Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Speaking of eggs, a Nankin hatched 10 (ten!) yesterday

New mama Nankin keeping her ten chicks warm. If you look closely, 
you can see the legs and feet of some of the chicks under the hen.

Well, it's happened again: A Nankin bantam hen came marching out of some bushes near the house this morning with ten tiny chicks. We're not really surprised. In the three years we've had Nankins here, usually two or three batches of chicks show up this way. The hens just like to lay their eggs outdoors sometimes, although most of them regularly lay their eggs in the nest boxes. 

As far as I can remember, this is the largest single brood I've seen a Nankin hatch. The Nankins are a very interesting breed, and according to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, they are critically endangered. (We are actually part of a small group of U.S. Nankin breeders. In 2010, the Oregon Zoo in Portland, OR bought some Nankins from us for their wonderful Family Farm.)  Nankins are one of only a handful of chickens that are "true bantams;" unlike most bantams, the Nankin is not a miniature version of a large breed. 

One of the main reasons we were interested in Nankins is their reputation for being extremely broody. Historically, Nankins were used by gamekeepers on large estates to hatch the eggs of game birds such as quail and pheasant. Two years ago, one of our relatively tiny (and quite determined) Nankin hens even incubated and hatched four Midget White turkey eggs.

Nankins are small birds; adults are usually between 16 and 24 ounces. They're about the size of a smallish pigeon. Their eggs are naturally on the petite side, but quite delicious. One of my sisters actually prefers the banty eggs because she's not terribly fond of egg white, and the Nankin eggs have proportionately more yolk than regular chicken eggs. We don't normally sell our banty eggs, and sometimes we use them to make deviled eggs; they're yummy, bite-sized, and terribly cute.

Anyway, here we go again. I wouldn't be surprised if another Nankin hen shows up with chicks soon. We have quite a few of them, and we don't do head counts when we tuck them in for the night. You might wonder what we do with them, if we don't sell the eggs. Well, frankly we just love them. They're adorable, the roosters hardly ever fight with each other, and there's that broody thing. 

We got our first Nankins round about the time we started selling our eggs, so the big picture of our farm life was still evolving. Still is, for that matter. And now the big picture has ten more chicks in it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Three more Tamworth piglets on the farm

Three 9-week-old Tamworth pigs, on their first day at our farm.

On August 12, I brought home our latest batch of Tamworth pigs, three this time. If you've been keeping track, this is our fourth batch of pigs, all of them Tamworths. While I was away on the 6-hour (RT) drive to Toledo, WA to get them, David was setting up the electric fence and moving the A-frame Piglet Palace. The yard he fenced off was quite large, with a good mix of shorter and taller grasses and clover. 

Right out of the gate, the piglets raced around, clearly thrilled by their grassy surroundings. In fact, although we had a trough with a lovely organic hog mash all ready for them, they ignored it for quite some time, being apparently more interested in the green stuff. They were probably around 30 pounds or so when we got them, and when they went into the taller grass they nearly disappeared from sight. Evidently they were having a good time, though. We got a couple of drinks and sat there for a while watching them; great fun, I'm telling you.

Two little Tamworths, ignoring the yummy organic hog mash in their 
trough. At least we don't have to bribe them to eat their vegetables.

 The piglets have grown noticeably in the five days we've had them. Just today, one of them decided to free-range, so we spent a while getting him back in the yard (OK, we did this several times) and troubleshooting the electric fence. Clearly the little dickens wasn't respecting the fence. When we were finished, though, we were rewarded with the telltale yelp when his snout touched the rope. Pigs are smart, and they learn pretty fast to stay away from that hot rope. They're also speedy runners, and I hope we don't have to do the piglet roundup again anytime soon.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Cracking the code of egg carton labels, Part 2

This time I just want to talk about one egg carton label and what it means: "Vegetarian Diet." According to the Humane Society, "vegetarian diet," in the egg industry, means "These birds' feed does not contain animal byproducts, but this label does not have significant relevance to the animals' living conditions."

OK, let's set aside for the moment the reference to living conditions (which is vague in the extreme). What strikes me about "vegetarian diet" is that the marketers are counting on the average consumer to be unaware that chickens are actually omnivorous. We see our birds foraging all day long, eating all manner of worms, bugs, and grubs; they go fairly nuts during the summer when, for about a week, the carpenter ants are flying. It's quite entertaining to watch the birds run around, leaping into the air to snatch the large and apparently delectable ants.

We've even seen the chickens catch small frogs, lizards, mice, and (believe it or not) snakes. The first time I saw a hen with a snake I wouldn't have believed it. From across the yard, the hen was racing around, with 10 or so hens in hot pursuit. I could see the lead hen had something hanging from her beak but I couldn't see what it was, so I went to see what was going on. She had a garter snake, and about 16" of the snake was visible. With an impressive finishing kick, the hen got far enough ahead of the other birds and stopped abruptly. Tilting her head back in a whiplash-like motion, she swallowed the snake in one go. I swear I'm not making this up. I remember thinking, I wonder if the snake was dead when the hen swallowed it?

Anyway, the point is, if a laying hen is eating a "vegetarian diet," by definition she is not foraging any of her food. True, I think it's great if the hens' feed doesn't contain any animal byproducts; I just happen to also believe that hens are happier, healthier, and lay better-tasting and healthier eggs when they have access to the naturally-balanced range of foods they thrive on.

I was planning two posts regarding egg carton labels, but I will be doing at least one more, as I have been getting a lot of questions about this lately. Please post your comments and questions too; the label definitions and parameters periodically change, and I'll do what I can to help clarify them.