked over toward the slaughter area, and guess what: The tent had disappeared. Between the wind and the snow, it had just come down. I went back in to report this to David, and we all agreed it was a good thing we hadn't been in the tent at the time! Although the snow continued to come down thick and fast, we were able to raise the tent again pretty easily. However, given the wind, the time and the cold, we decided to move the plucking operations indoors.

At that point, it was nearly 3:00. Since we knew that we would have only about another hour of daylight, we decided not to process any more birds that day. That evening, I got on the phone to most of the customers on our "turkey list," to let them know there was a possibility we wouldn't be able to get all the turkeys processed in time for Thanksgiving. Also, given the amount of snow on the ground, and the swiftly dropping temperature, it seemed questionable whether they would be able to get to the farm to pick up their birds. Everyone was very understanding, and several of them will be getting a fresh turkey sometime in December.

Monday night, our low temperature was 7F. (As David said, "You know it's cold when you have to bring the coolers with the turkeys indoors to keep them from freezing overnight.") On Tuesday, David and I slaughtered two more turkeys. Thankfully, it was sunny most of the day Tuesday, although the high that day was also 22F. We knew  it would get pretty cold that night if it stayed clear, and it did; our low temperature was 0F. We processed one more turkey on Wednesday morning, and went out past our gate to meet the customer, in case she couldn't get through the deep snow in the half-mile between the gate and the house. Fortunately the road crew had plowed Fish Hatchery Road as far as our gate, so she was able to make it that far.

We definitely learned a lot from this experience. Although I had spent extra time planning and organizing, all that went pretty much out the window as the snow piled up outside. As the snow was coming down hard that Monday morning, I had said to David, "I suspect the key to today will be flexibility." That certainly turned out to be the case!

On the positive side, the customers who didn't get their turkey in time for Thanksgiving will be getting a slightly larger bird, as we will not be slaughtering them for another couple of weeks or more. (We only sell our turkeys fresh, partly because we have no means of freezing them here, and also because we believe that when it comes to poultry, fresh is preferable to frozen.)

Once we had a chance to catch our breath and relax, we couldn't help but stare out at the gorgeous view: The frosty-looking Blue Mountain to the southwest, the beautiful snow-covered cedar and fir trees around our property, and our two pigs playing happily in their pasture, seemingly oblivious to the weather. Although the days before Thanksgiving didn't go much as we had planned, it all turned out all right, and we are truly thankful that we are safe and warm here at home in the beautiful Olympic Mountains.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Duck eggs are delicious, and great for baking

The other night, David and I had dinner at the fabulous Alder Wood Bistro in Sequim. As you may know, the Bistro buys virtually our entire production of organic chicken and duck eggs. Right now, as our young ducks have recently started to lay, we've had a few more duck eggs than usual. This week, in time for Tapas Tuesday, Bistro chef Gabriel Schuenemann came up with a deceptively simple, outrageously delicious dish to showcase these eggs.

At first glance, you might have thought it was a plate of scrambled eggs and toast. But wait... this IS the Bistro, after all! Embedded in the smooth, creamy egg were shavings of Washington State black truffles, and the first bite confirmed our initial impression: The eggs were positively swimming in butter. Nestled alongside the eggs were thin, crispy crouton slices large enough to pile a couple bites of truffly eggs on them. The combination of super-fresh, melt-in-your-mouth tender eggs with crunchy croutons and butter trying (not very subtly) to drip down your chin... oh, boy!

Duck eggs aren't always easy to find, but if you do, it's well worth trying them. We're often asked what the difference is between duck and chicken eggs. Aside from the size (our duck eggs average 3-1/2 oz., compared to the standard 2 oz. large chicken egg), our general impression is that duck eggs have a milder taste, and are somewhat richer and creamier than chicken eggs. The whites of duck eggs also have higher viscosity than chicken eggs, making them a great choice for baking. The baker at the Bistro likes to use our duck eggs for the Chocolate Bliss, a wonderful flourless brownie.

As I noted in a previous post, this year we are increasing the size of our duck laying flock. Mainly this is to keep up with the needs of the Bistro. There is also increasing interest in duck eggs around here; we've heard from a number of people who want to buy them from us as soon as we have any extra to sell. Although duck eggs naturally cost more than chicken eggs, no one seems to mind; the quality of the eggs, along with their relative scarcity, adds up to a good value. And like all our birds, the ducks free-range on pasture during the day and are also fed organic grains.

I mentioned in an earlier post that we had recently lost several of our ducks to some kind of poisoning. They were usually heading down the hill to the bog in the morning, spending most of the day down there, then eventually coming back up the hill for a bedtime snack before being tucked into their coops for the night. About a month ago, around the time of a rash of bobcat attacks, the ducks suddenly stopped going down to the bog. We're not sure why this happened, although David's theory is that one of the ducks was killed by some predator down there, and the others are avoiding that area now. Whatever the reason, I'm just happy that they're hanging around closer to the house now; besides knowing that they are safer, it's also a lot easier to collect their eggs when they lay them in their coops!

We expect that within a couple of months, our young laying ducks will be up to full production. These Khaki Campbell ducks are quite prolific, often averaging 340 eggs per year; that's more than most chickens lay, even in their prime. And even if we end up producing more duck eggs than the Bistro can use, there are always other customers waiting in the wings, so to speak.

Chef Gabriel also does amazing things with our chicken eggs. Recently he came up with a gorgeous salad that has smoked salmon, pickled onions and a poached egg on top! Delicious. Most of our chicken and duck eggs are used in their desserts, though; my favorite, the Creme Brulee, their seasonal organic carrot cake, an incredible hazelnut torte, and various seasonal fruit tarts (among others). If you're even thinking about coming to the Sequim area, you really should check out the Alder Wood Bistro; they're open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday, and can be reached at (360) 683-4321.

We love our ducks, and we love the Bistro! They buy so many of our eggs that our standard joke is that we have to go eat at the Bistro to have some of our own eggs. It's worth it, though; we never know what Gabriel is going to come up with next. He's committed to sourcing ingredients locally, and is always willing to try things we suggest, such as the duck eggs. Even though we're a small farm, we're proud to have a role in the success of our hard-working friends at the Alder Wood Bistro.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

How to cook your heritage turkey

If you've ever cooked a heritage-breed turkey, you probably noticed that it's a bit different from cooking a large, broad-breasted bird. Generally heritage turkeys are smaller, leaner, and with proportionately less breast meat. We've also noticed that heritage turkeys are a somewhat different shape; they are more elongated compared to the Butterball types, with longer legs, which can make it a challenge to find a roasting pan to fit the bird.

I won't go into stuffing questions here, but I do want to talk about brining, which in our experience makes a noticeable difference in the roasting process. Here is an explanation for this, from the wonderful book "Charcuterie" (Ruhlman and Polcyn, W.W. Norton & Co., 2005):

"Brines, more so than dry cures, are an excellent way to impart seasoning and aromatic flavors. A brine penetrates a chicken or pork loin rapidly and completely, bringing with it any flavors you might have added to the salty solution [garlic, onion, tarragon, pepper]. Chefs often use brines for pork, chicken and turkey, the three types of meat that benefit most from brining, because they result in a uniformly juicy loin or bird that's perfectly seasoned every time.

"Roasting a brined chicken or turkey and hitting at just the right point of doneness is easier than with an unbrined [turkey]. You can actually overcook it, in fact, and it can still be juicier than a perfectly cooked bird that wasn't brined. The brine seems to allow the breast to withstand the high temperature while the slowpoke legs and thighs continue to cook."

IMPORTANT NOTE: You'll need to plan ahead if you're going to brine your turkey. In addition to the actual brining time, allow extra time for chilling the brine before putting the turkey in the brining pot. Also, once the bird is removed from the brine, it needs to "rest" in order for the salt to equalize through the meat; allow a resting time of about the same as the brining time for best results. (Extra rest time doesn't hurt anything; it's better to have it rest longer than to shorten the rest time.)

Sound complicated? It's not, really. Here's how it usually shakes out, if you're planning for Thanksgiving: Make the brine on Monday and chill it overnight. Put the turkey in the brine on Tuesday and leave overnight. Remove the turkey from the brine Wednesday morning, then let rest until you're ready to roast it on Thursday.

To make a basic brine for turkey, combine in a large pot:

1 gallon water
1 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup sugar
Seasonings (for turkey, I like to use celery, onion, carrot, peppercorns, tarragon, and thyme)

Note: You may need to double this recipe, depending on the size of the turkey and the container you use for brining.

Bring all ingredients to a simmer, and stir to dissolve the salt and sugar. Remove from heat and chill.

If your turkey is on the smallish side, you can use a large stockpot for brining. A food-grade bucket with lid also works well. This time of year, here on the farm it is cold enough outside to keep the brining pot outside, so I usually plan to put the turkey in the brine before we go to bed, and stays cold and is ready to remove from the brine in the morning.

Which brings me to the amount of time needed for brining. For a turkey of 10-15 pounds, allow 24 hours. If it's smaller than 10 pounds (like our Midget White hens), 12 hours is about right. (If it's more than 15 pounds, allow 24-36 hours.) Don't forget to leave time for your turkey to rest between brining and roasting!

Now, to the cooking part! If you have access to a smoker, I encourage you to try smoking your turkey. It takes longer, as usually the temperatures in the smoker are lower than your oven; my smoker generally cooks at between 200 and 225F. It's hard to say an exact amount of time for smoking, as there are lots of variables (size of the bird, smoker temperature, outside temperature, etc.). I suggest you just allow plenty of time and check the internal temperature of the bird every so often. I definitely recommend brining the turkey if you're going to smoke it.

In spite of its recent popularity, I personally do NOT recommend deep-frying heritage turkeys. In my view,  brining and then roasting (or smoking) results in the best-tasting heritage turkey.

Here is my preferred method for roasting: Preheat oven to 450F. Place the turkey straight from the refrigerator or cooler into the oven, then immediately reduce the heat to 325F. After the first half-hour of cooking, baste several times per hour with pan drippings or extra fat. (If you choose not to brine the turkey, basting is particularly important.)

If your turkey is under 6 pounds, allow 20-25 minutes roasting time per pound; for a 6-16 pound bird, 15-20 minutes; and for a turkey over 16 pounds, about 13-15 minutes. If using a thermometer, insert it into the thigh, taking care not to let it touch the bone; internal temperature should be 180-185F.

As is usual with all roasted meats, remove the turkey from the oven and let it rest for 15-30 minutes before carving.

That's it! There are lots of ways to cook a turkey, but this is my favorite: brining and then either roasting or smoking. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to post them! I will be glad to provide ideas about stuffing, gravy, or anything else in another post.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Back to Standard Time, which the birds never left

Oh, goody. We've "fallen back" to Standard Time once again. Those of you who know me and have glimpsed my collection of various soap boxes will appreciate the fact that I can reasonably get on this one just twice a year. Honestly, now, don't you think "Daylight Savings" loses at least some of its purported meaning when it lasts for roughly seven months?

If you have poultry, specifically one or more roosters, you know how the change to Standard Time has affected them: NOT AT ALL. Our roosters, bless their little hearts, still go through their routine of crowing for a few minutes about an hour before dawn. Do they care that our atomic clocks re-set themselves at 2 AM last Saturday? They do not. Did they gather around the 3-gallon drinkers to discuss how to use the "extra hour of sleep?" Doubt it. I love it that these supposedly unintelligent creatures make this transition so smoothly, and you know why they do? Because nothing actually happened!

I have not been in the habit of wearing a watch for many years now, so it's interesting to me how much I still am aware of the time. And although the birds are blissfully unaware (I think) of what the hour is at any given time, they do definitely have their routines, which probably accounts for why we're paying attention to the time during the day! As sunrise approaches, the roosters start crowing. (It's a myth, though, that roosters crow simply to announce the arrival of dawn; if they do happen to crow right at sunrise, it's frankly just a coincidence.) Once it's fairly light, all the birds become active and want to leave their respective roosts and head out for a busy day of foraging, dust-bathing, sun-bathing, mating, and debating the finer points of the pecking-order rankings.

The ducks, who seem to stay up late at night partying (we can hear them talking to each other at all hours), are quite active and energetic for the first couple of hours in the morning, then settle into a nice long nap. Lately they haven't been going down the hill to the pond, but when they do, they always run up the hill once or twice during the day to get a snack; they are amazingly consistent about the timing of this.

The turkeys also have regular nap times, but mostly their routine follows ours: When we're outside, they follow us around. When we're inside, they walk around the house, peering in every window, trying to see where we are and what we're up to. (Makes me glad our bedroom is on the second floor.) On sunny, dry days, they like to dust-bathe with the chickens, always quite a sight to see. Birds synthesize Vitamin D from sunshine like we do, and the turkeys and chickens look quite funny when they're sunbathing; they recline in a sprawling, wings-outstretched position that sometimes makes them look, well, dead.

Toward the end of the day, about an hour before they head into their coops, all the birds gather around the feeding stations  for a bedtime snack and a nice drink of water. This time of year we generally start giving them extra corn at night; the additional carbohydrates help them generate body heat while they sleep.

What it comes down to is that our chickens, turkeys and ducks are not enslaved by any clock but their internal ones. They get up when it gets light; they rest when it gets dark. It's true that we humans have to find a balance between being completely schedule-driven and being completely selfish about how we use our time. However, I do think it's good to remember that it wasn't so long ago that we didn't have the benefit of 24-hour electric lights that allow us to artificially extend our waking hours. The birds know how to make the most of the available daylight hours at any time of year. Maybe they know something we don't.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

"The Mind of a Turkey"

"That would be a great title for a book," David called from the kitchen yesterday afternoon.

"What title?" I called back after a moment. I was relaxing by the living room wood stove with a New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle.

"The Mind of a Turkey," he replied, walking into the living room.

"Well," I retorted, "That ought to be a pretty short book."

Okay, so that wasn't a very charitable remark. We have heard quite a few fairly uncharitable remarks about turkeys, usually from people who have never actually raised them. Several years ago, when we were contemplating the addition of turkeys to the farm, we heard this one frequently: "Why would you want to raise turkeys? They're so STUPID!" This was often followed by the recital of one or more supposedly funny myths about turkeys. Yawn.

If you've been following my blog, you know we love our turkeys. After raising both White Midget and Narragansett turkeys the first year, we settled on the White Midget as the right breed for us. Now that it's November, with Thanksgiving just a few weeks away, I thought I'd share some of our observations about, well, the mind of a turkey.

First, we don't consider turkeys to be any less intelligent than chickens. Stop snickering! Turkeys are people too, and they have feelings. Seriously, we do think turkeys have more personality than chickens, and their mannerisms are fairly adorable, at least sometimes. We especially love their habit of following us around; they seem to just be insatiably curious about what we're up to. Anyone who's visited the farm knows that the turkeys appear en masse to greet newcomers. (We had a funny incident last year with a substitute UPS driver, who positively leaped back into his truck when the turkeys approached; he thought he was being attacked.)

At this point, the turkeys we hatched this year are mostly between six and seven months old. The young males, at this age, tend to fight quite a bit, although we haven't seen things escalate to the point of drawing blood this season. They are also vying for the attention of the females (there are more females than males in the flock), and doing their best to emulate their dad by fanning out their tails and puffing out their chests. Their attempts at mating lack a certain finesse at this stage. I suspect that the boys are also trying to impress us, knowing that we will be keeping two of them for breeding next spring. Okay, maybe I'm giving them too much credit there.

After the recent rash of bobcat attacks, we have been reminded how much we appreciate the relative lack of trouble the turkeys have had with predation. I was nervous the first year we raised them, especially when they were small; I worried that when they began to free-range, their bright white color would make it too easy for predators (particularly hawks and eagles) to spot them. We think that part of their survival is due to their tendency to stick together and hang out as a group most of the time. They also don't usually wander as close to the edge of the woods as the chickens do. In a previous post ("Turkeys as guard animals??"), I mentioned the distinctive call the turkeys use to signal a ground predator in the vicinity. Say what you like about their brains, we love their instinct for survival!

Then there's the wonderful dance the toms do when trying to impress the hens, and the curious deep rumbling sound (like the sound of a Harley-Davidson starting up) you hear if you're close enough to a tom when he's expanding his chest. We're fascinated by the way the toms' face and wattles change color rapidly, from deep, solid red to a pale pink to bluish-white. What's this all about? We surmise it's some kind of mood ring, or maybe a hormone thing. And of course, the way they walk around the house, looking in all the windows trying to see where we are; adorable little Peeping Toms. Awwwwww....

As we gear up for the two days of slaughtering right before Thanksgiving, we're thinking a bit sentimentally about all we've learned and experienced over the past several years of raising turkeys. They are sweet, often funny and entertaining creatures. While they may not be the most intelligent animals around, they have definitely been an asset to our farm, and it's hard to imagine life here without them.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Marauding bobcats and duck mysteries

Since my last post, it's been quite busy around here. On Saturday morning, there were three bobcat attacks on chickens (that we know of); I witnessed one of the attacks, which happened so fast I didn't have time to get a photo. Good grief, are these cats speedy! Ironically, at the time I was starting to clear out some blackberry and thimbleberry bushes, in an area where we suspected the bobcats were hiding out, waiting for some innocent (OK, clueless) chicken to stray too near. I heard the turkeys start up their ground-predator call, and looked up just in time to see a large bobcat jump out of the bushes and tall grass about 60 feet from me and grab a New Hampshire pullet. I have to admit that, although I was naturally upset that another of our birds was attacked, I also felt an awe for the beauty of this animal and the speed and efficiency of its attack and retreat.

At the same time, David was down in Sequim, taking another of our hens (don't laugh) to the vet. It had clearly been attacked by a bobcat also, and had a deep laceration across its shoulders. David had tried to close the wound with Superglue, but it was too difficult to get the edges of skin to stay together. It's a valuable laying hen, so he took it in to get stitched up. The vet also gave us a solution to use to clean the wound several times a day.

I ran in and called David right after the attack I saw, and he headed home. I went back out, with something of an adrenaline rush going on, and my camera in hand, on high alert for more signals from the turkeys that the cat was still around. (I assumed that while I was inside telephoning, it probably ran back into the woods, although I was only gone barely two minutes.) When David got back and had put the stitched-up hen inside, he came back out and we decided to try to flush the cat out of hiding, if it was still there in the bushes.

It took only a minute. I was on the south end of the area in question, David on the north. He started hacking his way through the berry bushes with the Swedish brush hook, and suddenly a large bobcat emerged from the bushes about 30 feet from me. It saw me and changed direction, racing away to the west toward the edge of the canyon, the most likely place here for its den to be located. Although I had my camera on and ready to shoot, I only managed to get a very blurry photo; man, that thing was fast! I also noticed that its feet made no sound at all as it ran. Amazing creature.

Shortly after this, I noticed one of our two New Hampshire roosters walking a bit awkwardly. He also seemed to have some loose feathers around his shoulder. Being somewhat hypersensitive to bobcat attacks at the time, I had David catch the rooster so we could examine him. Sure enough, puncture wounds on both his shoulders! The poor thing was clearly in shock. We brought him inside, and for the first day or so we didn't know if he would make it.

At this point, we looked at each other and decided that whatever else was on the agenda that day, we needed to make it a priority to do what we could to protect our birds. Over Saturday and Sunday, we cleared an amazing amount of berry bushes and low-hanging tree branches out the area, mainly around where I had seen the latest attack. We don't expect to completely eliminate the problem, but we figure we need to do what we can to make it harder for the cats to sneak up on the birds.

Like I said, it's been a busy few days.

A bit of good news: we believe we've solved the mystery of what's made some of our ducks sick recently; we'll know for sure when we get test results back from the WSU Avian Health lab. There has been an enormous flush of mushroom growth around here lately; we found some large mushrooms in the front yard, right next to the duck yard, where the ducks get food and water before being closed in their coops at night. The mushrooms showed clear signs that the ducks had been nibbling on them. (We have never seen the chickens or turkeys show the slightest interest in mushrooms.) One of the two ducks we've had inside the past few days died suddenly the other night, and we sent it off to the Avian Health lab for a post-mortem. We should know soon, but we feel pretty confident that the mushrooms are the culprit.

Naturally, we've gone over the entire area that the ducks have access to and removed all the mushrooms we could find. We still have one duck in rehab in the living room, and she seems to be slowly recovering, thank goodness. Her legs are still partially paralyzed, but we've been massaging them and taking her outside to swim in a tub every day. The physical therapy seems to be helping, and we're very thankful that she seems to be on the road to a full recovery.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Busy night in the ER

About the time we were finishing up with tucking in the birds for the night, David came up the hill from the bog calling, "Doctor Vicki to ER, stat!" This can't be good, I thought. We already had a Khaki Campbell duck (possible poisoning) and a New Hampshire pullet (yes, another bobcat attack) in the living room. I was really tired, having had a rough night Wednesday with this annoying relapsing/remitting 'flu thing; I just wanted to make a hot drink and sit by the wood stove.

Well, I did get to sit by the wood stove, but sadly, without the hot drink. David came in and handed me a Blue Swedish duck, which he had found down by the edge of the bog barely able to walk. He set up a box for it (he's getting pretty quick at that), we settled the poor duck in it, and resigned ourselves to facing the question: What the heck is going on with these ducks?

Since the newest patient seems to be showing the same symptoms as the Khaki duck, which has been in the ER for about a week now, we definitely suspect some kind of poisoning. The Khaki, thankfully, is showing signs of recovery. We started with her by giving her Epsom salts dissolved in water as a laxative, hoping to flush out any remaining poison before it was absorbed by her system. Later that day, she was eating, and pooping, and seemed more alert, so we were encouraged. Her legs, however, were very weak and she wasn't able to stand up. We couldn't tell if she was suffering some sort of paralysis or if she was just weak.

We've been taking the Khaki outside just about every day for some physical therapy, fresh air and sunshine. We put her in a small watering tank with enough water in it so she could swim if she wanted to, but shallow enough that she could put her feet in the bottom and try to walk while being supported by her own buoyancy. She seems to like this a lot, and is slowly getting better. So, we plan to follow the same protocol with the Blue Swedish duck and hope for the best.

The question remains: What is going on here? The two most likely possibilities (from our non-expert point of view) are botulism or some kind of heavy metal poisoning. Ducks spend a lot of time dabbling in the mud and grass, and could easily pick up botulism from decomposing vegetation around the bog, or even lead poisoning if they swallowed some old birdshot or other ammo; we don't hunt but the bog is not far from our shooting range. It's also possible the ducks have been exposed to something carried by wild ducks. Most of the wild birds around here (we've identified 62 species of wild birds so far) are migratory, but there are still a few Mallards and Mergansers, at least one Kingfisher, and a pair of Great Blue Herons on our ponds.

Oh, and the New Hampshire pullet that was attacked by a bobcat: David found her huddled under a car, clearly in shock. Once we had cleaned her up, we found a large puncture wound on one shoulder. So far it doesn't seem to be infected, so we have her near the wood stove to keep warm and dry. She's eating and drinking now, so we're hopeful she will be OK. Incidentally, where does that "mad as a wet hen" thing come from? We've bathed plenty of chickens, getting them soaking wet, and not once have we had any fuss from them. Actually, they seem to like the warm water (and probably the attention, too). Now, if you said, "Mad as a wet Siamese cat on her way to be spayed," that I could believe!

Well, these birds are certainly keeping us busy, and we're learning a lot. If anyone has suggestions about what might be going on with the ducks, please, please let me know. We're a bit anxious at this point about where this is going to end. Even with birds that aren't pets, it's distressing to see them suffer, especially if we can find a way to prevent the problem. We definitely feel this as our responsibility, and the three birds in our living room are depending on us to do our best for them.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Bobcats with chicken breath, and other bedtime stories

The past couple of days have been quite exciting, in a man-versus-jungle sort of way. After seeing a large bobcat out near the edge of the canyon in the morning, we later saw what appeared to be a mother bobcat and at least one of its babies. Evidently it was the day to train young Bobby to hunt. David actually saw the youngster grab a chicken and try to run off with it. It had to hold its head up high to keep the chicken from dragging on the ground, hampering its escape attempt by affecting its ability to see where it was going. David made some noise close to the kitty, who immediately dropped the chicken (which was apparently unhurt other than losing a large wad of feathers) and ran into the berry bushes.

Meanwhile, I was stationed, with my camera, about 40 yards away on the south side of the black walnut tree, expecting the mother bobcat (with or without Bobby) to head that way. Sure enough, Mama came out of the brush about 25 feet from me, just the other side of the tree. She saw me right away and shot off across the shooting range into the berry bushes on the north side of the hill. Alas, I wasn't able to get a photo, she was too quick; I live in hope, however.

Looking around the area where young Bobby had grabbed the pullet, we discovered several piles of feathers, all looking like they came from the New Hampshire pullets. We will have to do a head count tonight when they're all tucked in, to see how many we might have lost; hopefully very few. We do realize, though, that we need to do some serious strategizing as far as predator control is concerned.

Bobcats like to hunt at the edge of the woods, sneaking up on their quarry and staying under cover until the last minute, then jumping out to grab the unsuspecting prey. We've actually witnessed this, even in our front yard; the birds start squawking, we take a look, just in time to see a cat jump over the fence, snatch a chicken in its mouth, then leap back over the fence. It's amazingly quick, and honestly, we have to admire the beauty and grace of these animals, even if we don't always appreciate their lunch choices.

Keeping in mind their hunting habits, we are continuing our efforts to clear away the brush, low-hanging branches, and all the nettles, bracken ferns and other vegetation that grew like crazy during the mild, wet weather of last spring. We figure we'll at least make it harder for the cats to sneak up on the free-ranging birds. Short of completely confining the chickens and turkeys in fenced areas, which we really don't want to do, this seems to be our best strategy. It's helped a lot just to do some reading on the subject, to understand the hunting habits of bobcats and other predators. We also plan to hatch more birds in the spring, to account for occasionally sharing some with the native wildlife.

This afternoon, when it's warmed up a bit, I will be back out there with the sickle, pruners and Swedish brush hook. What the heck, I can always use the exercise.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Getting ready for winter off the grid

Yesterday morning we had our first frost: 31F. Around October 10 has been average for this event, although we were surprised two years ago when it came three weeks early (to the extreme detriment of my later bush bean crop). It was a beautiful sunny morning, though, and yesterday's high temperature was 65F. Gorgeous.

As you know, we live off the grid. This does make some difference when it comes to caring for the animals over the winter, but not as much difference as we had anticipated. The main thing is to keep the water in the drinkers from freezing. Lots of people use heated (electric) waterers. Frankly, even if we had that option, it would be problematic just because of the area that the birds range on; the drinkers are quite spread out. We simply add warm water to them first thing in the morning, check them frequently through the day, and try to position them in the sun whenever possible. Yes, it's a little extra work, but we're out there checking on the birds regularly anyway, which is always a good thing to do.

The other thing poultry owners worry about in the cold weather is keeping the birds warm at night. Should you heat the coop? How cold is too cold for chickens? Generally, we've dealt with this simply by choosing breeds known to be cold-hardy. Most chicken breeds actually do not require artificial heat until the temperatures get well below 0F. The one thing to be watchful of, though, is your roosters, especially with breeds that have large single combs: they can be vulnerable to frostbite, as roosters don't tuck their heads under their wings at night like the hens do. Over the past two winters, we've had plenty of days of single-digit lows, but have had no problem with frostbite (our roosters are single-comb New Hampshires).

It has occurred to me that living off the grid has probably motivated us to be a bit more creative in some ways; for example, not using heated drinkers just because we can. Of course there's nothing wrong with using them, we've simply found that there are easy and cheap alternatives to a lot of things that we might take for granted if we had full-time electricity. And hey, I actually enjoy cutting firewood to heat the house! Ours, I mean...


Thursday, October 7, 2010

Turkeys as guard animals??

 The black bear in question, just outside our front yard.

Well, yet another new experience with our Midget White turkeys this morning. Just a little while ago, around 9:30 AM, I was in the living room, about to start my writing practice for the day. David had gone upstairs to take a short nap, and it is usually fairly quiet this time of day.

After just a few minutes, the turkeys started making noise in the front yard. Most of the flock of 19 was out there, and they were making that particular noise that we've come to recognize as their warning that a predator was on the ground nearby. (Usually when we've heard this sound and checked it out, it turned out to be deer. They make a very different noise when an aerial predator is overhead.) I stood up and looked out the window, and I could see the flock on high alert, standing still with necks all stretched upward in the same direction, loudly sounding the alarm. I figured there were deer on the other side of the split-rail fence, munching on vetch; lately we've seen a doe and her two fawns in that area frequently.

I opened the front door to get a better view; since David was trying to sleep, I was hoping to get the turkeys to quiet down. I couldn't believe what I saw: a good-sized BLACK BEAR just at the north end of the front yard, about 75 feet from where I stood. It was walking right up into the yard, and all the turkeys were just standing there, squawking loudly, making no move to get away.

I called up to David, and at the same time grabbed my camera and headed upstairs. I hoped to get a photo before the bear left, and I knew I'd have a better vantage point from upstairs. The bear, hearing me call to David, turned away and headed back toward the road and the edge of the canyon. I was just in time to get one decent photo before it disappeared into the trees (I'll post the photo soon). By then the turkeys were beginning to calm down.

I, on the other hand, was having a bit of an adrenaline rush; this was only the third time we've actually seen a bear up here, and both the other times it's been down by the pond, a couple hundred yards from the house. Our property is bordered almost entirely by State land, with our nearest neighbor two miles down the hill, so naturally we have lots of wildlife around. It is very surprising to see a bear so close to the house, especially in the middle of the morning.

It seems to me that it wasn't until this year that we became aware of the turkeys' early-warning systems. We were familiar with the roosters calling out to the hens when an aerial predator was about, warning them to get under cover (an amazing sight to witness), but the turkeys are very consistent in letting us know when a ground visitor arrives. We've even seen the turkeys chasing deer out of the yard!

As we head deeper into the autumn, and the food sources so plentiful in summer become less abundant, we will be keeping our eyes open for hungry predators who show interest in our birds. And we're very grateful for the efforts of the turkeys to help in that process.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

October chill in the air

OK, so it's not surprising that October chill is in the air, considering that it is, in fact, October. The low temperature was 34 this morning, and it was frosty down in the lower pasture where the pigs currently live. It's gorgeous and sunny now, though. I'm going to finish up some new nest boxes and put a roost in one of the coops for the young Nankins that are ready for it by now.

A strange thing happened yesterday afternoon: One of the Cochin banties was sitting on the old split-rail fence, wheezing, sneezing and generally sounding pretty terrible. David caught her after chasing her around for a while, and brought her inside. She was gasping and didn't seem interested in eating or drinking anything. We decided to keep her warm and dry and see what happened. Just a few hours later, she was quiet, not wheezing or making that painful-sounding noise. We kept her in overnight, and she was quiet all night, then seemed pretty perky this morning. David let her out the back door, and she seems to be OK so far. We're guessing she either ate something that slightly poisoned her, or possibly had some kind of allergic reaction to something. Very strange.

This is a good example of why it is a good idea to regularly walk among your birds, looking for little signs of trouble like coughing, sneezing, odd behavior, abnormal-looking poop, that kind of thing. With the number of birds we have, it would be pretty easy for something to spread around if we didn't catch it early enough. It's also a good reminder that one thing that you can easily do to help ensure your flock's health is to make sure their feeders and drinkers are kept clean.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Duck intensive care

Last night when David went out to close up the duck coops, he found one of the Blue Swedish drakes under the willow tree, apparently unable to walk. The duck had just come up the hill from the bog with the other ducks, then for some reason just couldn't make it all the way into the duck yard.

So David brought him into the house and put him on my lap, asking me to take a look. The poor guy tried but couldn't quite even stand up, and seemed very weak. It was obvious something was wrong, especially since he was totally quiet the entire time; we heard not a single quack or any noise at all from him. I looked him over and couldn't find any obvious trauma like broken bones or bleeding. He was just quiet and weak. I offered him some water, and he dipped his bill into it, but couldn't seem to swallow.

That, I thought, was a clue. I felt around his throat and down to his crop, wondering if perhaps his crop was impacted with something (not uncommon in poultry). It would explain why he was having trouble swallowing, and why he wasn't quacking. Judging from his weakness, presumably he hadn't been eating for some time. The crop did feel full and a little too firm.

Going pretty much on instinct, I gently massaged the crop, trying to loosen whatever it was in there. After a little while the lump did seem to be a bit softer. Then, when I offered him the dish of water again, suddenly he dipped his bill into it and swallowed! That was encouraging.

David called up our friend Jaye from the Northwest Raptor Center in Sequim, to ask her advice. She said just keep massaging the throat and keep the duck warm. We established him in a box next to the wood stove, gave him a dish of water, and just kept an eye on him for a while. He drank quite a bit of water, which made me suspect he hadn't been able to swallow for quite some time. (Ducks drink copious quantities of water every day, so they can quickly become dehydrated.)

The duck made it through the night, always a good sign. I might try him on a little food today and just see how it goes. You know, I probably should be embarrassed to admit this, but I do like having birds in the house!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Keeping the ducks safe at night

We have two ponds here at the farm, and one is a large natural peat bog. It is down the hill, below the woodshed to the east of the main house, and bordered on three sides by trees. Its situation makes it a natural sanctuary for many kinds of wild birds; we have identified 63 bird species.

Of course, being a good-sized body of water, it is a magnet for ducks, including ours. Because we let the ducks free-range during the day along with the chickens and turkeys, we expected that sooner or later, they would wander down the hill and find the bog. The question was, what would they do then? Would they come back up the hill to get their dinner and be tucked in at night? Or would they decide that life on the water was pretty nice for ducks, and camp out?

Some of both, it turns out. There were times when we would just stand at the top of the hill by the woodshed and call them (I'm not kidding), and they would come marching up the hill within a few minutes. Then there were the nights when David would spend quite a lot of time in the rowboat, chasing them around the pond. (This sometimes led to colorful language and threats, usually involving firearms.) It was nice to tell ourselves that they would eventually come back when they got hungry, but we also knew that they could last for quite a while on the rich frog population in the bog.

Besides worrying about the ducks being safe when they camped out, we also were obviously not getting the eggs we needed from them.This is especially disturbing now, when we have so many young ducks just starting to lay; once they get in the habit of laying somewhere away from the coops, it's almost impossible to get them to change their routine.

Then, early this week, an amazing thing happened. For some unexplained reason, the ducks (who have been happily racing down the hill to the bog every morning as soon as the coop doors are opened) started coming up the hill, on their own, about half an hour before they would normally be hunkering down for the night. For four nights in a row now, we haven't even had to stand at the top of the hill, calling and singing (not kidding about that, either) to them; they've just been coming up, gobbling down some grain, drinking water as if they haven't been on a pond all day, then letting us herd them into the coops.

What a relief! We love our ducks, some of which we've had for over two years now, and we just want to keep them healthy, happy and safe. We're very grateful now, as we tuck them in and tell them a little story, that they've figured out that we just want what's best for them.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Fall colors and winter coats

It's 71 here as I type (uncharacteristically) at 4:00 PM. The birds are showing signs of nearing the end of the moulting season, and showing off their perfect new feathers as they sunbathe. Meanwhile, the trees around the farm are showing signs of the change of season: The leaves of the vine maples are rapidly turning shades of gold, and the black cottonwood leaves flash their silver undersides in the slightest breeze. The trees are already starting to shed their fashionable summer looks. October rains are just around the corner; I'm thankful that this year's early moult has supplied the birds with their new down coats before the winter chill takes hold.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Another beautiful day in paradise

Boy, is it ever gorgeous today here in the rain shadow! Just heard on the radio that we should have high temps in the 70s. The barometer is falling, though, so my agenda for the day is biased toward being outdoors. Let's see: Dig up two beds of potatoes; harvest and can bush beans (we've eaten nearly all the fabulous romano beans fresh); mow the grass; build a couple more feed troughs and start on the nest boxes. Haven't decided yet what I'll be doing after lunch...

There's a turkey looking in the window at me. Hmm.... the original Peeping Tom?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Getting ready for increased egg production

We have 38 pullets, mostly New Hampshires and some Ameraucanas, that are about to start producing eggs. Actually we've had a few "pullet eggs" already; the smaller-than-normal eggs that the birds typically lay shortly before going into full production. Close observation of the birds themselves, especially the condition of their combs, also indicates that a high percentage of them are nearing that stage.

So, this weekend I will be building additional nest boxes for the coops that need them, to make sure there is plenty of nest space for the girls. The typical advice is to provide one nest box for every four hens. However, our experience has been that if you have, say, a row of five nest boxes, the hens will head for the ones in the corners, ignoring the others unless they're desperate and the corner nests are occupied. Hens also prefer to lay eggs in nests that already have eggs in them, so I will be putting wooden eggs in all the nests, to give the newbies the idea.

It's always a challenge, with our free-range situation, to get pullets in the habit of laying in the nest boxes and not out in the bushes. But with adequate nest space, and the older hens setting the example, I'm optimistic. And of course we are looking forward to the increased production; nearly all the eggs we've been collecting lately (chicken, duck and turkey eggs) have gone to the Alder Wood Bistro in Sequim. Our other regular customers will be happy about it too!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Turkeys in the canyon

Just another quiet morning on the farm.... I drove down into Sequim to deliver eggs to the Bistro and got back here a little after 9:00. As I was approaching the house (it's about half a mile in from our gate), I noticed one of the turkeys by the side of the road: the canyon side. I didn't think much of it until I got into the yard, parked the car, and realized that something was wrong. Usually when we, or anyone else, drives up, the whole flock of turkeys comes running up to greet us. A quiet morning? It was a bit too quiet!

Part of our property is a canyon. As you drive in from the gate, on the right it drops off 300 feet to Canyon Creek. Quite a lot of it is very steep, like for instance where I saw the turkey when I drove in. As we had lost a number of birds (mostly chickens) earlier this year to bobcats and cougars, it really made me nervous to think of 19 turkeys down in the canyon, where the cats hang out during the day.

And of course this had to happen on a day when David was in Seattle...

I went inside, dropped the mail on the kitchen table, put the teakettle on to boil, and went back out to look for the turkeys. I headed over to the spot where I'd seen the turkey when I drove in; it was no longer there. I walked to the edge of the canyon, looked down, and sure enough, there was the whole bunch of the silly birds. Did I say silly? Suicidal is more like it! Feeling silly myself, I called to them, informing them of the doom that awaited them if they didn't get back up into the yard. Some of the toms gobbled enthusiastically at me, but none of them showed any interest in being obedient. Fine, I thought. I'll just go have my cup of tea.

About 15 minutes later, they all showed up at once in the front yard, with not a bit of remorse among them for all the anxiety they had caused. The good thing about turkeys is they seem to do everything as a group; once one of them decided to leave the canyon, they all did.

So what if my tea is cold? I'm just glad I didn't have to hike down into the canyon to retrieve a bunch of wayward turkeys.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Summer is apparently over

Brrr.... 35 degrees here as I type at 4:15 AM. Actually I look forward to this time of year; fall has always been my favorite season, and I love writing here in the front room next to the wood stove. I wonder what kind of winter we'll have this year? Last winter we had very little snow, although there was plenty of cold weather. At least I don't worry any more about how the birds will handle the cold; as David says, that's why they wear those nice little down jackets.

I do remember, though, when I was first researching chicken breeds, trying to choose types that would do well up here in the mountains. All the charts said "cold-hardy," or "not very cold-hardy," but I didn't know what exactly that meant. Would I need to heat the coop somehow when the temperature dropped below, say, 20F? I couldn't find any information or suggestions that were any more specific.

Probably the most important thing I learned (eventually) is how chickens roost; surprisingly, the width or diameter of the roost itself makes a difference. It needs to be large enough that the birds' feet don't wrap all the way around it. When they settle down on the roost, their feet are covered up by their feathers, and if their little toes go all the way under the roost, they won't be under that toasty down blanket. If it's cold enough, this can result in frostbite. So, for chickens, we use nothing smaller than 2x2s for roosts; for turkeys, a 2x4 with the wide side up seems to work well.

The other consideration for chickens is that roosters, when they sleep, do not tuck their heads under their wings like hens do. This can leave their combs vulnerable to frostbite, especially if the breed is one with a large single comb. Fortunately, we've had no problems with that, although the past two winters we've had our share of single-digit temperatures.

Ahhh, a nice cup of tea by the wood stove. It's wonderfully cozy, and life is good here on the farm.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Article about the White Midget turkey coming soon

Not to harp on turkeys, but the upcoming issue of Backyard Poultry will feature an article about the White Midget turkey. It was written by my friend Jeannette Beranger from the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (, and includes photos she took of turkeys on our farm.

I've seen the advance copy, and it is terrific! In addition to information about the breed, it also includes an interesting anecdote about a culinary school's experiments with cooking and baking with turkey eggs. In general there isn't a great market for the delicious turkey eggs, mainly because turkeys do not lay all year like most chickens and ducks. In fact, most heritage turkeys have a laying/breeding season of only about 4 months (March through June). Guess why turkeys have traditionally been a holiday-season food? Because they are hatching in the spring and maturing about 6 months later, well into the fall.

Our Midget Whites seem to have a longer-than-average laying season, though. Some hens lay for 8 months or more! The year before last, one of the hens hatched a brood of babies on New Year's day; that was certainly a surprise.

This year we may keep more than four breeding hens, as we did last year. We're thinking about trying to market turkey eggs as a seasonal specialty; they are quite delicious! And like duck eggs, they are wonderful for baking. But you can read more about that in Jeannette's article in Backyard Poultry. If you're not a subscriber, you can read the article (after that issue is released) on the BYP web site,

Monday, September 20, 2010

Heritage turkeys still available for the holidays

Although many of our organic, free-range Midget White turkeys are spoken for, we still have a few available for Thanksgiving or Christmas. In case you hadn't heard, this is the turkey that was voted Best-tasting bird at the Slow Food Heritage Turkey Taste-off, beating out a large field of other heritage types (and 1 Butterball). It is a smaller-size bird: hens generally dress out around 8-10 pounds, toms 12-15 pounds. Ask your chef friends and they will tell you that smaller is better when it comes to turkeys!

As you may know, our farm is "off the grid." We are in the process of installing a solar-electric system, but right now we do not have full-time electricity. What does this have to do with holiday turkeys? Well, we don't have a large freezer to store processed birds in, so all our turkeys are sold FRESH. We schedule the slaughtering for the Monday and/or Tuesday before Thanksgiving, depending on how many we have to process, so you can pick up your turkey either Tuesday or Wednesday.

If you'd like more information or want to reserve a turkey, contact me at I will let you know when we are sold out. I will also soon be posting information about how to cook these turkeys, so keep an eye on this blog and be sure to post your questions and comments!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Grandparents again....

Yes, it's happened again: One our little Nankin bantam hens came out of the bushes yesterday with 3 chicks, which had clearly hatched quite recently. We were just getting into the car to run into town to do some errands when I thought I heard baby bird-like peeping nearby. It only took a minute to find the mama and babies; then David discovered the nest, which still had unhatched eggs in it! One of the eggs was pipped (the chick had broken a hole in it) and although the egg was a bit cool, we could see the chick was moving.

Fortunately I had just cleaned out one of the broody coops, and it had fresh straw in it. I went inside to get a feeder and drinker, while David started gathering up chicks and eggs. In just a few minutes, mama, babies and eggs were happily settled in a nest out of the rain and away from potential predators.

Chickens incubate their eggs for 21 days, so this hen had been outside in the bushes, with very little shelter from the weather, for 3 weeks. Normally hens will get up off the nest once a day; they prefer to poop away from the eggs, and also they like to get something to eat and drink every so often, and maybe take a quick dust bath. These little Nankins go broody quite frequently, and are very attentive and protective moms. They also seem to prefer to nest away from the coops, and they free-range all day, so it's not all that uncommon for one of them to show up with a brood of chicks.

We decided to just leave them be for a day or so, then we will check to see how many additonal chicks have hatched. As we recently sold some of our Nankins to the Oregon Zoo in Portland, we were thinking about hatching some more anyway. And as usual, the Nankins are a step ahead of us!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Young Khaki Campbell ducks have started laying!

Well, surprise, surprise! Our young Khaki Campbell ducks are already starting to lay eggs, at about 4-1/2 months of age. We were more or less expecting this to happen sometime in October, so we're quite pleased. The eggs so far have been small (usual when they first start to lay), but they will be up to full size before too long.

The Alder Wood Bistro, the wonderful Sequim restaurant that has been buying our eggs for more than 2 years, loves our duck eggs. Their baker uses them in desserts such as the Chocolate Bliss (a flourless brownie), and in the house quiche. The word is that duck eggs are "richer and creamier" than chicken eggs, and the higher viscosity of the egg whites makes them ideal for use in recipes that call for beating the whites separately.

We made the decision this year to increase the size of our duck laying flock. This was partly due to the increasing business at the Bistro, and also partly due to the word getting out that there is a source for locally-produced organic duck eggs. The Khaki Campbell is quite the egg-laying machine, averaging up to 340 eggs per year! They're beautiful birds, too.

In our experience, ducks are somewhat easier to manage than other poultry we've had, and they're definitely smart birds. Like the chickens and turkeys, the ducks have their own unique, endearing (and sometimes infuriating) mannerisms. For example, they have this way of looking up at you sideways; for some reason it always reminds me of Princess Diana, although the way the ducks do it never fails to make me laugh. It's especially cute when the little ducklings do this, but just as engaging when 7 or 8 adults are looking at you that way all at the same time.

It's terrific that the young 'uns are starting to lay. It's a sign that I need to start planning now for the spring breeding season. I have a feeling it's going to be a busy one!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Heritage turkeys are more sustainable...and they have more fun

The past couple of years heritage turkeys have grabbed some well-deserved spotlight time. A search of the Internet shortly before last Thanksgiving revealed an impressive number of growers offering these turkeys for sale. If you were one of the many who have shelled out a few extra bucks for one of these popular birds, what made you choose a heritage breed? Novelty? The trendiness of it all? Before you prepared and ate it, did you really know what makes a heritage breed different or better than the normal frozen supermarket variety?

As noted in a previous post, a "heritage" breed is a purebred, or standard, bird, while the usual commercial turkey is a faster-growing hybrid. Heritage breeds are also defined as breeds that are "naturally mating" types. Yes, you heard right: Heritage breeds mate naturally; hybrids, mostly owing to their unnaturally large breasts, cannot mate. They must be artificially inseminated.

Apparently this minor inconvenience is offset by the faster growth that brings them to your grocer's freezer 2-3 months faster than the purebreds.

If you are serious about learning more about where your food comes from, start to think beyond the garden or greenhouse. See if you can find someone who raises poultry, and start asking questions. If you live in a big city, ask at your local grocery or co-op. If your store doesn't offer heritage breed turkeys, check for a source close to you.

By the way, "heritage" applies just as much to chickens as to turkeys (as well as other types of livestock). Many of these historically important breeds are now endangered. Chickens in particular have had a tough time since the ridiculously fast-growing Cornish-Plymouth Rock hybrid was developed in the 1950s. If you're like most people, you eat chicken more frequently than turkey. There are just as many good reasons to buy and enjoy heritage chicken....if you can find it.

More about heritage chickens in an upcoming post.

(Heritage) chickens and turkeys and ducks.... oh,my!

Here at Canyon Creek Farms, we love our heritage-breed poultry! If you're even a little bit into eating locally-produced and/or organic food, you've probably heard about "heritage" turkeys. And if I have my way (wink), you'll soon be hearing even more about heritage turkeys... and chickens.... and ducks.

So what does "heritage" mean, as far as poultry goes? It's really another way of describing a purebred bird, as distinct from a hybrid. Most hybrid poultry breeds were developed relatively recently, so actually referring to purebreds as heritage breeds is entirely appropriate. The commercial poultry industry overwhelmingly favors hybrids, mainly due to their comparatively fast growth. However, a growing population of poultry lovers (and other thoughtful consumers) in America is turning back to the future: discovering the pleasures of raising hardy, disease-resistant birds that forage much of their own food.

Historically, in times of war as well as in tough economic times, we have turned to the small family farm to provide our food. Today there is much less arable land per capita than there was 100 or even 50 years ago. So where is your food coming from? Increasingly, you are choosing to take up the challenge of producing some of your own food. Besides the obvious benefits of eating the freshest food at a lower cost, you're discovering the joy and satisfaction of providing for yourselves and your families.

You are probably already familiar with gardening, whether it's a few pots on your apartment's deck, or a 3-acre hobby farm. Ever thought about going to another level of self-sufficiency by raising some chickens or turkeys? If you have (or even if you haven't, but are intrigued by the idea), keep an eye on this blog. I will be regularly posting my thoughts (from my well-upholstered soapbox seat), sharing our experiences, and attempting to answer your questions.

I'd also love to hear about your experiences, so take a few minutes while the pot pie's in the oven, and share your memories... and plans for the future.