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.